Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A new piece by Phillip A. Ellis

Interview with John Ashbery conducted by Daniel Kane

DK:‭ ‬In‭ "‬What Is Poetry‭" ‬you write,‭ "‬Trying to avoid‭ ‬/‭ ‬Ideas,‭ ‬as in this poem‭ ‬.‭" ‬Is it possible to avoid ideas in poetry‭?

JA:‭ ‬Come on,‭ ‬Lieutenant,‭ ‬let's get out of here.‭ ‬Young man,‭ ‬run along and play.

DK:‭ ‬This makes me think about some student poetry I've read,‭ ‬in which students decide before they have put pens to paper that they will absolutely write poems about,‭ ‬say,‭ ‬their fathers hitting them on the head.‭ ‬The results are often rather predictable narrative poems that describe what happened and petition the reader to feel a certain emotion.‭ ‬I like your idea of beginning a poem without really knowing what's going to come out of it.

JA:‭ ‬No illusion.‭ ‬Lieutenant is dead.‭ ‬Kirk to Enterprise.‭ ‬Come in.‭ ‬Lieutenant,‭ ‬can you be prevailed upon to bring them the news‭? ‬All my senior officers turning against me‭? ‬Even a starship captain appreciates a compliment like that,‭ ‬Lieutenant.

DK:‭ ‬Can you tell us a little bit about the writing process behind‭ "‬What Is Poetry‭"? ‬For example,‭ ‬we've got a‭ "‬frieze of boy scouts from Nagoya.‭" ‬There is also a mysterious‭ "‬they‭" ‬in the lines‭ "‬Now they‭ ‬/‭ ‬Will have to believe it‭ ‬/‭ ‬As we believed it.‭"

JA:‭ ‬Not really.‭ ‬He seems he's overcoming his resentment.‭ ‬Kirk to Enterprise.‭ ‬Lieutenant‭?

DK:‭ ‬I'm glad you told us about the medieval town with the frieze of boy scouts from Nagoya,‭ ‬because learning that you basically made this image up out of a variety of events lets people know that they can make things up in poetry.‭ ‬This way,‭ ‬one knows one doesn't have to rely on fact all the time.

JA:‭ ‬Coronation‭?‬.‭ ‬You did what you could.‭ ‬And the great misery which you now face.

DK:‭ ‬I'm not so sure a lot of students do think that way.‭ ‬I remember having writing teachers insist,‭ "‬Write what you know‭!"

JA:‭ ‬How many‭? ‬We didn't do anything like that.

DK:‭ ‬Yes,‭ ‬that is the problem.‭ ‬I think orders like‭ "‬Write what you know‭" ‬get interpreted to mean‭ "‬Write only what you've actually experienced in real life in real time.‭" ‬It's nice to know from you that we can pick and choose among time,‭ ‬history,‭ ‬and imagination so that we can write a poem that sounds good and feels good.

JA:‭ ‬Why shouldn't they answer our questions‭? ‬They don't think we can do anything to stop them..‭ ‬Quite an enigma,‭ ‬isn't it‭? ‬Try another channel,‭ ‬Lieutenant.‭ ‬Yes it is good.

DK:‭ ‬If a teacher stopped you on the street one day and said,‭ "‬Mr.‭ ‬Ashbery,‭ ‬whether you like it or not,‭ ‬I'm going to assign‭ '‬What Is Poetry‭' ‬to my high school students and tell them to write variations on it-help me find a way to do this,‭" ‬what would you say‭?

JA:‭ ‬What happened to him‭? ‬I did,‭ ‬Gorgan.‭ ‬My beast is gone.‭ ‬It lost its power in the light of reality.‭ ‬I command again,‭ ‬and I ordered you here.

DK:‭ ‬Can people still write about flowers without sounding flowery about it‭?

JA:‭ ‬I place you in the hands of our chess master.

DK:‭ ‬I read‭ "‬the thin vertical path‭" ‬as representing predictable poetry.‭ ‬I thought you were making a funny kind of editorial comment on poetry that gives us the obvious-the‭ "‬flowers‭" ‬of conventional poetry.

JA:‭ ‬What was your impression‭? ‬No,‭ ‬what are the ingredients‭?

DK:‭ ‬Are there such things as wrong interpretations,‭ ‬or do you distinguish more along the lines of imaginative interpretations versus dull,‭ ‬unenthusiastic interpretations‭?

JA:‭ ‬Yes.‭ ‬They may walk into a trap.

DK:‭ ‬You ended‭ "‬What Is Poetry‭" ‬with a question mark.‭ ‬Are there any virtues in ending a poem with a question mark or some other sign of indeterminacy‭?

JA:‭ ‬Lieutenant,‭ ‬if I'm to be the Captain,‭ ‬I've got to act like one.‭ ‬Yes.‭ ‬They may walk into a trap.

DK:‭ ‬Is there anything you want to add to our discussion of‭ "‬What Is Poetry‭"?

JA:‭ ‬Yes.‭ ‬My ship.‭ 

- Phillip A. Ellis 2014

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