Introducing –

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. 2011 defines wordsmith as:

  1. A fluent and prolific writer, especially one who writes professionally.
  2. An expert on words.

For the purposes of this blog, we prefer a wider definition, one that embraces all those who (like the undersigned, a professional translator) use words - both those in their mother tongues and those in the foreign languages they aspire to command - as the tools of their trade and the object of their passion.

This blog has its genesis in a French-language blog,, (LMJ) maintained by me and by my friend and master-wordsmith, Jean Leclercq. For several years LMJ has run monthly interviews, initially with translators and subsequently with other linguists. We have dubbed each such interviewee “Linguist of the Month”.


Continue reading "Introducing –" »

Interview with wordsmith and poet Pascale Petit


Pascale Petit

Poet Pascale Petit, our interviewee,  was born to a Welsh mother and French father and grew up between Paris and Wales. Four of her seven poetry collections were nominated for the T.S. Eliot Award. Poems from Fauverie won the Manchester Poetry Prize and she was also granted a Cholmondeley Award. Pascale has been the judge for many major prizes and her work has been translated into Spanish, Chinese, French and Serbian. Pascale lives in Cornwall but travels regularly to France. Her website is


Pascale Fauverie Pascale Petit Mama Amazonia


Alice (cropped)Our interviewer, poet and critic Alice Hiller holds a Ph.D. from University College London in transatlantic writing. She has been mentored by Pascale Petit under the Jerwood Arvon scheme. Author of The T-Shirt Book, she reviews for the Times Literary Supplement  and Poetry Review and was shortlisted for the 2017 Bridport Prize. Alice divides her time principally between London and Oxford. 


Pascale - the T-Shirt Book Pascale the Bridport Prize


In the interview that follows, Alice speaks to Pascale about growing up between two languages, why she writes in English about France and the Amazon, and her most recent collection, Mama Amazonica, published by Bloodaxe in 2017.


Alice. Alice (cropped)Can you tell me about your links to France? You were born in Paris and you hold a French passport?


Pascale petit
Pascale. I am about to become a British citizen because of Brexit, but all my life I've been a French citizen. I was born in Paris in 1953, then sent to live with my grandmother in Wales. From two and a half to seven I lived in Paris so I spent my early childhood mainly there. As an adult I never went back to Paris until my father made contact because he was dying. I went to see him in the Latin Quarter. Over the two years that I visited him I grew to know Paris, having hated it as a child. After my father died, and I started going to Paris on my own for writing retreats, I really fell in love with the city, the Latin Quarter, the museums, Notre-Dame

Pascale Notre-Dame

Alice (cropped)Alice. You spoke French as well as English growing up?


Pascale-petit 2Pascale. I'm not really sure which was my mother tongue. I think that what happened was that I would forget one. As a child you learn a language so fast. When I was going to be sent to my grandmother in Wales aged seven, I didn't know any English. Just before we went, my father and mother were trying to teach us a few words. When we arrived and sat on my grandmother's settee, my poor aunt, who was sixteen, was trying to speak French with us. We constantly forgot a language, my brother and myself, and then learnt it again.


Alice (cropped)Alice. I've noticed that while you always write in English, your poems are often set in the landscapes of South America and France. Does your imagination go there instinctively?


Pascale-petit 2Pascale:  Yes. I lived in London almost all my adult life, and I haven't written a single poem about London that I would put in a collection. I love Paris as a city. I don't love London. It was a great place to live when I was young - if you're trying to become a poet or a sculptor, as I was. I love London's multiculturalism, though.

  Pascale Zoo-Father-cover

Alice (cropped)Alice. In The Zoo Father, which was your breakthrough collection from 2001, in addition to your Amazonian poems about re-meeting your father in Paris, there were also poems about the Midi. Is that area important to you?

Pascale-petit 2Pascale: The Languedoc, and the causses in particular, and the dry stone walls, were my first Amazon.



