Windows & Mirrors

JOHN ASHBERY and his Poetry of Mud

A 2007 interview
Aryanil Mukherjee

When his work assumes a stupendous height and attracts all fluxes of contemporary cultural and intellectual attention, it becomes somewhat difficult to introduce the poet. A formal introduction often begins to sound like infringement. John Ashbery is one such poet. In the words of Susan Schultz - "the greatest living poet in America. He is also greatly misunderstood". But then we also know from Ashbery's poetry that "understanding is a doomed project". I worked (2004-2007) with the support of John Ashbery and his longtime friend and literary steward David Kermani on a self-funded project on the translation/discussion of Ashbery's poetry in Bengali language. The work was concluded with this brief interview conducted over internet-phone on the 3rd day of August, 2007. The Bengali version of this interview was published in the sharodiya issue of Kabisammelan (Poetry Conference).
It was 2PM in Ashbery's New York City apartment when I called in. He had just returned from his 80th birthday celebrations in the Rochester area. After ages, Ashbery had had an opportunity to visit his childhood home - a trip that reminded me of Ingmar Bergman's film Wild Strawberries - Prof. Isak Borg's detoured, mnemonic journey to his childhood villa on the way to receive an academic honor.


AM: Your work, as critics have discussed, draws from many fields of art, namely music, painting, films, pop art etc. We hear so much about the abstract expressionist painters of the 1950's, de Chirico, a large number of classical western musicians, several film makers etc. Could you talk about something that has influenced you lately ?

JA: Well, OK, I'll mention one of them...I watch movies a great deal. A few years back I met this Candian fillmaker Guy Maddin, (in fact, it was Peter Gizzi who introduced me to him) and last year we became friends (he admires my poetry) and thought of collaborating. I read at a live performance from a script. This was just a couple of months back, in May, ....I performed as “the Interlocutor” as part of the live accompaniment. The film is called "Brand Upon the Brain!". What attracted me very much about Guy's work even before I met him was not only in fact was he sort of hypnotized by old style films (some of those old titles and his own titles bring out the poetry) but also he seems to have an artistic idea of form like mine. I have noticed in one of his movies, the end of the movie, seems to come, for me, rather early on and yet the movie kept going on, turning into a new plot when we thought the action was all over. A kind of a deviation from the formal structure which I intuitively tried to assimilate in my own experiments.

AM: I was recently told by someone that you read the poem "This Room" in a film titled "New Scenes From America" by Jorgen Leth.

JA: Yes, he called me and wanted me to read a poem for him ....that was during 9-11, we were in California, you probably know that the communication system shut down during 9-11..... Anyway, that was the only time I ever saw him. He and von you know him ?

AM: Yes. Lars von Trier ?

JA: Yeah, they made a sado-masochistic film called "The Five Obstructions".

AM: It'll be difficult for me to explain this, but your poem "This Room" has brought back to me memories of many films I have seen, especially, Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries.

JA: O yes! Funny, I just saw a TV programme recently after he died, an obituary, which showed a part of that film. I think there is a scene where the Professor visits a room or was it a garden that he remembers....I must have seen it fifty years ago, now I am as old as that Professor....(laughter)

AM: In "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" you wrote -

A whispered phrase passed around the room
Ends up as something completely different.
It is the principle that makes works of art so unlike
What the artist intended. Often he finds
He has omitted the thing he started out to say
In the first place.

This was written in the mid-seventies. A quarter century later came Chinese Whispers. Did you want to dwell more elaborately on that "principle" you just touched upon in SP ? It was interesting to notice that the concept of "Chinese Whispers" intrigued you even back then.

JA: Yes, I can see how you make that connection and I like it. I had completely forgotten about it or might not have noticed it at all....that I had a liking for that game even back then (which, by the way, is not called Chinese Whispers in America, it exits more as a British game, it is called "Telephone"). Since you pointed it out, it makes me think that one preoccupation I have had, taking into account the difficulty and possibility of communicating to a reader (not to mention all the possible readers to come along) the exact thing one is setting out to define, is what the reader brings in - his or her own set of experiences or appreciation of every work of writing, one for every individual reader. That must have been a continuing, ongoing concern for me at that particular juncture.

