This conversation, between a poet well versed in music and a musician well versed in literature, was held in New York City in February 1992. The following appeared in Annandale, Spring 1992, and appears here courtesy of the Bard College Publications Office.
John Ashbery has published fourteen books of poetry, including his most recent, Flow Chart (1991), and a volume of art criticism, Reported Sightings (1989). His Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, the National Book Critic's Circle Award, and the National Book Award. He has been named a Guggenheim Fellow and a MacArthur Fellow, and is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Ashbery was Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard in 1989-90 and has been Charles P. Stevenson, Jr., Professor of Literature at Bard since 1990.
Pianist Sarah Rothenberg had been teaching at Bard since 1987. She has appeared as a soloist and chamber musician throughout the United States and Europe and has performed more than fifty U.S. and world premieres. A co-artistic director of the annual Bard Music Festival, Rothenberg is also a member of the Da Capo Chamber Players. She first attracted critical attention in 1983 as music director of the Russian Constructivist Music and Performance series at The Kitchen, and she has been involved in several projects exploring the relationship between music and language.
Sarah Rothenberg: What you and I usually talk about is music—we've talked much more about music than about writing, certainly about your own writing. You're unusually involved in new music. Has that always been so? Even as a child?
John Ashbery: Yes, though when I was a child there really wasn't much to listen to on records. I started collecting records when I first got a phonograph, at the age of about fifteen, and rapidly went through the classical repertory. Then I started listening to whatever new music there was then.
Rothenberg: What kind of music did you find?
Ashbery: There was Les Six, the first new music I heard. Stravinsky, of course, was a major discovery.
Rothenberg: I play so much new music, and there are still so many complaints about how there's not enough new music getting performed. But things have certainly improved.
Ashbery: A lot of that is because of records. When I first moved to New York I used to go to concerts of new music all the time, but I'd much rather have stayed home and listened to it on records, of which there were very few.
Rothenberg: I remember you telling me this—that you don't really enjoy going to live performances. Is that because the audience is usually badly behaved?
Ashbery: No, I just don't like the visual aspect of the whole thing. Sometimes it's fun, if you're in a beautiful concert hall. But generally I like to just hear it, not to see it.
Rothenberg: It becomes a much more private experience.
Ashbery: In the same way, I'd much rather read poetry than listen to it. I don't ever really enjoy listening to poets read their poems as much as reading them to myself. If they're good poems, it's nice enough to hear them, but I'd rather be alone with them, looking at them, seeing them rather than hearing them.
Rothenberg: I've been thinking about the position of the contemporary poet and the contemporary composer. Elliott Carter set one of your pieces to music—did you work with him on that?
Ashbery: We didn't actually work together, because the piece already existed. We got a grant to write something together, but it didn't seem to work, and then he decided that he liked this already published poem of mine and that he was going to set that to music instead.
Rothenberg: Have you ever written anything specifically to be set to music?
Ashbery: No, I don't think I could. In fact, I don't think my poetry was meant to be set to music.
Rothenberg: I don't think so either. Your poetry doesn't like to be interrupted. The problem with a piece of poetry when it gets set to music is that it becomes set in an unchangeable rhythm, which in turn sets the meaning. Certain words remain emphasized forever, and you can't really change that.
In thinking about the relationship between music and poetry, there's of course an obvious one in terms of the attention to sound and rhythm. But I also think that your poetry is often very musical in its concern with time, the passage of time, and the impossibility of stopping it. One of the difficult things about reading your poetry is the impossibility of stopping it—for example, when confronted with something as long as Flow Chart. And yet I find when I go back to the book, I want to start again from the beginning. Do you have any ideas about the way Flow Chart should be read? It's not something that can be read in one sitting.
Ashbery: No. It's divided into six sections, but they don't really mean anything. I wasn't going to have any divisions at all, but then I thought, well, it's really so depressing to be confronted by a novel that has no chapter divisions and wonder how you're ever going to get through it, so I'd better make these artificial breaks every once in a while so people will think they can sign off for the evening, even supposing they get that far. My own reading habits are very scattershot. I'll pick up something, read it, put it aside, then begin something, get halfway through, and be interrupted by something else. And I'm never sure that anybody's going to read my poetry to begin with. But if they are, I suppose they will be reading it for a while, then getting impatient, skipping around, maybe coming back to where they left off. I think I write with this in mind just because that's my own experience in reading. In other words, if you miss twenty pages in the middle of Flow Chart, it's not really going to matter very much. It's all kind of an environment anyway, though I hate to use that word.
