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This interview is taken from PN Review 219, Volume 41 Number 1, September - October 2014.In Conversation with Lee Harwood
'A Triangle of London, Paris and New York'
oli hazzard: In your book-length interview with Kelvin Corcoran you talk about how John Ashbery gave you a new approach to writing, but also how in a way you’d already found that approach in Borges and Tzara, and that Ashbery’s work represented a kind of culmination of what you’d already learned from them…
lee harwood: Yes, it was an awareness of how effective loose collage could be. So it was starting with Pound’s Cantos and Tzara and Borges – not that Borges is doing collage, but it’s the same thing as with Tzara. These writers make you think and double-check and that involves the reader in a way – your opinion is respected, your input is respected. I’m not talking about political theories about democracy or whatever: it just seemed so much more interesting than someone talking at you. They’re talking with you, and like most discussions there’s a back-and-forth, agree, disagree. This is one of the things that I loved about Ashbery – such a breath of fresh air after the Beats and so on, which were very necessary and terrific, but – how many more priests do we need? ‘I saw the best minds of my generation…’ It’s telling you where it’s at. I’d far rather someone who says ‘Well, where are we now?’
If I could just go back to the beginning with Ashbery. Could you tell me a little bit about how you first met?
It was about 1965. He came over from Paris – he was working in Paris and writing art columns for the Herald Tribune – and did a reading at the US embassy, and I went along. I was impressed but I wasn’t quite sure what was happening there. Then afterwards there was a party and I got to know him there, and after that I went over to stay with him several times in Paris. Then he had to move back to the States. In the mid- to late 60s I was spending a lot of time going back and forth to New York, and I usually stayed with him. A lovely warm friendship built up between us.
Was that when he was living with Pierre Martory?
Yes, Pierre was a journalist for Paris-Match. A theatre critic but also a poet – there was a volume of his poems brought out a little while ago, finally, translated by Ashbery.
Did you get on? I’ve always been intrigued by that poem ‘That evening Pierre insisted I have two roasted pigeons’…
Um. I liked him. My French wasn’t good enough for his standards, and he just wanted to talk entirely in French. And… I guess on a personal level, he and John had been for ten or twelve years in a relationship which had shifted to another dimension. There was the awkwardness of my being in this new relationship with John. They were still sharing an apartment. There’s no need to say any more. There was a little bit of tension.
You went around Europe a bit with Ashbery during that time, which produced that wonderful collaborative poem, ‘Train Poem’, which was written on a train between Paris and Grenoble. Do you remember how it was composed?
Well, we went on a train journey. One of us would write a line and pass it across. With no alterations or changes.
So it was a line each?
Not always, sometimes it was half a line or a line and a half. Some collaborations are quite formal, but it wasn’t.
It’s a terrific poem.
You can tell who wrote what: his are the smart lines! I was just very gushy.
That’s it, though, I’ve spent a lot of time with it, but I can’t distinguish who wrote what. It seems very cohesive. So John went back to New York?
Yes, his father died, and his mother – he wanted to be close to her, who lived up in Rochester up-state. I think his father had all these orchards and so on. I went up there to visit a couple of times, and it was very rural. He inherited some money. He was able to move back to the States and live in New York. And then he had all that work editing Art News. One Art News annual he put together was full of super-obscure and slightly maniac painters from around the world. One of the milder people would have been Joseph Cornell, but there were others…
Was Cornell influential for you?
Yeah. It’s really hard to know. You see something like Cornell and it encourages you to pursue what you do already. I love the magic of those boxes, all the stories that are locked in there. It’s like an invitation to enter this construction, this toy theatre, just like the paper toy theatres you used to get. Where the poem isn’t a statement, it’s a questioning. The thing with the Beats was that it was a confessional thing. And the same with Lowell. But the thing about Ashbery was that he was completely outside of it, creating this world which the reader is invited to enter, and play with, and think about. So the emphasis isn’t on the personality of the writer – even though, no matter what John says, it is personal. There is personal stuff there, but it’s well wrapped-up. With a poem like ‘How Much Longer Will I Be Able to Inhabit the Divine Sepulchre…’, what he’s talking about is how much you dare expose yourself, your real feelings, to other people. And that’s quite personal.
