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Eugene Richie & Rosanne Wasserman on John Ashbery’s “Collected French Translations,” Part 2

By Margaret Carson

Read Part One of the interview.

Margaret Carson speaks with Eugene Richie and Rosanne Wasserman, the editors of John Ashbery’s Collected French Translations (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), about “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.”

MC: In the introduction to the poetry volume, “Curious Resemblances,” you consider what John Ashbery and others have said about the interplay between his translations and his poetry. Can you talk more about that?

RW: Well, I’m going to say Joseph Cornell and collage.

ER: Yes, but you are making those connections, and they’re probably very true, just like I made that connection of John’s translations with his collages, but he has always been resistant to trying to explain the work, that’s why when he’s asked a question, he’ll come back a little later and say something like, “Well, maybe the sentences go on in Roussel, maybe I learned something from that.” But I think the real secret is he doesn’t mind other people making connections, but he doesn’t really know and I don’t think he really wants to try to figure it out.

RW: Did you ever read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Douglas Adams, a comic genius, talked at one point about how some group of people, I don’t know if they were prophets or scientists, finally learned to understand the language of birds, but all the birds were ever talking about was wind speed and velocity or where the best worms could be found. And I think there’s a certain problem there. When you ask the poet how he did it, he’s going to say that the old Olivetti wasn’t fast enough, it had a sticky “S” key; it’s not his job to observe his flight, it’s just his job to fly. The other thing is that Psyche, you know, is told by Amor, don’t turn on the light, just as the White Cat doesn’t want to be asked questions about where the magic is coming from. And if the bird thinks about its wings or the runner about the bones of his feet, they’re going to fall down, so there’s a danger that John is always doing a Salome dance around that critic’s question. He could do it, but he doesn’t want to do the work for you.

When you ask the poet how he did it, he’s going to say that the old Olivetti wasn’t fast enough, it had a sticky “S” key; it’s not his job to observe his flight, it’s just his job to fly.

ER: One association I made was that I saw in John’s translation of Pierre Reverdy’s Haunted House something very similar to what was going on in his Three Poems. There are points in Haunted House where you get lost, especially at sea, and the ship is going down, and there are things all around, and when you read Three Poems you get a similar feeling. And I said to John, “You read that before, were you thinking about it when you actually did Three Poems?” And he replied, “No, not really. I think they’re really different, because he’s writing a kind of poetic prose and I was trying to capture the way people talk at the time I wrote this, that was one thing I was interested in, to make those phrases a collection of things that people would say.” Even though you see a resemblance on the surface, when you look at the way he’s looking at it, he’s not writing it this way because of Reverdy. It may look as though he’s using the same kind of prose, which might go on without imagery, then suddenly it gets imagistic, and then the images vanish; or the prose gets narrative, then he breaks the narrative. But John had a different purpose, and it didn’t necessarily come from any of the translations, even though the way he uses imagery and narrative might be similar.

RW: And yet you want to take his “The Instruction Manual” and put it next to the Jacob story about the little boy in Naples [“Literature and Poetry”].

ER: As we noted in our introduction to the poetry volume, in “The Instruction Manual” there was the same kind of dreaming about another city, as well as similar phrasings and repetitions as in the Naples story. The same kind of wry humor . . .

RW: . . . the character and narrative and delineated experience.

ER: Because he sounds like that guy in “Literature and Poetry” and the comment at the end where the father says something about, he’s lying . . .

RW: Yes, the kid’s a liar . . .

ER: I mean, it’s the irony of the father being proud . . .

RW: “He’s never been to Naples.”

ER: And at the same time being realistic and funny.

RW: Just as John had never been to Guadalajara.

ER: And all of those things are there. But I did ask him about it, and he didn’t feel there was any direct connection to that. He would have acknowledged direct connections.

RW: We’re not talking about direct connections, we’re talking about indirect connections.

ER: I think most of them are, I don’t think he sets out to do that.

RW: Okay, another one. You know that story about catbirds, about how when car alarms go off in the neighborhood, and all of a sudden you would hear the catbird doing the car alarm?

MC: What are catbirds?