Rothenberg: I don't think of it so much as an environment, but I think a lot about landscape when I read your work. It's as though one enters a kind of thought landscape, a mental/psychological landscape. You talk a lot about the moment, and how one moment can be so revelatory. I know that forms a big part of "The System." And right at the beginning of Flow Chart you say something like that—"We know life is so busy,/but a larger activity shrouds it, and this is something/we can never feel, except occasionally, in small signs/put up to warn us and as soon expunged, in part/or wholly." It's as though there's just a crack that you manage to break open and really enter, going off on these mental wanderings. Does it feel like that at all to you?
Ashbery: Yes, I think that's what it is—something that starts up and goes for a while and then stops.
Rothenberg: I think it would be ideal to read the whole poem in one sitting. It brings up the notion of memory—the reader's memory as well as the kind of memories that come to mind, I assume, when you're actually writing. In music, memory is such an important part of listening. When you're confronted with very large structures—especially unfamiliar structures—in new music, one of the most difficult things is to hold onto the narrative when you don't have a sense of memory that will allow you to.
Some things allow the listener to perceive a piece of music like a landscape, in terms of peaks and arrivals—moments one goes toward and then away from. It's almost as if people aren't quite sure what they've heard if they can't go out of the hall singing a melody. Similarly, a reader of your work can't necessarily go away with a paraphrased version of what they've read, but there are the sounds, and a point of view, which take over one's mind in a very surprising way.
Ashbery: When you say that I'm writing something that can't necessarily be paraphrased, I would go even farther and say that it can't possibly be paraphrased. I guess that's really what I'm trying to do—to write something that cannot possibly be paraphrased. Why I have this urge I don't know. As a child I had an extreme fear of evaluation, and I remember that at the beginning of each year in grade school I resolved not to do anything that the teacher would be able to fault me on or scold me about or bawl me out about. This would only last for a few days, of course, and it would seem as though the whole year was ruined once it had happened. I suppose that this attempt to protect myself is what results in a structure that many readers find defeating—precisely because I want it to protect me.
Rothenberg: Your work travels a very thin line in that it has a very intimate and personal tone about it, and you write precisely about the things one doesn't talk about—those elusive moments of contemplation, where you open up a whole world of the imagination.
Ashbery: That reminds me of a published conversation I once had with Kenneth Koch in which he asked me if there were any hidden meanings in my poems. And I said no, and he said, "Why not?" and I said, "Because if there were, somebody might find them out, and they wouldn't be mysterious anymore." So, in other words, I want my poetry not to have any hidden meanings, but I want it to be mysterious at the same time. Perhaps the only way to do that is not to have any meanings at all, I don't know—it's something I'm still working on.
Rothenberg: Well, it's a difficult thing, because I think the public equates not having any hidden meaning with meaninglessness, which to me is a very different thing. Contemporary composers are never confronted with having to explain the direct meaning of what they've written, because they're dealing in a language that is accepted as being untranslatable. I think with your work it's all the more confusing because you're using the same words people use to order a cup of coffee. I love this from Flow Chart: "This mound of cold ashes that we call/for want of a better word the past wouldn't inflect the horizon/as it does here, calling attention to shapes/that resemble it and so liberating them into the bloodstream/of our collective memory: here a chicken coop, there a smokestack,/farther on an underground laboratory. These things then wouldn't/depress (or as sometimes happens, exalt) one, and living would be just that..." And then you go on: "Did I order that?/And when the bill comes, tries to complain to the management/but at that point the jig, or whatever, is up."
In your work there are these daily moments that take on very great proportions. We're not completely taken away from our daily world; in fact, it seems to function as a kind of anchor. It brings us back, sometimes in a way that makes us laugh. And it also reminds us that there is common ground between the writer and the reader. It reminds us that we share the same world. But your writings allow us to see it in a different way.
Ashbery: That must be a result of the fact that I read newspapers a lot and listen to the news on TV. I have this insatiable urge to know what is happening at any given moment. I even read the local newspapers in Columbia County just to find out who was arrested for drunken driving. I also like the articles in the supermarket tabloids about one's presumably favorite television stars, although I never watch television programs except for the news and movies. I like reading about who would be my favorite television stars if I ever watched them on television. I don't know why I feel I have to know all this. I don't think that I feel I have to keep in touch with real people and the real world, and that I'm sort of like Tonio Kröger in Mann's story, looking through a window and wishing he could belong to the world of ordinary society. I feel I already am that—that I am on the outside looking out, as I have several times described myself. I'm like Tonio, on the outside, but I'm looking further out.
