Digitizing John Ashbery, “Our T.S. Eliot, Our Gertrude Stein”

Anyone who has ever tried to read poetry on a Kindle knows that poems and e-books don’t mix well, to put it mildly.  Line breaks, spacing, the look of the poem on the page — all of these crucial aspects of poetry are all too often destroyed when poems end up as e-books.

As the New York Times reports this morning, despite the lack of potential profit involved, publishers are finally beginning to do something about this problem.  The article uses the work of John Ashbery as its primary example to explain the stakes involved:

“When John Ashbery, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, first learned that the digital editions of his poetry looked nothing like the print version, he was stunned. There were no line breaks, and the stanzas had been jammed together into a block of text that looked like prose. The careful architecture of his poems had been leveled.

He complained to his publisher, Ecco, and those four e-books were immediately withdrawn.

That was three years ago, and digital publishing has evolved a lot since then. Publishers can now create e-books that better preserve a poet’s meticulous formatting. So when Open Road Media, a digital publishing company, approached Mr. Ashbery about creating electronic versions of his books, he decided to give it another chance.

Last week, Open Road published 17 digital collections of Mr. Ashbery’s work, the first time the bulk of his poetry will be available in e-book form. This time, he hasn’t asked for a recall.

‘It’s very faithful to the original formatting,’ said Mr. Ashbery, 87, who is widely recognized as one of the country’s greatest living poets.”

The article points out the difficulties publishers have had rendering poetry accurately on e-readers: “Of all the literary genres, poetry has proved the most resistant to digital technology, not for stodgy cultural reasons but for tricky mechanical ones. Most e-readers mangle the line breaks and stanzas that are so crucial to the appearance and rhythm of poetry. As a result, many publishers have held back on digitizing poetry.”  In recent years, that has begun to change — for example, the piece mentions that presses like Copper Canyon, New Directions, and Farrar, Straus have been devoting much more attention to producing poetry e-books: “Farrar, Straus and Giroux began a major push to digitize its poetry backlist in January, after working out some thorny layout and coding issues. This year, it is releasing 111 digital poetry collections, up from 17 last year and just one in 2012.”

The piece returns to Ashbery and the process of turning his volumes of poetry into e-books:

“The poetry of Mr. Ashbery, who often writes in long, Walt Whitmanesque lines and uses complex indentations, was difficult to digitize. “Many of my poems have lines that are very long, and it’s important to me that they be accurately reproduced on the page,” he said. “The impact of a poem very often comes down to line breaks, which publishers of poetry often don’t seem to find as important as the people who write the poems.”

After his first misadventure, Mr. Ashbery was reluctant to sell his e-book rights again. But then two years ago, his literary agent met with Jane Friedman, Open Road’s chief executive, who was interested in publishing digital versions of Mr. Ashbery’s work. She assured Mr. Ashbery and his agent that the e-book formatting would preserve his lines.

After a courtship that stretched on for about a year, Mr. Ashbery agreed to sign over digital rights for 17 collections.

The e-books took several months to produce. First his poems were scanned, digitized and carefully proofread. Then Open Road sent the files to eBook Architects, an e-book development company in Austin, Tex. There, the text was hand-coded and marked up semantically, so that the formal elements were tagged as lines, stanzas or deliberate indentations. When a line runs over because the screen is too small or the font is too big, it is indented on the line below — a convention that’s been observed in print for centuries. The technology is still far from perfect. Mr. Ashbery’s poems retain their shape better on the larger screen of the iPad, and are squeezed, with more lines spilling over, on a Kindle or an iPhone.

Poetry scholars say such minor discrepancies are a small price to pay to ensure Mr. Ashbery’s legacy in the digital age.

‘John Ashbery is our T. S. Eliot, our Gertrude Stein,’ said Robert Polito, president of the Poetry Foundation. ‘It’s vital that his work be authoritatively available in as many different formats as possible.'”

The article alerted me to this new collection of Ashbery e-books published by Open Road, which has also posted this short, compelling video introduction to Ashbery and his work (including some glimpses of his much-discussed home in Hudson, New York).

Posted in John Ashbery

John Ashbery and Kenneth Goldsmith Collaborate on a Rug: “Love and Career”

John Ashbery & Kenneth Goldsmith

John Ashbery has a long history of collaborating with other writers and artists, from co-written novels (A Nest of Ninnies, with James Schuyler) to poem-art hybrids like The Vermont Notebook (with Joe Brainard).

But I don’t think he’s ever collaborated on a rug before.

