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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this interview to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This interview is taken from PN Review 258, Volume 47 Number 4, March - April 2021.

In Conversation with John Ash Jeffrey Kahrs
This interview is taken from a series of conversations I had with John Ash in the spring of 2010. We met several times and always chatted around four or five in the afternoon for an hour to an hour and a half, when the sunlight would come through his windows for a short while. This was the best time to catch him because he usually read and wrote in the early afternoon, sipping on his rakı, so by the time we spoke later he was lubricated but still cogent, which often meant he was feeling contrary. Interviewing John took patience. He hated to be photographed, refused to sell his manuscripts – even though he certainly could have used the money – and rarely acquiesced to even the shortest of interviews. I persevered because I knew his health was more fragile than he was willing to admit and he was both an important writer and a friend.  



Jeffrey: You said your father was a geography teacher. Is that how you became a traveller?

John: I think possibly because, before my father got married and settled down and had children, he would go all over Europe. He had friends in Vienna, so he’d go all the way across Europe on his motorbike.


When did you write your first poem?

I can tell you very precisely. I was reading a book by Brigid Brophy. She mentioned that the great Watteau painting The Departure for Cythera was actually the Departure from Cythera. I thought, ‘Okay, that’s interesting.’ She provided very strong evidence that this title is completely wrong because there’s a shrine to Venus in the painting, so it’s actually a very melancholy painting. I just thought it was very interesting, so I wrote a poem called Departure from Cythera which has never been published and probably should not be.


How old were you?

I was still in my teens.


Who was a great influence on you when you were young?

When I started out trying to be a poet, Roy Fisher was the only guy I had. I mean he was the only person whose work was obviously influenced by American and European poetry. I actually corresponded with him as well though I never met him. The standard thing was you had to write something that sounded a bit like Philip Larkin. Philip Larkin is a wonderful poet, but that was not what I wanted to write. I was reading American and French poetry.


Who were the French poets?

Laforgue of course. Mallarmé, Apollinaire. But they are of course now considered totally old hat in France. And René Char. He provided the text for Pierre Boulez’s wonderful Le Soleil des eaux.


How did you become so involved with music?

It was from my father. My father was a big classical-music buff, particularly Mozart and Mahler, and he was something of a pioneer, because in the fifties and sixties, until people like Leonard Bernstein took up Mahler, he was regarded as vulgar and bombastic. Then I got more into twentieth-century music.


How did you choose to live in Istanbul?

I wanted to get out of New York, and I had already been to Istanbul several times. I felt it would be one of the few places that wouldn’t be an anticlimax after New York. It’s just as crazy as New York


Was it hard to make the adjustment to living here?

Not really. I was very lucky because I quickly acquired a patron, Selçuk Altun.


You live in Galata on the European side. What is it that attracted you to the place?

Apartments were going for a song. The area has now become very high end.


Why stay here then?

Well, it’s familiar as home should be and my neighbourhood is filled with wonderful cats.


Do you ever miss England?

I do sort of miss my favourite part of England, which is Herefordshire. It’s a landscape with very slow rivers. It is very peaceful and has lots of medieval abbeys and tame birds living in the abbeys. They’ll actually perch on your hand. But I couldn’t live there because there’s nothing around there… apart from the cat from the neighbouring farmhouse, which would come in through the skylight and curl up with me.


What poets are you reading these days?

I read the poets I love like Cavafy, Turkish poets like Oktay Rıfat, and Andrew Marvell. ‘The Garden’ is one of the greatest poems in English. Right now I’m reading the fabulous Armenian poet Krikor Naregatsi.


Who do you enjoy that’s more formal?

Pope is funny. One of my favourite poems is Pope’s epistle to Lord Burlington. It’s giving him advice about building his new mansion, so it’s all about architecture. It’s wonderful. I didn’t initially like Alexander Pope at all. I can’t stand ‘The Rape of the Lock’. I’m not a great admirer of the heroic couplet, but then I discovered this poem and it sort of changed my opinion. It’s not just humour in the epistle to Lord Burlington. It is – though it’s in heroic couplets – a great essay on architecture. Apart from Pope, the eighteenth century wasn’t dripping with great poets. It was a century of great prose. Who else did you mention?


Byron.

Byron is the greatest comic poet in English. I mean, just his rhymes are hysterically funny. He’s so awful. I can never remember this couplet accurately. It says something like: ‘If you think ‘twas philosophy this did, I can’t help thinking puberty assisted’. I think that’s it.


The other thing about Byron is he was really an eighteenth-century poet.

