the interviewer is a poet, literary translator and actor.
She is the author of three bilingual poetry collections: Life in Suspension (Salmon Poetry, 2016); Dreaming My Animal Selves (Salmon Poetry 2013), winner of the USA Best Book Award in Poetry, the Pinnacle Book Award for Best Bilingual Poetry Book, and the 2014 Readers’ Favorite Award in Poetry, finalist for the International Book Award in Poetry and the Julie Suk Award; and The Astonished Universe (Red Hen Press, 2006).
Hélène was awarded a Hemingway Grant for Beyond Elsewhere (White Pine Press, 2016), her translation of Plus loin qu’ailleurs by Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac. She also translated What We Carry by Dorianne Laux: Ce que nous portons (Éditions du Cygne, 2014), and Walt Whitman’s Civil War Writings for the Iowa International Writing Program’s WhitmanWeb.
Hélène holds a Master's in American Literature from the Sorbonne, taught at Hamilton College and Loyola Marymount University, and received fellowships from the Goethe-Institut and the Universidad Internacional de Andalucía. She co-edits Fulcrum: An Anthology of Poetry and Aesthetics, is a contributor to The London Magazine, and co-producer of Pablo Neruda: The Poet's Calling. Publications include Washington Square, World Literature Today, Poetry International, Irish Literary Times, The Warwick Review, Plume, The Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere.
Born in Paris and raised all over Europe, Hélène has lived in Switzerland, France, England, Wales, Monaco, Germany, Spain and the United States. She speaks English, French, Spanish, German, Italian and Greek.
Hélène was the Linguist of the Month for Le-mot-juste-en-anglais in July 2014.
the interviewee (born July 28, 1927), is the author of nearly thirty books of poetry. He has won nearly every major American poetry award, starting with the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1956. In addition to his own poems, Mr. Ashbery has translated the work of many French poets. His influence on contemporary poetry is such that the literary critic Harold Bloom has deemed the last six decades of American poetry as the "Age of Ashbery."
John Ashbery's most recent book of poems is Breezeway (2015, Ecco/HarperCollins). A two-volume set of his collected translations from the French (prose and poetry) was published last year (FSG). Also active in other areas of the arts, including theater and film, he has served as executive editor of Art News, and as art critic for New York Magazine, Newsweek, and the International Herald Tribune, and exhibits his collages at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery (New York). He has received many honors and awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the Griffin International Poetry Prize, a MacArthur "Genius" Grant, two Guggenheim Fellowships, and recently the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation (2011) and a National Humanities Medal, presented by President Obama at the White House (2012).
Ashbery was Professor of English and co-director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Brooklyn College (CUNY), Distinguished Professor at CUNY from 1980 to 1990, and Professor of Language and Literature at Bard College. He delivered the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard in 1989-90, published as Other Traditions (Harvard University Press, 2000).
Recently, he has inspired an annual writing conference known as the Ashbery Home School.
The Editors of the blog are extremely grateful to Mr. Ashbery for graciously consenting to grant us the interview that follows, and to Ms. Hélène Cardona for her diligence and expertise in preparing and conducting it.
HC: May I preface the interview by saying how thrilled I am with the two stunning translations from the French, masterfully edited by Rosanne Wasserman and Eugene Richie: Collected French Translations: Poetry and Collected French Translations: Prose.  That was a titanic endeavor.
I'm fascinated by your childhood and upbringing. Can you share with us how French came to play such a pivotal role in your life? In particular your early introduction to the tales of Charles Perrault and Madame d'Aulnoy. What is it about French you liked, what was the attraction?
JA: It's a beautiful language, which I was attracted to since I was a child. Everybody loves French.