RW: They’re like mockingbirds, particularly in suburban New York, they’re little grey guys with white stripes. As a Southerner I thought they were mockingbirds but here they call them catbirds. They will imitate impressive sounds. One day there was this little bird going [makes sound of bird imitating car alarm] and it was doing the car alarm! And it would go through six of the repetitions, and then it would start all over. This is what’s happening, it’s not conscious.

ER: Right. It’s almost like a game, a playfulness, “Curious Resemblances.”

RW: It’s a curious resemblance! “My God, that bird sounds just like my Honda, but it doesn’t look anything like it.”

ER: Does it know that it sounds like a Honda? That’s a perfect example of what might happen.

RW: “Catbird, did you mean to sound just like my Honda?” “No, really, I was just trying to attract a girl catbird, but she didn’t like the car alarm.”

Image: Rosanne Wasserman working on John Ashbery’s Collected French Translations, 2013. Photo by Eugene Richie.

MC: These ideas about connections lead to interesting analogies.

ER: They’re interesting because he’s a writer who’s also a translator. I think in some ways John doesn’t want to be the writer, even though he joked about writing “The White Cat,” what he really wants is to get to the essence of the works he’s read, they were so good, things that really worked for him, and I think that’s what Lydia Davis was talking about in her New York Times Book Review article on his translations [“Rimbaud’s Wise Music”]. She says that he is so careful with the original. We’re always afraid as translators of making the mistake of being too literal and that we’re getting a false translation because of that, it’s stilted or something, but he takes it one step further, and I think she recognizes this. She says that he’s not ever unfaithful to the original, he tries his darndest to be faithful. He’s not trying to make a lot of elliptical leaps, he just wants it to be equal in the language he’s trying to bring it into, in this case, English. And so John’s got this combination of being a really great translator, which may come from him being a good writer, but it’s also because good translators can do that, no matter if they’ve written or not, and I think that’s one of the things he aspires to do.

RW: I think that it also has something to do with his brushwork and his palette, as being a particularly kind of flexible but dry medium, so we say how much “The Instruction Manual” sounds like the little boy from Naples poem, but of course I only know that poem from John’s translation. I have to say something about the [Raymond] Roussel illustrations, where Roussel hires the naive linear two-dimensional flat business illustrator to do these incredibly surreal and impossible tableaux. In many ways John keeps his language there, so that it can do these things, because if he were any more idiosyncratic or less flexible or wetter, it wouldn’t hold that much, he couldn’t go to all these places with it.

ER: There’s a down-to-earthness to him, another phrase that might be close to the way this works. One time he quoted Jane Freilicher in an introduction. I don’t have the exact quote from Jane but she said something like, “Well, I don’t have very much imagination, so I just paint what I see.” That’s exactly the way he translates. Even though his imagination is unbelievable, and so is hers. But the idea is in the methodology, just look at what you see and try to get it down, and that’s the same thing with the translation, even though it’s done in words, it’s very down-to-earth, it’s not literal. It’s a way of not letting the emotion or philosophy, or things that a lot of writers have—this whole other side, where you can hardly get them to make sense when they’re talking because they are actually in another world almost. John is always there right in front of you. His presence is so incredible. And as a person he’s like that as well. I think that comes across not only in his work but in his translations.

John is always there right in front of you. His presence is so incredible. And as a person he’s like that as well. I think that comes across not only in his work but in his translations.

RW: It’s like clean-line cartooning—it’s the difference between a really disappointing blockbuster CGI and some excellent animation. There’s a translation going on that has something to do with economy, cleanliness, fluidity, responsiveness and responsibility to an original, and selflessness.

ER: Speaking of translators, do you know any translators who are also a writers but who actually don’t translate well? I think I’ve run across them but I can’t think of any right now. We always think that a person who’s a writer is going to be a good translator.

MC: That’s the expectation.

ER: The imaginative way Ezra Pound approached translation, and also Imitations by Robert Lowell.

RW: Pound and Lowell were taken apart . . .

ER: Right, but they said they were going to do that, that they wanted to do that. They were going to another level with it. There are many different ways of translating. They were acknowledging that. They weren’t saying it’s the same thing. They said they were recreating something, but John doesn’t seem to start there, he seems to start with this really direct correspondence.

MC: I was thinking about the Lowell and the Robert Bly tradition. There are so many departure points for translators.

RW: They do riffs on the originals.

