Thursday, September 29, 2011

John Ashbery on the Poetic Process in "Planisphere"

(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in December 2009)

In his six-decade career as a poet, John Ashbery has won almost every prestigious American literary award, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In “Planisphere”(Ecco, $25), his 29th poetry collection, Ashbery writes poems with scintillating and surreal images of domestic life, popular culture and the movies, where voices from overheard conversations play a crucial role in the work.

In “The Tower of London,” Ashbery muses over the cinematic portrayal of the English KIng Richard III’s executioner, who murders young princes and gets tossed over a wall for his troubles. He writes in “River of the Canoefish” of a once-popular river now overpopulated with fish. In “Ragtime Country Joe,” the poet describes a man “who grieved like a citizen grieving taxes.” In his long working life as a poet, Ashbery has not lost his touch in writing beautifully provocative and thrilling poetry.

Ashbery, 82, spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley from his apartment in New York City.

Q. You structured this collection as 99 poems spread over the whole alphabet. Why?

A. I didn’t think of this until the last minute. I have another book where the poems were in alphabetical order. I think I did this to keep track of the poems. I had a few more than one hundred poems, then I decided to take a few out. It seemed like a nice idea to have 99 poems. I think the poet Laura Riding had a collection that was alphabetically organized. W.H. Auden had a collection that was organized by the first word in each poem.

Q. Your poems conjure up vivid descriptions of popular culture and the movies. In “They Knew What They Wanted,” you use B-movie titles to create the poem. How did this come about?

A. These are all movie titles that I took from the index of “Leonard Matlin’s Movie Guide.” I was looking at the index one day, and suddenly a poem jumped out at me. I didn’t use all the titles and I rearranged the order, but basically it is a found object.

Q. The poem “The Person of Whom You Speak” opens with a scene of domesticity, where a few people discuss a woman’s overweight husband. How do you develop the imagery in your poems?

A. Much of it comes from everyday speech, which is a major source of my poetry, as is television. One of the poems in this collection has a lot of lines I’ve heard on (the PBS show) “Antiques Roadshow.” I love hearing people talk about their antiques. It is more interesting than the actual objects. They are so caught up in talking about them that this colloquial passion takes over.

(Portrait of the Poet as a Young Man)

Q. As a child, you wanted to be a painter. Do you think this influenced you as a poet?

A. Probably. In the 1930s, there was this big exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art on surrealism. I’d never seen a Magritte or a Dali before. I thought, “This is wonderful. Maybe I should become a surrealist painter.” Because I didn’t know how to paint, things didn’t go very well. There also was no room to paint at college. Gradually, poetry took over.

Q. You’ve been called a surrealist poet, and you’ve jokingly called yourself a surrealist who breaks all the rules of surrealism. Are you comfortable with the idea of your poetry being called surrealist?

A. Among other things. I try to stay open to many influences. I am not a surrealist. If you are a surrealist, you have to be a pure surrealist. As I have often said, we are not just unconscious beings. We think consciously. That ought to get included in poetry, as well.

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