‘Wrapping-up’ the personal is an interesting phrase.
I think in that same interview with Piotr Sommer, John talks about how he’s always had a bit of trouble with pronouns. Who is I? Or he? Or you? And he finds them shifting. Sometimes the person is me or you, now it’s like French on, one does. Other times it can be one’s self, or combinations. So you’ve got quite a few layers. That I find attractive – the emphasis isn’t placed on having to identify with a particular speaker. But having the reader maybe seeing it one way, but it produces more – subtlety, not obscurity. It’s how human beings function. That’s kind of clumsily put. Ronald Kitaj, the painter, says people are always trying to find themselves: we’re lost in worlds, lost in thought, lost in conversation – what would we do if we did find ourselves? It’s enjoying and accepting the fact that things are going to be incomplete and have ragged ends.
The elusiveness of the reference of the pronoun – Ashbery once described his use of them as being like ‘variables in an equation’ – seems often most rich and strange when it refers to the changeable ‘you’. I have a feeling that there’s a similar importance placed on the identity of the ‘you’ in your work. What’s your conception of an audience? How does that relate to the ‘you’? Are you ever directly addressing an individual, or is it always generalised?
I think with my own work, the looseness of who is who… that for me is a way of avoiding making direct statements and feeling that they wouldn’t do justice to what I’m trying to create. I think in a way – it always has to be like a spoken language. Even though it may not appear totally like it. So one has always got to be talking to somebody real, first of all. The conversational tone of having someone in mind. Jack Spicer said the poem is like a stone thrown into a pond: you write the poem just for yourself, and then the rings go out. The first one would be someone you’re in love with; the next one would be your group of friends; and then if it gets to anyone beyond that it’s an accident. It’s put clumsily, but I know what he means. Once you start talking in that public voice, like Adrian Mitchell about Vietnam, you lose a humanity. It’s rhetoric, it’s speechifying. Whereas if you keep it close, keep it personal, it rings true.
That’s very interesting, particularly in the context of The Man with Blue Eyes. In many of those poems there seems to be on one level a very direct address to a person: to John. When you were composing them, were you thinking about their possible reception by a broader audience, or was it an intimate address between two people?
No, at that point in my mid-twenties, I wasn’t thinking about audience, or how it would be received – it was like a necessity. It was addressed to him – I don’t even know if ‘addressed’ is right – but it could also somehow go beyond that talk between two people. Or me talking at John. It was bringing in a lot of the strands of the surrounding world, going on about their business, while this relationship was moving through its stages. It’s like that thing: ‘Back at the ranch’. Or if you’re talking about a love scene in a room, and the poem also mentions a car backfiring in the street outside – that somehow makes it more real, more tangible for readers. This is happening in the world, it isn’t literary, it isn’t poetry with a capital P. It’s something else. Whatever that is, I want to go for it.
There’s that movement in the title poem from an incredibly intimate scene between two people to a strange and unexpected mention of a bus going up Gower Street – the world of the poem expands.
I guess that’s where my reading in the French surrealists comes in. André Breton’s novel Nadja, and Aragon’s Paris Peasant, where it’s a bit like Cornell – the mystery of all the stuff around you. In Breton, there’s this incredibly intense relationship he has with this woman, and he goes to a suburban square in Paris for a meeting. There’s a statue of a local dignitary. And it becomes a kind of mysterious thing, and the same thing happens with Paris Peasant, where an arcade of shops becomes like Aladdin’s cave. It’s that realising how strange the surrounding world is, how fascinating it is, I think Reverdy called it ‘the daily miracle’. The attraction to me was that I found myself in a triangle of London, Paris and New York. Nearly all the New York poets I got to know like O’Hara, Koch and Harry Mathews, and Schuyler, were very well-read, and really savoured French literature.
Was your access to French literature negotiated via that triangle? Did you have to go to New York to get to Paris? Or were there direct links between England and France?
