Skip to content

Eugene Richie & Rosanne Wasserman on John Ashbery’s “Collected French Translations,” Part 1

By Margaret Carson

Read Part Two of the interview.

When the poet Eugene Richie mentioned to me several years ago that he and his wife, the poet Rosanne Wasserman, were coediting a collection of John Ashbery’s translations from the French (Collected French Translations), I was overjoyed at the prospect of a book that would bring together the poet’s extensive work in translation, most of it originally published by small presses or in hard-to-find magazines. Little did I suspect, however, that their efforts would lead to two volumes (superbly produced by Farrar, Straus and Giroux), one devoted to poetry and the other to prose, with major translations, some previously unpublished, of twenty-four poets and seventeen prose writers, including such notables as Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy, Giorgio de Chirico, and Raymond Roussel. Eugene and Rosanne met with me last summer and over the course of several hours spoke to me about the origins of the project, the process of assembling and editing the translations, John Ashbery’s involvement, and their take on Ashbery as a translator and how his translations fit into his extraordinary life in poetry. 

Margaret Carson (MC): First of all I wanted to say, this is a major literary event.

Eugene Richie (ER) and Rosanne Wasserman (RW): Thank you.

RW: It was like having triplets.

MC: When did it start? How did it come together?

ER: We were talking about what really started the whole thing just as we were walking to the train today. We both kind of agree, it was the publishing of John’s translations of Pierre Martory, in that small edition that we did for our own press, the Groundwater Press. It was a little chapbook published I think in the ’80s.

RW: In the late ’80s, we had a friend Marc Cohen and his now wife Susan Baran who started running a reading series out of a hardware store on the Upper West Side near Columbus Avenue. It was called Intuflo, that was the name of the hardware store, and so we called it the Intuflo reading series. Gene and I started publishing chapbooks for the poets who read, and a lot of the third, fourth generation New York School folks in circles around John, Kenneth [Koch], Jimmy [Schuyler], and others read there. It was very intimate, you had to unfold the stepladder from the shelf and sit. We decided to do chapbooks with introductions. And Pierre had never had a book published in the United States, so we did a tiny chapbook, these were like sixteen- or thirty-two-page books, stapled, saddle-stitched. His book was called Every Question But One.

ER: That was the beginning, I think, because we realized how devoted John was to his translations, we just had not seen the bulk of them at that time. And then we continued with Pierre because we helped a little bit with a book that Sheep Meadow did which was called The Landscape Is behind the Door.

RW: I line edited it.

ER: And then the third book was John Ashbery’s translation of Pierre Martory’s The Landscapist, which was our second project for Pierre and John. Around 2003, I had completely finished the Selected Prose, and it was published in 2004, and then I started collecting all the translations. I’m trying to figure out how we started . . . .

RW: Well, I had done all the editing for the Norton Lectures [Ashbery’s Other Traditions]. And you had done all the research for the Norton back in the early ’80s. Didn’t David invite us to do this?

ER: Yes, I think David Kermani invited us to do it. Because he’s always concerned about creating resources for people to use, and so he said to us that the translations should be done . . .

RW: . . . the translations are next . . .

ER: . . . since we already had this history of working with Pierre’s translations. We began collecting other translations as soon as Selected Prose was done, which I got most of the credit for, but Rosanne did a lot of editing on that. I think eventually when we reissue it, we’ll put both of our names on it. What we did with that was about the same thing—we went through John’s archives. By this time most of the archives were in the Flowchart Foundation’s Ashbery Resource Center. David had started it.

RW: Have you ever seen it online?

MC: Yes.

RW: Trevor Winkfield’s little mechanical design is like an early gif.

ER: Micaela Morrissette was the director at the time, and she helped us get any of the translations we didn’t have. I had been preparing a lot of it through being a secretary to John.

Image: (left to right) Eugene Richie, Rosanne Wasserman, James Tate, Pierre Martory, & John Ashbery at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, late ’80s. Courtesy of Dara Wier

MC: I wanted to ask about that. When did you start working for him?

ER: In June 1984 and I worked straight through until I was hired as an assistant professor at Pace in 1996. I might have stopped a couple years earlier than that, in 1994.

RW: But he never really stopped.