ER: They seem fanciful in some ways, I mean, they are what they are. I always appreciate translators who give me as close as possible to the original and still make it sound beautiful.

RW: I’ve given up on translations of the Odyssey because you can’t find an American translation that gives you a readable version that’s faithful in an accessible way to this text . . . One of the beautiful things about John’s Collected Translations is that it’s almost a century of work, starting with a young man born in the 1920s, so that when he reaches back to update and adjust his earlier translations, as he navigates through the century, the poets he’d chosen to translate so long ago become modern, too, as he does by remaining our contemporary, still in there knocking it out of the park. And he’s got Monnier, he’s got poets younger than himself, way younger in there, so his engagement with these new poets helps him make, and remake, translations that read, for us, as honest and responsible to their originals. 

ER: And I didn’t know he was that kind of a translator until I started this project. So it was a wonderful discovery.

MC: I didn’t know how much familiarity you had with the translations. I assumed that because you did the Selected Prose you must have already read through them, but what I’m hearing is that it was a major discovery to find this body of work.

ER: Yes. And David [Kermani] believed (and this is the point I wanted to make about choosing the texts), he’s developed this idea through the Flow Chart Foundation and so on, that in fact what John has been doing through the years—and this is someone who’s not a literary critic, he’s a bibliographer—is to create a kind of “other tradition,” in John’s phrase, and it creates a canon, a new canon, which is in some ways contrary to the canon that has been established, for too long, by literary critics and literary theorists . . .

RW: Especially in France.

ER: And the first person who actually put his finger on that, around the same time, is Mark Ford, whom I quoted in the introduction to the Selected Prose. He realized that the three books—Other Traditions, Selected Prose, and Reported Sightings—were a trilogy that created another tradition of reading differently.

Image: John Ashbery & Eugene Richie at the Freilicher opening at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, early ’90s. Photo by Star Black. 

MC: I love reading through Other Traditions because it’s a way of discovering poets through another poet. It’s such a pleasure to read Ashbery’s prose.

ER: And to read these less well-known poets, because I think that’s exactly what he was trying to do. Mark Ford makes this connection to Ashbery being similar to T.S. Eliot, but for his own time, because Eliot is seen so much as a creator of a tradition.

RW: Arbiters of taste.

ER: But that’s not John’s tradition, even though I think he likes Eliot. So it’s really refreshing to have someone in a major position like John who’s creating a new canon. It happens all the time. And even writers who are not as major, if you look at their essays, you’ll find that they made their own canon. In fact, I guess when you get as strongly in focus as John is, then what you do is seen as being somehow more groundbreaking for literary history. That’s why Mark Ford compared him to T.S. Eliot, and those three books, including his translations, will help him do that, to create a new window for literary history. I think it’s happening right now, too, with someone like Claudia Rankine, who is rewriting literary history through everything she does.

RW: And women poets.

ER: Yes, particularly Claudia. She edits a lot of anthologies—one of twenty-first-century poets, and two volumes of women poets. She’s really changed the way we’re going to look at literary history. She has the power to do it.

RW: The author of Voyage of the Sable Venus, Robin Costa Lewis. There are new traditions waking up old traditions, recasting them. It’s cool.

ER: But I think John’s had so much to do with the connection of America to France, or even with the connection of America to Europe, which is not happening so much now.

MC: There’s a certain strand of French poets who are discovering US poetry, maybe by translating John Ashbery.

RW: For example, the French poet Anne Talvaz, who is one of John’s translators.

ER: Yes, John would use her as an authority for problems with words he couldn’t figure out.

MC: So she’s translating a lot of John Ashbery’s poetry?

RW: Yes, she’s one of John’s major translators into French.

ER: Olivier just finished The Tennis Court Oath. And Anne had done a selection of poems together with Pierre translated into French. Then, of course, there is Franck André Jamme, who translated Three Poems into French. Jamme is in the Collected, and he’s a poet who’s translated John. He feels constantly frustrated because John has never been adopted by the mainstream French. It seems to be so rigid, he’s considered an outsider even though he lived there for so long—maybe Beckett had a cachet? There must be some poets who are translators of their own work, or whose work was translated into French and then powerfully received and integrated into French culture. But Jamme doesn’t think that’s happening, even now, because he told John he’d hoped the translation of Three Poems would have had a better reception. The young writers—just like in England—tend to be more sensitive to the contributions of non-French writers.

