John ASHBERY

By
Photography Grant Delin

Published April 20, 2015

Is my poetry difficult because I obscured certain facts of my life? Even so, I always rather resented the notion that gay writers are sort of expected to talk about sex or their sex lives in public. John Ashbery

John Ashbery is the Walt Whitman of our postwar pop age, the prolific chronicler of American consciousness pummeled by the language of radio, TV and film, ad-speak journalese, spin-zone politics, and tech lingo from social media and smartphone apps. Yet his long career has proven resilient precisely because—like few other species of modern poetics—he’s been so joyously able to absorb and adapt. Next month, Ashbery will publish Breezeway (Ecco), his 27th collection of poems, and marvelously, at age 87, it is one of his best books. Breezeway foregrounds all the qualities that we’ve come to expect in Ashbery: the uncanny handling of American vernacular against poetic tradition; his strange attunement to the passing shapes and sounds of our culture, yet possessing an imagination rooted in the references of what he calls “America fading away.” No wonder Ashbery’s preferred TV consumption includes PBS’s Antique Roadshow and Turner Classic Movies on the one hand, Nightly News programming and reality cooking shows on the other. His latest poems announce all the spunk and whiplash that our web-surfing consciousness is routinely made to feel guilty about. And so a poem toward the beginning of Breezeway entitled “Seven-Year-Old Auroch Likes This” grants us:

Will research tell us tomorrow

of normal morals? Take a Brooklyn family

in fracture mode, vivid,

energizing, throbs to the earlobes. Thanks

to a snakeskin toupee, my grayish push boots

exhale new patina/prestige. Exeunt the Kardashians.

Exit the emergency room. A nifty looking broad

goes up to a goofy guy. (There’s the leader with its bow.)

Well, I wouldn’t do it instantly. I’ll bring you some,

uh, and well I’m dried.

Like the rest of us, Kim and Khloé are not far from our poet’s mind. But the poem’s gambits are slipperier. We begin with rhetoric plucked out of a snoozy think-piece byline, abruptly bounce to a Park Slope profile care of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, are thrust into a corny circus sideshow, enter reality TV, enter the hospital, all before parking down in the loose and wise-ass slang of a ’40s comedy and the charming inarticulate “some, / uh” of Tumblr-era public speaking. The Ashberyian memescape doesn’t just contain multitudes—it is multitudes. Yet Ashbery’s gift has always been to take what seems only haphazard, clumsy, and fleeting in speech and glue it to an intensity of thought and feeling that erupts as palpably as it can dissipate.

What feels particularly new to Ashbery’s seasoned concoctions is their preoccupation with pop culture, their cartoons and jingles, from Batman and Shirley Temple to the Gold Dust Twins and Steamboat Bill. In this sense, the work harkens back to the energetic adventures of the midcentury painters and pop artists that Ashbery and Frank O’Hara knew and reviewed at the beginning of their careers as members of the New York School poets. That Ashbery favors the very new, our overly visible celebrity-media culture, as much as he does the very old, sometimes entirely forgotten relics of Americana, testifies to the elasticity of his inventiveness, to the delicacy of his polyglot sensibility. This interview, conducted at his New York apartment, began as a romp through the titles in his new book and soon turned into an algorithmic data crunch of associations and memories throughout his life. My best guess is that this infinite trivia bank, where his past experiences and present interests collide, is where his poems germinate. And it turns out that an Ashbery poem is one of the best researches we have for what tomorrow sounds like.

ADAM FITZGERALD: Tell me a little bit about the collage that’s on the cover of your newest book of poems, Breezeway.

JOHN ASHBERY: I’d originally wanted to use a painting by Peter Doig, but it was unavailable. So I had to come up with another suggestion in a rather limited time, and I made a collage, using stuff that I had lying around for collage purposes, which happened to include a Raphael painting of an angel, a gloved hand from a de Chirico painting, and this colored illustration that I use as a background—an ad for a merchant in Málaga in the 19th century, I think.