ER: It translated into being an editor, and at that point that’s really what he needed. So I think it was shortly after that that I began the Selected Prose. John said, “You know I used to write a lot of things about different authors,” so I got interested in it, and David again said this is a resource we really need out there, so I started collecting those materials from archives that were at the house at that point and stuff that was in the apartment and published materials. With Selected Prose and Collected Translations, we had the same process in terms of working with libraries—we would work with our local library in Port Washington and have them bring in interlibrary loans. I also worked with the Pace University Library on that.

RW: At one point we went to Paris, to the Bibliothèque nationale.

ER: We also did a lot of work with the New York Public Library.

RW: And we went to Harvard, because John’s letters and other archives are there.

MC: How did you see the scope of this project when you began? Were you feeling it out as you went along?

RW: There were stages.

ER: The key to this is David Kermani’s bibliography of John’s pre-1974 publications.[1] Once we realized that we could find everything noted bibliographically there, we just went and found it. So we traced every translation possible through it, and he didn’t miss anything.

RW: He was trained as a librarian at Columbia. But he’d already been working on the bibliography, so the school gave him degree credit for the work.

ER: That gave us the blueprint right there, and all we needed to do was find materials . . .

RW: . . . for the next ten years.

ER: And so we collected it as fast as possible, and started putting it in front of John.

RW: There were stages of the book, though. We really did not expect two volumes. We certainly did not plan a bilingual poetry volume. When we first contacted Jonathan Galassi at Farrar, Straus, he said, “It’s really too big for one volume; why don’t you make two volumes and make the poetry bilingual?” And we said okay. And that added another year to the project, because we didn’t have all of the French originals. So we had to go back, and then we had to get a lot of help. John reread all the French poems, and we had to find the right editions, then get permissions from French publishers and poets. So it grew, the way a project mushrooms.

ER: But we used the same approach to get the French originals. We used the interlibrary loan at Pace, I got books from all over the country, when there were actual volumes in the country, and we looked for a few things when we went to Paris. Rosanne went to the Bibliothèque nationale, and we just lucked into being helped by a librarian who was an Americanist.

RW: Who had something on her desk that tipped me off. What was it?

ER: I think it was The New York Review of Books with one of John’s poems. It had this fortuitous quality where everything just kind of fell into place, and if we couldn’t find something, we would be able to use these resources. But in the end, as you know from the Appendices, there are some pieces that we couldn’t find, problematic ones.

It had this fortuitous quality where everything just kind of fell into place.

RW: Some poets had given John work in manuscript and then published different versions later in French. The French he translated from was lost, and we had a version published years later that didn’t match.

MC: The lost original . . .

ER: That was Pascalle Monnier. She had this one really strange letter poem that she must have done on the spur of the moment, a continuation letter where you had to send it to other people. And it was a poem based on that. She just sent it to John and he liked it so much that he translated it right away. He was very spontaneous about the way he would translate things sometimes. The original French was possibly in the archive, so we combed every archive possible and could not find the original French. Though I think the manuscript has recently surfaced. We need to check it against the translation. So there is a possibility that we found that one.

RW: Where did you hear?

ER: Somebody, maybe Timothy [O’Connor] in the Ashbery Resource Center, he’s the latest director, he gave it to me. I have yet to check it against the original. It looks like a manuscript copy. We got in touch with Pascalle and she had no idea where that manuscript was.

RW: Because she sent it to John.

ER: Yes, right! And the other is the Denis Roche . . .

RW: . . . which is a whole different story.

ER: Roche did a lot more careful organization of his texts, and he swore that the ones he had published were the ones John had translated, but they weren’t. I think he might have given them to John and then they later went through a series of changes. So John translated from something that was maybe a very, very rough draft. And that’s really interesting because, as you know with translation, a key thing is how the writer keeps changing something, especially if it’s published in a small magazine, which is what happened, it was published in Art and Literature.[2] I don’t think there was any French en face. Sometimes there was, but in this case there wasn’t.

MC: That’s perfectly fine, because you don’t always have to read against an original.

RW: We never expected to have the French in there anyway, so we didn’t want to get rid of those poems just because we couldn’t find them in French.

Image: Volumes One and Two of John Ashbery’s Collected French Translations.

MC: Can you talk about how FSG got into the picture?

RW: Great story.

ER: We had collected all the translations, as well as some French originals, just so that John could vet his work, and we talked to John’s agent, Georges Borchardt. He said, “You’ve got to get permission. The French are terrible about this. They will not even allow you to publish the translations. You may have to exclude some of these things if you can’t get them to agree.” So we were worried right from the beginning. At that point, we had the whole manuscript together, it was several hundred pages.