AM: You once said, "I like poems you can tack all over with a hammer and there are no hollow places." Contradictorily, some younger Bengali poets, who have just begun admiring your work(myself included), seem to think that your poems are spacious, they provide a lot of empty room for the reader to fill in. Could you please tell us what you meant by - " no hollow places" ?

JA: First of all, that line which I apparently used , was said by somebody else to me, Robert Duncan, in reference to my poem "Spring Day" which is from my book called "The Double Dreams of Spring". I can't quite remember the context - that was from a long ago. Also, I think he said "tap" instead of "tack". He said, "well I have read your poem and I tapped it all over with a hammer and there are no hollow places" by which I think he meant the structural integrity of the poem. I can't see how it contradicts with a providing "a lot of empty room for the reader to fill in". These are metaphors and I think both things could be said about the poem without contradicting each other.

AM: The word “uncertainty” has been used a lot to describe your poetry. You have used the word too quite often. I would prefer to use the word “possibility” instead. That’s what your poetry offers to me, it excites me. “Uncertainty” seems to come with anxiety (and vice versa), "possiblity" brings joy, like (quoting you) "We see us as we truly behave: From every corner comes a distinctive offering. The train comes bearing joy; The sparks it strikes illuminates the corner." How is “uncertainty” different from “possibility” ?

JA: Well, I didn't use the word "uncertainty" to describe my poetry. I don't know if I used the word in many poems, which line are you referring to ?

AM: Well, I am referring to the line which I like a lot -

Uncertainty polishes the china to a mirror like daze

(My Name Is Dimitry/Can You Hear Bird).

JA: Oh! You like it so much! I don't remember that poem very much...(laughter). Well, I thought the word "uncertainty" doesn't have a lot of negative connotations compared to "possibility". But I don't know why I used the word, may be from some mental deficiency. But I kind of liked the word "uncertainty". But in any case, I am glad that you thought about the word "possibility" and you think that is what my poetry contains.

AM: Several scholars/critics have pointed out that an important task of your poetry is to explore and question the relationship between the poem, the poet and the reader. Is it sort of an androcentric, triangular love affair where "poetry" plays the weaker sex ?

JA: Again, you know, that although critics might have pointed out that it is an important task of my poetry, but it isn't actually the case. I really don't have anything to say to that question, I suppose I could kind of embroider around it to produce something exquisite, or intelligent, but that is totally beside the point.

AM: You once remarked "I don't look on poetry as closed works. I feel they're going on all the time in my head and I occasionally snip off a length." When I read it first, it reminded me of the late Bengali poet Shakti Chatterjee who said, “ We write a single poem in a lifetime, all others are fragments broken off from the first one”. However, poets usually don’t change their poems once published. Did you, at times, feel like rewriting a any particular published poem, or maybe write a sequel or a derivative or maybe a reflected poem ?

JA: Well that's quite a few questions. First of all, yes, I agree that's not an original thought. I am sure many writers have expressed that kind of an idea that a poem is kind of a continuous literary work going on. I know an Austrian novelist who said that writing was like an underground stream of the mind where at any given time we lower our buckets to bring up water which will be the writing at that instant - I think that's a similar expression compared to the one you have quoted. Now, to your question about if poets change their published poems. I don't know if I have changed any of my poems after they were published. Normally, I would say, I don't. Rather than rewriting a published poem, my general propensity would be if I had to rewrite I would write something new which would be in response to a new set of circumstances - a momentary examination of circumstances instead of going back to an already published poem.

AM: You wrote -

I shall never want or need any other literature than this poetry of mud
(Crazy Weather/Houseboat Days).

Perhaps, there isn’t another experimental poet quite like you who has played uninterrupted with the "poetry of mud" and have still managed to find fame. A poet of your calibre and unorthodox intentions might have been misunderstood by the readers for generations and would only be discovered posthumously, in many countries throughout the world. In Bengal, for sure. Maybe in France too. Don’t you think ?