FITZGERALD: Have you ever been to Málaga?

ASHBERY: Yeah, I have, as a matter of fact.

FITZGERALD: Who did you travel there with? For some reason, I thought you went with Frank O’Hara.

ASHBERY: No, I didn’t. That was another trip to Spain. Málaga is way in the south. I think I was there with Jane Freilicher and her husband, and Larry Rivers and his then wife. The weather is gorgeous. It’s on the Mediterranean. On the other hand, it’s sort of command central for retired people from English industrial cities. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

FITZGERALD: And how did you find that image from Málaga?

ASHBERY: I can’t remember. It was just there in my collection of old papers, like old copies of Life magazine, and not necessarily to make collages from. When I was a child, before TV, if you wanted any idea of what was going on in the world, you had to read Life magazine every week. It was actually a fairly good substitute for what we didn’t know yet was going to be TV. My ideas of New York and Europe pretty much derived from it. For instance, the surrealist show at MoMA in 1936, which was featured in Life, was a big influence on me. I was 9 at the time and thought, “Wow, these are great. Why haven’t I ever seen anything like this before? I want to grow up and be a surrealist.” Well, let’s not be too cute about it.

FITZGERALD: Do you buy into the Proustian idea that trapped inside all objects are not just our memories of our life, but almost the sensory feel and shape of who we used to be? Or is that an overblown myth about how our memories come back?

ASHBERY: Yes, he was pretty accurate about it. As with most things.

FITZGERALD: I want to say that I think Breezeway is the strongest and most inventive of your recent books. I felt so energized by it. One of the first things I noticed is that, like Wallace Stevens, you are our great poet of titles.

ASHBERY: Stevens’s “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle”?

You know the story of Mark Strand being asked, after a reading, ‘Do you make up your ideas or do they just come to you?’ One always feels one has to apologize when saying, ‘Oh, they just come to me.’  John Ashbery

FITZGERALD: Exactly. I feel you’re constantly trying to reinvent what it means for a poem even to have a title. The very first poem in your next collection is “The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend.”

ASHBERY: Oh, that was from the title of an early 1900s comic strip by the artist better known for the Little Nemo in Slumberland strip. Winsor McCay, his name was. He did both comic strips and animated films, very early ones, of course. “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend” has to do with the myth that eating Welsh rarebit gives you nightmares, and they’re in the same vein as Little Nemo’s fantastic dreams.

FITZGERALD: How do you go about titling a poem?

ASHBERY: They just come to me. Which is always so hard to explain. You know the story of Mark Strand being asked after a reading, “Do you make up your ideas or do they just come to you?” One always feels one has to apologize when saying, “Oh, they just come to me.”

FITZGERALD: Well, some of them certainly brand upon the brain. It’s like finding the right top hat for the suit.

ASHBERY: You mean like “Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror”?

FITZGERALD: Yes.

ASHBERY: In that case, I think it was a title both accurate and interesting. I’d seen the painting many years ago in a review of a book about Parmigianino in the Times‘s book review. They used it as an illustration. I was immediately grabbed and bothered by that painting, and I thought I would like to “do something” with it. Many years later I happened to see the painting itself in Vienna, where it is in the main art museum. And that did it. I knew I had to do something about it then.

FITZGERALD: So the title meant something to you as well, independent of the image? 

ASHBERY: Yeah. It sort of grabs you when you hear it. In fact, I think that was partly the reason it’s gotten so much attention. You hear that and you think, “Wow. This must mean something.”

FITZGERALD: In your new book, one reads a poem called “Seven-Year-Old Auroch Likes This.” I figure there’s a 7-year-old, someone named Auroch, perhaps? But we also have “likes this,” which is such a contemporary phrase in social media, where everything is about whether someone “likes” this or that status, tweet, etcetera. Is that what you were thinking?

ASHBERY: Yes. Social media. Auroch, by the way, is not the name of anybody, rather it refers to a kind of animal—maybe a semi-prehistoric cow or something.

