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Summer 2001
Volume 5, Number 3

  • John Ashbery & Kurt Vonnegut

John Ashbery & Kurt Vonnegut Transcript

State Author/Poet Reading/Presentations — January 22, 2001

Carlos Santiago, Interim Vice President, Academic Affairs, University at Albany: . . . In that earlier activity, Kurt Vonnegut, upon reaching the podium remarked that he felt that it was like the Golden Globes, which occurred just yesterday. And he thanked his wife and family for making it all possible. The cameras, the press, and the locale did give it some of that Hollywood feel. If there is a celebratory event I try to avoid it is the Oscars, the Golden Globes, the Peoples Choice Awards, MTV Awards, Emmys, Grammy’s, and . . . you get the picture. For me, when the entertainment industry celebrates itself, I respond as I would a beauty pageant. Hollywood celebrating Hollywood’s artistic achievements and excesses is not really my cup of tea, but the television ratings obviously show that I am in a minority here. Some may state that my perception can be construed as ivory tower snobbery when I state that I would prefer to see a geneticist receive acclaim for the latest discovery in functional genomics then to see Julia Roberts receive one more statue. Or, I anxiously await the latest election of the Nobel Prize in economics, I am an economist by the way. I also hate it when the presenter goes on and on about the next category so I will cut my remarks short and simply acknowledge that as we honor the achievements of John Ashbery and Kurt Vonnegut tonight let us also celebrate the vitality of literary art in the State of New York and it’s New York State Writers Institute.

The state of New York claims a particularly rich literary history, past and present. New York has been home or haven to writers as diverse as Herman Melville, Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, and Edith Wharton, in whose names we make today’s awards, James Fenimore Copper, and Toni Morrison, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Isaac B. Singer, Henry James, and Allen Ginsberg. Since it’s creation in 1984 by the state legislature, the Writers Institute has been a major force in the support and encouragement of writing and literature at all levels of education throughout our state. Under the guidance of William Kennedy, the late Tom Smith, and now Don Faulkner, the state-supported Writers Institute has significantly enhanced the cultural life of the state with its leadership and instruction, its innovative programming, and its dynamic collaborations. The Institute has helped make Albany and the state of New York havens for writers both native-born and from around the globe. Within our own lives it has served to enhance culture and the arts.

The Edith Wharton Citation of Merit for Fiction Writers and the Walt Whitman Citation of Merit for Poets are administered under the aegis of the Writers Institute. Enacted in 1985, the New York State legislature signed into law that the awards are presented biennially in recognition of a distinguished prose writer and a distinguished poet of our state. Each award carries an honorarium to enable the state author and the state poet to foster the further development and appreciation of fiction and poetry throughout the state. It is my pleasure at this time to introduce to you Don Faulkner, the director of the Writers Institute, who will continue with the program. Thank you very much and welcome.

Faulkner: Thank you all for coming. It’s really such a pleasure to look out and see this sea of faces, and bless you for being so patient. I want to take a moment here to just briefly recap some of the things that went on earlier today by reading the citation of merit for the Walt Whitman award to John Ashbery.

"John Ashbery’s poetry makes the strange become intimate, the domestic seem magical, and the eccentric, necessary. He has, from his childhood on a farm in Rochester to his years in Hudson, through five decades of making poems, found a way to engage what Wordsworth called "those obstinate questionings of sense and outward things." Across more than twenty books, he has created a body of work that is durable and beautiful, and he has opened, with uncanny wit, the sound and rhythm of things. By shattering conventional notions of clarity he creates a sharper reality.

Like his forbear Emerson’s, his eye is selfless, and, like his other forbear, Whitman, he has a keen trust in the democracy of the American tongue. In his work as a poet, a critic of the visual arts, and as a teacher, he is affable, generous, and welcoming toward all that is art. He is a luminous citizen of the literary republic and a treasured citizen of the State of New York.

Now, therefore, I, George Pataki, Governor of the State of New York, do hereby award this Walt Whitman Citation of Merit for Poets to John Ashbery, and designate him State Poet of the State of New York for the years 2001–2003."

And now to read the citation for State Author, let me introduce the founder and Executive Director of the New York State Writers Institute, and I never introduce him without saying, and a great humanitarian, William Kennedy.

