“Traveling Furiously Toward You”: John Ashbery and the Arts

Hotel Negresco, 2010, collage, 6 ¼ x 5 ½ inches, by John Ashbery. Courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York.

Jacket2 recently posted “Traveling furiously toward you: John Ashbery and the arts,” an exciting new feature devoted to Ashbery’s work.

Starting with the premise that for Ashbery “poetry and painting are set in an interlinked relation of the arts, with music, dance, movies, theater, and literature, all feeding new aesthetic questions as they come into being,” the editors, poets Thomas Devaney and Marcella Durand, set out “to explore how artists across genres respond creatively to Ashbery’s poetry.”

The resulting collection (which borrows its title from the great short poem “At North Farm”) features a wide and diverse array of materials, including

    • poems by Rosanne Wasserman, Harry Mathews, the late Wanda Coleman, Ed Roberson, Adam Fitzgerald, Durand and Devaney
    • wonderful translations by Ashbery himself of two poems by the French poet Francis Ponge (a poet I’ve recently written about myself here)
    • a brief memoir by the artist of Trevor Winkfield about his long friendship with Ashbery (which includes a funny story about the two friends paying a memorable visit to Joseph Cornell)
    • a playful and irreverent short play by the poet Jennifer Moxley — really more of a “drama à clef,” featuring the famous poet “Jean Hache-Béret,” the American poet “Guinevere Moxley,” and rival female literary critics “Velma Handler” and “Pearl Indeterminate” who have a power struggle over who “owns” Hache-Béret’s work
    • critical pieces by John Emil Vincent, Sandra Lim, and John Yau (with an excerpt from an astute essay that previously appeared in American Poetry Review about Ashbery as an art critic)
    • a music score by experimental composer Mark So
    • a dance piece inspired by Ashbery’s poem “Uptick” by choreographer, dancer, and poet Emily Skillings

As the editors explain:

Our most exciting revelation was how much everyone here fashioned work by reading himself or herself into Ashbery’s. That is to say, contributors created their pieces through reading their own sensibilities into Ashbery’s, and not the other way around.

The distinction is as subtle as it is generative. We discovered that the house of Ashbery is generous and catalytic: were many of the artworks published here to be gathered under other circumstances, they might not seem to have much in common. But instead, they roam through dance, theatre, poetry, music, translation, and essay, in styles so divergent, they push at the outer description of the word while still tracing correspondent lines to Ashbery’s work.

One of Ashbery’s particular strengths is how he accommodates so very much. His dexterity with tone allows for compositions into which he can place almost anything — movie titles, comets, skaters, abstract painting, and comics — and make them work. More precisely, perhaps, not so much “work,” as mystify, surprise, open language in ways that would be nearly impossible to anticipate.

This is a rich collection of works; I’m still absorbing many of them myself, and may have more to say about some at a later point.  In the meantime, I wanted to help spread the word about this terrific feature on Ashbery, which proves once more that “the house of Ashbery is generous and catalytic” indeed.

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This entry was posted in Articles, Criticism, Dance, Harry Mathews, Jennifer Moxley, John Ashbery, John Yau, Music, NY School Influence, Poems, Uncategorized, Visual Art. Bookmark the permalink.