I had a younger brother who died of leukemia at the age of nine and when he was ill some friend of my parents sent him a volume of Madame d'Aulnoy's Fairy Tales which I read. I fell in love with them and perhaps associated them too with my little brother and years later translated La Chatte Blanche. It seems to me I was asked to translate that particular one, possibly by Marina Warner, who writes a great deal about folklore in England. I also read the Perrault Fairy Tales and others of course too, Grimm, Oz... I grew up on a farm. It was rather rough. I was always trying to escape into fairy tale worlds. I also had a children's Encyclopedia called The Book of Knowledge, which among other things featured French lessons and other topics of knowledge for children. These were particularly charming because they featured many Edwardian drawings of French children, and the conversations were always about things like having tea or walking in the park, things I didn't get to do in my particular situation.
In the local high school I took Latin the first year and ended up doing that for four years, enjoying studying a foreign language. Then I took French the next year and studied it for three years. Later at Harvard as a freshman we got to read old French classics such as L'Arlésienne by Daudet, which I'm sure nobody reads any more.
HC: I grew up with Alphonse Daudet too, yes!
JA: Oh yes. Lettres de mon Moulin. Anyway, I stopped. I decided not to go farther than that since I wanted to study English literature. Then about eight or nine years later I got a Fulbright to France and had to pretend to have a deep knowledge of French, which I was able to do successfully. When I got to France I discovered I couldn't speak a word! Then of course I met my friend Pierre. It was a wonderful way of understanding language and all kinds of people. He was very French but he had a kind of irreverent American attitude towards things too.
HC: You're speaking of the French poet Pierre Martory, yes. Will you share how you met him? There's a funny anecdote. I read you were in a café and jokingly said, I want to have an affair with a French writer.
JA: Yes, it was a gay bar actually, Le Fiacre, rue du Cherche-Midi, and I ran into a critic named Henri Hell. Have you ever heard of him? He was quite well known at the time. Anyway I hadn't seen him for a while. He said, How are things, how are you getting along, are you enjoying Paris? I said, Yes I am, but I'm a little bored, I think I'd like to have an affair with a French writer. And then we noticed this man who was standing nearby, beaming at both of us. He was rather short, but trying to appear taller than he was. He seemed to know Henri, so I said, You know who that guy is? Henri said, He's a French writer. Anyway that night I ended up getting to know Pierre and indeed we lived together for many years. That would've been in 1956 and I moved back to America in 1965 because my father had died and I needed to be here, close to my mother to take care of her. During those years, Pierre and I lived together, and it was a wonderful experience.
with Pierre Martory
HC: You even translated each other.
JA: Pierre had actually written a great deal. Just a few months before we met, he had published a novel, which received very good reviews: Phébus ou le beau mariage. So for about six or eight months he was sort of the young writer everybody was talking about. Later he had a falling out with his editor, Robert Kanters at Éditions Denoël. Pierre finally finished a second novel and sent it to Robert, who rejected it, one reason being it had a homosexual subplot. Robert was actually homosexual and turned it down for perhaps that reason. At that time it was not considered cool, in French intellectual circles, to be gay. Times have changed of course. Years later Kanters published his memoirs and mentioned Pierre. He said, you know, this Pierre Martory, a very talented writer, I wonder whatever happened to him. And so Pierre couldn't resist. He wrote back, whatever happened to me is you never took my second book.
He had very few friends. I was his only close friend. And he refused to play the game of being a writer and cultivating contacts and all that sort of thing. He preferred to be alone in his room. He was constantly writing poetry and very little of it was ever published. A few things in obscure little magazines. Eventually I realized that unless I translated it no one would ever see it. At least I was getting to be well known and I could get it published on the strength of my own reputation. So that's more or less what I did. Eventually the American poet and publisher Stanley Moss, who has a publishing house called Sheep Meadow Press, published a book of Pierre's poetry in French. Somehow the book was never put on sale in France, something went wrong. Sort of typical of Pierre, no good luck, unfortunately.
HC: You have accumulated an extraordinary body of work and you have translated a multitude of French poets – a very eclectic group, with some very famous ones, and some less so, making for great discoveries.
For me reading and translating are love affairs. I perceive your translations as love affairs, tributes to the poets. I'm interested in how you chose these particular poets and works. Some were literary encounters, some you met?
