Poetry News

Bennington Review Publishes Archival Interview With John Ashbery

By Harriet Staff
John Ashbery

Issue Four of the Bennington Review is out, and while most of it must be read while holding the actual journal, a few online features dot the table of contents, including a re-presentation of a 1980 interview between John Ashbery and David Remnick. "This historical document captures Ashbery's thoughts and insights just a few years after his trifecta win of the National Book Award, the National Book Critics' Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," write the editors. A snippet:

DAVID REMNICK

Do you see your conversational voice or the voice you hear as you think as your poetic voice?

JOHN ASHBERY

I don't know what the voice of my poetry is. I suppose it's mine but it is a part of me that I'm only in touch with while I'm writing. I don't see it as like my conversational voice or like anybody else's voice that I know. It is a voice that occasionally intrudes in my ordinary thinking. Suddenly a line of what appears to be poetry will pop into my mind and I will have no idea where it came from.


DAVID REMNICK

One of your early poems, "The Picture of Little J. A. in a Prospect of Flowers," strikes me as having been given a first line if not a first stanza. The suddenness and force of the first stanza seems as though it could only have been the result of a spark of imagination rather than long labor. But that is the fine poet's illusion, I suppose.

JOHN ASHBERY

I was 22 when I wrote that.  I remember I was reading Moll Flanders at the time. The part in quotes was undoubtedly suggested by that novel. The epigraph from Pasternak is from his autobiography Safe Conduct which I had also read shortly before the poem was written.


DAVID REMNICK

Do epigraphs work for you the way titles do, indicating how the poem might be read?

JOHN ASHBERY

The titles sort of aim the poem in a certain direction which it may not seem to be going in and it adds for me a certain dimension to the poem, indicating, as you said, how it can be read. The epigraph does that a little, too. I don't use them that much and I always feel a little uncomfortable about it. It's like dragging in some distinguished authority to back up my poem. This particular epigraph has always struck me as being a little self-congratulatory, though I meant "spoilt" to be understood as "damaged," not "pampered."

The full read is at the Bennington Review.

Originally Published: January 31st, 2018