2015 Poetry Month: An Interview With John Ashbery

John Ashbery is the author of nearly 30 books of poetry. He has won nearly every major American poetry award, starting with the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1956.
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John Ashbery is the author of nearly thirty books of poetry. He has won nearly every major American poetry award, starting with the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1956. In addition to his own poems, Mr. Ashbery has translated the work of several French poets. His influence on contemporary poetry is such that the literary critic Harold Bloom has deemed the last six decades of American poetry as the "Age of Ashbery." In 2012, President Barack Obama personally awarded Ashbery the National Humanities Medal. Recently, he has inspired an annual writing conference known as the Ashbery Home School.

Your first book, Turandot and Other Poems, was published in 1953. You have a new book, Breezeway: New Poems, coming out in a couple of months. That's an impressive 63-year span of literary activity. How has American poetry changed most since Turandot was published?

In answer to your first question, not only am I startled to have racked up a "63-year span of literary activity," I would probably have doubted I'd even live to the age of 63 back then. How do I think American poetry has changed most since Turandot? Not to sound vain, but it does seem that some of the formal and mental experimentation I began to develop then has left a mark on American poetry. I mean, the sestina (as spoken by different characters in a play) the pantoum, and "vacations from rational exposition."

Your sestina, "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape," and your pantoum, "Hotel Lautréamont," are the first two examples of these forms that I think of when recalling your work. They're marvelous poems. Did you start writing pantoums, sestinas and villanelles before or after you began studying French literature?

I wrote my first sestina, "The Painter," when I was still an undergraduate at Harvard. I believe the form was suggested by Auden's "Hearing of Harvests Rotting in the Valleys" and Elizabeth Bishop's "A Miracle for Breakfast." The pantoum idea I got from reading one in a literary magazine by a contemporary Irish poet named, I think, Claire MacAllister. I think it might have been called "Pantoum for Morning." It was the first pantoum I ever read and the last one for many years. You mentioned villanelles. I've just checked and found a poem called "Villanelle" in Hotel Lautréamont that is not a villanelle, and a true villanelle that is called "Real Time" in Chinese Whispers. I don't think that I felt very at ease with the form, which is no doubt why I didn't write any more. Some restraints are more comfortable than others.

Which poets influenced you the most when you were an emerging poet?

Probably early Auden, Dylan Thomas, Joan Murray, Wallace Stevens, Jean Garrigue and Ruth Herschberger.

Can you describe your writing process?

My writing process consists of sitting around my apartment in the afternoon, wondering if it's gotten too late to do any writing. Around 4 or 5 I make myself a cup of tea, which I sip while reading poetry. After a while I either start to write or call it quits for the day. Usually I listen to some contemporary classical music while this is going on. I usually do it several times a month (say 10?) if other things don't intervene.

Would you say that any of your poems are heavily influenced by music?

Yes, I would say that all of my poetry is influenced by music. It's the music of the mind that excites me, and that I somehow seem (or try to) to replicate with words. I almost always listen to music from my record collection while I'm writing. Lately it's been mostly modern stuff--20th and 21st century program music, if you will. Some of the composers I like are Elliott Carter, Ben Johnston, Christopher Tignor (a former student of mine at Bard College who is now a promising young musician and composer) and Franco Donatoni.

Who are some of the most promising young (about 40 or younger) poets that you have read in the last few years?

I happen to know a number of young poets and try to keep abreast of their work. Some of them I've been reading lately are: Adam Fitzgerald, Emily Skillings, Nicholas Hundley, Farnoosh Fathi and Emily Pettit.

Breezeway will be available for the literate masses in May. Can we expect a new book from you in 2016? 2017?

I hope so, but I will be 88 in July and am never sure of the future's being there. I continue to write poetry. I've been working on collages quite a bit, and will have a show of them in June alongside filmmaker Guy Maddin at the Tibor de Nagy gallery in New York.

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