MC: Another one of my favorites was the Mallarmé translations of the nursery rhymes, which were recent.

ER: I was reading something today, I think it was in The London Magazine article by Hélène Cardona, she quotes from the original statements by the school inspectors, basically auditors who sat in on Mallarmé’s English classes, for which he’d translated nursery rhymes.[1] They’re ruthless: At one point the observer says, “First of all, I wish you would learn English.” Which reminds me of that phrase from Lawrence Blochman, a professor from Columbia who said the same thing about John, that he always had to doctor John’s translations of Dell detective novels because “The guy didn’t know English.” At a certain point, Mallarmé’s observer says “Let him learn English and refrain from dictating to his students such foolishness,” because the translations were very imaginative, and then the inspector quotes one of the rhymes: “‘Liar swallow your saliva, and the liar has more saliva than anyone.’ One is tempted to ask if one is in the presence of a lunatic.” His dramatic reaction to powerfully imaginative translation is that the guy’s insane?

RW: How did John find this?

ER: I think he had the volume in the Gallimard edition.

RW: And he just decided to pick it up one day.

ER: And he translated the edition’s critical comments for his own preface to the translation of Mallarmé’s work. I don’t think Brad Morrow at Conjunctions, where it was published, asked him to do these, he just asked him to do something. It’s something he’s had around for a long, long time, like the idea of translating “The White Cat.”[2]

MC: Back to the de Chirico again. It’s a question about permissions or getting the formal okay. In the Brooklyn Rail interview with Jarrett Earnest [In Conversation: John Ashbery with Jarrett Earnest] Ashbery says about Hebdomeros, “I felt tremendous love for that text. It’s so precious.” Apparently de Chirico was in New York and Ashbery tried to get his okay to do the whole book, but de Chirico blew him off. “He just waved his hand, eh! and that was the extent of our conversation. So I never did the rest of it because the rights situation seemed unclear.” 

ER: There’s one major modern translation by Margaret Crossland, and that’s the one they usually publish. In a recording on Penn Sound, John talks about meeting de Chirico, and that’s where I first heard that story. It was at an event for the Poetry Project and he was reading some of the de Chirico. But he did say the exact same thing in that interview, he said de Chirico was notoriously difficult and hard to speak to and dismissive, and that when he asked him if he could translate Hebdomeros, he said ‘eh!’ without saying yes or no. That was confusing and de Chirico wasn’t easy to get in touch with. So John was never able to follow up on it. That’s why he only translated two fragments of the novel.

MC: It’s too bad. There could have been a complete translation.

ER: It would have been beautiful.

MC: Actually Selection One of Hebdomeros had never been published before. How did that come about . . .?

ER: I found it in his files and entered it on the computer. I can’t remember if he had it in New York in his bedroom, where he used to keep manuscripts on the bottom shelf of the bookcase, or if he had it up in Hudson. I remember finding it and saying, “Oh, you’ve got a second part.” Then we found what section of Hebdomeros it had come from. I think he just did it out of the blue once, I don’t know how old it was. The other one we copied directly from Art and Literature. But as you said, that’s why he didn’t continue it—he was afraid he wouldn’t get the rights and that it would be a waste of his time.

MC: The translator’s worst scenario is when you have a manuscript and can’t publish it.

ER: But Fred Courtright, who did the permissions, made connections with all the publishers. He was able to clear the rights before we published them.

MC: That’s the business side of translation, having to pay for the rights, and if the estate wants an exorbitant amount it makes publication impossible. What are your favorite translations?

RW: Definitely “The White Cat.” Definitely Haunted House—I read that to my students.

ER: Well, besides Pierre Martory, whose work we love or else we wouldn’t have started publishing it so long ago, I think the two poets I like the most are—let’s exclude Rimbaud because there’s only a little bit there, I mean I love Illuminations—but of the poets who don’t have full books translated by John, Max Jacob to me was a stunning discovery. I like Pierre Reverdy’s poems as well as his Haunted House. And if I had to name one more, it was really a delight to discover Pascale Monnier. The reason he translated Pascale was because she was at the retreat in the south of France he went to, he met her there and just loved her, liked everything she was doing. They kept in touch. When he was in Paris, many of the writers he translated were personal friends, such as [Marcelin] Pleynet, [Denis] Roche, and [Serge] Fauchereau.