JA: Ha, ha....(laughter).. I want to point out that just because that I used that line in my poem I never personally wanted to set a credo at any point. I put it in the poem because it seemed to fit in and also I don't have anything against "mud". I am working on my next book, Selected Later Poems and while working on it I came across another poem where I have talked about "mud". Can't remember which one but the line was something like ....

And what about mud ? If we lose it we lose everything
Distinctions would no longer gets muddied. There’d be nothing in life to wriggle out of,
no ooze to drop back into. We need water, heaven knows, but mud – it’s so all over the place'


I don't necessarily think that's what I am working with either. I don't really feel that I have used that "phrase" to describe a certain kind of writing. But perhaps that's not exactly what you are asking me .... .

AM:Well, the way I read that line, I paralleled "poetry of mud" with experimental poetry.

JA: Yes.....

AM: Plus I have a very personal and special reason to be interested in your phrase "poetry of mud". If we had more time....

JA: You can share it if you want.

AM: OK..I will. A few years ago, I wrote some poems where I thought about "language", often comparing and contrasting a poet with a potter (note the phonetic proximity), vaguely suggesting that a poet's work with language is sort of like the way a potter handles clay. When I read your poem "Crazy Weather" (Houseboat Days) last winter, it took me back to my poems. When we were in seventh grade, Kamal Kumar Majumdar, a gifted Bengali writer and artist taught us art. We didn't know he was a famous writer. He used to often describe to me how the terracotta potters of Bengal would travel in small groups during the summer months from one village to another in search of "mud" (clay). They need different kinds of clay for their pottery and terracotta art. In one of my poems from that series, I wrote about a group of village potters walking in a line on a ridge, early morning, in search of mud and they are being watched by another group of poets camping nearby. During the seventies, the Kaurab group of poets in Bengal, started this "poetry camp" thing where a group of young poets practised a poetic cohabitation in a secluded place deep in the womb of nature for a few days. In those camps, they each wrote differently but from the same environment. I joined that group when I was very young in the nineties, however, I am a loner, so this "banding" thing didn't help me very much. Anyway, your phrase "poetry of mud" inspired me to revisit those poems I wrote. I would like to renew them now.

JA: That's extremely touching.....makes me think of that passage from Flowchart again.

AM: So, going back to the original question - basically, my question was - looking at the amount and range of experimental poetry you wrote, it has always intrigued me to think how was it possible for you to achieve the fame you have today ?

JA: Ha ha (laughter). That one you have to ask somebody else. Ha ha.(laughter continues) ...That wasn't my intention really. My intention is to write poetry. The only thing that seems valuable to me in writing is to experiment - do something I haven't done before. But as time goes by it is always harder to find something one hasn't done before. Anyway, I have always believed in experimenting and seeing what result comes out of it and if the result is no good, which is very often the case, it is time to go on with something newer. People connect to that and at times, they begin to like it. I don't know how all that happens.

AM:No other poet, in his poetry, has tried to answer the question - "What is poetry ?" like you have. Are you still trying to answer to that question ?

JA: I did write a poem called "What is poetry" but I don't think I have tried to ask that question myself, or have tried to elude it, the answer to which I don't know any more than anybody else. Certainly, I don't think that question fits the aim of my poetry. My aim is simply to express whatever thoughts come to my mind at the time I write the poem.

AM:Each poetry book of yours, you seem to shed like snakeskin; bare and dare, through that poetry of mud you seem to move on to a completely renewed self, making new skin of a new creature – the next book. Your self-renewals are often so dramatic….how do you bring it about ? I presume, your lifestyle doesn’t change much. Do you change your source of inspiration ? Your thought process ? How do you make that happen ?

JA: Ha ha.... (laughter) ! I am glad that you feel it that way. I want to always go onto something new everytime I write. Although, it is not always possible to do what you want but I suppose I have an yearning to do so in each of my books, like you've pointed out - new skin of a new creature.

AM:A great lot has been said about your poem Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror. The poem reminded me about Srimadbhagwat Geeta - an ancient Hindu text, famous for its lyrical and metaphysical qualities. It is the 18th chapter of the great Indian epic - Mahabharata. SP had a great metaphysical force (which I frequently find in your poetry in general), almost in every line, strongly Oriental in spirit (although it dwells on a purely western theme, western art, western society). Did anyone mention a parallel like this before ? Or the metaphysical quality of the poem ?

