Peter A. Sitt’s Paris Review interview with John Ashbery “was conducted at John Ashbery’s apartment in the section of Manhattan known as Chelsea,” during Ed Koch’s second term, and while Ashbery was still writing about art for Newsweek. As part of today’s efforts to encourage you to Procrastinate Better! with the newly comprehensive online archives of the Paris Review interviews, here’s an exchange from The Art of Poetry #33, from the Winter 1983 issue:
Do you like to tease or play games with the reader?
Funny you should ask—I just blew up at a critic who asked me the same question, though I shouldn’t have, in a list of questions for a book she is compiling of poets’ statements. I guess it depends on what you mean by “tease.” It’s all right if it’s done affectionately, though how can this be with someone you don’t know? I would like to please the reader, and I think that surprise has to be an element of this, and that may necessitate a certain amount of teasing. To shock the reader is something else again. That has to be handled with great care if you’re not going to alienate and hurt him, and I’m firmly against that, just as I disapprove of people who dress with that in mind—dye their hair blue and stick safety pins through their noses and so on. The message here seems to be merely aggression—“hey, you can’t be part of my strangeness” sort of thing. At the same time I try to dress in a way that is just slightly off, so the spectator, if he notices, will feel slightly bemused but not excluded, remembering his own imperfect mode of dress.
But you would not be above inflicting a trick or a gag on your readers?
A gag that’s probably gone unnoticed turns up in the last sentence of the novel I wrote with James Schuyler. Actually it’s my sentence. It reads: “So it was that the cliff dwellers, after bidding their cousins good night, moved off towards the parking area, while the latter bent their steps toward the partially rebuilt shopping plaza in the teeth of the freshening foehn.” Foehn is a kind of warm wind that blows in Bavaria that produces a fog. I would doubt that many people know that. I liked the idea that people, if they bothered to, would have to open the dictionary to find out what the last word in the novel meant. They’d be closing one book and opening another.