RW: One volume.

ER: One volume, and we realized we could split it into two. At one of John’s collage openings at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, we talked to Jonathan, though we had also talked to him earlier at a Beckett performance. He had found out from Karin Roffman, whom he’s working with on the bio of John’s early years, that we were working on this project, and he said, “I’d be interested in that.” But we kind of let that go. Then we saw him again at the Tibor and I said, “We’ve got it together, but there are two volumes, and one is 500 pages.” And he said, “Well, we do volumes like that all the time.” And I said, “The poetry is a lot smaller, like 200 pages or something,” and he said, “Well, you could make it bilingual, I think you should do it bilingual.” And it was like “okay . . .” and immediately after that we realized he was right, because he has such a sensitivity to the way poetry is received, and you need that facing page so much with poetry. Perhaps because he’s a poet he has more of that feeling about the poetry, but I think it’s common in publishing that they want the original-language poem on the facing page. He said, “I’ll do that for you and I’ll actually find you a person to do the permissions.”

RW: We hadn’t made the volume bilingual—not out of a sense that the French wasn’t important, but because we didn’t think anybody would want a book that big.

MC: Galassi has translated Eugenio Montale, I haven’t looked at the volume, but I’m sure it’s bilingual, and FSG did a bilingual Celan in Pierre Joris’s translation, which is also massive.

ER: So now we do a bit of a bidding war, we had several publishers interested.

RW: FSG, Harvard, Ecco, Wesleyan, Norton, and Wave.

ER: Because of permissions, almost everybody dropped out except for Jonathan, who came out strong right off the bat with a huge offer, to say, you know, just let me do this for you, I know how to do it, and I’ll do it well, and he got one of the great specialists in permissions, Fred Courtright, to work with us.

RW: And then Carcanet [UK] picked it up.

Image: John Ashbery, The Mail in Norway, 2009, collage, digitized print, 16 ¼ X 16 ¼ inches. Courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery New York. 

MC: I wanted to ask you about the book design and the collages. I saw in the credits that the collages on the cover are John Ashbery’s. Did you have anything to do with the design elements?

ER: We knew his collages, and we thought it would be great to have a single collage.

RW: Which is what Carcanet did.

ER: So FSG said, “Give us a bunch of jpegs of the collages, the ones you think might be good, and we’ll give them to our designers.” And no sooner did that happen than we got the design back with the proposal, and it had used details of all of the collages, and John and David, too, loved it. We thought it was very clever, because they’re like windows into the different worlds, which is exactly what the translation was doing.

MC: I’ve just started thinking about this element. The reader has to go with it, there’s no kind of direct connection made, there’s no history connecting these collages with anything.

ER: Not with the poems, or with these translations.

RW: Except insofar as John is of course always looking at European paintings.

ER: In the Carcanet edition, the two collages were “The Mail in Norway” (pictured above) and “Moon Glow” (pictured below).

Image: John Ashbery, Moon Glow, 2008, collage, 16 × 16 ¼ inches. Courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York.

MC: Let’s talk about editing. What do you remember, what was it like?

RW: The putting together of the first manuscript was collecting and assembling, and then of course there were some things that weren’t quite shuffled into the form that John wanted. Did I type everything or did we get a typist? We got Genji—did we send Genji [Amino] files and xeroxes?

ER: He typed the French originals of the poetry. I had an assistant at school who was working for me, and she typed most of the translations, but Rosanne then went word for word over the typing.

RW: And so did John.

ER: Not so much on the originals.

RW: I wound up with John’s marked-up typescript and my marked-up typescript, and I had to make one from those. And then I think he might have looked at it again. Every time he saw a translation, he was either interested in making it better or nervous that it wasn’t right. I mean, there was both the “oh I can do better” and “oh my God they’re going to kill me when they see this,” both of those, sort of desire and anxiety, which I guess are common for translators.

ER: Going over every word, word by word, every time we’d come with proofs or original manuscripts, and he was meticulous with it. We had the French of every piece, including the prose, so there was checking back to those original French texts every time he read it, which would have been at least five or six times.