Oh, he was. All his good poetry is wildly anti-romantic. There is nothing romantic about Byron.


I can see why Kenneth Koch and the New York poets looked to Byron as a figure of such importance because they loved writing as a pleasure.

That’s the great thing about the New York poets. They actually enjoyed writing poetry. It was not an academic exercise.


You brought Kenneth Koch to Istanbul. How did that come about?

It was actually at the invitation of Yapı Kredi, a local bank here that sponsors a great many cultural events and has its own press. Of course, Ashbery came as well. I just helped arrange affairs.


When did John come here?

It must have been shortly after I moved here, I suppose. I think he was in Greece or somewhere nearby, so I said, ‘Why don’t you come here and give a reading?’ And so he did.


What’s your favourite story about Ashbery and Koch? If I recall it was about them arguing and bickering with each other…

Well, that’s what they did. And then the next day they both rang me up and complained about the other one. I said: ‘Well, I had a very nice time. What’s your problem?’ I just didn’t understand what was going on. They had this long rivalry I knew nothing about and was not interested in.


Do you have any favourite poems by Koch or Ashbery that you go back to again and again?

My favourite Kenneth Koch poem is ‘The Problem of Anxiety’. Kenneth had this wonderful way of addressing real problems that everybody has in their lives in this completely batty way. The first poem by Ashbery that really wowed me was ‘As One Put Drunk into the Packet­Boat’. The title is also a quotation from Andrew Marvell.


People are always saying Ashbery is a big influence on you.

Well… I owe a great debt to John Ashbery. Though I haven’t seen him in several years, he’s a close friend and a wonderful person. He’s the person who invited me to New York and sort of looked after me. He was great.


When I read The Anatolikon, To the City, or The Parthian Stations, I don’t necessarily think of your style and Ashbery’s as being so similar.

Well, Branching Stairs has nothing to do with Ashbery at all. The difference is, I write about history.


Another writer you’ve told some really great stories about is Harry Mathews.

Harry as far as I know is still doing fine in Paris. You don’t know what to believe and he’s not going to give you any hints. So, either he was working for the CIA – which everybody thought and which he then furiously denied so he thought, ‘Right, well, I’ll write a novel saying I was working for the CIA.’ It’s a very funny book. I think Harry is a really underestimated writer. His big books are the amazingly named The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium and Tlooth. The syllable ‘Tlooth’ is uttered by a prophetic bog near Venice. His novels are fabulous. I think they are among the greatest of the twentieth century.


This love of twentieth-century classical music is something you share with the New York School.

Well, they are all very devoted to it. Harry studied under Nadia Boulanger to become a conductor.


Favourite poems of Frank O’Hara?

‘In Memory of My Feelings’, ‘Memoir of Sergei O’, and of course, ‘Lana Turner Has Collapsed’.


Let’s not forget Ronald Firbank.

I have his complete works. Firbank was a great stylist. He’s obviously very funny, but that’s not the really important thing. He bent English into this completely personal style, which is really weird and beautiful. And also he had a wonderful ear. He had a character called Lady Parvula de Panzoust.


I know you love Freya Stark’s writing.

She’s my hero.


How about Gertrude Bell and T. E. Lawrence?

He has a wildly over-ornate style from the bits I’ve read. I prefer my girls Freya and Gertrude.


We haven’t spoken about Gertrude Bell.

She’s a very fine prose writer. She doesn’t over-elaborate and she can be extremely, almost brutally direct on occasion. What really drew me to her was her account of the so-called Dead Cities in northern Syria, and that’s what made me want to go there.


What did you learn from Dame Freya in your travel writing?

I like the way she combines so many different genres; autobiography, memoir, travel writing, history, like her magnificent description of the Battle of Magnesia. Rome on the Euphrates is a masterpiece.


The Tang Chinese poets were also quite important to you.

There's actually one particular volume translated by A. C. Graham I love. I think they’re wonderful translations but I’ve never been able to find anything else that he translated. Weird. It’s still in print in Penguin and I always have it with me. It contains poems by Li Ho, Li Shang Yin. Li Shang Ying I’m particular fond of. He wrote a great poem called ‘Peonies’. The notes to the translation are much longer than the poem because every line is absolutely compacted with meaning and allusions. And there’s Tu Fu as well. Li Po doesn’t really count.


This is an essential book? You take it with you everywhere?

Yeah.


Why don’t you come here and read it?