RW: There was the Tel Quel circle, he was sort of on the outskirts of the outskirts.

MC: I think some of the writers he translated were editors at Tel Quel, like Pleynet.

RW: I don’t like Jacques Dupin’s style, but toward the end of his essay [“Texts for an Approach”], there’s this one paragraph he quotes from Giacometti— it’s something I remember from the whole book—when Giacometti talks about the monolith. It’s beautiful and it’s something like a touchstone for me, whereas it’s hard for me to read the rest of the Dupin. It’s the one thing in the essay that would make me want to translate the whole piece, and I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if that had something to do with why John still loved and remembered it and wanted to include it in the Collected.

MC: There was a seventeenth-century poet, Jean-Baptiste Chassignet, a contemporary of the Spanish Golden Age poet Francisco de Quevedo. I was surprised by how similar their poetry is.

RW: Did you notice the title of the work, because again I’m thinking of . . .

ER: It’s “The Vanity of Life and Consolation against Death.” And how is it that John would have been attracted? These were published in the St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter. Again, I don’t know why he did them, if they gave them to him or not. But to go back to your question, on the prose side for me, my favorites were really the de Chirico stories, I mean, they were just so much fun.

RW: I nearly lost my mind going through those. I mean, really, really really. To try to do line- and copy-editing on that, it was really hard.

MC: I noticed there aren’t many paragraph breaks . . .

RW: It wasn’t just that. It’s also the sentences and the situations, it was the weight of the narrative, which made me feel as if I were trying to do calculus in a cloud of hashish. I thought, if I have to read five more pages of this, they’re going to have to lock me up. I had to give my mind a break.

ER: You thought that about de Chirico? What about Roussel?

RW: But you know, Roussel is anchored.

ER: Right.

RW: Roussel is always there. You can see the strings of his puppets,

ER: “Documents to Serve as an Outline” does cohere as a narrative in ways that de Chirico’s Hebdomeros doesn’t.

RW: I think it was somewhere in the middle of “Monseiur Dudron’s Adventure” that I just thought I was going to lose it. I mean, it’s not a very long text, it goes on for some twenty pages . . .

ER: Yeah, that’s pretty amazing.

RW: Rudderless, not unlike Reverdy, but in Reverdy there’s this bitter, desperate edge that keeps you focused, and it’s a completely different feeling. The de Chirico is like being swallowed by the whale, slowly digested.

In Reverdy there’s this bitter, desperate edge that keeps you focused . . . The de Chirico is like being swallowed by the whale, slowly digested.

ER: Yet there is narrative in de Chirico, in a lot of the pieces. Haunted House has for me what Ann Lauterbach calls “disruptive narrative”—a concept she uses in her own poetry and poetics and, in some ways, gets a little bit from John. I think it’s definitely what’s going on in Haunted House.

RW: I think suddenly of Guy Maddin.

ER: Yes! Like a Guy Maddin film. You can’t stay too long in one part, but it keeps repeating or returning to images or moods.

RW: That’s right, but you never really left.

ER: You went somewhere else, into another image, but you didn’t really leave the original one, and you don’t know exactly where the other one went while you were going somewhere else, yes, that’s very much the experience in Haunted House.

RW: I don’t want to say that the de Chirico is a little bit like watching an Andy Warhol movie.

ER: That’s a good association.

RW: It’s not quite that slow and, like you say, it does have plot. But I haven’t got quite the right filmmaker, there’s something about the depth of the self-involvement in each experience of the narrator, it’s . . . and I found the quality of the anxiety to be disturbing.

MC: When you say anxiety, what do you mean? You, as a reader?

RW: The narrator, the character as narrated by the omniscient narrator, is not comfortable anywhere and it makes the narrator tell the story in a way that’s anxious, and of course I’m anxious and I have a deadline, and I have to read every single word and look for commas, so it was just a perfect storm of difficulty for me to get through that. It was hard. I kept getting lost, and normally I don’t get lost, you know, I sit here with an envelope and I move the envelope down line by line to proofread. I found I couldn’t lift the envelope after a while. The de Chirico was memorably hard to do.