There were – I did a magazine in ’63–’64 called Soho. A bilingual magazine, half in English, half in French, the middle was parallel texts. There was a poet called Michel Couturier who helped me with my Tzara translations. There was a bit of a link, my going over to see Tzara in about ’63. But, reading people like Alfred Jarry, there was quite a lot built up inside me. But it was a delight to find American poets, especially – even Gregory Corso, and O’Hara and Ashbery – using it, but somehow making it more lively. There’s something dead about late Surrealism. It’s a bit formulaic. That French influence in the US poets wasn’t a dull, automatic writing: it had used the French in order to be free and have fun, but it somehow touched you far more, it was close, it was more real, it wasn’t words. Like that Frank O’Hara poem – one of his ‘I do this, I do that’ poems – in which you go through this, having lunch, buying the latest copy of New African Writing, and so on, and suddenly at the end he’s leaning on the door in the bar hearing that Billie Holliday had died. And again, like Borges, the rug’s pulled from under you. All the liveliness of the French writing with a real ground you’re actually living on. Some of Tzara’s late work, and even worse some of the other French writers associated with Surrealism, it lost touch with the fact that words are about things. Language isn’t a thing in itself. Though Michel Couturier believed it was, like a creature in itself, and of course, linguistic theory and so on has pursued that. But it’s never been real to me. Language is people talking to each other about things. It may not be very accurate, but it’s all we’ve got!
What were your thoughts about English poetry cultures of the time? Was there anything that excited you?
It sounds kind of snotty, but no. At that time in England there were some terrific people, but I didn’t know about them. I’d given up – the stuff you saw published by Faber, or the Movement – it was so remote. It was talking in clichés – middle-aged, middle-class men talking about trivia. Much later, I found out about some amazing people, like Jocelyn Brooke, or Brenda Chamberlain, but they were completely forgotten in England. And so – I didn’t find anything at all attractive, or that sparked me, or in people my age. I didn’t know about Gascoyne. And then eventually when I found out about Bunting – it still seemed remote, like Yeats or Pound. So because I was involved in the little mag scene, which wasn’t so London-centric – it was mainly people who hadn’t been to university, it was duplicating and banging out these magazines, some of which were dreadful, but it was like a manifesto of how you felt. You had all that stuff going on at the same time – the whole modern jazz, pop, and then CND and anarchist politics and all this sort of stuff was feeding into it. And the American poetry – the Beats, and it got refined after that – seemed to answer that. It was a wonderful relief, it was about what you felt and how you talked. Whereas the whole establishment at that point seemed to be saying it wasn’t. You had to be writing in strict metres, had to have very specific subject matter, you had to publish properly and it was – to hell with them, we’ll do it ourselves. It was a wonderful release finding the French, then the American, then the South American literature, which I did. I really felt close to them.
When did you get to know F.T. Prince? He was one of those forgotten people at the time.
That was again not through anybody in England, I’d never heard of him here, like Jocelyn Brooke. He was published by Ashbery in Art and Literature and also there was a magazine called Kulchur, which had a two-thirds of a page rave review by Ted Berrigan of Doors of Stone. On my early visits to the States, they would say, ‘Do you know F.T. Prince?’ You know, you’re English, you must do. If you’re from England, you must all be in the same village! So I then grabbed a copy of Doors of Stone when I got back, and I was bowled over because his tone of voice was very much akin to Ashbery, this kind of indirect thing. I got to know him and he introduced me to other stuff like Stendahl. Browning as well. Works in which people’s actions don’t necessarily reflect what they feel. Prince was just marvellous, I owe him such a debt, because when I was coming back to England in the late 60s I wrote to him and then sent him the page proofs of The White Room, and he sent these really long – he was a very busy man, a professor at Southampton – these long, handwritten notes in which he would talk about his own concerns and interests, go through all these poems very carefully. But doing it gently. He said something very nice like you have a courage I would never have. And at the end he said: ‘But you do patter on.’ And I thought, yes! You’re totally right. At that point because I was spending a lot of time in New York, there was a whole tone of voice that was around a lot in poetry then, it was very effective, very attractive, and it was fun. You could produce yards of this stuff – it would always be published and people would say ‘great’. But for me Prince made me really stop and think ‘Why am I doing this, and does it matter? Does it come from any real necessity?’ So I shifted, double-checked, and tried writing, not pattering-on. And writing barely. The book Landscapes reflects that. But old habits die hard, and the two wove back together again in a combination. Knowing Creeley in the late 60s showed me how effective that kind of bareness can be. But then I thought – yes, but I want more than this. I wanted other things happening as well as that intensity – you have to weave the baroque and puritan to make maybe a more interesting, and more human, material.