JA: I don't usually read all of the criticism that comes out about my work and I don't remember very much about the poem itself. But I remember that I always liked that painting (the original painting is in Vienna) long before I wrote the poem. The strange concept of the painting, that of a beautiful youth in a circular environment where his hand is drawn in larger proportion, moved me. I wanted to somehow write a poem related to this. I didn't begin doing so until about 24 years after I got the idea. I was very conscious of that idea while I was writing the poem. It required more revision (my earlier work, I used to revise more than I do now) and I tried to, but I did feel that the revision wasn't getting anywhere. I came close to write off this poem at a number of points during the several months it took me to write it. And I was more surprised that anybody when it became so famous. So many people have seen so many different things in it. I suppose, in a way, it is somehow reassuring for people who don't really understand my poetry that it seems that anybody would see it as some form of an essay about the painting and draws conclusion about it. I am not sure though that this poem is more metaphysical, logical or traditional underneath compared to most of my other poetry for better or worse.... (laughter).

AM:When did you come to hear of Frank O’Hara’s death ? Where were you at that time ?

JA: I was in New York and had just come back from a vacation in Maine. In Brownstone I had met the paintier Giorgio Cavalone and I remember he said to me that Frank was hurt in an accident. Nobody seemed to know any more than. At that point I didn't know if he was going to die but Cavalone was afraid. Sure enough, the next day it was confirmed. We drove down to Long Island, where he lived, with Cavalone and his wife who was also a painter, to the funeral. One heavy regret I have - before I left for my vacation I was supposed to have lunch with Frank. Our offices were near each other in midtown. We sometimes had lunch together. I had a lot of detailed work to finish up before I could leave to go to Maine. So I decided to have the lunch after my return. I called him to ask if we cut put it off till I get back. He said, "sure". That was the last time I saw him.

AM:Did you often think about him in the past twenty-thirty years ?

JA: Yes, very often.

AM:Do you read O'Hara ?

JA: : I don't read so much. I don't read the work of my friends anymore (smiles)...specially my own work, which I don't read at all. So I don't have much idea as to what New York School poetry is like. Basically, of late I like to read the more young contemporary poets, many of them have been influenced by me and who have then gone on to write their own and are now influencing me.

AM: In the fifties and then back again in the late sixties, early seventies did you have much interaction with the Beat poets ? I interviewed Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 2005, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Howl when he mentioned to me that the Beats were great friends with the Abstract Expressionist painters (which sort of confused me). He mentioned an antique bar – Cedar Bar in NYC, where they used to meet. Myself and my wife rediscovered that bar on our trip to New York City last summer. I guess, it is called Cedar Tavern now. From what I know, you and the NY poets often met at Cedar Bar. So, if the Beats frequented that bar too, did you have much interaction with them ?

JA: Again, no....I would have to say, you know...because I was away in France from 1955 to 1965. The Beat poets were just coming to be noticed at the time I left. I was very much out of touch with what was developing in America at that time. First of all, ways of communication were much more primitive than now. There were a few magazines....anyway, I was learning French then and reading French literature. But I knew Allen Ginsberg slightly and saw him a few times in Paris, as well as Ferlinghetti....

AM: Corso ?

JA: Oh Yeah! Corso was up in Paris too. We got along fairly well when we first met and I decided to go and see him in his hotel one day. He was under the influence of some kind of drug, he pulled a gun and pointed it at me and so that was it...ha ha ...(laughter)...he used to write letters to me and I did respond a couple of times, but after this I stopped writing....(laughter)....when I came back in 65, I didn't have much interaction with Ginsberg or the Beats, mainly because their poetry was very different from mine we didn't have much interest for each other. Actually O'Hara was much closer to them than I was. I was also sort of engulphed in my own experiments, people had started to talk about the "New York School" ...