Image: John Ashbery in Paris in 1959. Courtesy of Walter Silver.

MC: Was that a text that John Ashbery was revising?

ER: The ones that had already been published were pretty set.

RW: That was a late translation. He was more nervous about what would have been earlier, “kitchen” work, although he didn’t do a whole lot of rewriting on the Jacob.

ER: All of those had been published already. So he had had editors, he had had friends, they had helped him go over it repeatedly.

RW: That’s true. But that sheaf of stuff from the Fulbright . . . That hadn’t all been published.

ER: He just did it as a way to fulfill the project.

RW: He applied for that Fulbright six times.

ER: He did those translations as fast as possible and just turned them in. Luckily we had a copy of it. I had sent it to Harvard when I processed John’s first installment of archives. Leslie Miller at Harvard made a copy and sent them to John.

RW: You found the book from which most of the poems came among the books that you moved when his mom’s house was broken up.

ER: French Poetry after Surrealism, it was a little orange and black . . .

RW: . . . and crumbly . . .

ER: . . . book that he bought in Paris in Fall 1955 or ’56, probably at the publisher’s bookstore, Éditions de Beaune. It was in the basement of his mother’s house when we took stuff out and brought it back to Hudson. This book was in the basement in a little box, not really little, maybe two by four, and we just took a bunch of the books John said he’d left there when he came back from Europe—so this is one of the ones we discovered there, and in that book I had the French for a lot of the Fulbright translations. He wanted to exclude more, but we talked him out of it.

RW: I tended to argue for inclusiveness.

ER: Also, there was a piece by Dalí that I asked him to include, because it had a poem about Gala in it that John translated.

RW: That’s the word “Collected.” It’s not “Complete.” “Complete” is going to be a whole other job.

MC: Was there something left out that all three of you would agree should have been included?

RW: There’s new stuff.

ER: Well, there’s more Rimbaud. I don’t think there’s been any new translation. I think what we’re saying in terms of “Complete” is that we don’t have the whole book of Martory, or of Illuminations, and there were articles he translated in ArtNews, ArtNews Annual, that were written by critics.

RW: The books are big enough.

MC: This is a question translators will love. Do you know which French dictionaries John Ashbery uses?

ER: He uses Harrap’s.

RW: Is it here?

ER: [From another room] He’s got the English and the French, yes, this is the English into French, and the French into English, what’s the date on this? Every time I see him translate he uses Harrap’s religiously, 1962, edited by J.E. Mansion. That’s something he’s had here ever since I’ve known him. He bought it in the early ’60s, in Paris, probably at the Galignani Bookstore.

MC: Does he have a French-French dictionary or thesaurus?

ER: Yes, he also bought the Petit Larousse French-to-French dictionary at that time in Paris, probably also at Galignani. I think sometimes he used an online dictionary. The best, I’ve found, is, so useful to get a start to things, but I don’t think he used that too much. And Olivier Brossard gave him CD-ROMs of a French-to-French dictionary. Who does the big one in multiple languages? Larousse. Yes, I think it was Larousse. But I’ve never seen him use a paper copy of that.

MC: So when many of these translations were done, Harrap’s would have been the dictionary, or one of the dictionaries.

RW: He would have also depended on Pierre.

ER: I’ve done a lot of reading in French myself and every time I looked at Harrap’s it was so helpful, I was really pleased with the way it brought things across with accuracy, the complexity of it as well.

MC: Maybe with French, because it’s more centralized, you can use one dictionary. There are so many Spanishes . . .

ER: I’ve always liked to use Simon and Schuster, there’s something down to earth about the way it translates from Spanish, and then of course Larousse, Cassell’s.

MC: The Real Academia Española, that’s online now.

ER: I found that in my twenties, when I was at Columbia. That was the first time I even knew it existed, and I consulted it for the early translations I did.

MC: But you really can’t put it up there with the French or with the OED.

ER: Oh, the other one that’s really great is by the Chilean writer who did a dictionary that shows different meanings of words in different Latin American countries.

MC: Gabriela Mistral.

ER: Yes, her Diccionario castellano ilustrado.

MC: Rosanne, do you translate?

