Ashbery Mode: my poem for John Ashbery anthologized (at last)!

“whanging in the absence of wind”

Ashbery Mode is an anthology of Australian poetry about John Ashbery edited by Michael Farrell. My poem ‘Ninety-Nine Rabbits’ rubs shoulders with works by 68 other poets in the anthology. Hmm, ’68. Coincidence, or …

The stunning cover of Ashbery Mode, edited by Michael Farrell and published in 2019 by Tinfish Press (image credit to come).
The stunning cover of Ashbery Mode, edited by Michael Farrell and published in 2019 by Tinfish Press (cover design by Jeff Sanner).

Who is John Ashbery, anyway?

John Ashbery was an American poet of the New York School who died in 2017 at the age of 90. He’s often regarded as an avant-garde, experimental poet whose work is perhaps more difficult to interpret than those of his contemporaries, including Frank O’Hara.

You want to know more about John Ashbery? Knock yourself out.

I saw Ashbery read at the University of Sydney in the early 1990s when I was studying Australian Literature there. I’d read some of his poems as part of a course in modern American poetry taught by Kate Lilley.

Adrian Wiggins, who later went on to found Cordite Poetry Review, gave me a copy of Ashbery’s Flow Chart as a birthday present at around the same time.

The cover of John Ashbery's long poem Flow Chart, published as a single volume in 1991.
The cover of John Ashbery’s long poem Flow Chart, published as a single volume in 1991.

I’ll be honest and say that I had no idea what Ashbery was going on about for the most part. Here are the opening lines from Flow Chart:

Still in the published city but not yet
overtaken by a new form of despair,
I ask
the diagram: is it the foretaste
of paint
it could so easily be? Or an emptiness
so sudden it leave the girders
whanging in the absence of wind,
the sky milk-blue and astringent?

—John Ashbery, Flow Chart (1991)

But it was the way he went about the writing (in print) and saying (in person) of what he was on about that has stuck with me. And it probably hangs over the majority of the poems I have ever written, like passionfruit seeds on a serving of unreconstructed trifle.

Ashbery Mode: the anthology

So it was a real pleasure when, about a million years ago now (actually, it was 2009: I just found the email), Melbourne-based poet and superstar Michael Farrell asked me to contribute a poem to an Ashbery anthology he was trying to get off the ground: ‘the idea is to collect poems from australian poets who are interested in / influenced by john ashbery’, he wrote.

I sent him a poem and then promptly forgot about it.

Fast-forward to 2019, and the anthology has finally materialized. Ashbery Mode is published by Tinfish Press, a publisher of experimental poetry from the Pacific (based in Hawai’i). Here’s what they say about the anthology on their website:

When the editor of Tinfish Press wrote on a Facebook comment stream that she was interested in publishing work from the Pacific that responded to Ashbery’s poetry, she did not expect Michael Farrell to respond that he already had such a manuscript in hand. Ashbery Mode is that precise anthology, one that includes dozens of Australia’s best contemporary poets writing in the “mode” of Ashbery. Like his New York School colleague and friend, Frank O’Hara, Ashbery proved crucial in relaxing the strictures of Australian poetry, releasing it from its formal and tonal bonds. It’s wonderful to see Ashbery transmogrify into a local Australian poet. This book is a companion piece to Tabios’s Witness in the Convex Mirror and, like her book, shows how poetic influence gets activated across national and oceanic boundaries, as well as how source texts can open up into radically new perspectives.

But what about my poem?

Reading my own poem, entitled ‘Ninety-Nine Rabbits’, now, it’s obviously more about Stephen Malkmus and Pavement than Ashbery himself.

When Michael contacted me to confirm that I was still willing to have the poem included in the anthology, I hesitated for a moment. It’s certainly not the greatest poem I’ve ever written. More of a placeholder, name-checking-influences-for-later-elaboration kind of poem.

I sent him an email explaining my hesitation, to which he replied: don’t pull out! So I didn’t, and hence I’m in it.

I count 69 poets in the anthology, most of whom will be familiar to anyone who’s been around the Ozpo block a few times.

John Tranter, Gig Ryan, Kate Lilley, the other Adam Ford, the list goes on. In any case, I’m looking forward to receiving a copy of Ashbery Mode in the mail and seeing what everyone else has come up with.

If you’d like to get a flavour of Ashbery’s reading style, check out some of the recordings at the phenomenal PennSound archives.

4 Comments

I have my copy and am enjoying it hugely. Amazed by the wit and expertimentation. Congratulations to tinFish and Michael Farrell.

O hai, you were saying?

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