FITZGERALD: You’re not, to my knowledge, on social media.

ASHBERY: I’m not, but I wish I was.

FITZGERALD: Really? Why?

ASHBERY: Because it might offer new possibilities on the horizon.

FITZGERALD: Are you interested in the language of it?

ASHBERY: That’s a line in one of my poems! “We’re interested in the language, that you call breath”—from the double sestina in Flow Chart.

FITZGERALD: You don’t have Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. Yet that language permeates your imagination.

ASHBERY: Well, I’ve heard a lot about them, and I keep up with everything via newspapers. Which people still read!

FITZGERALD: I don’t know if any poet in America consumes as much news as you.

ASHBERY: Probably not. I’ve always had this compulsive desire to know what’s going on right now.

FITZGERALD: Another new title: “Dans le Métro.”

ASHBERY: That was from a song of the ’30s by Charles Trenet. I used a line from it as an epigraph. It was a wonderful, popular song. He was a songwriter and singer of the ’30s and ’40s, and beyond, in France. The minute I heard his voice and that music I knew I had to go to Paris. A song about the rain …

FITZGERALD: Like Apollinaire.

ASHBERY: [sings] “Il pleut dans ma chambre. Il pleut dans mon cœur. Douce pluie de Septembre, chante un air moqueur.

FITZGERALD: How would your life have been different if you hadn’t gone to France for nine or ten years back in the ’50s?

ASHBERY: I don’t know. I would have been very much involved in the New York poetry scene as it was evolving with the Beats and Frank O’Hara and everybody else. Also, there were a lot of things I missed out on by being away from America for such a long time, like the Everly Brothers. [laughs] I missed out on American culture and pop culture. Much of it, anyway, in the last half of the ’50s and the beginning of the ’60s. In fact, when the Beats came to power, I was away.

FITZGERALD: And you really feel like that deprived you of culture?

ASHBERY: No, I was probably just as happy being where I was. Communications then were not what they are now. There was no e-mail. You wrote airmail letters and people didn’t reply for months. And in France it was hard to even have a telephone then.

FITZGERALD: So you kept in touch with Frank or Kenneth Koch by airmail? People look back and think of you all as inseparable collaborators during the ’50s and ’60s.

ASHBERY: We were, in a sense, but we had an ocean between us. And actually, another thing that didn’t really exist was transatlantic phone calls. They were tremendously expensive. I was living on nothing in Paris, so I never called home to my parents the whole time I was there.

FITZGERALD: How expensive was Paris?

ASHBERY: More than I could afford. I lived in an apartment, most of my years there, that cost $75 a month, which I shared with a friend, Pierre Martory. And I lived on approximately nothing—always with the threat of having to go back to New York and having to find a job. I did become an art critic for the Herald Tribune in Paris. That actually happened after a winter I spent in New York in the middle of that period abroad, when I went to NYU and I was going to get a PhD. I did all the course work and still had to do a dissertation, but I didn’t care about the dissertation. I just wanted to go back to France.

FITZGERALD: Now, tell me about another funky title in your new book: “A Greeting to My Brothers and Some of my Brothers In-law.”

ASHBERY: I have no idea where that title came from. I don’t have brothers. I had a brother as a child, but obviously never any brothers-in-law.

FITZGERALD: Your titles seem a little like cognitive treasure maps for how your sensibility, lived experiences, and imagination converge. Do you ever look at your poetry as revealing things about yourself you hadn’t really known or otherwise fully processed?

ASHBERY: I don’t read my poems very much after I’ve written them besides at a reading. I put them away and then it’s on to something else. I mean, I’d love to say yes, and that would be wonderful for this interview, but I’m just not good interview material. And yet, people always want to interview me. And, of course, the interview is a tragic fact of our time.

FITZGERALD: Why?

ASHBERY: In order not to deal with things, people interview them or their creator.

FITZGERALD: The interview’s a form for people to avoid encountering the art itself?