Pascale Languedoc

Alice (cropped)Alice. I also spent time in the Causse (causses) as a child. There is something about the solitariness of the landscape and the light that is extraordinary.


Pascale-petit 2Pascale: My mother bought a vineyard when I was twelve, where we camped in stone huts. It was on a steep slope, so mountainous, just under the Larzac and the Grézac plateau. It was overgrown, very lush, and when we would arrive at the beginning of the summer holiday we'd have to get the scythe out, and cut a path between the two mazets. One was the sleeping mazet and one was the kitchen, at the top, right in the sous-bois. You would walk along the path and these snakes would move in front of you. Then there'd be the lizards and the huge insects. I've been back many times since then. It's now no longer a vineyard, just a patch of wild land, but the insects never seem so big as when I was twelve. Then they seemed absolutely enormous.

Alice (cropped)Alice: I think there's a sort of hyper-realism about how you see things as a teenager. In
The Huntress, the collection which followed in 2005, you explore your Welsh mother in terms of the cave systems of the Languedoc, and you write about excavating painful memories through the medium of beautiful crystals.

Pascale The Huntress


Pascale herault-le-languedoc

Grotte des demoiselles

Pascale-petit 2Pascale: I was haunted by my mother. I loved looking at the Grotte des Demoiselles - the suggested shapes of the stalactites and stalagmites - and the formations of the crystals in the ceiling. I can't help thinking about the inside of a mountain in terms of the inside of my mother. I was living with my grandmother in rural mid-Wales when my mother bought the vineyard. I remember the summer holidays there as being rather exciting and fun, and her being ok. Although she had suffered from mental illness as a child, it was only when I went to live with her when I was thirteen that she became quite mad. The Larzac was also an Eden – where I was scared of her, but not terrified. My next book will return to that area.

Alice (cropped)Alice: The French language can also be a site of memory for you? I'm thinking of 'The Dragonfly Daughter' when you wrote "I know her by her French name, libellule".


Pascale-petit 2Pascale: That's from being in the vineyard with my mother. She spoke French absolutely perfectly. She was completely bilingual. She would have told me what it was called in French. She used to try to keep our French up. We used to have to speak French at meals in Wales. When I went to live with her in Wales at thirteen she would have called things by both their French and English names. The memory is locked in the French word.


Alice (cropped)Alice: There's a terrifying poem in your collection The Huntress called 'Lunettes' where you describe seeing your father's "lunettes" when he came into your girlhood bedroom in Paris. The word unlocks a Pandora's chest of memory. You realize the poem – about the rape of a child - through the progressive dictionary definitions of its meaning.

Pascale-petit 2Pascale: It's almost totally a found poem. Obviously I moved it around and adjusted it.


Pascale Treekeeper_tale

Alice (cropped)Alice: Responding to a more positive element within your French heritage, as someone who originally trained and exhibited as a sculptor, was the Midi a key part in awakening your visual sensibility?
I'm thinking of the poem 'My Larzac Childhood' in The Treekeeper's Tale of 2008, when you remember the "grass-snake-flashing paths" and the "museum of the dragonfly's abdomen". You describe the dragonfly wings as if the light is coming in through museum skylights.

Pascale-petit 2Pascale: I have a thing about glass. I think it was because I was placed in an incubator when I was a baby. I think of my mother in terms of a glass mother because she was very brittle and otherworldly. She was strange to us. I think that brought this obsession with glass to my looking at the glass wings of the dragonfly. I became a visual artist through drawing. It happened when I was deeply unhappy at home in Paris and I would be left in school in the evenings. It was a horrible school. I don't think I was any good at school because of the language. I would draw, and I found I could escape. I had a total facility. I drew submarines in the ocean. It was a way to make an alternative world for myself. Later in Wales I became very good at school, and there was a lot of pressure for me to go to university, but I chose to go to Art School.


Alice (cropped)Alice:  Art can be a place where we are able to realize ourselves if we come from backgrounds which don't allow us to say who we are. We become ourselves in the art that we make and then take that self forward.