RW: There was stuff he was more nervous and less nervous about. And we had a French professor, Katia Sainson, who was proofreading the French version and checking the diacriticals and the idioms on the translations. Marcella Durand read it also, and she gave John input. John would largely accept any help he could get. There were places where Pierre might have had a typo in the original.

ER: Those were pretty much caught by Sainson. We also had Olivier Brossard . . .

RW: . . . in Paris, Frank O’Hara’s and John’s translator from English, and he helped us. He was checking for accuracy.

ER: Do we have an example of something that John changed? What kind of thing would John change? To see it as a translator going through these processes and deciding what wasn’t working?

RW: In particular he was anxious about the translations that he had done long ago for the Fulbright application. Now in his eighties, he went through those very carefully, changing and updating idioms in English, I mean, he’d learned something in sixty years about how he wanted to sound. I think someone could write a really interesting paper looking at baby translator Ashbery versus polished Ashbery and the kinds of changes he made.

In particular he was anxious about the translations that he had done long ago . . . Now in his eighties, he went through those very carefully, changing and updating idioms in English.

ER: One of the things he was doing, after not translating much in a while, was the Rimbaud, because he was working on that for Norton, he was inspired to do that by Robert Weil [Publishing Director at W. W. Norton]. It was something he could do, the complete text, and get paid for. That was the first time I saw how far he had come in his ability to work with the English in a translation. When he started working on the Rimbaud, it was almost as if there were a different person working on that than, let’s say, some of the very earlier poems, like Supervielle, the stuff that he had done when he was doing his Fulbright in the 1950s. That’s very important, because he would work it in a way that would be much more fluid, much more immediate. I remember I said, “Wow, that’s a really good solution to that.”[3]

RW: John did the same reworking for some of the poems of other poets in the early Fulbright translations, such as [Robert] Ganzo and [Armen] Lubin, who only have one or two poems in Collected French Translations

ER: You’re right, because when he went back to them he had already started translating Rimbaud, so he was very up on his French associations and his ability to find the answers. If there was an idiom he didn’t know, he would find it himself or check with Oliver Brossard, and sometimes he would check with Anne Talvaz, who has translated him. Olivier has translated him too. Those are the two people who helped with problems John couldn’t solve. 

RW: He changed syntax, idiom, translations of words. For example in the Daumal [René Daumal “Always in Vain”], the original ends, “c’est ça.” I think when he was in his early twenties and still getting his feet on the ground in French, he might have translated that as “that’s the way it is” but now he revises it to “that’s that.”

ER: Yes, I think the economy, that idiomatic control of the language is something that’s so much a part of his poetry—he can translate that, he can transfer that right into the translation.

Image: John revised the translated title of “Eros Gone Wild” to “Eros the Ball Breaker,” a long poem with many parts by Denis Roche, originally titled in French “Eros énergumène.” Though it is an inspired translation of “énergumène” (maniac or crazy person), after consultation with John, we did not use the change so as to go along with the original English title (“Eros Gone Wild”) when the translations were first published in “Art and Literature.” (Page proof of "Eros Gone Wild” from Collected French Translations: Poetry, © 2017 Denis Roche and John Ashbery. Used with permission of translator. Note by Eugene Richie.)

MC: When a poet translates, what are the poetics that go into the poetry and what goes into the translations?

ER: And the readability, that makes you feel you’re reading something in English.

MC: Can you explain that more, because the readability factor is such an issue for translators.

ER: Well, this is an example, the one that Rosanne just gave: “that’s that.” I mean, it’s something you would say regularly in English, whereas if you translate “c’est ça” as “this is that,” it doesn’t sound like normal English. And I find that in translation a lot—you can go back to the original and the translation is there, but you don’t feel that zing of identification of the poem as being in English, you feel like it’s still caught in the original language.

RW: There’s also a difference between this kid just out of Harvard in his mid-twenties in the early 1950s and the twenty-first-century poet with his ear to the ground, because John changed. But the layers of listening and language are represented by John updating and editing some of these earlier pieces. I think it’s going to be a delicious project someday when someone gets their hands on those proofs.

Image: John added a missing phrase (“the theme of some pompous barcarolle”) to his translation of Max Jacob’s “Modern Family” (from The Dice Cup II). It may not have been in the original French from which John first translated, since it was not in the version of the translation that appeared in “Art and Literature,” or in subsequent reprints. The phrase significantly adds to the detail and ironic humor of the poem that follows the phrase. (Page proof of “Modern Family” from Collected French Translations: Poetry, © 2017 Max Jacob and John Ashbery. Used with permission of translator. Note by Eugene Richie.)