ASHBERY: I probably shouldn’t be saying this for Interview magazine.

FITZGERALD: Say it! It’s the perfect place to say it. I just figured there must be places of surprise for you as the occasional reader of your own work.

ASHBERY: Well, I’m always surprised by how strange and curious and interesting it is. I’ve put together these words and they sort of mean something. I’m quite delighted, and dazzled, even, sometimes, but then I forget about it and do something else.

FITZGERALD: A lot of Italian references are in these new poems, like the title “Domani, Dopodomani.” 

ASHBERY: I don’t have a deep relationship with Italy except that it’s a lovely place that everyone wants to go to, including me. I did once have a boyfriend in Italy, in Milan. We traveled together to Sardinia, though actually I had met him in Amsterdam. He had a car that we used to travel around Holland and saw a lot of places that I would have never seen otherwise, like the picturesque town of Sneek. But the phrase domani, dopodomani is something you hear people saying a lot in the street. I suppose it’s equivalent of the Spanish mañana, as in: “It’ll get done some time, maybe the day after tomorrow.”

FITZGERALD: Do you remember when you first went to Italy?

ASHBERY: I guess it was in the summer before my second Fulbright year in France began. I went from Paris overnight by train to Milan, then another few hours to Venice. I have a photograph of myself taken the first minute I arrived in Piazza San Marco. There was a habit then, and maybe still is, of strolling or cruising photographers who go up to unsuspecting tourists and shake corn grains into their hands. The tourists would immediately be dive-bombed by pigeons. One gasped and giggled amid the feathers, so yet another classic tourist snapshot of Venice was born. That’s what happened to me. Anyway, from there I went to Rome while my friend Bill Weaver was away. He let me stay in his apartment, and I picked up a key for his place near the Piazza Navona. One vivid memory I remember was approaching Rome on the train: all the Italians were carrying newspapers with enormous, somber headlines about the sinking of the Andrea Doria just off Massachusetts. It was a major tragedy of the time that, hopefully, doesn’t occur anymore. I mean, ocean liners don’t sink anymore, do they? Have I missed something?

FITZGERALD: Well, in [South] Korea they do.

ASHBERY: True. But that wasn’t an ocean liner.

FITZGERALD: A big ferryboat, you’re right. So you didn’t see Naples on that trip?

ASHBERY: No. I think I went back next around Christmas of that year when I saw Bill. Now that I think of it, I’m not sure that I stayed in his apartment the whole time because I remember it being terribly hot. I think I also stayed in a cheap hotel called the Albergo Homs, which we all know now, as we didn’t then, is a large city in Syria, isn’t it? A lot of their place names have to do with the Italian military exploits of Mussolini.

FITZGERALD: In the poem “And You Know,” you have that line “Including heavenly Naples, queen of the sea, where I shall / be king and you will be queen.” I recall that one of your favorite paintings of all time is in its museum, not the more famous Parmigianino, the self-portrait in Vienna, but the one with the young lady with the marten fur, called Antea, I believe.

ASHBERY: Yes, that’s in the Capodimonte museum.

There were a lot of things I missed out on by being away from America for such a long time . . . In fact, when the Beats came to power, I was away.John Ashbery

FITZGERALD: What other writers did you meet while in Italy? I know one time you told me about being in San Marco and bumping into Burroughs.

ASHBERY: Actually, that was that same trip. I met him through Alan Ansen, who was a friend of Auden’s. Ansen published a book of poetry in the Wesleyan series, and he was a notorious bad boy—though not a boy, he was pretty mature.

FITZGERALD: I’m having slight trouble imagining you all bosomy with Burroughs.

ASHBERY: We were friendly on that occasion. As I recall, he was sort of charming with a sunny disposition, unlike later times when I met him and he corresponded more to the image of him that we all have: sour, grumpy.

FITZGERALD: Sadist, junky. Didn’t you meet Ezra Pound in Ravenna?