Pascale-petit 2Pascale: As a child I was deeply withdrawn. In my art I wasn't withdrawn. I was an extrovert in my art.



Alice (cropped)Alice:  Your poems are not shy poems.


Pascale-petit 2Pascale: People are often surprised when they meet me because I am so shy and quiet and my poems aren't.



Alice (cropped)Alice: In Fauverie, your last but one collection, you engage with Paris in much more detail. This comes from the time you spent reclaiming the city?


Pascale-petit 2Pascale: I began discovering Paris like a tourist. I fell in love with Notre- Dame. I spent every day going in there. There were also the sparrows outside I could hand-feed. That was such a wonderful draw.


Alice (cropped)
Alice: You had a living, nurturing transaction in the city.

Pascale-petit 2Pascale:  I rented short-term lets in the Latin Quarter as close to the Jardin des Plantes as possible. Usually facing the gate. I would walk in the gardens every day. And discover new things about Paris each time. It was wonderful.


Alice (cropped)Alice: The Fauverie poems are very powerful. Having a creative engagement with a place where you have suffered, and making good work, even if is complex or has difficult themes, gives the work deep roots.


Pascale-petit 2Pascale: I did those very pleasurable things, but also went back to the Boulevard de Grenelle, in the 15th arrondissement, where we lived. My father Pascale Grenelle 2 had given me the address. I went there and twice I was let into the cellar where I was locked as a child. I'd had so many dreams about it when I was a child and then a teenager. I made an installation when I was on my BA course – of being in that cellar. In my memory the main feature of this cellar was a window. Afterwards I told myself I must have imagined this because cellars don't have windows. I went into this cellar, and there was a window. It was at the top of the stairs, looking over the courtyard, very high. It was one of those small courtyards which I remember so well as a child. There was the cellar then you went down the steps and there was the earthen floor. It was the most terrifying cellar I've ever seen. The first time I told the concierge why I was coming. He let me in and the light went off and it was terrifying. Every detail comes from that visit.


Alice (cropped)Alice: In Mama Amazonica, your current collection, which was published by Bloodaxe in September 2017, there is a poem 'Square de la Place Dupleix', which takes the reader to the Paris square of chestnut trees and pigeon gods, and then lets them fall back into the "coffining dark" of your childhood.

Place dupleix

Pascale-petit 2Pascale: That poem should have been in Fauverie. Although Mama Amazonica is about the abuse and rape of my mother by my father, at the kernel of it is a sequence of poems about how that trauma also permeated to his children. I really wanted to write about finding this park. I tried on several occasions but I could not find it. Nothing matched my memory. Then I went behind our block and there it was. It was incredible. There was the church. There was the school with the infant school next to it. I had to find my own way to school and back and I always got lost even though it was very close. I remember my mother telling me off, saying "It's just around the corner." I have no sense of left and right. I just went in the wrong direction. I would play in the sand in the square, which I also see as a precursor to being a sculptor, and then the gendarme, who was in his little hut, would put me on a stool, and phone my mother, and say "She's here."

Alice (cropped)Alice: In Mama Amazonica, although many of the poems are based on two recent trips you made to the Amazon, and have vivid Pascale Musee_de_la_Chasse_et_de_la_Nature descriptions of being in the Amazon and the creatures you saw there, there are also more poems about Paris. I was interested in 'Bestiarum' which takes as its starting point Walton Ford's 'Bête du Gévaudan' at the Musée de la Chasse et Nature. It seems to be informed by the French idea of the loup-garou.

Pascale-petit 2Pascale:  The legend is from the Lozère, just above the Languedoc. I discovered the Musée de la Chasse quite late. They have contemporary artists among the permanent displays. It is such a beautifully curated museum. I loved Walton Ford's paintings. There are two poems in Mama Amazonica based on his work. 'When My Mother Became A Boa' comes directly from one of his paintings.

Pascale Walton Ford Boa

Alice (cropped)Alice: The Seine and the Amazon are flowing in and out of each other?


