February 07, 2004


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Last Wednesday, February 4, John Ashbery read at The New School.

Ashbery wore a blue sweater over a white button-up shirt. He is 76 and his hair is white. The mustache has been gone for years but I expected it to appear somehow. His eyes are bright and steady. There is a smile somewhere in his mouth, all the time. He was amused by the turnout. All the seats were filled and students sat and stood in the remaining space. It wasn't a large room.

David Lehman introduced Ashbery. He quoted an essay about Ashbery to get a laugh. Lehman's move was common in every sense: ridicule theory and jargon. The passage quoted was quoted to make fun of scare quotes: the writer said something about decisions made by Ashbery the "author" informing Ashbery the "idea." It was an ugly sentence but I instantly rushed to the author's defense in my head. Lehman reported that Lehman read this to Ashbery over the phone and Ashbery replied "Who is this wiseass?" Lehman reported that Lehman did a lot of things. We got at least one plug for Lehman's recent American Prose Poems anthology before Ashbery read.

Ashbery read the following poems from Chinese Whispers: "A Nice Presentation," "Disagreeable Glimpses," "Theme Park Days," "The Lightning Conductor" and "I Asked Mr. Dithers Was It Time Yet He Said No To Wait." He explained to the "younger" audience members that Mr. Dithers was Dagwood's eternally angry boss in the comic strip "Blondie." I didn't recognize the name, so I got to be younger for once. He then read new poems from MS. One was about how many interesting people there are in Newfoundland and another was a long prose poem. There was a great line about darkness wanting to take us down a peg. I don't know which poem it was in. It wasn't in the Newfoundland poem or the long prose poem.

David Lehman moderated the discussion. He asked most of the questions. In his introduction, he suggested that Chinese Whispers was about how metaphor is itself miscommunication, or that Chinese Whispers is somehow about miscommunication. I get itchy almost every time someone introduces a poet by explaining their work. I am not sure why, since I also get itchy when other people are uncomfortable with theory and criticism. My aversion to cocktail-sized crit has something to do with poetry's built-in comments box and the tendency, especially in 20 c. poetry, for poems to discuss what what they are up to while they are doing it. Maybe it was just that Lehman bugged le fuck out of me.

Lehman asked Ashbery how often he writes. Ashbery said one hour a week, tops. Ashbery quoted Gertrude Stein saying that writing for an hour is plenty. People laughed in that nervous way, as if it would be impolite not to. It was a funny comment but I found myself resisting Ashbery's humor and not for the last time. This is more because I dislike biddable listeners than because I have any distaste of Ashbery. I love Ashbery's humor. I am sure it is why I liked him when I discovered him, though I can't recover the moment I first read him. I have infinite trouble with people laughing at uncomfortable moments in movies and the overall drive to deal with emotion and thinking by laughing at the bits that don't digest immediately.

Lehman went on and on about the one hour of writing. Did you used to write more? No, Ashbery said. It once seemed like there were vast expanses of time but now it doesn't feel that way, so I probably work harder. Lehman continued: If you finish a poem in half an hour, do you keep writing? The crowd was laughing for the right reasons now, because the subject was over and yet Lehman couldn't see it. No, I rarely write more than one poem at a time, Ashbery said. Someone in the audience asked about revisions. I revise as I go, he said. If a poem isn't working, I'll jettison it and write something new.

Lehman asked about the prose poetry, whether writing it is a different process from writing verse. Ashbery said it's pretty easy. Verse poems are different because of how they are laid out on the page. The space leads you to think differently. He said poems are actually pretty easy, too. More laughter, including mine. Lehman asked another question about prose poems and Ashbery suggested that since Lehman edited this prose poetry book, maybe he should answer his own questions. Lehman held up the book and pointed out that the cover image was one of Ashbery's postcard collages, of which he said Ashbery has done "about 20." Ashbery said: I've done quite a few, actually. Then everyone agreed the image--a Western skyline with a superimposed girlie image--was pretty.

Ashbery said the prose poems suggest dreams or read like dreams. He cited the work of Max Jacob, Rimbaud and Baudelaire as influential. He said people don't think of Baudelaire as a prose poet but he was. Ashbery translated Jacob's The Dice Cup in the 1970s, but it is out of print. Someone asked if Ashbery had written poetry in French. Ashbery said Yes, and he had translated it back into English as an experiment, to see if it still sounded like him. He said it did, so he gave up on writing in French. Ashbery is funny. I can't blame anyone for laughing.

One of the poems read from MS was the product of a Bard class Ashbery teaches. Ashbery uses a series of astrological indicators and variables--colors, metals and objects related to each sign--as instigators. His astro poem was good, though I can't remember it. He said he is good at rooting out the "Ashberyisms" in his students.