ASHBERY: That was not Ravenna but Spoleto. It was in ’65 at the Spoleto festival. The people at the festival included Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, John Wieners, Barbara Guest, Pablo Neruda, Pier Paolo Pasolini.

FITZGERALD: What an amazing group of people!

ASHBERY: I know. [laughs] Stephen Spender was also there, a fixture of every international writers conference. Kenward Elmslie and Joe Brainard were there, too, but I’m not sure if they were officially part of the bill. At that time, I was quite little known, as were some of the other people. Wieners, who wasn’t as wild or manic then, was put in the same hotel room as me. I didn’t think that was going to work out, but even before I could do anything about it, he’d managed to get himself transferred to a lovely villa overlooking the whole city that he shared only with Olson. Who else was there? Oh, the Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann and I’m sure Ted Hughes.

FITZGERALD: Did you get to meet Pound?

ASHBERY: It depends on what you mean by meet. [laughs] At one point, Olson, who had been talking with him privately, appeared with him at the center of the major square where we were all sitting around at a café. He went around to each table and introduced Pound to everyone. I got the same reception most other people did, which was a silent glare. Olson said, “Ezra, this is a young poet, a young American, John ASHBERY.” I didn’t particularly take umbrage since everybody else was getting the same treatment. I did have a very nice time with Pasolini, whose poetry I had read and admired. Bill Weaver had translated it into English and it’s really very fine. I still like it.

FITZGERALD: Had you seen his films by then?

ASHBERY: Yes, Accattone [1961]. I don’t remember what other ones I might have seen. But I read on the same program with him and Olson, and afterwards he took me aside and said he really liked my poems and enjoyed the reading very much.

FITZGERALD: There’s a poem called “Queer Subtext” in Breezeway. Throughout this book, you make joking, self-knowing references to gay phrases or images. One poem interjects “Did I mention cockchafers?” abruptly; another “I see a long line / of attendees waiting, cock in hand.” And, of course, “I said we were all homers not homos” pops up in the title poem. There’s also the phrase: “A Caribbean shithole documentary told him / softly, as in an evening sunset, / into an emotional atmosphere / happy from gay.” I wondered if you were playing with your critics and their notorious interpretations of your work.

ASHBERY: That’s something that I’ve always thought about. Is my poetry difficult because I obscured certain facts of my life? Even so, I always rather resented the notion that gay writers are sort of expected to talk about sex or their sex lives in public. Whereas straight people don’t get asked that. Nobody goes up to George Clooney and asks him how many times he’s gotten laid last week! Hopefully quite a few times, since he just married a beautiful woman. It’s as if we have to give an account of ourselves to explain why we are worthy of attention. I think with that particular title, I wanted to look at the concept of a queer subtext. I suppose there are such things in my work, but, of course, since a subtext is an unconscious entity, I don’t really know what they are. I guess I said, “Yeah, what is this queer subtext idea anyway? What’s it like to produce one?” But I probably didn’t pursue that line very far before I started thinking about something else.

FITZGERALD: Is the relationship of you, the writer, to your work completely separate from you the person?

ASHBERY: Not completely, but sort of. Once I’ve written something, I tend to forget it, so reading my work is often a very curious experience because obviously I know I did write this, but what did I mean when I was doing it? Why did I say this and not something else? I suppose I write about it so that I can forget what it is that brought me to write it. There’s a book of poetry by Laura Riding called Twenty Poems Less—that’s the way I feel having written a new book. Twenty poems I don’t have to worry about.

FITZGERALD: How do you feel rereading your past work?

ASHBERY: I frequently like it very much when I do read it. When I come across it, maybe it’s in a desk drawer or somewhere, and it’s some poem that you wrote and have completely forgotten about. When you read it, you’re thinking it was written by someone else. It’s this sort of feeling of ecstasy that can be supplied by nothing else. Maybe that’s why one writes. A feeling that Randall Jarrell wrote about.

FITZGERALD: How does one differentiate between prose and poetry? Or do you?

