On Meeting John Ashbery

posted Jun 2, 2009

I met up with him outside Lamont Library
where he had just given a splendid reading
in The Forum Room. This was the spring
of ’98. In fact, it was May Day. I had
the day off from work because I managed to
get someone at Borders that week to trade
shifts with me. One of the managers there,
Erin I think her name was, said she had a friend
who had seen Ashbery read once and he
gave the most boring reading and that Ashbery
was even known for it. I told Erin
I hadn’t heard that. Anyway, it was the early
evening when KC and I rode the red line
into Harvard Square. We got there early
but the place was already packed. We were
lucky to find two seats together just a few rows
in from the back. I remember KC and I
asking each other who this guy was who did
these great introductions at practically every
reading in the Boston area we went to.
It wasn’t until a month later when I met
Joe Torra that I learned that Bill Corbett was
that guy. Anyway, the next time I worked
with Erin, I told her how Ashbery gave
probably the best reading I had ever seen,
how his words were perfectly paced and sounded
and spent, how even his asides about the poems
were brief and humorous. When I caught up
with him outside, he greeted me cordially.
He was possibly the most dignified person
I had ever met, but he was completely without
a superior air. I’m not one to collect signatures
so I didn’t bring any of the half dozen books
of his I owned. Instead, I tried to ask him a
question about the poem as experience and
what it might mean to incorporate a poetics
based on the experience of experience
where words are crucial informants of said
experience, essential instruments but not
necessarily, or at all really, intrinsic to—
but before I could finish my question he placed
a hand on my shoulder and asked me
to be quiet because the people behind us
were saying something, and he was trying to hear.

Scott Keeney is the author of Sappho Does Hay(na)ku. His work has appeared in Court Green, Columbia Poetry Review, Poetry East, and other literary magazines.

We’ve published three more poems by Keeney: “On Meeting Charles Wright,” “On Meeting Charles Simic,” and “On Meeting Elizabeth Bishop.”