Ashbery said he writes on a manual typewriter. Someone asked about writing during travel. Ashbery said he likes to see what he's seeing while he travels and rarely writes on the road. He is often "running around" in various cities and doesn't write when he is doing this running around. He has a house in upstate New York. His favorite place to write is New York. He said his work depends on the vernacular and being removed from the hugger mugger of the language of commercial life (my paraphrase, not his words) makes writing in other countries sometimes difficult.

There were several questions about the New York School. This gave David Lehman another chance to talk about David Lehman. Lehman's book The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of The New York School of Poets is about Ashbery, Koch, Schuyler and O'Hara. (Frank O'Hara's sister was in the audience.) Ashbery said what almost everyone says about schools they are included in: We didn't make up the name. He admitted that it was helpful that people generally know who you were talking about when you say "The New York School." He said they wrote for each other in the early days because nobody else cared. His first apartment was on the same block as the New School, 12th between 5th and 6th. It was $100 a month and he had to share with someone because he couldn't afford to pay the rent by himself.

Ashbery told the story about how he found poetry. When he was in high school, he wrote an essay for a competition sponsored by Time magazine. He won and was allowed to choose one of four books as a prize. He didn't want any of them, but one of Louis Untermeyer's poetry anthologies seemed "closer to my interests," so he chose it. That is how he found poetry. Someone mentioned that Untermeyer often included himself in his anthologies, which led Ashebry to read cummings' famous Untermeyer dis rhyme:

"mr u will not be missed who as an anthologist sold the many on the few not excluding mr u"

Ashbery also mentioned that Oscar Williams also included himself in his anthologies, sometimes quite generously. He mentioned that either Williams' wife or Untermeyer's wife (Jean Starr Untermeyer) was the better poet of the couple, but I can't recall which.

Surrealism came up, I forget how. Ashbery said that American surrealism was largely bad imitations of French surrealism. After the war, people wanted "meaning" and Philip Larkin and Robert Lowell became big. He described them as very "serious and sour." That isn't a good way to describe either, though it suggests the larger change in taste, which was the point of his remarks.

There was a discussion of some 40s poets who Ashbery wants to anthologize or otherwise promote. I didn't recognize the names and can't help with this one.

Lehman mentioned that Ashbery once said he wanted to put the film There's Something About Mary in a time capsule. He said yes, it's a very beautiful and funny film and not as gross as the other Farrelly Brother movies. He said he liked Stuck On You, which he described as being about two "conjoined brothers, one of whom is a football player." "One of whom" is the funniest thing I heard all night, but I suppose credit should go to the Farrellys for that.

Someone asked which contemporary poets he likes. Ashbery mentioned Joseph Donahue, Michael Burkard (here's a Burkard poem called "Unappreciated Butterfly") and Fanny Howe, who I love. Lehman said that Ashbery listens to music while he writes. What is he listening to now? Ashbery said Giacinto Scelsi. Ashbery pointed out that most of Scelsi's music was performed and recorded after his death. He said he also listens to Couperin and Rameau.

There were many attractive people at the reading. Poets have both pants and shirts in unusual prints. This I like.

I did not ask questions or cough or kick over over any wine glasses, so I felt my contribution to the event was positive.

Afterwards, I went down to NYU to hear Andy Greenwald talk about his book Nothing Feels Good. It is a book about emo rock bands, including Thursday, The Get-Up Kids and Dashboard Confessional. The crowd was young, almost entirely. Andy was very fluid and articulate, summarizing chapters, telling stories and providing theme digests: online diaries, the lack of a mainstream smash emo band, Chris Carraba's endless touring and ensuing mental instability, the lack of women in emo bands, etc. Afterwards, almost every single person in the auditorium lined up to talk to Andy and have their book signed. It was impressive.

My previous attempts to pin down the nature of emo by referencing punk and hardcore bands have all come up blank. Kids always say No, no, no you don't get it. Chris Ryan reminded me that Jimmy Iovine said Carraba will be the next James Taylor, which is exactly why I couldn't get a bead on this stuff by using Husker Du and Drive Like Jehu as entry points. Emo is sensitive bedroom stuff writ loud, like plugged-in AC folk music. Girl, I hurt so bad, hold my hand. Andy played a tape of people singing along with a Carraba song. I love hearing people sing along. I've never been able to remember a single song by any of these bands, especially Dashboard Confessional.

Then I went out to dinner and had a very excellent drink: the Horse's Neck. Have one now. I said it was related to a mojito, emotionally, but the bartender disagreed.

Posted by Sasha at February 7, 2004 07:16 AM | TrackBack