William Kennedy: I was on Cape Cod writing a novel in 1973, January, and I walked into a bookstore in Barnstable or West Barnstable wherever it was. I knew that Kurt Vonnegut lived in the neighborhood, and I said to the woman at the desk, "Does Kurt Vonnegut live around here and does he ever give anybody interviews?" And she said, "Oh no, he never gives interviews." And I said, "Well, you know that’s too bad, I would really love to see him." Then I looked across the room and there was somebody who looked very much like Kurt Vonnegut. I walked over to the other side and I said, "Are you Kurt Vonnegut?" He said, "Yes, I am." And I said, "Well I’m a writer and I’m here writing a novel and I just thought that I would come over and chat with you for a while if that’s possible." And he said, "Sure, come over Monday." I went over and this inaccessible man then gave me about three hours of his afternoon, and two hours the next day, and we had the most marvelous conversation I had ever had with a writer up to that point in my life. He engraved my copy of Cat’s Cradle and he mentioned the "korass", I don’t have that, somebody has stolen that book from me, but I remember very well that he said that in this "korass" there are people who are thrown together in life for some reason or another. And he wrote "Nice, nice, very nice, so many people in the same device. — Kurt Vonnegut." It was more clever than that. He went on to say other things at the beginning and ending but it was a wonderful dedication and I am crestfallen that I have lost that book, that somebody stole it. It’s probably out on the market. You’ll find his signature in my book somewhere on Amazon.com. But, anyway, I will read the citation that was presented to Kurt earlier today:

Kurt Vonnegut’s stories, novels, and plays, as entertaining as they are unpredictable, have, to use one of his own phrases, ‘put a cosmic charley horse in the sinews’ of modernity. His profound humanism, which some mistakenly call cynical, and his senses of providence and justice, which others mistakenly call absurdist, make his vision unequalled. His questioning of our values, our sense of progress, even our existence, is a touchstone for millions of readers. His wry satire and cosmic wit keep us sane.

Mr. Vonnegut’s literary odyssey now spans half a century. Before it began, he had moved from his native turf, ‘featureless land as flat as a pool table,’ which is to say, Indiana, to the quirky corners of the State of New York—places that he has transmuted into the magical horizons of his fictions. His power to astonish transports us beyond these horizons to the distant reaches of the universe, from a past that we dare not forget to any number of possible futures. His humane insight into the dark cultures of technology and power, and his wondrous explorations of science tell us that, all evidence to the contrary, good can come of our three-and-a-half pounds of brain.

For his exemplary dedication to the art of making, as he says, ‘curious tales told with ink on bleached and flattened wood pulp,’ we consider you one of New York’s treasures.

Now therefore I, not, George Pataki, Governor of the State of New York—I do not mean to demean our governor who was unfortunately snatched away from us by an airplane condition, which I understand happened in Niagara Falls this afternoon, and he couldn’t make it to Albany—do hereby award this Edith Wharton Citation of Merit for Fiction Writers to Kurt Vonnegut and designate him State Author of the State of New York for the years 2001-2003."

Tonight, by the way, is a record in the history of the Writers Institute. We’ve been doing this thing since 1983, and we’ve had two events comparable to this with people in the hallways and aisles and so on. But we turned away more people tonight than maybe are here. This is a magnificent tribute to our two writers, John and Kurt. I couldn’t be happier.

The Master of Ceremonies tonight is not a stranger to Albany or to the Writers Institute or any place else. He is a citizen of the world, at ease among the literati of Paris, bird watching in the Everglades, in Cuba with Ernest Hemmingway where he created what is probably the most famous literary interview of all time. He did that also in Paris as I recall, and went on to create in the Paris Review Quarterly the greatest series of literary interviews since the dawn of the printing press, and that is undoubtedly the truth. He is also known as the prince of cameos for the many roles he plays in movies and TV. He’s best known as a participatory journalist because of his personal involvement in sports in order to be able to write about them—playing guard with the Boston Celtics, boxing with Archie More, pitching against the big league baseball all-stars, playing hockey with the Boston Bruins, football with the Detroit Lions, being the centerfold photographer for Playboy, the most dangerous sport of all. He’s fireworks commissioner of New York City. His books have been best sellers, Paper Lion, Out of My League, and so on, and he has done oral biographies of Robert Kennedy, E. D. Sedegwick, Truman Capote. He said once that Capote was a superb dinner companion because he always came prepared with stories and gossip for the evening and was a superb raconteur. That is a perfect description of our Master of Ceremonies this evening, a very funny man, a great editor, a wonderful writer, and also a nice guy, George Plimpton.