Pascale-petit 2Pascale: In the Musée there are stuffed wolverines, for example. There are lions. They do things in Paris not allowed in the UK. Quite a lot of stuffed animals in shops. The French imagination is much more open to the Amazon. In England, if you write poems about India or Africa, places where there have been colonies, there is more empathy, whereas South America is too removed. Before the day of researching online, I found that Paris had all the ethnographic books I could not get in the UK.

Alice (cropped)Alice: The jaguar is a central beast in Fauverie and Mama Amazonica, but your close encounters with jaguars came in Paris initially?

Pascale jardindeplantes

Pascale-petit 2Pascale: When I used to visit my father, at the end of his life, he was living just by the zoo in the Jardin des Plantes. There was a black jaguar, and a gold female jaguar. They were in very small cages at that point.



Alice (cropped)Alice: You finally saw a jaguar in the wild from a boat on the Amazon, leading to the extraordinary, healing poem, 'The Jaguar' which closes Mama Amazonica.


Pascale-petit 2Pascale: The experience was one of the highlights of my life. I absolutely worship them. I have read everything you could possibly read about the jaguar. When I stayed in Paris I would go to see Aramis the jaguar and Simara, his young girlfriend, every day, not long before closing time. They would feed them, then he would spring into action.

Pascaloe jaguars

Alice (cropped)Alice: One of the pleasures of Mama Amazonica is that you translate the experience of the Amazon into words that make a 5D environment for the reader. Do you think the fact that your mind has had to move through different languages has helped you in the way that you are able to realize yourself as a poet?

Pascale-petit 2Pascale: Thank you for saying that. I do aim to do that. I had never thought of it being to do with the fact that I had to move from language to language when I was a child. I always thought that it was because I was an artist, and I still need to make sculptures in my books, and installations, and environments that people walk into. I need to make them very physical and very real. That is always a tussle with language. Language has to be strong enough to reconstruct the images and sounds and sensory details to surround the reader.

Alice (cropped)Alice: Finally, I know you're deeply engaged in judging. You've just judged the Manchester Poetry Prize. You're judging the National Poetry Competition. But what lies beyond this in 2018 in terms of plans for your own works?


Pascale-petit 2Pascale: I have a project on the go. I think all that I would say is that one of the main themes is foreign-ness. It partly comes out of Brexit. It's partly because I had to get British nationality. It partly comes out of my Welsh grandmother, who brought me up. She was born in India. She was half Indian but it was a family secret. It's hard to get any facts at all about this because it's very covered up. But those are my plans for this year.

Alice (cropped)Alice: And I gather there will be a French translation of Fauverie in 2018?
Pascale valerie_rouzeau_220x500


Pascale-petit 2Pascale: Yes Valérie Rouzeau, an absolutely wonderful poet, the ideal translator, has translated Fauverie and it will soon be sent out to the publisher.


interview with John Ashbery


Hélène Cardona  
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 FulcrumAn 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.


John Ashbery  
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

Ashbery White House


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 RichieCollected French Translations: Poetry and Collected French Translations: Prose. [1] 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.

Ashbery AulnoyI 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 Ashbery Aulnoy_-_La_Chatte 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.

Ashbery Alphonse_DaudetIn 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.

Ashbery and Pierre (2)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.

HC Mallarme Nursery Rhymes

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:

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (2)"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."

So beautiful.

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.

[1] 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
ASHBERY Collected French Poetry Ashbery. Collected French Translations Back Cover (2)

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

ISBN-13: 978-0374258030

ASHBERY Collected French Prose Collected French Translations Prose Back Cover (4)

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.


Eugene Richie

HC Rodsanne Wasserman

Rosanne Wasserman


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.

Ashbery Rimbaud"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.

Hélène Cardona


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:

(A Wave), translated by Marc Chénetier, was published by Éditions Joca Seria in November 2015.

2 French translations (2)  

                           The translators:

Marc Chénetier 

Olivier Brossard (2)

Olivier Brossard