Rothenberg: But what you take in comes out. You're open to what's going on, curious about it. I don't think your work gives a sense that you're seeing it from a great distance, or observing something that you're not a part of. I think a lot of it is shared with a sense of amusement. It is a way of defining the world we live in, not in the most profound sense, but like markers—those people in the tabloids, the way language gets used.
Ashbery: I've always felt that there is no need to purify the language of the tribe, to use the famous Mallarmé phrase, because it already was purified and guaranteed, guaranteed pure.
I always believe in coincidences and the value of what happens when it happens, and just before you arrived I received an enormous dissertation a young English friend of mine wrote on my poetry for Oxford, and I didn't have any time to do anything except open the first page. And he has three different quotations about my poetry— one by me, one by Harold Bloom, and one by an English poet who hates my poetry. Maybe I should read them.
Rothenberg: So we have Harold Bloom: "No one now writing poems in the English language is likelier that Ashbery to survive the severe judgments of time." And Tom Paulin: "Ashbery, it has to be said, is a poet so talentless that it's a wonder his work has been published, let alone received the extravagantly lunatic praise some critics have accorded it." And yourself saying: "Once, as I was falling asleep, I sort of imagined a debate between two critics. One of them was saying, 'I don't want to raise my children in a world where John Ashbery can win the Pulitzer Prize,' and the other one something like, 'It's not his fault that he's responsible for my soul.'"
Ashbery: This is a sort of nice beginning sentence.
Rothenberg: Yes. "No contemporary poet has received more fulsome praise or more critical abuse than John Ashbery." Well, how do you like that?
Ashbery: One thing I like is all-inclusiveness, and that's certainly an example of it. I don't know that I like it when it's applied to me that way, since I don't really like negative criticism. But it seems that throughout my poetry I'm constantly talking about assembling as broad a spectrum as possible of whatever it is I'm talking about at that particular moment. There's a passage from Three Poems in which I state this: "Thus everything and everybody were included after all, and any thought that might ever be entertained about them. The irritating drawbacks each possessed along with certain good qualities were dissolved in the enthusiasm of the whole, yet individuality was not lost for all that, but persisted in the definition of the urge to proceed higher and further, as well as the counter-urge to amalgamate into the broadest, widest kind of uniform continuum." Then I go on to say: "The effect was as magnificent as it was unexpected, not even beyond his wildest dreams since he had never had any, content as he had been to let the process reason itself out."
It seems that in that particular phrase I come as close as anywhere in my work to expressing what I want to do in poetry. It just popped into my head—I hadn't thought of it for years.
Rothenberg: In "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," you talk about the element of surprise, of not being able to control things: "...as in the game where/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 has started out to say/In the first place." You go on: "That the history of creation proceeds according to/Stringent laws, and that things/Do get done in this way, but never the things/We set out to accomplish and wanted so desperately/To see come into being."
One of the things I find reassuring about your poetry is that when things go wrong, or they don't go according to plan, you don't get upset about it. There's a kind of calm, contemplative mood to the poetry, an unusual and reassuring balance between control and going with the flow of what life brings.
Ashbery: I suppose that's an idea I must have valued, one I was always inclined toward, but it may have crystallized when I first started listening to John Cage's music—for instance, Four Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds, which I've never actually listened to, insofar as it can be listened to. Whatever noise happens during the course of that work is not only okay, but it makes up the work itself. And then, of course, there are other works in which music is accompanied by random noise, such as his Concert for Piano and Orchestra—I happened to attend the premiere of that work at Town Hall, and it was later issued on records. Each of the musicians had a separate score and played randomly from it, and the audience, after suffering in silence for a while, began to make catcalls and a lot of noise. The music is still going on and so are the yells. I believe this is what Cage says he had taken into account when he wrote the music, that it would all be part of the whole.
Rothenberg: That he should compel the audience to create something to be part of the piece. When you're writing, there must be a tremendous amount of choice going on.
Ashbery: Yes, there is, but what is chosen really doesn't seem to matter very much. Or even if it does, it's because everything happens according to some divine plan that you can't know about anyway. For instance, the poem Carter set to music, which talks about music, especially that element of the unstoppable. It's one of the things I envy music for—that it just keeps on going. Of course, if you have a record you can always put the arm back to the part that you like and listen to it over again, but that's not the rule of the game. It has a linear quality, it unfolds in time. And I'd like poetry to be able to do that too, which of course it does when you hear it. When you see it on the page, there's always a temptation to wander back to what you've seen before.