Here’s ‘Peonies’ by Li Shang Yin:
The brocade curtains have just rolled back. Behold the Queen of Wei.
Still he piles up the embroidered quilts, Prince O in Yüeh.
Drooping hands disturb, tip over, pendants of carved jade:
Snapping waists compete in the dance, fluttering saffron skirts.
Shi Ch’ung’s candles – but who would clip them?
The Hsün Yu’s brazier, where no incense fumes.
I who was given in a dream the brush of many colours
Wish to write on petals a message to the clouds of morning.


Didn’t you work on some translation from Chinese at one point?

They’re published in one of my collections. My boyfriend at the time, Tsung Woo and I, got heavily into translating Tang poetry. ‘The Grave of Little Su’, that’s a good one. Ah, ‘Don’t Go Out the Door’:

Heaven is inscrutable,
Earth keeps its secrets:
The nine-headed monster eats our souls.


Essential books?

Poems of the Late T’ang by A. C. Graham, collected works of Cavafy, collected works of George Trakl, Ashbery’s Houseboat Days. There are several books by Ashbery, but that’s my particular favourite. Oh, Seferis. The best translations are by a guy called Rex Warner. I haven’t mentioned Ingeborg Bachmann.


What makes a good translation?

A bad translation just doesn’t ring true. The tone of voice is wrong. Actually, one of my favourite poems by Ingeborg Bachmann is ‘Great Landscape Near Vienna’. It’s wonderful but virtually untranslatable.


Like Paul Celan?

Paul Celan is completely untranslatable. The number of people who can claim to understand Celan I would think is minute. I mean he really is hermetic. Some of his early stuff is relatively easy, and I think he’s a great poet, but the later stuff becomes so hermetic.


The abstract expressionist painters could be seen as quite hermetic. What do you think of someone like Willem de Kooning?

I never really got Willem de Kooning until they had this big show – presumably at the MOMA – and I was knocked out by it. I just thought it was wonderful. Even some of the late stuff. Well, he had Alzheimer’s, but just before he really lost it, he produced some beautiful stuff. And then because of my interest in de Kooning, I discovered Elaine de Kooning, who I like even more than her husband. She’s a magnificent painter.


The women were overshadowed in that period.

Very much. The men were terrible, terrible sexists. Elaine was absolutely magnificent and she painted on a really big, heroic scale, but only became known after he died.


Would you say Elaine is one of your essential painters?

I’m very interested in all the Abstract Expressionists. I like a lot of Pollock’s work. Autumn Rhythm is superb. The paintings have great physical presence that reproductions can’t convey.


Like Rothko…

Again, Rothko reproductions are no use at all. You have to stand in front of the painting for quite a long time. And Arshile Gorky of course, who more or less started Abstract Expressionism.


Let’s talk about essential music.

Well, Mahler is definitely one, the entire Second Viennese School, which is Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and Zemlinsky, who until recently tended to get overlooked, and he’s one of the great twentieth-century composers, certainly one of the greatest songwriters of the twentieth century.  Kurt Weill, completely essential, and Ferruccio Busoni and Dallapiccola. Ulysses, his enormous opera, is very beautiful, particularly Ulysses’s farewell.

Essential composers... Debussy. Particularly the piano music. The Etudes, amazing, just inexhaustible. You can listen to them over and over again. The Préludes are pretty good too. And of course he was also a great orchestrator.


Do you like Stockhausen?

I think he’s a piece of shit. There was an interesting piece by him called Trans. It has two orchestras beating the shit out of each other over a half an hour. I don’t think he’s a very musical composer. Well, I mean the thing with music at that time was IRCAM, Pierre Boulez’s underground musical bunker. They produced fuckin’ awful music. There is no other way of putting it. I mean, this stuff was unlistenable, of no interest to anyone else apart from the people producing it, which is of course what turned a lot of people off to twentieth-century (classical) music. It didn’t give any kind of the things they expected of music.

Stravinsky is probably my favourite composer of all time. The concision and wit of Stravinsky were very important to me. I think he was one of the great minds of the twentieth century. He never wrote a crap piece of music. He was extremely witty… and so was his wife, Vera! There’s a great moment, I think it was in Santiago, Chile, and he was asked this rather obscure question about his collaboration with a Swiss dramatist during the First World War. He said, ‘I don’t remember. We were drunk most of the time.’ And there was this shocked silence, into which Stravinsky breaks with: ‘I have always been a drunkard. I would rather be a drunkard than a prisoner of my neighbour’s opinion.’

This interview is taken from PN Review 258, Volume 47 Number 4, March - April 2021.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this interview to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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