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By MICHAEL LOPEZ, Staff writer
First published: Tuesday, January 23, 2001
Laureates mark new chapter

Albany -- Vonnegut, Ashbery installed as new state author and poet

Kurt Vonnegut and John Ashbery were designated state author and state poet on Monday in a Capitol ceremony they infused with the grace and wit that have made them famous.

The honorary appointments are for two years.

Vonnegut, who drew his early science fiction inspiration from his days as a Schenectady public relations man, and Ashbery, whose mastery has allowed him to summon such eclectic imagery as Speedy Gonzales and cherry blossoms to make poetic points, addressed the gathering of family, friends and politicians in the governor's Red Room.

Ashbery, a resident of New York City and Hudson, said the poet laureate title implies laurels -- and resting upon them -- but he hoped to follow a path somewhere between Great Britain's blase expectations of its national poets and the activism of former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky. And, "By the way, did we have one for Saturday's inaugural?'' Ashbery quipped.

His post, he hopes, "calls attention to the way the region has fostered poetry and literature.'' The list of Hudson Valley literati is long, from Washington Irving and Herman Melville to Edith Wharton and Henry James.

Calling the Hudson Valley "the birthplace of American culture,'' Ashbery, 73, said, "I need all of New York, it's the essential nourishment of my writing.''

Ashbery has authored 20 volumes of poetry and is praised for invigorating a new generation of poets with his experimental language.

Vonnegut, 78, is best known for his 1969 novel, "Slaughterhouse-Five,'' based on his experience as a German prisoner of war during the firebombing of Dresden of World War II.

After the war from 1947 to 1950, he was a PR writer for the General Electric Co., and he spoke fondly about his tenure in Schenectady. "Player Piano,'' with its futuristic vision of corporate control, is a thinly veiled, fictional reference to GE and the Electric City at its post-war zenith.

The novelist recalled the romantic vision of vast machinery loaded onto flatbeds on their way to power the world.

Vonnegut also was a volunteer firefighter for the Alplaus Fire Department, in the hamlet near Glenville and Clifton Park. His compassionate view of volunteer emergency service was the basis of his 1965 novel, "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.''

Likening his brief remarks to a Golden Globe speech, he thanked his wife, Jill Krementz, and their daughter, Lilly, and singled out several noted writers and arts supporters in Monday's audience: William Kennedy, George Plimpton and state Sen. Roy Goodman.

The Writers Institute, which Kennedy directs, convenes the writers' panels who nominate the state authors and poets.

Lt. Gov. Mary O. Donohue officiated for Gov. George Pataki, whose plane Monday was delayed in Niagara Falls. "Literature is a haven and a keyhole through which each of us explore wider worlds,'' she said.

Later, at an appearance moderated by author George Plimpton, each demonstrated their own brand of rambling, funny absurdity. More than 950 people packed Page Hall at the University at Albany downtown campus.

In the poem "Industrial Collage,'' Ashbery has quality-control specialists checking boxes of magic, "for we know how much magic might be imprisoned there.''

Vonnegut gave a free-spirited riff, saying that he very early learned the first rule of public speaking: never apologize. "I realized that there were audiences all over the world that had never been apologized to -- and that they might find it refreshing. So, I'm sorry.''

He also spoke of his humanist beliefs.

Humanists believe in behaving as well as possible without expectation of reward or punishment in the afterlife. Vonnegut, therefore, got a huge laugh when he spoke at fellow humanist Isaac Asimov's funeral and said, "Isaac is in heaven now. That was the funniest thing I could say to a crowd of humanists. So, should I, God forbid, pass on sometime, I hope some of you will say that Kurt is up in heaven now.''

Copyright 2001, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y. The information you receive online from Times Union is protected by the copyright laws of the United States. The copyright laws prohibit any copying, redistributing, retransmitting, or repurposing of any copyright-protected material.

Copyright 2000, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y. The information you receive online from Times Union is protected by the copyright laws of the United States. The copyright laws prohibit any copying, redistributing, retransmitting, or repurposing of any copyright-protected material.

Kurt Vonnegut
John Ashbery

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