Plimpton: Thank you very much for those absurd thoughts. You know I’ve often thought that awards and plaques and cups do a lot to improve a writer’s self-esteem. Writers, in particular poets, toil in relative obscurity, read by few, and the only way that they can sense that anything is going to improve in their life is when they are lucky enough to receive awards, and plaques, and cups, and letters from admirers and so forth. Now here is what John Ashbery has in his house. He has the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. I have no idea what that looks like, but it sounds pretty magnificent. He has the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the Critics Award, the Gran Prix Internationale de Poesie, huge thing. He has the Bollingen Prize. He has the English Speaking Union Prize, he has two Ingram Merrill Foundation Prizes, he has the M.L.A. Award, he has the Commonwealth Award in Literature, he has the Harriet Monrore Memorial Prize, he has the Shelley Award, he has fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, and the Fulbright, and the MacArthur Foundation, and now he has the Walt Whitman Award. Now is this not too much? I mean are there not those of us here who might get a leg up by having some of these things? Should he really receive the Walt Whitman Award on top of all these other things that he has? I think we ought to have a vote. I only have one plaque. It reads, to a good sport, George Pemberton. George Pemberton is a friend of mine. I stole it from him.

John was saying earlier today, wherever we were, that huge room in that great pile over there, which was, as you heard, minus the Governor. I can understand why. I don’t know why anyone would fool around in that great mausoleum of a place. He was not there, but we were. And John began talking about the poet laureate and about how the English for six hundred years have had poet laureates. They used to be selected by the court and more recently by the Prime Minister on the recommendation of the monarchy. They are supposed to write about things of great import in the royal family—marriages, births, demises, and so forth.

Now John is a very difficult poet. He once said, "I am an important poet, read by younger poets and on the other hand nobody understands me." As a matter of fact he rather famously said once that he doesn’t really understand what he has written. Now that seems to me to be absolute perfect machinery for a poet laureate. Let us say that he for the state is to write a poem about Senator Clinton, say, wooing the apple farmers Upstate. And so John will do this and no one will understand what on earth he has written. But it will be brilliant. I think it was John who actually told the story of a young poet who found himself in a room with W. H. Auden. Auden is an absolute monarch of poetry, and the young poet was too nervous and wondered what to say, and he asked John what he should say to W. H. Auden. He was advised to thank him for being alive. And that’s what I think we can say about John Ashbery.

Ashbery: Wow. George, thank you very much. George and I were actually classmates back in 19-nevermind at Harvard. You did leave out a few prizes that I won but you included some that I have never heard of such as the English Speaking Union. I wonder what that could possibly be? I mean isn’t everything an English speaking union? I won’t take up too much of your time. I’ll read a few poems from my most recent book, Your Name Here. The first one is called "This Room".

The next several ones are prose poems, which is a genre I have returned to in recent years, which I tried out in the seventies. In fact, it’s now a very popular mode it seems, in fact they are not all that difficult to write. I encourage all of you to try it. This is the first one, "If You Said You Would Come With Me".

This one is called, "A Linit", which is a tiny bird that seems to only exist in literature.

John Ashbery, State Poet, 1/22/01, State Capital

(photo credit: Judy Axenson)

"The Bubinski Brothers"

"Brand Loyalty"

"Industrial Collage"

"Memories of Imperialism"

"The Fortune Cookie Crumbles"

"Redeemed Area"

"Crossroads in the Past"

I’ll read one more which is yet another prose poem called, "A Nice Presentation".

Thank you.

Plimpton: I kept thinking as John was reading some of the more difficult of those poems what George W. Bush would have made of them. Those of you who watch the David Letterman show may know that he now has this feature where this script comes on and says, "George W. Bush’s newest long word. Transportation."

We are very lucky to have Kurt as a New Yorker. Kurt Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis, and he went to high school there, then he went to the war, Dresden, as you all know, Slaughterhouse Five, and then he went to Chicago to study anthropology. Then finally he came to Schenectady where he was a public relations person for General Electric. He told us today in the great mansion over there that he was very good at it and then finally he settled down in New York after Cape Cod. So he is by now a staunch New Yorker, thank goodness, otherwise we’d have another laureate here.

I used to live in Sagaponic in Long Island, two houses away from Kurt who lives with his wife Jill—who is here, Jill Krementz, one of the great photographers of the world—in a wonderful eighteenth century house. On Sunday’s our equanimity was invariably disturbed by these model airplanes that would rise out of this field close by and circle over our respective houses with a high whine—dog fights and various things. It was really rather disturbing, rather pretty after awhile but noisy. And Kurt and I used to discuss what we would do about this—fantasize. Mine was that falcons would rise out of the hedges around my house and go up and engage these craft. But his I thought was much more imaginative. His was that he would have a midget submarine in his swimming pool which from time to time would rise up and shoot at these airplanes and then submerge into his swimming pool.

