Laureates mark new
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
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
The novelist recalled the romantic vision of vast
machinery loaded onto flatbeds on their way to power
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
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
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.''