But that poem is about Orpheus, which came about completely by chance. I just happened to put on Monteverdi's Orfeo, and I didn't know what I was going to write about, and then I thought, "Orpheus: that's a well-worn subject for poetry, but maybe one I could do something with." And I kind of glanced at the notes to the recording and wrote this Orpheus poem. But I could as easily have pulled out another record.
Rothenberg: Do you feel that a poet gets put on the spot more than a composer?
Ashbery: Composers do have, as you were saying before, the enviable task of writing in a language that cannot be argued with or even deciphered but which nevertheless has its meaning and its thrust. That's what I envy the most about composing, and I'm trying to do that in poetry, but unfortunately that's impossible, because everybody understands words, and the words have more or less the same meaning for everyone.
Rothenberg: Flow Chart is such a feast of language, an incredibly colorful work. This has as much to do with what you're saying as how you're saying it—they're not really separable. You talk so much about the fluidity of time, of past and present and future. In the same way, we see the language and the style and the message of the poetry as being inseparable.
In "Syringa" you say, "For although memories of a season, for example,/Melt into a single snap-shot, one cannot guard, treasure,/That stalled moment. It is too flowing, fleeting..." This makes us realize that ironically our attempt to hold onto memories with something as physical and material as a photo often works against us: we end up going back to that same photo time and time again, and that becomes a fixed memory in our minds, rather than all the moments that flowed toward that moment and all the moments that flow away from it.
We were talking before about references to daily life in a very tangible way, but when you write about time there are certain times of day that you seem to come back to again and again in your work: the late afternoon recurs quite a bit. That's often a time when you actually see the change going on, the day fading.
Ashbery: Well that's the time I always write.
Rothenberg: Is there a reason for that?
Ashbery: Yes, perhaps because it is the time when the day is fading into its opposite more visibly than it is at other times. Also the transitional periods of the year are much more convenient for me to write in. Summer is a period of pause when I find it very difficult to work. I also procrastinate: since it's impossible to write at night, I wait until the last possible moment of the day before I begin. No doubt that's why I keep mentioning that time of day. I feel the same way about summer. I have to get all my writing done before it comes, because there's something deathlike about summer. De Quincey talks about this very beautifully in The Confessions of an English Opium Eater, something I understood even before I read it. Years ago I wrote a line in "The Skaters": "There is something fearful in these long summer evenings that go on forever."
Rothenberg: In your writing as an art critic, what are you trying to achieve?
Ashbery: What I've tried to do in what I call my criticism is to get a feeling for what the artist was trying to do and evoke it in words so that readers will be able to make up their minds whether they wish to see it.
Rothenberg: Unlike poets and composers, painters are often quite willing to talk about their work—they want to talk about it in verbal terms.
Ashbery: In my case, I feel that whatever I have to say I've already said in my poetry, and that what I say in addition is going to be somewhat beside the point. I don't want to talk about anything, and I'm constantly being placed in the position of having to do so, like now, for instance. It's very funny that although my whole attitude is against trying to teach or criticize or make value judgments, the occupations I've had during my life include being an art critic and teaching— having to do precisely the things I find distasteful. Perhaps it's been good for me after all.
Rothenberg: Do you think at all about the place of the poet in contemporary society? Do you see poetry as being marginalized?
Ashbery: I see it as being marginal. It's always been that way. I don't think the poet has any place in contemporary society.
Rothenberg: Do you think literate people used to read more poetry, or perhaps even write poetry?
Ashbery: I don't know. There are always a few people who like it, and if only one percent of the population of the United States reads poetry, that still makes about, what, a million people?
Rothenberg: Do you think about your reader?
Ashbery: Well yes, but there's really no point in trying to imagine who's going to be coming to one's work and what they're going to be making of it. I try to shape it so that it's open-ended, so that different people can make different things out of it according to the set of experiences they bring to reading it.
Rothenberg: There's another line in Flow Chart that jumped out at me: "Listening is a patented device whose manifold uses have scarcely begun to be explored."
Ashbery: Listening and paying attention are the two most difficult things there are, and everything depends on that.