JA: With an American friend in Paris, Harry Mathews – we started a little magazine called Locus Solus, sort of in response to Raymond Roussel. We would ask for contributions from writers we knew or writers who were mentioned by writers we knew. That way we got to discover poets, including Denis Roche, who died recently, this summer. He was ten years younger than me. And Marcelin Pleynet who was a friend of an American painter friend of mine, James Bishop. And later, in 1989, I was at this French writers' retreat, the Chateau de la Napoule, near Cannes, and met several other poets, including Pascalle Monnier, Anne Portugal, and Pierre Alféri, the son of philosopher Jacques Derrida. With two English friends I put together a literary review called Art and Literature. It was English, American and French. I translated a lot of poetry for that review too. It came out for twelve issues, four times a year for three years. I don't know if you saw it but it's quite an excellent magazine, if I do say so.
HC: Yes. Do you have a favorite among all the poets you translated? One who stands out?
JA: Well, there's Henri Michaux, whom I once interviewed. It was kind of a funny experience since he was very shy and hated interviews. When I arrived at his apartment he seemed to have trouble remembering why he had agreed to this one. A position I find myself in from time to time. Anyway he was very helpful and I liked his poetry a lot.
HC: French cinema influenced you too, in particular Jean Cocteau. What about his films drew you most?
JA: Yes, even before I had gone to France, I had seen the film Orphée several times and Le sang d'un poète, of course. There's a scene in Orphée where Orphée goes to the underworld to rescue Eurydice and is interviewed by three sinister looking judges in dark suits. One of them says: What do you do? And he says: I'm a poet. And the judge says: What does that mean? Orphée says: It means to write and not be a writer.
HC: Yes, it's incredibly powerful and poetic and very striking. Your influences are very diverse and come from the visual arts and music too. You were an art student and later the International Herald Tribune art critic and the ARTnews Paris correspondent. How did all this inform or help your poetry? You said, We all grew up Surrealists. As a French native, I can relate, I grew up reading Breton… Can you expand?
JA: When I was nine years old, there was a big show at MOMA: Fantastic Art, DADA and Surrealism. And LIFE magazine, which everyone read in those days, had a ten-page spread of reproductions of some the works. I was fascinated, and I decided to be a Surrealist when I grew up. It's not really true, but anyway I was thrilled to see this kind of totally imaginative work people were doing. Then I took painting classes at the art museum in the city near where we lived, Rochester, New York. Later I spent two years at Deerfield Academy, which had a studio where I painted. By that time I had discovered modern poetry and was beginning to get more interested in that than anything else.
After my first two years in France as a Fulbright student, I came back to New York not knowing what to do, without any job or anything. I took graduate courses in French literature at NYU, thinking this way I could go back to France, which is what I really wanted to do, and do research on whatever I decided to write a thesis about, which turned out to be Raymond Roussel. I had very little money to live on in New York, and was sharing a sixth floor walk-up in a tenement with a friend of mine who was also a poet, James Schuyler, who was writing reviews for ARTnews. He said, why don't you write for ARTnews, and I said, I couldn't do that, I don't know anything about art.
ARTnews liked to claim it covered all gallery exhibitions in New York. The editor, Thomas Hess, liked very much having poets write for them, since he didn't have to pay them much and also because he liked their fresh approach. So I started doing that and then went back to France and started doing research on Raymond Roussel. Coincidentally I was offered a job as critic for the Herald Tribune. I ran into the woman who was doing it one day on the street and she said she was moving back to America and did I know anybody who would be interested in her job. And I said, well yes maybe I would. On the strength of my reviews I got that job, and then for five years wrote two articles a week, covering exhibitions, most of them in Paris, a few elsewhere. So I kind of, as a friend of mine said, backed into a career as an art critic. It got easier as I went along. I actually kind of enjoyed it.
Poetry requires one to pay attention, the one thing one never wants to do. When I went to see an exhibition, I would have to look carefully to remember what I had seen in order to write about it once I got home. Also the fact that I had to write for a deadline at the newspaper. I guess I said to myself one day, well if I can write for their deadlines, I can set deadlines for myself and write my own stuff.