How did you start to involve yourself in the New York poetry community?
Well, two ways. One was the little mag scene, starting in the early 60s, where people would send mags back and forth between the US, Canada, France, Britain and South America. There was this whole circling thing, which was generous and lovely. So you’d get into correspondence with various editors and poets you liked. I met quite a few people I knew by letter and work already. Then also there were the friends of Ashbery’s I met in France, I was very lucky because it was a wonderful range of people. Also at that time, there was an immense generosity of spirit. Everybody would help everybody. The first time I went to the States, Berrigan arranged for me to do a reading at St Mark’s the second night. Then there was The Man with Blue Eyes. I loved the atmosphere with those younger writers in New York, Padgett, Berrigan and so on, you could try something, if it would go wrong and you’d fall flat on your face, look a total fool, you’d just get up and try something else! Whereas in England it was like, I imagined, Japan, the big horror was losing face. Whereas there it was almost essential to make pratfalls, to be willing to put yourself out and try something. So there were all these collaborations – painters, poets, musicians, incredible. Joe Brainard and I did cartoon strips for the Village there. I did word collaborations with a couple of other poets. It was a wonderfully exciting time, probably helped a bit by speed in some cases, but everybody was helping each other. I remember the first time I met O’Hara. We were talking, and he asked what I was doing, and I’d got one of those $99 99-day Greyhound bus passes, because I thought, how can I understand all this literature I admired – Dos Passos, or Williams, or the West Coast – if I didn’t understand the dirt it grows out of. So I did this couple of months bus trip around, and stayed mostly with people I’d met through the little mag scene. So meeting O’Hara, he said, ‘Well, where are you going?’ and I told him, and he said ‘When you go to Washington, go to this gallery. When you go to Boston, go to this gallery.’ He was so enthusiastic to share, that I also enjoy the paintings he loved. Whereas some people who had a grand idea of themselves wouldn’t bother with this awkward kid. Everybody seemed to have enthusiasm.
Did you get to know O’Hara well?
Not very well. We met three times. He was lovely. It’s immensely flattering for someone you admire so much to [phone rings]. At parties at his apartment. He was killed soon after that in an accident on Fire Island. What energy! Look at these poems, a massive book of them. The lunch poems he wrote – on Remingtons, I think, a typewriter manufacturers which had outside their showrooms a stand, and on it was bolted their latest model. So he would walk along on his lunch-break, put a bit of paper into the typewriter, and write a lunch poem. Of course I had to do it myself. I wrote him a lunch poem, which of course I didn’t dream of giving him, but Ashbery gave it to him. He sent me that lovely Tibor de Nagy book of Love Poems (Tentative Title), with an inscription thanking me for my lunch poem. What I’m talking about here is not about me but this man who would take that care – had a generous love of people and life, which was admirable. And certainly Britain in the early 60s didn’t have much of that, not at all in the 40s and 50s. The lunch poem was never published. It wasn’t a good lunch poem.
Were you aware of a developing community of people in England interested in this new American poetry?
Yes, it was building up. The magazines I mentioned, and reading series started, and at places like Better Books, American poets would read there. Also, Burroughs. Also, Andy Warhol and Gerard Malanga would come over and show films – so there was quite a lot of back and forth at that point. I got to know Tom Raworth about the same time. He was doing little mags as well. He built up this whole network of people on either side of the Atlantic. The one time he seemed to have done a job was working on the International Telephone Exchange, as an operator, so he made all these long phone calls to American friends! He did a magazine called Outburst. He then went up as a mature student to Essex, and of course there were terrific people there like Ed Dorn, and later Berrigan, so it became quite a hub of stuff. Did you want some lunch?
Lee Harwood’s new book The Orchid Boat is published by Enitharmon Press.
This interview is taken from PN Review 219, Volume 41 Number 1, September - October 2014.