MC: Did you have interesting conversations about the revisions?

RW: Always, especially riding in the car. I would sit in the back, with the proofs organized around me, and John would turn around and he’d have the shotgun seat, way way back so he was practically next to me anyway, and he’d be reading and writing on a proof, and I would hand him discrepancies that Katia or Marcella or Olivier or Anne Talvaz or I had found, and I’d say, What do you want to do with this? She suggests this, or you were worried about this and here’s what Marcella says, or here’s what Katia suggests, and he would say, oh that’s a good line, let’s use it, yes, let’s do it, and I’d copy it and incorporate it, and then he’d say “Wait” and he’d start writing something, and then I’d have another set. And then I think at one point he said, no, don’t show me any more, he didn’t want to look at them any more, and I just shuffled all the decks.

MC: It sounds crazy to have all these different proofs.

RW: You have to be organized. I trained as an editor in the late ’70s at the Met Museum, and we were held to a higher standard, it was a scholarly, world-class deal, and that’s how I do stuff—more’s the pity for the freshmen to whom I teach comp! When it comes to a project like this, I can still do a clean and finished and polished and detailed, pretty-near correct manuscript.

MC: When you say “correct” do you mean linguistically?

RW: Chicago Manual of Style.

ER: Wasn’t there a question from FSG later about a footnote for a recent book, David Duchovny’s novel Bucky F*cking Dent, named for the baseball player? In the book, Duchovny had quoted a short poem, by one Emile Bronnaire, which he had found used as an epigraph in one of the de Chirico stories that John had translated. So FSG wanted a footnote to tell where the quote was from. We had tracked this during the editing process so we had a pretty good idea what the problem was. FSG was adamant that the poem that de Chirico used as his story’s epigraph was the source for this quote, so therefore there must have been a source for Bronnaire somewhere. But we didn’t find any references to Bronnaire when we were editing, and we didn’t find one afterward either when they asked us to double-check it, so it might have been something de Chirico made up.

RW: So Emile Bronnaire was possibly a poet who didn’t exist, as far as we know, or if he did, de Chirico was the only one who had a copy of the poem, which is not impossible.

ER: But that’s the kind of thing, I mean, you’re not only checking the translations, you’re checking historical information because it has to come across accurately. I explained to FSG in an email that we couldn’t give them a source for this name.

RW: It’s in an epigraph.

ER: The epigraph was created by de Chirico.

RW: Or else, it wasn’t—

ER: —or else it wasn’t, it was one of those ambiguities, maybe a de Chirico scholar would know, but even then, it was so minor.[4]

MC: It’s a fact-checking sort of nightmare.

ER: Exactly, and that’s the sort of thing we often did for different parts of the text because there were lots of complicated historical contexts that needed to be preserved.

MC: I thought the footnotes were very restrained.

ER: A lot of those were also John’s.

RW: Translator’s notes. He added some. Some of them were new just for this edition. Not all of them came from the manuscripts we found.

MC: I wasn’t sure how involved John Ashbery was . . .

ER: He was very involved. It was very integrated. He would look at every poem in each galley, he never let it go. I think it was only with the final galley that he said, “I think we’ve got it now.” But he read just about everything through, again and again.

He would look at every poem in each galley, he never let it go. I think it was only with the final galley that he said, “I think we’ve got it now.” But he read just about everything through, again and again.

RW: It was careful and repeated oversight. It was a lot of work for him.

ER: He has incredible focus when he wants to focus. He will just sit down and he will just dig in and do what has to be done and then finish it, whereas the rest of the time he just kind of wants to play. So you see him as being more the poet who is carefree, but I guess maybe the years and years of training in writing journalism helped a lot, which I think is the same thing that happened with Gabriel García Márquez, who was also trained in journalism.

MC: Let me ask you about the introduction. You did an incredible job at synthesizing. And it was not a scholarly edition. You’re writing for a general readership, but you’re going through things that need to be set out in a very specific way and relating them to the translations as well. So how did you approach the introduction? And again, you wrote it together.