HC: Can you tell us about the collage techniques that you developed to write in English while living in France?
JA: When I was an undergraduate at Harvard, I made visual collages. There was a show of Max Ernst's collages at MOMA, which may have been partly responsible. I stopped doing that, although Pierre always made visual collages himself. I felt somewhat malnourished since I need the American vernacular bubbling around me. It's an important part of my writing. So I would get American newspapers and magazines like Esquire, Life, and so on, and either cut out things and paste them together, or start writing from fragments of texts in those places. Nothing very organized or formal, to sort of keep in touch with the American language. I didn't think very much of those experiments. I thought of them more as a kind of therapy. Eventually I was asked by an editor at Wesleyan University Press to send a collection of my poems for consideration. This was after my first book Some Trees had been published by Yale University Press. I included it along with other things I thought better of and eventually they were published. Actually that book, The Tennis Court Oath, is just now being published in France in a beautifully translated edition by José Corti. The translator is a very good friend of mine, Olivier Brossard, who I met about twenty years ago when he was working at the UN French Embassy in New York. He then moved back to Paris, after working for a while as my secretary here. His English was much better than most of the Americans I employed before! We remained very close friends. This book is funny and has a fairly long essay about my poems and the experiments I was doing at that time. You might want to get hold of a copy of it. It's called Le serment du Jeu de Paume.
HC: Yes for sure, d'accord, I will.
JA: At the same time another book of mine is coming out in translation, A Wave, which is being published as Vague by Éditions Joca Seria, translated by Marc Chénetier. They're having a celebration of it in Paris. Unfortunately I won't be able to go since I don't travel any more.
HC: Your work with the collage is also a way of stirring the subconscious. You write from this place where you don't know what the poem is going to reveal to you. It is an opening into your subconscious and you're going to let it surprise you.
You and I share a fascination with dreams and a desire to use in poetry the words (and images) given in the dream – as a gift, I would say. That's something you do.
JA: Yes, always. That's something I decided to do one day. It just started and it never stopped.
HC: Would you elaborate on Wallace Sevens' assertion that French and English constitute a single language? You've described the difference between French and English as that of a violin and piano: "a difficult match but worthy of the challenge."
French leaves less room for ambiguity. It's a very precise language. So is English but English is more fluid. Do you agree?
JA: Yes, I would find it difficult to write poetry in French, just because of its precision and lucidity, and I need sort of a sfumato effect to hide in or to find material in. On the other hand French poets don't seem to be very bothered by this.
HC: And you did write in French at one time and then translated yourself into English.
JA: Yes, I wanted to see if my poems would sound very different if I wrote them in French and translated them into English. I wrote those poems, they're called French Poems. It didn't seem very different. I satisfied myself in that regard.
HC: Can you tell us about the movement known as "The New York School of Poets?"
JA: Yes, that was started by poet friends. We never decided to call ourselves a school or thought of ourselves as one. The art dealer who published our first pamphlets with his gallery had this idea and coined the expression "New York School," but unlike other schools we didn't have any sort of program or...
HC: motto, yes…
JA: …yes. Unlike "Black Mountain School" or "Language School," or any of those. We weren't trying to prove anything. It was just an appellation that got affixed, and has unfortunately taken over.
HC: One of my favorite sections from the Poetry Volume is the selection from Mallarmé's Recueil de "Nursery Rhymes," first published in Conjunctions in 2005, that you prefaced. It's absolutely hilarious, such a hoot, consisting of the originals of the nursery rhymes that Mallarmé included in his English textbook (they're a series of lessons), followed by your translations of Mallarmé's translations of this nonsense verse. I didn't know about these. Tell us about them.
JA: Mallarmé's students' exercises were published in a book about thirty years ago, which I somehow got hold of. I love the idea of the Nursery Rhymes – which of course I read as a child – being translated into French. I'm trying to remember who published the book first.
HC: You mention in the preface that they were first published by the scholar Carl Paul Barbier in 1964. What is pretty extraordinary is that underneath each lesson Mallarmé explained the rhyme. He calls it thème (theme). It's so clever, creative, inventive, delightful.