ASHBERY: I guess I don’t really. I wrote a prose poem when I was in my twenties called “The Young Son,” which I felt was a kind of welcome escape from the broken line in poetry. Of course, years after that I wrote Three Poems, which is rather pointedly three prose poems, because I wanted to explore the limits between prose and poetry. Are people really still fighting this battle? I thought it was settled in the 19th century. People make much too big a deal out of it. What difference does it make if lines run to the end of the page or not?

FITZGERALD: Speaking of the 19th century, a lot of these new poems are peppered with imagery from the turn of the last century-old cartoons and comics, vernacular tidbits, objects and names of Americana long gone by. Some examples in Breezeway grant us: Mr. Wrigley, Steamboat Bill, the Gold Dust Twins, foxtrot, Klondike Scotty, Lottie Tims, Shirley Temple, Mr. Coffee Nerves, Elmer’s crayon juice, the Fuller Brush Man, Uncle Ralph. And there’s more recent avatars that still recall older times—Batman, Scooby Doo, and Howdy-Doody.

ASHBERY: Klondike Scotty is somebody I invented in the line “I don’t even know if there was a Klondike Scotty.” I don’t know who Uncle Ralph is. Raymond Verandah is another proper name that I liked particularly, also one that I made up. I guess this is what I’ve always done. But America fading away is something that’s always interested me. When I was a child, I lived much of the time with my grandparents in Rochester in this rather gloomy but cozy house that I liked much better than our farmhouse about 30 miles away—which was my father and mother’s house. The main reason being that my father had this explosive temper and I could never tell when he was going to explode again. You know, maybe he’d knock me around the room. Yet my grandfather was an extremely quiet, patient person. I loved him. He never spanked me except maybe once, so softly that I was giggling while he was doing it. I didn’t have to constantly feel on guard at their house, which I did at home. I never knew what my father was going to do.

FITZGERALD: Why do you think you selected “Breezeway” as the title poem?

ASHBERY: Well, the poem has been quite well-received. The title is a convenient catchall title referring to kind of tacky suburban homes with a little breezeway attaching the house to the garage. I feel we shouldn’t dismiss these developments too harshly. People like having them on their houses. I remember in a novel by Terry Southern, he mentions a clinic with breezeways attached. I already knew about it, but for some reason I always remember his mention of it. I think I wrote it shortly after I had my fall in the fall of 2012, after Hurricane Sandy. We were particularly annoyed by it because electricity was out in this building for almost a week. We had a very nice healthcare aide who came up all nine flights of stairs in the dark with breakfast. I wasn’t used to having difficulty walking. Anyway, the idea of the poem begins with someone saying we needed a breezeway as though it would be of help in dealing with a super storm, which, obviously it wouldn’t. But this misconception was entertained for a while, then the poet confesses being “a rather dull-spirited winch,” which is, sort of …

FITZGERALD: Elizabethan almost?

ASHBERY: It could be wench. There’s a gender question there also. “A breeze falls from a nearby tower / finds no breezeway, goes away,” as though if it weren’t for this artificial structure, breezes couldn’t survive. And that’s the case with this breeze, which finds no breezeway and goes away.

FITZGERALD: How does one dare gloss the phrase “To bark down remnants of super storm Elias jugularly”?

ASHBERY: I suppose it might be a memory of a line from an earlier poem: “Show me the right tree / and I’ll bark up it.” This new line has “barking down,” also the idea of barking louder than super storm Elias. Um, why Elias? I don’t know. Why Hurricane Edsel? Edsel is sort of a funny name that’s very American since it was the name of Henry Ford’s son and the misbegotten automobile, now a classic name for a flop of some kind.

FITZGERALD: Jugularly must be an ASHBERYian invention. I don’t know if that word existed before.

ASHBERY: I believe I patented it! You grab somebody by the throat and do not release them right away.