I happened to just see a show of Brice Marden's paintings. Of course they're a parody of something that's difficult to follow, because they're just labyrinthine nets that your eye gets lost in, as I suppose the mind does in my poetry. That's why I felt a kind of correlation there. In fact, I've felt that with Marden's work ever since he began, when he was painting in a very different way—what we called the monolithic paintings. It was very hard to look at these paintings. I kept wanting to look away, wanting in fact to go away, because this was an extreme example of the impossibility of looking, listening, paying attention, and allowing oneself the liberty of doing so. I felt at moments that I was getting very close to letting it all just come to me, but I had at the same time a kind of fear or a disinclination to let myself get involved. I suppose I finally overcame it, because I came away from the show feeling very interested and rewarded by it.
Rothenberg: It's funny when one really stops to notice what goes on in the process of doing something like looking at a painting, the strange mixture of excitement and exhaustion and even boredom that goes on when one is at a show, even a show that one likes very much. I saw the Brice Marden show a couple of months ago and I want to go back, but even when I was there I was thinking, I have to come back. And I often feel that in reading your work. As I'm reading it, I'm saying to myself, I have to read it again. It's not so much that I have to read it again because I didn't understand it, but rather that I have a sense of needing to be exposed again. In the Brice Marden show, I especially loved the drawings, because I felt I could watch the lines evolving and see how the whole thing came about.
Ashbery: It was while I was looking at those that I really began to feel drawn in. They had a much greater tentativeness than the paintings, although the paintings were certainly tentative in a monumental state.
Rothenberg: I agree—they're so confidently large that it's hard to be drawn in in quite the same way.
Ashbery: I think perhaps that that might be a quality in my poems, a monumental tentativeness, at least in Flow Chart, because of its length and weight.
Rothenberg: It's that length—and the grandness one associates with that length—combined with a kind of casualness and real intimacy. As with music, getting to know any composer, one has to learn how to listen. We approach every work of art with so many preconceived notions of what we're going to have to do to experience it.
Ashbery: I really regret that a reputation for being very difficult has grown up around my poetry like the wall of China, and that people either think, "There would be no point in my trying to read his poetry because nobody can understand it," or else, "I'd have to read a lot of books about it or other contemporary poetry before I tackle this, because everybody says it's so difficult." And it's like Marden— it's all there if you can just break the umbilical cord to your conscious feelings about how something has to be appreciated and taken in.
Rothenberg: I think it's a matter of both breaking the umbilical cord and allowing yourself to be present. Sometimes people approach a poem and feel that their own experience should be left out of the reading, that to be passive and objective and critical is the way one should approach it. I think it's exactly the opposite. People should respond to whatever line of yours sparks something in their own experience. They shouldn't censor themselves and ask "Is this right?" or "Is this what he really means?" as though you started out with a meaning and translated it into something that is obtuse. It's the elusiveness, the possibility of so many references, that gives your work its power.
There's another line in Flow Chart: "It occurs to me in my home on the beach/sometimes that others must have experiences identical to mine/and are also unable to speak of them, that if we cared/enough to go into each other's psyche and explore/around, some of the canned white entrepreneurial brain food/could be reproduced in time to save the legions/of the dispossessed, and elephants."
Ashbery: I don't remember any of this. Once I write something, I usually forget it.
Rothenberg: There is a kind of democratic point of view in your poetry. It's not that your thoughts are out of reach of anybody else's thoughts, but that those are the thoughts that often don't get shared. It's quite possible that there are many people out there who do share these thoughts.
Ashbery: One feature of my poetry, if I think about it—which I don't do very often—is that I frequently write what sounds like a perfectly straightforward statement in which one word is slightly wrong or unexpected, or the tense of a verb is changed from what it should be. These bumps, as I think of them, are an important aspect of my poetry. I've noticed with French translators that their first aim is to smooth them all out so that they actually sound like French poetry, and I've argued with translators over this. They invariably say, "But you can't say that in French." And I say, "But you can't say it in English either."
Rothenberg: Are there any composers writing today whom you feel an affinity for, as you were saying you felt for Brice Marden's work?
Ashbery: Well, Elliott Carter is probably my favorite living composer. I don't know, however, whether it was a good idea for us to compose or work together, because my poetry has a certain built-in musical structure, and his music has a certain built-in poetic structure. His music is like language and my language is like music, not in the sense that it sounds euphonious, but that it has the structure of music.
Rothenberg: It has an inner rhythm.