Which do you consider your most successful translations or your favorite ones, if you have any?
JA: I like very much Madame d'Aulnoy's Tales and also de Chirico's Hebdomeros, which is a marvelous book. I was amazed he could write it. First of all he was Italian and not a writer. I mean that's not what he is remembered for. But he sort of invented this French style of never-ending sentences. I guess Proust invented that first. It sort of spins itself like a dream.
HC: You mention Proust. Is he your favorite novelist of all time? Why?
JA: Yes. You ask me why and I want to say, why not. I read him when I was very young actually. I was about twenty when I started and twenty-one when I finished. I read it in English because I couldn't read French well enough then. And I've always meant to go back and read it all in French, but that's something that seems to be already solved. Another French poet that I love and actually translated a little of, and would like to do more of, is Max Jacob, especially Le Cornet à dés. And I might in fact, if I can ever find time, translate all of that. I've done a few of them.
HC: Yes. And there is a bit of a homage to Proust in these lines from Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror:
"The hand holds no chalk
And each part of the whole falls off
And cannot know it knew, except
Here and there, in cold pockets
Of remembrance, whispers out of time."
JA: Oh yes, you think that's an homage to Proust?
HC: Well, I saw it that way.
JA: I hadn't thought of that myself.
HC: That's the other thing, right… You're open to interpretation!
What have you read recently that moved you?
JA: I read a lot of books and manuscripts by young poets, and friends. Adam Fitzgerald, who has a second collection, and who is marvelous. Another poet named Todd Colby. He's terrific. Another very exciting discovery is the poems of an American woman named Joan Murray, who died at the age of 25 in 1942. She studied poetry with W.H. Auden at The New School in New York, and apparently was in love with him! He chose a book of hers for the Yale Younger Poet Series, his first as judge of that, and it's one of the best books of the series. Meanwhile she left vast quantities of unpublished work, which a young Iranian-American poet friend of mine, Farnoosh Fathi, is collecting. They were lost for a long time. They were supposed to go to the Smith College library, but somehow they fell off the truck getting there! Now they're there and a new book, much longer – a much more correct text – will be published. I'm looking forward to that a great deal. I've read a bunch of them since Farnoosh sent me the texts.
HC: I like Adam Fitzgerald's work as well. We're Facebook friends and I keep up with his work.
JA: I just saw him a couple of days ago. His new book is called George Washington.
HC: I'm looking forward to it.
When you accepted the award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2011, you spoke of the joys of writing poetry. You said, it gives me a pleasure I can almost taste. What do you enjoy most about writing?
JA: It has an almost physical quality. I really like writing on a typewriter so I can sort of dig into the keys. That physical effort is rewarded – or at least I think it is – by the words that come up on the paper just above. It's both a physical and a mental exercise that's rewarding for me.
HC: Do you have a writing schedule?
JA: No, alas. I try to work in late afternoon. I just wrote a poem yesterday. I'm taking a couple of days off.
HC: What is the hardest part of writing for you?
JA: I don't think there is one.
HC: What are you working on now? What's next for you?
JA: I'm working on another collection of poems. I have about 40 or 45 and I guess I'll try to write another 10 or 15 and maybe I'll have a book.
HC: Do you have more translations as well?
JA: I would like to work on Jacob, but I want to get the book finished before I do that.
HC: What do you do when you're not writing?
JA: Sit around, read, watch TV. I don't go out anymore because I have mobility issues, as they say. That's fine. I have this apartment in New York, where I have a view out over the Hudson, to New Jersey. It's always a lovely vista and I like to just sit here. And when I write, I write in another room which has the same view. And I have a house in upstate New York, where I write on a computer. I haven't done that very much, for poetry anyway. But lately I have found a way of doing it and it seems to satisfy me.
HC: Thank you very much, you've been so gracious. Merci du fond du cœur.
