Poetry News

John Ashbery & Frank O'Hara on Erje Ayden, the Pulp Writer for the New York School

By Harriet Staff


A truly great feature and the Friday pick at BODY magazine: John Ashbery introduces us to the Turkish writer Erje Ayden, who some of you might know better as the pulp fiction writer behind the New York School. Ayden started out as a spy in Europe in the 1950s and then moved into the downtown New York arts scene, befriending Frank O'Hara and William de Kooning—he has been writing performance and prose pieces for 50 years.

Erje Ayden’s novels provide a little-known but fascinating view of American bohemian and bourgeois society from the point of view of a sympathetically bemused Turkish observer. The wonder is that Ayden’s not more famous, as he can be as addictive as Simenon or Proust.

Elevator Repair Service performer and BODY editor Ben Williams goes on:

Erje (pronounced like the letters R and J) and his wife Lisa make all his books essentially by hand. Perhaps a single step removed from the literally handmade books of B O D Y contributor Edgar Oliver, Erje’s books are small and simple and have the feel of the samizdat. If there’s an image on the cover, it’s there not because a graphic designer cooked up some smart, attractive, wrap-around advertisement. It’s there because it has a very specific, personal connection to Erje. Willem de Kooning’s art is on the cover of The People of Imprisoned City and Summer Frank O’Hara Died (in collaboration with his assistant John McMahon) because “Bill” was Erje’s friend — they built a theater together in the ‘60s out in East Hampton, where, he told me, “we had steaks every night. I remember the steaks.”

Similarly, and in accordance with the proverb, Erje writes about what he knows — although the breadth of experience from which he draws can seem preposterous at times, and not just to someone like me who is of a much younger generation. Sure, New York in the ‘60s and ‘70s was a different world than New York in 2013 — for one, there were still bookstores then. And authors could still take a book directly to a local bookstore, as Erje did at the legendary Eighth Street Bookshop, where The Crazy Green of Second Avenue first took hold as a cult hit. But the exoticism of another time doesn’t account for the varied worlds that Erje travelled. He really worked as a spy in Europe in the ‘50s? Yes. He really wrote in Frank O’Hara’s studio while Frank worked at the MOMA? Yes. He really went to James Cagney’s house… and Cagney danced a jig for him? Yes. O’Hara says in his preface to Sadness at Leaving that Erje’s characters are always “on the go, whether their destination is set or not,” and I think that that kind of knowledge can only come from a writer who has frequented many, many worlds.

There are also reflections on Ayden from Jim Fletcher and Frank O'Hara! The latter's:

Erje Ayden is the traditional “foreigner,” perhaps no more foreign to our language and ways than was D. H. Lawrence, perhaps as foreign to them as Joseph Conrad was to English at the beginning of his great labors. Like Lawrence he has the advantage of viewing our morés and our verbal locutions from alien and strong tradition; like Conrad he would like to have a rhetorical hero of undeniable strength and certitude appear in his writings, but life cannot reveal one. Like so many who refreshed the languages of the world in the 20th century, he is an alien wherever he is, probing and disfiguring ordinary reality with a sense of popularity, and accepting its most peculiar and neurotic aspects as quite unexceptional. Like most writers of power and vivid interest, Ayden is able to transform his miscalculations and misunderstandings into personal expressive advantages. We must admire this unless we are to give up William Carlos Williams’ dictum that the American language is distinct from the English, and lapse into a long development of Mandarin style which would be indistinguishable from the tiring mistake of the English, of the French, and the German.

Because of the moral ambivalence of another tradition, Ayden is one of the sexiest writers we have; because of his struggles with acquired language he has a vigor uncommon among our novelists; without the mannerist inclinations of Salinger, Pynchon, Barth, or Updike, he is able to convey the real trouble underneath the bizarre and the banal. In adopting Fitzgerald as his model, Ayden links himself with other off-shoots of that germinal stylist’s attitude: Nathanael West, Horace McCoy and even Dashiell Hammett. He has the same brevity, the same swift pace, the same tendency of observation and impatience with analysis. Neither daring nor caring to make a beautiful English sentence, he is able to get some of that marvelous Fitzgerald quickness and pointedness, which in the latter’s case made Hemingway’s most machine-gunned sentences seem rather studied. As with Gatsby and Rosemary, Ayden’s characters are quickly fixed by events in an airy space which belongs to no one, least of all them. Through Ayden’s eyes we see an “Amerika,” as odd as Kafka’s; as funny as absurdly sad. Nobody thinks that things are as they seem, but Ayden makes the gap between seeming and being considerably wider. Operating in this gap his people (Elliott in Crazy Green, “I” in Confessions of a Nowaday Child, the hero of From Hauptbanhoff I Took a Train who keeps changing his name) are always on the go, whether their destination is set or not, in order to keep alive.

– Frank O’Hara

And of course there's work there from Ayden himself. An excerpt from "James Cagney":

James Cagney lived very modestly in his farmhouse. Besides his wife Frances, he had a servant. We all sat in the living room which was warm and had tea. Art and Cagney talked about the new Hollywood – something that didn’t impress Cagney. Then Cagney turned to me.

“Is it true,” he asked, “that Matisse studied the motives in old Turkish paintings and tiles?”

“Yes, sir, that’s common knowledge. Funny, two men before you asked me the same question – the painters Willem De Kooning and Franz Kline.”

“The abstract expressionists… They’re good, but Matisse, Matisse was a Giant. Well, maybe you’ve heard that I paint too once in a while. Kid stuff. It relaxes me… But those Matisse still lifes, God, aren’t they gorgeous?”

“They are, sir.”

James Cagney was old now, and chubby. And his cheeks were puffy. He had difficulty walking. For years now he had been suffering from multiple illnesses, diabetes, heart condition etc.

Art addressed me, “Turk, don’t let Jimmy (his friends called him that) fool you. He still can dance better than anyone else.”

I knew something about James Cagney. He was born in New York City in 1899 to a working class Irish father and a Norwegian mother. They were poor. For a while he went to Columbia University and studied architecture but he quit because he didn’t have the money. After that he joined a vaudeville troupe as a song and dance man. He became famous for his female impersonations.

Wooster Group and other downtown luminaries Kate Valk, Scott Shepherd, Ben Williams, Modesto Jimenez, Jim Fletcher, Ross Fletcher and others will be reading from Ayden's work at The Performing Garage on May 26 to benefit the writer. If you're in New York, it's a don't-miss. To reserve a seat, email RSVP at The Wooster Group dot org.

Originally Published: May 20th, 2013