Massimo Gezzi: The collection Un mondo che non può essere migliore, edited by Damiano Abeni and Joseph Harrison for the publisher Luca Sossella Editore, which is the first volume, in Italy, composed of poems chosen by the author – comes out exactly fifty years after some of your poems appeared for the first time ever in translation. Even then it was an Italian anthology, namely Poesia americana del dopoguerra edited by Alfredo Rizzardi. What do Italy and Italian readers represent for you?
John Ashbery: I’m not sure how my poems got in the Rizzardi anthology, since I was barely known then, even in America. In the seventies my book Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror attracted a great deal of attention and some literary prizes and was translated into Italian by Aldo Busi. I hoped that it would be followed by translations of my later poetry, but this did not happen until now, though one Italian publisher had taken an option on another book, which was repeatedly renewed, though no book ever appeared. How can I say what Italy and Italian readers represent for me? They are obviously tremendously important, as they would be for anybody. I’m very pleased with the generous selection of work translated by Abeni and Egan. My Italian is such that I can read a newspaper but not really judge the quality of poetry. But from my conversations with the translators and from other comments, I believe they have done an excellent job.
MG: In a 1991 essay, Franco Fortini, an Italian poet and intellectual, distinguished between difficult poetry (in any case understandable by willing readers) and obscure poetry (always incomprehensible, even to the poet). Do you agree with this distinction? Do you think your poetry is more difficult or more obscure?
JA: I can’t see a poet sitting down to write and choosing between writing “difficult” poetry or “obscure” poetry. How does one know what will be “understandable to willing readers,” or, for that matter, “always incomprehensible even to the poet?” Your question “Do I think my poetry is more difficult or more obscure?” is like asking me which poison would I chose to end my life. I never set out to be one thing or the other. However, my literary tastes were formed during what now seems like the distant era of twentieth century modernism, that is, the period of Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Faulkner, Henry James, Gertrude Stein, and the Surrealists, to name a few who have undoubtedly helped to shape my sensibility as a writer. Obviously some of these writers are difficult, and I’ve always been attracted to what Yeats called “the fascination of what’s difficult” because it seemed to me that I would be wiser once I had read it. People don’t seem to feel this way very much anymore, at least in America, where “accessibility” is highly esteemed. I have nothing against “accessibility” and I don’t favor “inaccessibility,” but I believe that the best poetry and art often demand a certain amount of effort to be appreciated.
MG: How would you describe your “relationship” with Italian literature, art and movies? As everybody knows, your most prize-winning book, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, refers to a Parmigianino painting, while The Double Dream of Spring is the English translation of a Giorgio De Chirico painting, whom you love also as a writer, if I'm not wrong...
JA: I’m not sure that I have a relationship with Italian literature, etc. I of course love Italian Renaissance painting, as everybody does. That said, there are a few isolated Italian artists whose work particularly attracts me, among them Parmiganino – I once made a trip to Italy to see as many of his paintings as I could (the Self-Portrait is in Vienna of course, where I have seen it). Other personal favorites are Sassetta, Perugino, Piero di Cosimo, Moretto da Brescia, Moroni, Ceruti, Tiepolo, Morandi, of whom there is currently a show at the Metropolitan Museum. (I purposely haven’t included the likes of Piero, Leonardo, Michelangelo, etc.) As for movies, on the contrary, I mostly know and like the mainstream ones like Fellini, Pasolini, Antonioni, etc, though I once saw a great silent serial called I Topi Grigi at the Museum of Modern Art. I have a fond memory of The Overcoat based on Gogol and starring Renato Rascel, but I don’t know who directed it. I am, alas, not very conversant with Italian literature beyond Dante, Leopardi, Svevo and Montale, as I’m dependent on English translations. De Chirico wrote in French, and his novel Hebdomeros is a masterpiece, as are many of the early paintings. You didn’t mention composers, but I could cite Monteverdi, Scarlatti, Busoni (but is he Italian?), Casella, Scelsi, Donatoni, and Gorli. Not opera so much – I have a problem with the human voice.
MG: Both Damiano Abeni and Joseph Harrison believe that Houseboat Days (1977) is your best book. Is there a collection you prefer, either for artistic or personal reasons? And why?
JA: It's interesting that they both think that Houseboat Days is my best book. I think it's always been underrated, following as it did on the traces of the much better known Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. My own favorites would be A Worldly Country, just because it's recent and I tend to like the most recent book the best, but also Three Poems, which was an experiment in writing prose that I hoped would have the vibrant character of poetry. I'm not sure if it succeeded but I enjoyed the attempt.
MG: Last September you made your solo debut as a visual artist, with an exhibition of two dozen small collages at Tibor de Nagy Gallerie. First of all, how did the exhibition go? And then another question: somebody wrote that you use collage as language and language as collage. Do you think it’s true, and there is actually a relationship between your writing and your art? In the preface to your Italian anthology, for instance, Joseph Harrison compares the poems included in The Tennis Court Oath (1962) to collages...
JA: The exhibition was a surprise for me as well as for the gallery-going public. I had almost forgotten that I had produced collages when my friend the painter Trevor Winkfield (whose show occupied the main part of the gallery during my exhibition) reminded me of them and encouraged the owners of the gallery to look into them. (Winkfield uses juxtapositions of imagery similar to collage in his paintings, which are strongly influenced by Raymond Roussel.) The exhibition was well reviewed in the New York Times and a few other publications. I would agree that there has always been an element of collage in my poetry, that is, using unlikely juxtapositions of words and ideas to produce strange and I hope meaningful reverberations. Harrison is correct in locating this tendency particularly in The Tennis Court Oath, when I was especially involved with collage as a way of experimenting with new techniques of writing.
MG: Once you argued that America always seemed like a foreign country to you, adding that living abroad focuses you on where you're from. Do you still feel that America is like a foreign country? Which are the American poets and writers you most appreciate?
JA: America still seems like a foreign country to me, perhaps now more than ever before. On the other hand, I discovered during ten years I spent in France that I like feeling like a foreigner. Gertrude Stein first pointed out that living in Paris made her more conscious of her American identity. A list of American poets and writers that I appreciate would be very long if I were to include contemporaries, including younger ones whose names would mean nothing to your readers. Of the older ones I would include Whitman, Stevens, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Jane Bowles, and also T.S. Eliot and Auden, though we’re not certain which nationality to assign to them.
MG: Once you said that the title, for you, is very important, and that often you begin writing after you find a title that you like. Do you like the title that your editors and publisher have chosen for your Italian collection?
JA: Yes, I tend to think of titles first. They seem to be an opening or a signpost toward a poem. Perhaps Wallace Stevens influenced me in this respect. His own titles often define the way in which the poems are to be construed, for example his poem “Mrs. Alfred Uruguay.” We would read this poem differently if the poet hadn’t indicated it’s about a woman who has the name of a country. I like the title chosen for my Italian collection, and I like the fact that the poem it’s taken from doesn’t appear in the collection. And the cover is lovely.