 Collected French Translations: Poetry
by John Ashbery
Eugene Richie and Rosanne Wasserman, Editors
Hardcover: 464 pages
- Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Bilingual edition (April 8, 2014)
- Language: Bilingual (French & English)
- ISBN-13: 978-0374258023
Collected French Translations: Prose
by John Ashbery
- Hardcover: 432 pages
- Eugene Richie and Rosanne Wasserman, Editors
- Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (April 8, 2014)
- Language: English
Translating from the French, Ashbery included selections from Yves Bonnefoy, Stéphane Mallarmé, Arthur Rimbaud, Pierre Reverdy, Jules Supervielle, Pierre Martory, and other poets in his Collected French Translations: Poetry (2014) and selections from Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy, Raymond Roussel, Giorgio de Chirico, Henri Michaux, Georges Bataille, and others in its companion volume, Collected French Translations: Prose (2014).
For literature lovers, Anglophiles and Francophiles alike, the exquisite Collected French Translations: Poetry and its companion volume Collected French Translations: Prose are a must read. Micah Towery, in his essay at TheThe, asked: "Why do we want to read Ashbery's translations of Rimbaud?" His answer, to read "Ashbery reading Rimbaud" is a summons to all.
These two volumes are also a tribute to editors Rosanne Wasserman and Eugene Richie, who started this project in 2004, finding texts in John's house, and then out of the archive from the Ashbery Resource Center (directed at that time by Micaele Morrissette), established by David Kermani and John Ashbery to house all the materials Ashbery collected over the years.
Wasserman and Richie later borrowed more texts from libraries. All the French texts were checked to make sure the poems had no errors. They made copies from all the journals and books and organized them into files.
They went to Paris in 2006. A key moment was when Rosanne was able to go to the Bibliothèque Nationale: "I decided I would go do the research to see if I could find original French texts, because it wasn't going to be enough to have just the French that John had used. We were going to need the French as it was first published, just in case subsequent translations contained errors, because sometimes they'd leave out diacritical marks or there would be obvious typos. So it was a big job. I was very lucky to have run into wonderful librarians at the Bibliothèque Nationale, because I didn't think ahead to know that I was going to need letters of introduction. Luckily I found a librarian who had a New York Review of Books with a poem by John in it on her desk, and she'd just been reading it when I approached her. She was so helpful. She got me a pass and showed me what to look for, and I sat in the stacks with some microfiches, making copies of rare pamphlets and not so rare books. That was tremendously helpful." Wasserman and Richie also did scholarly due diligence and research at the New York Public Library.
"As noted in the anthology," Eugene adds, "there was a book of poems John carried with him throughout his early years. It was called Anthologie de la poésie française depuis le Surréalisme. This was the book from which he started his translations for his work on the Fulbright. John and I had gone to his mother's house when she died. There was a box of old books covered with dust in the basement and this particular anthology was in there, so we found a lot of material, including many of those rather arcane poets, and put it together. It's copyrighted in 1952. He got it in Paris in 1955. It has so many of the early poets that John had started to work on, and I found the exact versions. He had Francis Ponge and Armand Lubin, and Robert Ganzo, whom most people had never heard of. John was experimenting and trying to get enough together to satisfy his Fulbright requirements. A lot of prose came from Tel Quel, Locus Solus, Art and Literature, and also from The International Herald Tribune.
"John was translating Rimbaud as we were putting the poetry collection together," says Rosanne, "so Rimbaud was the last thing we added." Most of the editing was done as they were driving around Hudson, New York. "We would write in the car. I would sit in the backseat with these four sets of galleys, and John would go over his, sitting in the front, and Eugene would drive. John would still be changing the translation. He'd say, I think I like this better, why don't we do it that way. And I would be marking those up."
Jonathan Galassi at FSG came up with the idea for a bilingual edition for the poetry volume, and was instrumental in his unwavering support for the Collected French Translations, taking care of the foreign rights.
Two recent translations of John Ashbery's books into French:
John Ashbery's Le serment du Jeu de Paume (The Tennis Court Oath), translated by Olivier Brossard, was published by Éditions Corti in November 2015:
Vague (A Wave), translated by Marc Chénetier, was published by Éditions Joca Seria in November 2015.