FITZGERALD: You said when you sent your new manuscript to Harold Bloom that you weren’t even sure he’d recognize the allusion to Mr. Salteena in the opening poem.

ASHBERY: I didn’t think that he would. I said to him, “I’m afraid that this reference won’t be gotten by most readers. Probably one in four million people knows who Mr. Salteena is.” And he said, “Well, I happen to be one of them.” Mr. Salteena is from a wonderful book called The Young Visiters written around the turn of the century by a 9-year-old girl named Daisy Ashford—the subtitle is Or, Mr. Salteena’s Plan. It’s about a beautiful young girl named Ethel who goes to live with Mr. Salteena, a bachelor who’s 42 years of age and likes the company of young ladies. I forget what the plot is but I have a copy of it somewhere. It’s actually a lovely read. I remember I’d heard about it a lot before I read it. It might have had an introduction by J.M. Barrie—author of Peter Pan, which is why the book was promoted and why we know it today.

FITZGERALD: Like Mr. Salteena, there are a seemingly infinite amount of allusions or references in these poems juxtaposed with a hyper-contemporary syntax and strange vocabulary. The critic Langdon Hammer has said no American poet has as large a vocabulary as you, not even Whitman or Pound.

ASHBERY: Well, I didn’t know all of Pound’s Greek and Chinese.

FITZGERALD: That’s right, but you know a word like durcheinander, which is in this book. What does it mean?

ASHBERY: It’s something that Pierre Martory used to say. He spoke German very well. He learned it before he did English, having lived in Germany before I knew him. And it means a place that’s in a complete mess or shambles.

FITZGERALD: Some of the other eclectic toy-words sprinkled throughout: planchette, Brno chair, and this incredible two line sequence: “Cabochon pluots weighted down with / ananas en belle vue. They drank Salada tea.” Please, on behalf of the universe, what the fuck were you thinking? [laughs]

ASHBERY: That does require some footnoting, I agree. Planchette is the guiding instrument you use for a Ouija board. Brno chair is a 1930 modern chair by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for a house he designed in Brno, Czech Republic. Cabochon is a cut of a precious stone for a diamond or a ruby, sort of a large, semi-oval, knob-shaped object. Pluots are a plum and apricot hybrid, so they’re this big, reddish-orange-purple fruit—a cabochon pluot is a fruit that’s like … this big knob. [laughs] Ananas is the French word for pineapple and en belle vue is a term from classic French cuisine. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as pineapple en belle vue, but it is applied to any dish that’s arranged so that it strikes the eye. Salada was a brand of tea sold by the A&P in the Depression. You still see old signs for it peeling from old buildings.

FITZGERALD: Finally, the poem that closes the book, “A Sweet Disorder,” has some interesting allusions that shoot all over the place, from Robert Herrick to the nightly news and old movies, to beloved Keats. It opens, “Pardon my sarong. I’ll have a Shirley Temple.”

ASHBERY: Pardon My Sarong [1942] was an Abbot and Costello comedy from the 1940s. I was reading a book about them recently that I found upstate. It was written by Costello’s daughter and is called Lou’s on First. “Pardon my past,” another line in the poem, was also a ’40s comedy, starring Fred MacMurray.

FITZGERALD: You end the poem, and book, with those frail, imperishable words of “Ode to a Nightingale,” just about my favorite poem of all time. “Do I wake or sleep?”

ASHBERY: Do you think I was dragging it through the dirt?

FITZGERALD: No, I think it’s perfect. You open and close the poem with winks to two great, famous English poetry lyrics.

ASHBERY: The Herrick lines are “A sweet disorder in the dress / Kindles in clothes a wantonness.” The poem talks about something that’s likely messy and incorrect being more moving than something that’s beautiful and ordered.

FITZGERALD: Something of an ars poetica statement from you?

ASHBERY: Well, I don’t know. Why don’t you tell me?

ADAM FITZGERALD IS THE AUTHOR OF THE LATE PARADE AND EDITS THE POETRY JOURNAL MAGGY