RW: As with all of our projects, including the Norton Lectures, when Eugene did all the research for John to write them, but after giving the lectures, John couldn’t get them into a publishable format for Harvard. Finally, maybe ten years later, I said, oh I better do it, and I picked up everything, put in the footnotes, and edited it. For the introduction [to the Collected Translations], Eugene went through dozens of interviews, online and published, that John had done, and found anywhere he talked about translation.

MC: You interwove it.

RW: All the mini-chips for the mosaic, he assembled, then we made a picture.

ER: We did a presentation at the New School for the conference they had on John . . .

RW: That’s right, David Lehman’s.

ER: . . . on different comments he had made about translation, that’s when we first started to use those.

RW: We knew that would be the first draft.

ER: That was an oral presentation, but we had already found a lot of those quotes, so when we did that it was pretty obvious that what we had to do then was to incorporate those into a biographical note. We didn’t do the literary side of it—we felt that literary critics could do that. What we wanted to do was present information about what was happening when John was doing his translations that other people might not know.

RW: Also the pieces are assembled chronologically, but not by the date of their translation. So the intro needed to provide John’s chronology to play off against the obvious timeline of the book.

MC: And you have the appendices, too, in the poetry volume, which are very helpful.

RW: And then, the anecdotes that came with the translations.

ER: We wrote the introduction as one piece, thinking that it might go in the first volume, and Jonathan said, well, you’ve got to have an intro for both volumes, so we had to actually cut it apart. Rosanne is a genius at this, she literally went in like quiltwork, and took out pieces that fit the prose and pieces that fit the poetry.

RW: And pieces that had to be in both.

ER: And then I think we reassembled it into one . . .

RW: . . .we put it back together . . .

ER: . . . we combined it again for a preview in The Massachusetts Review. It was really a lot of fun, in terms of the way manuscripts can be changed based on where they’re published.

MC: How did you feel about the distinction between poetry and prose, which can sometimes be a little blurry?

RW: The Reverdy, while I wouldn’t call it prose, I wouldn’t want to put it in the middle of a volume of poetry, either, especially bilingual. So it went into the prose.

ER: We also looked at the advertising information in the French editions.

RW: You mean, of Haunted House.

ER: For example, Haunted House is included in the prose section of the Reverdy Collected. So we used those guides, and said, okay, if they’re going to call it prose, then we’ll call it prose.

RW: Who are we to . . .?

ER: Why confuse the issue? That was a good one, because I remember that one bothered me the most, Haunted House, because it’s so poetic. The Jarry was hard, too.

RW: It was drama.

ER: It was really poetic drama.

RW: There are things we didn’t know when we were writing the intro that we recently found in The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Life, by Karin Roffman.

RW: It’s at FSG. It’s in manuscript right now, in typescript. But it will be out soon.

ER: You can tell the story.

RW: So the story is, when you asked John what his favorite translation was, he would always say, “The White Cat.” He loved “The White Cat” the best.

ER: He would actually say, “I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written.”

RW: It’s startling. He found out about [Joseph] Cornell when he was about nine years old, from the [MoMA] Surrealist show reviewed in Life magazine. And he found “The White Cat” very early, too. When his younger brother Richard died of leukemia when John was thirteen and Richard was nine, no one in the house talked about it, which frightened him. But that winter, John found a closet that had wrapped presents that would have been given to Richard. And John of course looked to see what they were, and one of them was of a book of fairy tales, and “The White Cat” was in it. I don’t know what edition or whose translation it was, but John must have read it in English. What other translations are there of that story in English? Because if we find that out, then we can guess what edition he first read in English before he translated it himself.

ER: We didn’t know this until recently. When John first got an invitation from Marina Warner to contribute something to Wonder Tales, he said, it was like instantly, “The White Cat.” So she found it, she sent it to him.

RW: Because he didn’t have the French.

ER: And I didn’t know where that had come from, I never asked him, why is this so important to you? It was just a few days ago, while I was reading Karin’s manuscript, that I realized, this is where it comes from.

RW: He turns the loss into this fantastic kingdom of winning through magic.

ER: That was the summer that they started putting on plays to try to distract John from the grief . . .

RW: . . . the kids doing theater.

ER: They would do little plays for the adults to watch . . .

RW: . . . because there were no interactive video games, you couldn’t do Pokémon Go.

ER: Sometimes one of the mothers of the children found something for the children to dramatize.

RW: Karin did a lot of research. She talked to a lot of John Ashbery’s playmates, who remembered little Johnny by the shores of the lake.

