by Andrew McCarron
[Guest Author Note: Scholar and poet Andrew McCarron has kindly shared with us this transcript of a delightful Q&A session between the late great John Ashbery [pictured left] and Andrew's high school students at Trinity School in Manhattan. It blows my mind to think of John walking into one's high school… Special thanks to The Flow Chart Foundation for providing the tape and permission to share this with you. Here's to chap-stick! — Justin Jamail]
Despite the difficulty of his work, I have consistently taught the poetry of John Ashbery in my English classes at Trinity School on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. My students have ranged from fourteen to eighteen, and pretty much without exception, the students have loved the challenge. Ashbery’s playfulness, his roving sense of wonder, and the childlike way his poems try making sense of an incomprehensible universe of surprise, contradiction, and changeability, captivate their imaginations. Whereas I started out teaching his short poems (e.g., Some Trees, The History of My Life, and This Room), I’ve since moved on to teaching longer works like Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, A Wave, and the book-length Girls on the Run. Many years ago, on May 8, 2003, I invited my old Bard College professor, John Ashbery, to a ninth grade English class I was teaching during my first year at Trinity. John had come from the dentist’s office where he’d been given a shot of Novocain. He was dressed in a white blazer and a blue tie for the occasion and was bemused by the interest of the teenagers.
Here’s a partial transcript of the Q&A, recorded by my colleague and friend Bill Zavatsky, who was also present:
Student: How do you get inspired?
Ashbery: I used to wait around for inspiration when I was your ages, but realized I wouldn’t get very much written if I had to wait. So, as the years have gone by, I’ve trained myself to get along without inspiration and it seems to work just as well.
Student: Did you enjoy an active imagination as a child?
Ashbery: Yes, I used to invent cities and people as imaginary citizens. I would do this on the beach where I grew up, on Lake Ontario, where I’d build sandcastles or houses. I used to make large maps on big sheets of cardboard and put on all the names of the cities and towns. I remember one country where the capital city was Murielsville because of a little girl I had a crush on in grade school. The population was something like 8,957,000. She had the most population of any of the cities.
Student: When did you realize you wanted to pursue the life of a poet?
Ashbery: Well, I still don’t want to pursue the life of a poet. I started writing poetry when I was in high school actually. It happened when I first discovered modern poetry in an anthology of Louis Untermeyer. Up until then I thought I wanted to be a painter. I became gradually more interested in poetry and it was easier to do than paint. I didn’t have much talent then, surely, as a poet, but I ended up not having any talent as a painter, I think.
Student: What poets inspired you the most when you were younger
Ashbery: Actually the first modern poet in that anthology. It was all strange to me as it probably is for anyone who encounters modern poetry, asking “What is this?” “It doesn’t make any sense!” But then I began to like that. Some of the poets I liked actually made a lot of sense but I was still too inexperienced to realize this. My favorite one was W.H. Auden, who you wouldn’t think today would give readers that much difficulty; partly because his later poetry was much more uncomplicated and straightforward. But he hadn’t written his later poetry yet. His earlier poetry is rather obscure and puzzling. I became very attracted by his way of using different tones and styles, like vernacular of various kinds, and prosy journalism, and all of these mashed together in the same poem.
Student: What inspired your poem “Some Trees”?
Ashbery: The poem “Some Trees” was inspired by falling in love and also by reading the poetry of Marianne Moore, which I was reading a lot of at the time. I think that there’s an influence in that poem of Marianne Moore’s, certainly the half-rhymes that she used a lot.
Student: Do you write with the intention of getting at a deeper meaning?
Ashbery: Deeper than what? I write with the intention of expressing a meaning that I couldn’t put into words until I’ve done so by writing it in the poem.
Student: Do your poems just come to you or do you sit down thinking I’m going to write a poem now?
Ashbery: Yeah I guess I sit down thinking, or hoping, “I’m going to write a poem now.”*
Student: Do you disagree with the critical interpretations of your poems?
Ashbery: Yes, always, including the favorable ones.
Student: Do you understand your own work?
Ashbery: No—but as I said, that’s why I write it, hoping that I’ll be able to understand it eventually.*
Student: Does other art inspire your poems?
Ashbery: Certainly painting and music, especially music. I listen to music when I’m writing. I think if I had known how to do it I probably would have written music instead of poetry. What’s interesting is that it’s a linear experience in time as is a poem. You have to stay with it until the end to know what it’s all about, whereas a painting you can look at and say, “O yeah, I got that.” The time that is built into the experience for me is very much something that the poetry is about, too. It’s the universal subject. My poetry often reflects my past, childhood, and so forth. The temporal quality of poetry is why I switched from painting to writing poetry. But I look at a lot of art, too. I worked as an art critic for a long time and had to force myself to really look at something so I’d remember when I sat down to write about it what I had seen. That was a very valuable experience. One thing that’s the hardest to do is give your attention to anything. By painfully forcing myself I learned a valuable lesson.
Student: If you could bring five items to a deserted island what would you bring?
Ashbery: Sunblock, chap-stick, the works of Proust, antidepressants, and flares.
Student: If you weren’t a famous poet what other work could you imagine yourself doing?
Ashbery: I can’t imagine myself doing any work. I don’t think poetry counts. I would like to have been able to do other things, like writing music, as I just mentioned, or writing novels, which people would then actually read. But it’s very difficult to write a novel, whereas it’s easy to write poetry, provided that you’re a poet. I’m always amazed at performative art, like a violinist who plays an incredible concerto. Of course, it’s easy for him because that’s what he does. It wouldn’t be easy for me.
Student: Do poets have a responsibility to be political?
Ashbery: I think people have a responsibility to be political. I don’t think that poets have a responsibility to write political poetry, because I think any poetry is political in the sense that it makes you reflect on life, and feel glad you’re alive if it’s a good poem, and it makes you want to act in various capacities from love or militant philosophy and experience different forms of your life. I don’t like political poetry because I invariably agree with the message in it and don’t have to be reminded of it.