Ashbery: Right. So I'm not sure we need each other. And I like "Syringa" a lot now—a new recording has come out—although I didn't at first. I don't think vocal music is his strong point. But as for the quartets and the other chamber music—the piano concerto, the double concerto —it's a work that I feel is perhaps closest to the spirit of what I like doing in poetry.
When I was writing Three Poems, especially "The System," I think, I used to listen to a recording of his Concerto for Orchestra all the time. That is a work that maybe is comparable to those labyrinthine Marden paintings where he's constantly inviting one in and pushing one out at the same time.
But it's not just contemporary music I get ideas from. Right now, like all of France, I've plunged into French baroque music and I'm listening to Charpentier and Couperin a lot. I also like late nineteenth-century Russian music. I recently bought a record of Dinu Lipatti's Concertino for Piano and Orchestra, which is just about as light and fluffy as music can get and still not float away. If I were a musician, I probably would be much narrower in my tastes and would be concentrating on what was going to nourish my music, which could also be literature in a much broader sense. In reading I tend to go to exactly what I think is going to be good for my work, rather than trying to cover all of literature.
Rothenberg: As a writer do you sometimes worry about being exposed to those things you dislike, because somehow they're going to enter into your consciousness and affect your work?
Ashbery: I don't think there's much danger of that if you don't like them. It's just that you want to expose yourself to the things that really nourish you, which may have nothing to do with what people are talking about and discussing today. I don't read much contemporary fiction, and people are always saying, "Have you read Don DeLillo's new book?" But I'm still catching up on the classics. Right now I'm halfway through an eighteenth-century French novel by Marivaux, and I've just begun reading the classic eighteenth-century Chinese novel The Story of the Stone, and I'm sort of juggling these with Clarissa. None of these are things you can talk about at dinner parties. In other words, I read what I need, not what I "should be" reading.
Rothenberg: Are there writers you've turned back to over the years for what you call nourishment?
Ashbery: Yes, I think Hölderlin is probably the most important one. I frequently read him before I write to kind of get in the mood. Celan is another writer I've come to more recently. And also the contemporary poet James Tate, who is very, very underrated, but who has a pizazz that always gets me started writing. And then there are people like De Quincey, who has a wonderfully labyrinthine way of writing, even though on the surface it appears perfectly clear and expository.
Rothenberg: How long did Flow Chart take you to complete?
Ashbery: In the New York Review of Books there was a review that said I wrote it in six weeks, which is not true. I wrote it in about six months, a little more than six months, in the first part of 1988. And then I put it away, because I didn't want to go over it and do what I knew had to be done to it. It just seemed too daunting a prospect for a long time. Two years later, I was living in Cambridge for a while—I did the Norton Lectures that year. When I was an undergraduate at Harvard, and the leaves came out in the spring, and I had a view of the river, I used to get terribly excited about poetry. That spring in Cambridge I was living in one of the houses again, with a view over the river, and it reminded me of how it was forty years ago. I suddenly started getting ideas for the end of the poem, which I'd never ended properly. So I wrote the ending, and then I went back and redid the whole thing.
I had written it on a typewriter—on an old manual typewriter—and I put it on the word processor, did a lot of cutting. I usually don't do a great deal of revising, but something on this scale...it's so big it has to be whacked into shape more than shorter work. So in all it wasn't ready until about two, two and a half years after I stopped writing it.
Rothenberg: Does the material you take out in the process then reappear elsewhere?
Ashbery: No. Usually not. When I was young, I would tend to recycle my "rejected addresses," but I'm much more prolific and much less inhibited about writing now than I was then just because of having done it for such a long time. And I have somehow managed to train myself not to write poetry that will require a great deal of revision; if it does, I discard it and write something else instead.
Rothenberg: It's nice to be in control, isn't it?
Ashbery: Well, I'm not sure that I am. But I do feel less inhibited about writing because I've been doing it for such a long time. If I didn't feel that way at this point in my life, there wouldn't be much point in having done it.
Rothenberg: Do you write regularly?
Ashbery I usually write about once a week. I was part of a memorial reading for James Schuyler last night, and various people talked about their memories of him. Someone had asked him, "When do you write, and how often?" and he said, "I write a poem every two weeks, which takes me five minutes, and then I have all this leftover time." Which is sad but true for poets. I often envy painters and composers who work at what they're doing all day long—you can't do that with poetry. I suppose you could, but one usually doesn't. A poem somehow is a briefer, or at any rate quicker, piece of work. And then you're always left with the question, What do I do now?
Copyright © 1992 Sarah Rothenberg and John Ashbery