Now he has.  Ashbery and the poet Kenneth Goldsmith have collaborated on a project for BravinLee programs, as part of its “ongoing series of artist designed rugs.” Goldsmith — a conceptual poet and tireless advocate of what he calls “uncreative writing” practices, like appropriation and transcription — has worked with Ashbery to produce a rug titled “Love and Career.”  It features a fragment of Ashbery’s handwriting (chosen by Goldsmith from middle-of-the-night jottings Ashbery made from his dreams) combined with an image lifted from a painting by Joan Miró.

And now this hand-knotted, limited edition rug can be yours for only $4500.

Goldsmith explained how the rug came about:

With one foot in the world of Abstract Expressionism and the other in Pop Art, John Ashbery’s work embodies a series of intentional contradictions. Sincere & ironic, found & fabricated, creative & uncreative, his poems are concrete demonstrations and celebrations of uncertainty, betweeness, and not-knowing.

When I first suggested appropriating the work of Joan Miró as the basis of our collaboration, Ashbery shot back, “Jeanne Moreau? I adore her!” Bang. High and low demolished in one platitude.

Every night, by the side of his bed, John keeps a pen and a pad. During the night, when he wakes up from a dream, he scribbles a few words or a random phrase that is ricocheting around his head, and then goes back to sleep. Many of these fragments find their way into poems.

We agreed that these might be a good way to begin our collaboration. I left John’s Chelsea apartment with an enormous envelope filled with years’ worth of scribblings – hundreds of scraps of paper emblazoned with faint whisps of language, often on hotel stationary. Over the next few months, I combed through these, scanning and transcribing them, selecting the ones that, for whatever reason, really zinged. I then sought out images of modernist painting and began laying his ephemeral markings over iconic imagery. The contradiction between the power of the paintings and the delicate intimacy of John’s handwriting seemed to strike a note similar to the balancing act that I find so compelling in John’s work.

As an appropriationist, I do little more than reframe and remix preexisting cultural artifacts. By placing one atop the other, a striking fusion of opposites occurred, resulting in an object that is at once intellectual & dumb, abstract & concrete, important & trivial, and profound & empty. Frame it respectfully and hang it on the wall or stomp all over it with dirty boots. Any use – or misuse – is encouraged.

On July 4, 2013, Goldsmith tweeted the following image and wrote: “Yesterday, John Ashbery and I signed certificates for our collaboration, a hand-tufted Tibetan text rug.”

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John Ashbery and Kenneth Goldsmith collaborating on Tibetan text rug, July 2013

Posted in collaboration, John Ashbery, Kenneth Goldsmith, Visual Art

Mark Amerika Remixes Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus

Raymond Roussel’s amazing and bizarre novel Locus Solus — the namesake for the journal founded by the New York School poets as well as for this humble blog – turns 100 this year.  Just in time for that anniversary, the visual artist, novelist, and media theorist Mark Amerika has produced an unusual new version of Roussel’s influential novel that he calls an “auto-translation/remix.”  The book, which was “composed by playfully postproducing the original 1914 version using a variety of mediocre online translation programs,” will be published this month by Counterpath Press.  Amerika explains that he sees his Locus Solus “as not so much as a literal translation by any means, but as a work of performance art.”

Amerika recently posted some remarks about how he came to Roussel’s novel and the process he used to performatively remix and re-create Locus Solus.  In the course of working on an elaborate remixing of Marcel Duchamp’s work, he came across the following remark Duchamp once made in an interview about important influences on his work: “Roussel showed me the way.”  This led Amerika to seek out online translations of Roussel’s work, but he came up mostly empty.  So, as he explains, “I decided to get an immediate feel for Locus Solus by turning to a few mediocre online translation programs that would auto-translate the first few pages, line-by-line, and see what came up.”

As he goes on to detail, the auto-translation of Roussel’s novel produced some strange results (as anyone who has ever used Google Translate will appreciate), which inspired Amerika to undertake an extended performance art piece of auto-translating and remixing Locus Solus:

“My simple late-night plan to use a translation program to better understand Roussel’s writing and why it might have ‘shown Duchamp the way,’ was immediately introduced to a severe obstacle as I tried to make some narrative sense out of the mangled text and mistranslated puns and double entedres that were given to me by the auto-translation program. My intuitive response was to not get frustrated at all but to creatively remix these mangled translations through my own experiential filters as valuable source material that would enable me to remixologically inhabit the spirit of Roussel’s own procedural aesthetic. This is when Roussel’s Locus Solus started becoming a mash-up of auto-translation and autobiography or what in META/DATA I refer to as pseudo-autobiography (an always already fictional rendering of experiential data sampled from the practice of everyday life).

