January 14, 2007
Questions for John Ashbery
Interview By DEBORAH SOLOMON
Your new collection of poems, “A Worldly Country,” reminds us of the demanding nature of your work and your resistance to personal confession. Do you think Americans are too enamored of their own life stories?
Yes, I do. In my case, it is things that I don’t know yet that most interest me. My own autobiography is so uninteresting to me I have always thought it surely wouldn’t interest anyone else.
As one of America’s most celebrated poets, you can’t really find your own life boring.
I thought other people would find it boring. My mother was always telling me not to talk about myself or put myself forward. That’s where I got this idea. Whenever I went to visit a friend, she would say, “Don’t wear out your welcome.” I always worried about this throughout life: is my welcome wearing out at this particular moment?
Which hasn’t kept you from publishing a very large quantity of poems, more than 20 collections in all.
If I wrote much more, would anybody read it? Does anybody read it now? There can be such a thing as too much poetry, and I try not to write it.
That’s very considerate of you, and I assume there are at least a few hundred of your own poems that you have chosen not to publish.
Well, that’s what everyone is talking about with Elizabeth Bishop.
You’re referring to the controversy that erupted last year when her leftover poems and rough drafts suddenly appeared in a book of their own, a generation after her death.
Various critics argued that she should have destroyed them since she didn’t want them published. I think she just hadn’t made up her mind. Some writing you don’t like that much at the time you write it, but you don’t want to destroy it either, because maybe someone will come along sometime and find it more interesting than you think it is.
Are you saying you won’t mind if all your scribbles and random jottings are brought out in a book after your death?
No, I won’t mind. I think it will be understood that I didn’t publish them myself if they are published posthumously.
Your name is practically synonymous with bohemia’s last flourish in New York in the ’50s, and I am wondering if you feel much nostalgia for those years.
I left the country in 1955 and stayed away for 10 years, in France. So I missed out on a very crucial period. I am still trying to piece together things that happened while I was gone, like the Everly Brothers, for instance.
Of all the main members of the so-called New York School of poetry — Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch and Barbara Guest — you’re the only one who is still alive. Do you think of them often?
I do. I had a dream not long ago about James Schuyler, who seemed to be kind of nudging me to see if I had finished writing the introduction to a reissue of his selected poems, which is coming out soon, actually.
In the past few years, poetry sales have reportedly been climbing, perhaps because a poem appeals to shortened attention spans.
That’s true. It doesn’t take so long to read a poem, and if you need a quick fix or consolation, you can get it.
Where do you turn for consolation?
Probably to a movie, something with Barbara Stanwyck.
Although you have won dozens of awards and accolades, including a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur grant, you have never been asked to serve as poet laureate of the U.S. Is that a snub?
I really don’t think I’m poet-laureate material.
It’s not something you would like to do?
I don’t think so. To be poet laureate you have to have a program for spreading the word of poetry. I’m just willing to let it spread by itself.