Pouring wine with woman smiling

Keep the poetry coming, please!

We sent poetry-loving Bwogger Nikki to Pulitzer Prize winner John Ashbery’s reading, where she indulged in complimentary sandwiches and beautiful poetry.

Long before the 6:30 door opening, an energetic crowd of writers, poetry enthusiasts, and artists alike began gathering down the hall from Dodge 501. All vying for a seat within the small drawing room (preference was given to those in the Columbia Writing Program), those queuing made both large and small talk while student organizers fretted about with clipboards.

All were awaiting Pulitzer Prize winner, National Book Award recipient, and Columbia alumnus, John Ashbery.

Using the power of the press and her undying enthusiasm for Ashbery, this Bwogger managed to bypass the line and secure a coveted spot within Dodge 501. The majority of those in line were redirected to another room with a live video stream of the event.

The room, typically used for live drawing classes, was a perfect backdrop for Ashbery’s reading. Dim lighting, complimentary wine and sandwiches, miscellaneous easels, and a tittering crowd seemed to beautifully mimic the vibe of the New York School. A small desk with a lamp stood illuminated before the seated audience, poised to receive the renowned poet.

John Ashbery is one of the most famous and acclaimed American poets alive and writing today. Born in 1927, he is considered a member of the New York School, a group of postmodernist poets and artists living and creating in New York City during the 20th century. After graduating from Harvard University cum laude, Ashbery went on to receive his M.A. from Columbia in 1951. His poetry is often characterized as avant-garde, and he has published well over twenty collections of his poems, as well as received seemingly every imaginable award and recognition for his work. Most recently, he released Breezeway in 2015.

The event, moderated by Timothy Donnelly, began with a reading by Ashbery. Reading initially from Breezeway, and later from his upcoming collection, Ashbery enthralled his audience with his frank manner and and the confounding paradoxes within his poems. There was a certain sanctity and intimacy within the room. No longer were Ashbery’s words confined to the pages of his books or the interpretations of his admirers. Each poem was alive and thrilling, exemplifying the rare phenomenon of a writer and his writing interacting together at once. For a brief time, there was only the sound of Ashbery and the shuffling of those straining to catch his every word. As the reading came to a close, there was a sense of camaraderie within the crowd, a shared fascination and appreciation for the iconic poet.

Spirits lifted as Donnelly began the question and answer portion of the event, during which the audience was able to witness the humorous candor of Ashbery. Beginning with some specific questions on word choices and poetic voice, Donnelly quickly changed course as it became apparent that Ashbery was not as interested in answering syntactical inquiries. Commenting nonchalantly to the crowd, Ashbery left audience members with memorable tidbits like “everybody has a body, that’s why they’re called everybody.”

The segment continued with more personal inquiries. The poets breakfast that morning? The usual: a bagel with cream cheese, a hard boiled egg, and two prunes. On if he’d ever used a ouija board, Ashbery mentioned he’d dabbled many times with his college roommate, and recounted a time in Paris when a “spirit” (actually a mischievous French friend with whom he was ouija-ing) told him to “drop dead, you punk!” When asked of his favorite super hero, as Ashbery makes occasional allusions to Batman in his poetry, he commented that he mostly knew of Batman as a child, and that he was probably most interested in the “mystique of his relations with Robin.”

Before turning questions over to the audience, Donnelly evoked uproarious laughter from his captive audience with the question “What is your favorite ice cream flavor? And with what historical figure or event might you compare it?” Ashbery’s answer? Chocolate peanut butter, and Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.

Audience questions ranged from curiosity around his work writing translations, of which Ashbery commented he enjoys doing for fun when he doesn’t feel like writing. On writing itself he claimed, “if it’s challenging, give it up!” This sentiment was echoed in his response to a question regarding the game of tennis. If you played tennis, an audience member inquired, would you play one handed or two handed in your backhanded swing? Again, Ashbery generated amusement from the crowed as he recalled playing tennis for credit in college, but in regards to his backswing “I don’t think I ever got that far.”

As the event came to a close, the crowd was laughing and scribbling in tiny, black notebooks – newly inspired by the famous poet. As the audience began to dribble out of Dodge 501, a few aspiring writers hung back to meet Ashbery. His effect upon his admirers was clear, and the room buzzed with a sense of community that only springs from shared passion and interest. In all, it was truly a privilege to hear the works of John Ashbery in his own voice, and to bear witness to the legacy he left upon the poetry world.

Wine and Sandwiches via Shutterstock