RW: Only little projects now and then. I attended the CUNY Greek Institute back in the early ’80s and loved Ancient Greek. I’ve done a bit of Sappho.

ER: That’s no little feat, and one of her translations that was published was praised by Helen Vendler.

RW: She didn’t know me at all at the time.

ER: She read it because your professor had sent it to her. And I think it was sent to her out of the blue, so when she met Rosanne she already knew her.

MC: Tell me a bit more about yourselves.

RW: We’re both poets; we have a son, Joseph, who is 26. We met at Columbia University’s School of the Arts in 1974. And we were married in 1977. And started PhD programs, and I started working at the Met, one busy summer.

ER: We worked on magazines all along, on City Magazine for a long time, and then we started the Groundwater Press, which was literally an idea to publish people we knew and I think was especially inspired by Gerrit Henry, a poet and friend of John’s who died not long ago, an art critic, who had never had a book published.

RW: I had a dream where Gerrit said that someone could die of a broken heart before they had a book published. So I said, Gene, we’ve got to start publishing people. And there was a whole circle of Ashbery’s students and younger poets who had never had books done, they were in their twenties and early thirties like us, and we began to publish many of them in the Intuflo chapbook series. We still publish people from that circle, for almost thirty years now. We called it The Groundwater Press, because I’m from Kentucky, which is hunting ground, and Gene is from Minnesota.

MC: The land of lakes.

RW: And in the first years of the Internet people who wanted to publish articles on arterial wells were trying to hit us up.

ER: Rosanne has published three books, with a new chapbook, Sonnets after Elizabeth, forthcoming from Anthony Howell and Kerry-Lee Powell at Grey Suit. I’ve published one book, Island Light, with Painted Leaf, the late Bill Sullivan’s press; Bill also published Rosanne’s Other Selves.

RW: And Groundwater Press published Bill’s retrospective catalogue of paintings for his show at the Albany Institute of Art.

ER: We’ve written two books of poems in collaboration, Place du Carrousel, published in Vilnius (2000) . . .

RW: . . . which featured our poems alongside an artist’s catalogue, a beautiful book whose publication was arranged by our Russian friends . . .

ER: . . . Arkady Rovner; his wife, the late Victoria Andreyeva; and their son, the composer Anton Rovner, at Gnosis Press, which published Rosanne’s first two books, Lacemakers and No Archive on Earth, and will publish my next book, too. The other title we wrote together was Psyche and Amor, published in 2004 with Dara Wier’s Factory Hollow Press in Amherst. In that book, we took turns writing every other line. I’m also working with Martha Driver, a medievalist and my colleague at Pace University, on translating and editing a book to be titled Medieval Tales of Magic and the Middle East, for which we’ve done a lot of John Gower’s rhymed romances, as well as Thomas Chester’s Sir Launval, and anonymous romances too, such as The Sultan of Babylon and The Turks and Sir Gawain.


[1] Cardona, Hélène. “The Imaginative Mind: Enchantment and Transcendence in John Ashbery’s Collected French Translations: Poetry and Prose.” The London Magazine Feb.-March 2016.

[2] In an email Eugene Richie recounted a subsequent conversation he had with John Ashbery about how the poet first came across this work by Mallarmé: “John said that he had first read a few of Stéphane Mallarmé’s “sometimes straightforward, sometimes fanciful translations” of English nursery rhymes while in New York, sometime in the mid to late ’60s, in a French book he found with odds and ends by Mallarmé, and that he liked them very much. So when he was asked to contribute some translations to Brad Morrow’s magazine Conjunctions, No. 45, in 2005, he chose to translate some of Mallarmé’s own translations of the English nursery rhymes, which were collected in Mallarmé’s Recueil de “Nursery Rhymes,” an incomplete manuscript of exercises for students that was discovered and published with Gallimard in 1964 by Carl Paul Barbier. As John suggests, Mallarmé’s translations of the English nursery rhymes were “brilliant fragments of prose poetry,” which Mallarmé had composed in French to accompany the little English nursery rhymes that he had copied out of various contemporary British anthologies, such as those illustrated by Kate Greenaway, Randolph Caldecott, and Walter Crane.”

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-sisConduitCimarronJacket 2MaggyHow2, 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 16, 2017   Copyright 2017 Margaret Carson

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