henry crush (raygonne) wrote,
henry crush

Talking to Myself to You

I'm reading a 1985 interview with Ashbery, in which he says "It just seems that people will do almost anything rather than read a poem and try and come to terms with it, you know." This reminds me of a conversation I had recently with my dad, when I called him to say I'm applying to MFA poetry programs. He said something like "I've been meaning to call you about the little green book of poems you sent, but I wasn't sure what to say about it." Then he told me something that sounded familiar but amplified: I don't know what you're talking about, and you seem to be writing for yourself.

When I was working on KS, he used to tell me that he thought we were creating a magazine for ourselves. We used to say that too, but he meant that we weren't trying to reach anyone outside of a narrow group of people who agreed with us and/or knew what we were talking about.

So his critique of my latest chapbook suggests that I'm spiraling ever inward, if not to self-referentiality, then to a private language or discourse with myself. Did he say I'm talking to myself? Not quite. But I suppose he means I am not talking to him, and by extension, I am not communicating with... well, anyone.

I probably sound more annoyed than I am. I was bemused (though unsurprised), and I wanted to take his criticism, however abstract, seriously. I suggested that his reference point is my previous chapbooks, and since the new poems are a departure from a more narrative (and expressly lyrical) voice, it makes sense that the new poems confuse him and even put him off. (This is a gentle way of saying: Dad, you don’t read any poetry except mine, so, yes, you can blame me for your confusion.) I also told him that I’ve been revising the green-book poems (we never mentioned the title, Grammar Politics, which suggests subject matter we do not discuss) extensively since I assembled the chapbook, because I’m considering several of them for my application portfolio(s). I said something about figuring out what I’m doing, or going to school to figure out where I’m headed in my poems, and he said something like: In those poems, it seems like you don’t know where you’re going.

I wish I could paraphrase that as “you don’t know where you are in the poems,” which sounds like something approaching a poetics, but what he actually said is somewhere between those two statements, and qualified by the following: You don’t know what you’re doing.#

Not that my dad thinks I don’t know what I’m doing. He’d probably rather say he doesn’t know what I’m doing. In my poetry. I’m sure what matters to him is that we both know I’m trying to go to graduate school.

So I’ve been thinking about what he said as a check to what I’ve been doing in my poems. I don’t want to leave the reader out; an element of seduction is vital to even the most irrational poem (Ashbery, from elsewhere: “I firmly believe in the irrationality—as opposed to incoherence—of poetry”). In short, I want the poem to be worthwhile just as I want it to take place.

After our conversation, I thought about how I to write a straightforward poem to describe the mode in which I’m writing, but also illustrate it. At a reading that week, I jotted down a potential title, Talking to Myself to You. After the reading, there was a wine reception, and I had a funny, truncated interaction with Thinglish (the genial awkwardness of which I attribute to the general atmosphere of Literary Arts gatherings):

How are you?
Good. How are you?

The next day, I wrote this poem (this is a slightly revised version):

Talking to Myself to You

We do not speak every day
to each other we speak
but do not talk as we do
in our heads, alone with each
in mind. We say hello and
hello, and sometimes nod
and that is all. We
continue in silence.

Anyway, this is an inversion of a response to the request* Ashbery declined. No paraphrase is intended.

Ray Gonne

# And on rereading this, I think he actually said “That makes sense, because in those poems it seems like you don’t know what you’re trying to say.”

* John Tranter: I remember buying a book called Singular Voices by Stephen Berg: it was an anthology where each poet contributed a poem and then wrote an explanatory article to go after it. Berg mentioned in his introduction that you had declined to provide a poem and an explanatory article, and that you were going to write an essay about why you’d declined. Did you ever write the essay?

John Ashbery: No, I never did it, and at some point he stopped asking me about it so I guess he realized that I didn’t really want to do it. It just seems that people will do almost anything rather than read a poem and try and come to terms with it, you know. A statement from the poet about what he meant in the poem is considered to be very helpful, but my point is that it really isn’t going to help anybody since it’s just a paraphrase, operating at some distance. And it’s rather annoying to be asked to do something like that, especially by a poet, who should know better.


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