ER: It’s going to be a fantastic book. That little piece of information, we would have used it had we known about it.

MC: “The White Cat,” we’ll have to get to the Freudian root of this.

RW: Yes, what is the root of “The White Cat”?

MC: That one totally drew me in. I loved it. I assumed Marina Warner had requested that story, I didn’t know . . .

ER: She asked him, what do you want to do? And John knew what he wanted to do because it was something he had carried with him his whole life. If we had known that, that’s the kind of thing we would have put in the introduction. There was also a point where we were talking about Hebdomeros, which he read on the ship when he was returning to Paris from his father’s funeral in New York. Now, I didn’t know that until only a few weeks before we finished the introduction to the prose volume. And I’m talking to him after he’d asked for the book because we’d had it for a long time, we wanted to use the text to look at the original, just to be careful about sentences, making sure periods and punctuation were okay. So he’s reading it in bed and he goes, “I remember reading this for the first time when I was on this boat coming home.” We said, “Aha!” He had gotten it just before he left on the trip. So that’s when his whole fascination with that book started, when he’s returning from his father’s funeral. So there’s all that context. He said he’d never read anything like that before, and that’s why he was so fascinated with it.

RW: But you can see how it grows, this quiet, grief-filled house, and they didn’t let John stay there when the little boy was dying, it impressed on him that Paris was a magical place. We write about the relatives who send presents back, but now with this incredible loss and this story about a magic youngest son prince who goes away into a complete fairyland with a helper and then comes back triumphant, we can get this sense of incredible psychic power that gave him a feeling like he just wanted to live here in this story where the lost return from somewhere we don’t talk about in beautiful sparkling glory. Then John himself goes to Paris and comes back in glory. I would have put that in the intro, if we had had that story. We did write about French being the locus. Gene’s PhD thesis for NYU Comparative Literature is called “The Good Place in the Poetry of Modernity,” and for John, this was the Good Place—it was Paris.

ER: The title of our Massachussetts Review article is “All the Things One Wants,” which is one of the phrases John uses to describe Paris and . . .

RW: . . . French literature.

ER: “What’s not to like about it . . .”

RW: It’s more than the sense of living the high life, it’s directly connected with the loss of his little brother.

ER: Our introduction says, “As a child in upstate New York, Ashbery read French fairy tales in English, including the masterworks of Perrault.”

RW: We get The Book of Knowledge, a multivolume encyclopedia, but we don’t get that one fact.

ER: We don’t get the d’Aulnoy story when we mention John’s reading The Book of Knowledge, which is exactly the same time that he discovered “The White Cat.” He has the 1923 edition of The Book of Knowledge, identifies with his cousins, Paul and Lillian Holling, who apparently were Europeanized Americans, so there is this real desire for everything French.

RW: And of course the cousins come back every now and then from Europe in triumphal glory to a quiet little upstate town.

ER: When John did the radio show on his translations with Michael Silverblatt, he said that French literature is “a place of romance and pageantry and all the things one wants.”

RW: It’s not only Paris, it’s the body of French literature, it’s “The White Cat,” because that’s where that starts with that incredible enacting of wish-granting, which the father has asked the son for, every magic thing the White Cat gives him is something the father has asked the son to produce.

ER: The other thing about that time is that they not only sent him away while his brother was dying, they also didn’t let him go to the funeral. So he never saw his brother go. There was no closure there whatsoever. Karin describes in the bio the moment that John is coming out of his friend Carol’s house with someone who is babysitting him, he sees the entire entourage of the funeral coming down the road that goes past the house in Pultneyville and along the lake out to the cemetery, on the west side of Pultneyville.

RW: At Richard’s christening, as Karin describes it, the minister calls all the family up, and John gets up to go along with his parents to stand at the christening of the baby. But the minister says, “No, not you, John.”

ER: I talked to John about that, and he said that the minister had said, “Will the family please come up now,” and so John said, “I’m family,” and he stood to walk up, and then the minister said, “Not you, John, not now.”

RW: Today kids are in the delivery room watching the baby get born with Mommy and Daddy.

ER: Anyway, Karin’s done a wonderful job on this.

RW: And everybody’s going to start reading everything over again, just to see what is getting codified, what the psychic equations are. Did you see the new Marianne Moore biography by Linda Leavell?