That first night, I started to really get into the auto-translation / remix process and decided that I did not want to buy and read any of the out-of-print books that had already attempted to translate Roussel into English, that, instead, I would approach this experience as a work of performance art and, like so many works of performance art, view it as a kind of durational achievement. And so it was, four months later, that I had translated / remixed the entire, mangled French version into what I started referring to as

Locus Solus (An Inappropriate Translation Composed in a 21st Century Manner)

All throughout the auto-translation/remix performance I was well aware of the fact that things were getting lost in the transmission, that the stability of the narrative trajectory, assuming I wanted to maintain a certain amount of stability and even semantic consistency, was going to depend on my ability to remixologically inhabit or even embody the praxis of another artist-medium who initially communicated these messages to us a long time ago (100 years to be exact). This was a creative parameter that actually liberated me from having to feel better about myself as I assumed the role of so-called ‘translator.’  Instead, I could approach the whole system as a literary traitor, one who pirates information signals and trades in a performance art practice that imposes their own literary and artistic traits onto the one who is being auto-translated, remixed, inhabited.”

To celebrate the centennial of Roussel’s Locus Solus, check out Amerika’s interesting homage.  You can also learn more about Roussel in Mark Ford’s highly-regarded biography, Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams and about John Ashbery’s fascination with Roussel in this piece by Paul Grimstad.

Posted in Influences on the NY School, John Ashbery, Locus Solus, Mark Ford, Raymond Roussel, Translation

“Into the Sun”: Frank O’Hara’s “True Account” Inspires Performance Piece

Frank O’Hara’s poem “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” has had a remarkable and robust afterlife, as I’ve noted before in reference to Kent Johnson’s controversial A Question Mark Above the Sun.

Now the poem will be taken up once again, this time by an arts group called The Arts Fusion Initiative, which describes itself as “a group of New York based artists. Within this initiative, each year’s project will have one poem that inspires the fusion of different art forms culminating in an innovative, live performance.”

The group’s 2014 project is called Into the Sun.  It “will combine multiple art forms with the text of A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island by American poet, Frank O’Hara.”

Into the Sun will be performed this upcoming week during a tour through Kansas, with stops in Garden City (9/2), Lawrence (9/4), and Kansas City (9/6).  The group “will be doing school workshops, concerts, and different events within the larger communities.”

One of the young composers who wrote music for the piece, Gabriel Medina, had some interesting things to say in an interview on High Plains Public Radio about the use of this particular O’Hara poem :

“As a composer, I’m most interested by collaborative projects.  When Kristen explained her idea for the American Fusion Project to me, I was intrigued by her desire to combine multiple artistic disciplines into a common programmatic theme.

The theme – Creativity and Artistic Inspiration – is especially important to me as a young artist. I often struggle with artistic merit. Does what I write fit into the mold of contemporary aesthetic ideals? What will my colleagues think of the piece I’m writing? Is the piece really me?  These are questions that face every young artist, and they are all addressed so sincerely in Frank O’Hara’s poem ‘A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island.’ For a long time now, I’ve taken comfort in this poem during periods of self-doubt. As such, this project is what I consider a personal tribute to this poem.”

More information can be found here.  I’d love to hear more about the performance if anyone sees it or knows more about it.


Posted in Frank O'Hara, Kent Johnson, Music, NY School Influence, Performance

NY Times reviews Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems: “the little black dress of American poetry books”


Three editions of Lunch Poems (circa 1990, 2000s, and 50th anniversary edition, 2014).

Three editions of Lunch Poems (circa 1990, 2000s, and 50th anniversary edition, 2014).

Apparently, the season of celebrating Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems continues!  The New York Times has just posted a glowing review of the new 50th anniversary edition of the book by the always-great Dwight Garner, one of the paper’s daily book reviewers.

Garner is always a delight to read, has excellent and eclectic taste, and must be thanked for single-handedly bringing the regular practice of reviewing books of poetry to the New York Times daily book coverage.  It’s great to see him weigh in on the reissue of O’Hara’s book:

“Frank O’Hara’s ‘Lunch Poems,’ the little black dress of American poetry books, redolent of cocktails and cigarettes and theater tickets and phonograph records, turns 50 this year. It seems barely to have aged.”

Garner gives some background on O’Hara, offers quotes from “Music,” “The Day Lady Died,” “Steps,” “Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed)” and other favorites, and points out how fresh and radical the book was when it appeared.

“Lunch Poems was urbane and sociable, a cheerful rebuke to the era’s more determined academic verse … America in 1964 was straining to break out of black and white and into color, and Lunch Poems was part of the brewing social drama. The directness of O’Hara’s voice was a tonic. Taxis are preferable to subways, he declared in one poem, because ‘subways are only fun when you’re feeling sexy.'”