AM: When you were in Paris, you began to write for Art News. We know of many poets who have been influenced by paintings or sculpture (so many of them….like Rilke was Rodin’s secretary for a while; Baudelaire’s passion for Delacroix, the collaborative projects of Picasso and Eluard, from which Eluard probably gained more than Picasso; Jamini Roy’s [a pre-Independence Indian painter who was famous for his non-descriptive painting style] collaborations with Bengali poet Bishnu De; De, a great east-west scholar, benefits more and finally writes a whole book on Jamini Roy’s paintings and so on ) or have served as art critics. But very few painters have drawn from poets (of the few I know, Chagall was inspired by Tagore, but then, Tagore was a painter too and had shared his paintings with Chagall). Do you think it is a one-sided, commensalist relationship ?

JA: Well, I don't know...first of all, I began to write for Art News not because of my interest for paintings. I was then in Paris but spent one winter back in New York, 57-58 when I was trying to decide what to do with my life, what kind of work I'll get ever. I was taking a graduate course in French Literature at the New York University and was planning to get a PhD. I began writing for Art News as I didn't have any money and they liked poets because first poets offered a fresh, new look at the arts and also didn't have to pay them much money. After that winter I went back to Paris to do research. I was planning on writing a thesis dissertation. I stayed for five years in Paris. I never had enough money to travel, I was always living on kind of a hand-to-mouth existence. I got a job as an art critic of The International Herald Tribune. I was asked to write monthly letters for the Art International magazine. I never really wanted to write about art but it gave me a meagre living and I didn't really feel I was very good at it although it did help me get inspiration at times at the exchange of my contributions.
I have probably been influenced more by music, actually by everything I see - music, nature, people and paintings. Now, to your question about the inverse-relationship, I don't is probably true about the Abstract Expressionist painters. They were a little older than us and our poetry didn't really influence them while we took from their radical expression of freedom.

AM :It is said that your work has had a strong influence on the Language Poets of North America. Bernstein, Silliman, Perelman and several others have admitted to it at some point in their careers. Do you read the Language Poets often ? What do you think of Language Poetry ?

JA: Well, I don't necessarily like Language Poetry, but I have read some poems of some of these poets you mention and others and have liked their work. I can't speak for a particular party. I like a lot of different things in their work. But I don't really have an opinion about Language Poetry. I liked some language-poems as I ran across their work. Some of them were probably influenced by the New York School. I also read younger poets who would not probably pass as Language Poets but who are writing very differently and it is absolutely wonderful to see how American Poetry has changed over the years.

AM: Tell us a little bit about your new book – A Worldly Country. Where do you wish to go from here ?

JA: Well, if I knew I'd already be there .. (laughter) ..I don't know. It is very hard to characterize one's own work. That, somebody else will have to do. I intend that each one of my books will be somewhat, or for that matter, a lot different from the last one, but it is really impossible for me to judge in what ways is this one different from the last one. I am working on my next book - Selected Later Poems which will be coming out in October this year. This is the first time, in fact, in many years that I ever read through a bunch of my books one after the other and was therefore exposed for the first time to the variations or changes in my work, but I can't really say anymore than that.

AM: Did you ever consider visiting the Indian sub-continent ? Any artistic experience from that part of the world that you can recall ? Like maybe the films of Satyajit Ray - do you like them ?

JA: Well, I always had little money to travel, right from my Paris days. Travelling needs money....if I had money while I was in Paris I could have gone a number of places. Also, I never considered trips to faraway places including India. Even with my newspaper job I didn't get to travel very much. But back in the mid-eighties I was invited once to attend a poetry conference in Bhopal. The Union Carbide tragedy had just occurred there and someone jokingly said, that the people there, were waiting for an American to come so they could take revenge, (laughter).... Anyway, I wasn't very keen about going to Bhopal. Bhopal isn't probably a ....

AM - hapenning city

JA: Yeah, if I would visit India I would probably go to Bombay or Kolkata. To the second part of your question, I am sorry I can't claim to have much cultural or artistic experience from that part of the world - the Indian sub-continent... but I was a student of Madhur Jaffery for a while. I am very fond of Indian cooking and wanted to learn cooking and joined her class for a while. Also, I haven't seen much of Satyajit Ray, but while I was in Paris in the late fifties, I think I saw his "Apu" films, but that was so long back I can't remember. I saw some of the Merchant-Ivory movies though.




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