MC: I haven’t, but I know about it.

RW: We have to reread all of Marianne Moore now. It’s going to be interesting to watch Karin’s book deepen the way that we read John’s work.




[1] Kermani, David K. John Ashbery: A Comprehensive Bibliography, Including His Art Criticism, and with Selected Notes from Unpublished Materials. New York: Garland Publishing, 1976.

[2] The Paris-based journal Art and Literature (1962-1966) was coedited by John Ashbery.

[3] Eugene Richie subsequently asked John Ashbery how he first came across Rimbaud: “John said that he started reading Arthur Rimbaud’s poetry when he was very young, and that in the summer of 1943, when he was sixteen and working at the Sodus Fruit Farm before going to Deerfield, he met Malcolm White. They talked about how much they liked Rimbaud’s poetry and about Hart Crane’s love of Rimbaud’s Illuminations. So when Bob Weil asked John to do a book-length volume of translation to be published at Norton, he chose Illuminations to translate. He had begun translating the first poems in the collection before that time; these drafts were in a folder with his other translations. So he went back to look at them, and then began translating the whole book.”

[4] My recent Google Books search turned up a mention in de Chirico’s memoirs of a “Belgian called Bronnaire” from whom he took French lessons as a boy. Mystery solved?—MC

Poets translated in John Ashbery’s Collected French TranslationsJean-Baptiste Chassignet; Charles Baudelaire; Stéphane Mallarmé; Arthur Rimbaud; Max Jacob; Jules Supervielle; Arthur Cravan; Pierre Reverdy; Maurice Blanchard; Paul Éluard; Paul Éluard and André Breton; Paul Éluard and René Char; Robert Ganzo; Francis Ponge; Jean Follain; Armen Lubin; René Char; René Daumal; Pierre Martory; Yves Bonnefoy; Marcelin Pleynet; Denis Roche; Serge Fauchereau; Franck André Jamme; Pascalle Monnier.

Prose writers translated in John Ashbery’s Collected French Translations: Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy; Odilon Redon; Alfred Jarry; Raymond Roussel; Giorgio de Chirico; Pierre Reverdy; Antonin Artaud; Henri Michaux; Michel Leiris; Salvador Dalí; Jean Hélion; Pierre Martory; Raymond Mason; Iannis Xenakis; Jacques Dupin; Marcelin Pleynet.

Eugene Richie is the author of Moiré (1989), Island Light (1998), and—with Rosanne Wasserman—Place du Carousel (2001) and Psyche and Amor (2009). With Edith Grossman, he cotranslated Jaime Manrique’s Scarecrow (1990) and My Night with Federico García Lorca (1996; 2003). With Raimundo Mora, he has published translations of stories by Matilde Daviu. He edited John Ashbery’s Selected Prose (2004) and, with Wasserman and Olivier Brossard, three bilingual collections of Ashbery’s translations of Pierre Martory’s poems: The Landscape Is behind the Door (1990), Oh, Lake / Oh, lac (2008), and The Landscapist (2008). He has published essays on translation, and on the poets James Schuyler, John Ashbery, Charles North, Ron Padgett, Paul Violi, Gerrit Henry, Ed Barrett, and Forrest Gander. He is a founding editor of The Groundwater Press and has served as Chair and Director of Creative Writing in the Pace University NYC English Department. 

Rosanne Wasserman’s poems can be found in print and online, in the Best American Poetry annual series, Jubilat, ek-phra-sis, Conduit, Cimarron, Jacket 2, Maggy, How2, and elsewhere. Her books of poems include The Lacemakers (1992), No Archive on Earth (1995), and Other Selves (1999); as well as Place du Carousel (2001) and Psyche and Amor (2009), collaborations with her husband, the poet Eugene Richie, with whom she runs The Groundwater Press, a nonprofit poetry publisher. She has written on John Ashbery and Grace Paley for The Massachusetts Review; on poet Tom Weatherly, jewelry designer Miriam Haskell, and artist Dwight Ripley for the Best American Poetry blog; on Pierre Martory, James Schuyler, and Ruth Stone for American Poetry Review; and on Marianne Moore, Dara Wier, H. D., and others. A new collection, Sonnets from Elizabeth’s, is forthcoming from Grey Suit, London.

Published Feb 15, 2017   Copyright 2017 Margaret Carson

Leave Your Comment

comments powered by Disqus
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.