Garner closes by offering O’Hara’s little book some high praise:

“This is a book worth imbibing again, especially if you live in Manhattan, but really if you’re awake and curious anywhere. O’Hara speaks directly across the decades to our hopes and fears and especially our delights; his lines are as intimate as a telephone call. Few books of his era show less age.”

An ironic sidenote: Garner doesn’t mention it, but the New York Times didn’t even bother to review this now-beloved future classic when it first appeared in 1964 — another sign of how dramatically O’Hara’s reputation has evolved over time.

One small quibble: Garner mentions that O’Hara died when he “was hit by a beach taxi on Fire Island.”  It wasn’t a beach taxi that killed O’Hara — in fact, the beach taxi he had been riding in got a flat tire, and while waiting for another to arrive, O’Hara was struck down by a speeding dune buggy that was being driven illegally on the beach.

You can check out the whole review here.


Posted in Book Review, Frank O'Hara

“Devoted New Yorker Frank O’Hara” quoted in today’s NY Times

Another sign that Frank O’Hara is on the New York Times’ (and everyone else’s) mind these days.  In this morning’s “Fashion & Style” section, there is a light piece by Matthew Schneier about the legions of New Yorkers who have never learned to drive, and the challenges they face in the summer.  It begins with a little nod to O’Hara:

“On any given Friday afternoon in the New York summer, offices clear out early, weekend bags are hoisted onto shoulders, and many of those city dwellers who are, in colder months, perfectly happy to live concrete-encircled lives — they who, like the poet and devoted New Yorker Frank O’Hara, ‘can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy’ — slide into cars and head out of town.

Some of them just happen to be riding (inevitably, bashfully and maybe a bit anxiously) in the passenger seat.”

As many of you know, these quintessentially New York lines from O’Hara’s “Meditations in an Emergency” are prominently displayed in lower Manhattan, inscribed in bronze along the water in Battery Park at the World Financial Center:

Posted in Frank O'Hara, New York

On John Ashbery’s 87th Birthday: “Extraneous good wishes from everywhere”

Today is John Ashbery’s 87th birthday.  I’ve been thinking of lines of his that might seem appropriate for this happy occasion, and some of my very favorite, the closing sentences of “The System” (1972) immediately came to mind:

“It seems truly impossible, but invariably at this point we are walking together along a street in some well-known city.  The allegory is ended, its coils absorbed into the past, and this afternoon is as wide as an ocean.  It is the time we have now, and all our wasted time sinks into the sea and is swallowed up without a trace.  The past is dust and ashes, and this incommensurably wide way leads to the pragmatic and kinetic future.”

In digging around for an Ashbery meditation on birthdays I came across the poem “Someone You Have Seen Before” (first published in April Galleons, 1987), which not only features some lines about a birthday — “their happiness is for you, it’s your birthday” — but also about change, time, and “wondering what the new round / Of impressions and salutations is going to leave in its wake / This time.”   Here’s the poem’s second half:

But people do change in life,
As well as in fiction. And what happens then? Is it because we think nobody’s
Listening that one day it comes, the urge to delete yourself,
“Take yourself out,” as they say? As though this could matter
Even to the concerned ones who crowd around,
Expressions of lightness and peace on their faces,
In which you play no part perhaps, but even so
Their happiness is for you, it’s your birthday, and even
When the balloons and fudge get tangled with extraneous
Good wishes from everywhere, it is, I believe, made to order
For your questioning stance and that impression
Left on the inside of your pleasure by some bivalve
With which you have been identified. Sure,
Nothing is ever perfect enough, but that’s part of how it fits
The mixed bag
Of leftover character traits that used to be part of you
Before the change was performed
And of all those acquaintances bursting with vigor and
Humor, as though they wanted to call you down
Into closeness, not for being close, or snug, or whatever,
But because they believe you were made to fit this unique
And valuable situation whose lid is rising, totally
Into the morning-glory-colored future. Remember, don’t throw away
The quadrant of unused situations just because they’re here:
They may not always be, and you haven’t finished looking
Through them all yet. So much that happens happens in small ways
That someone was going to get around to tabulate, and then never did,
Yet it all bespeaks freshness, clarity and an even motor drive
To coax us out of sleep and start us wondering what the new round
Of impressions and salutations is going to leave in its wake
This time. And the form, the precepts, are yours to dispose of as you will,
As the ocean makes grasses, and in doing so refurbishes a lighthouse
On a distant hill, or else lets the whole picture slip into foam.

The past is dust and ashes, this afternoon is wide as an ocean, and here’s to John Ashbery, and the “pragmatic and kinetic future”!

Posted in John Ashbery, Poems