There is very little that Kurt says to you that you don’t remember. He once got me into an awful lot of trouble by suggesting to me that the way to increase readership would be to require that everybody on welfare hand in, before they got their checks, a book report. I once said this to a large group in a speech, I think they were in the roofing business, which was going into a decline at the time, and I was almost booed off the stage. In any case, Kurt is not only one of the great writers of this country but to me an old and wonderfully valued friend. It is a tremendous privilege to be here and introduce him, Kurt Vonnegut.

Vonnegut: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. You may be surprised at my poise facing an audience of this size and degree of sophistication. I mean this is a piece of cake for me. You may wonder why. It’s because when I went to Cornell they had a course in public speaking, which I took. Some of you may know that the first rule in public speaking is never apologize. And so I realized that perhaps all over the world there were audiences that have never been apologized to and that they might find it refreshing. And so, I’m sorry. I’m sick about the whole thing and I wish I could make it up to you. My wife and my daughter are sitting right here seeing this calamity.

George did point out correctly that I have a Masters degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago, but that was a terrible mistake. I can’t stand primitive people. They are so stupid. Well, you are entitled to know that I am a humanist. I am honorary president of the American Humanist Association whose headquarters aren’t that far away. They are in Amherst, New York. I’ll talk about Amherst in a minute. Lord Jeffrey. We humanists, I succeeded Isaac Asimov as president, and we humanists try to behave as well as we can without any expectation of a reward or punishment in an after life. So since God is unknown to us, the highest abstraction to which we serve is our community. That’s as high as we can go, and we have some understanding of that. Now at a memorial service for Isaac Asimov a few years ago on the West Coast I spoke and I said, "Isaac is in heaven now," to a crowd of humanists. It was quite awhile before order could be restored. Humanists were rolling in the aisles. Should I, God forbid, pass on some time, I hope that some of you will say that Kurt is up in heaven now.

Now there is a blackboard hidden around here somewhere. I guess I’m supposed to dig it out myself, is that right. That’s beautiful, ho, stop. Let’s see where this mother, as we call it, will travel.

I set out to be a chemist, as my brother, who taught at SUNY Albany incidentally, was a Ph.D. physical chemist from MIT. He eventually got interested in the weather, discovered how to make it snow and rain. At any rate I have never had a liberal arts education except to the extent that I have myself read books other people have recommended. But, there is this, and I don’t mean to insult English departments when I say this. I am always in an English department when I am on a faculty. It’s Smith right now, but I’ve been on the faculty at the University of Iowa, Harvard, City College in New York, where I taught with Joe Heller. I’m always in the English department despite my lack of background in the liberal arts. We get these bulletins in the English department—you know short story competitions, novel competitions, one act play competitions, and so forth. And I always take those over to the Xerox machine and send them over to the nursing school, to the guys behind the steam table in the cafeteria, to the chemistry department, which is where I was, and so forth, because that’s where the writers are going to be and I’ll tell you why. They won’t be in the English department. Look, the purpose of an English department, and it is the most important department in any university, is to civilize, really to enrich you, to relate your brain and heart to this enormous civilization we have. But in the English department you also learn good taste in literature, and so when you start to write you’ll be very disappointed. Now I was in the Chemistry department and I didn’t know it was crap. So I went on writing anyway because I enjoyed it so much. In an English department, if there is a talented person, and so if I were a Ph.D English professor, and this nice young lady had turned in the damndest short story I had ever seen, I mean this was on a Chekov level, and Ms. Foster I’ve never had a student like you before, and really there can’t be many like you in this world. What a piece of work this is! Now this places a terrible responsibility on me. What am I to do with such a person? Well, let me show you how James Joyce handled this same situation, thank you you son of a bitch, you have put this student in competition with one of the greatest writers who ever lived. And so the young lady will give up as being up against Chekov, being up against Mark Twain, being up against me. And she’s going to quit. But the people in other departments, the pre-vet students, the pre-dental students, and all that, write because they enjoy it. I’m teaching over at Smith now and what I tell people is there is no trade anymore of writing, of storytelling, but you engage in it anyway, or in painting, in order to make your soul grow. It’s not a way to make a living. It’s a way to make your soul grow to see who you are and where you are if you’re writing stories or poems.

Anyway, I’ve tried to give English departments the benefits of my scientific education, to bring some mathematical sense to criticism and to understanding stories. I haven’t gotten a whole lot of gratitude for this, I must say. But stories have very simple curves, very beautiful curves, which computers can easily understand. All right this the G-I axis—good fortune [at the top], ill fortune [at the bottom]. Great wealth, marvelous health, up here. Death, disease, poverty down here. This is right in the middle, average state of affairs. This is the B-E axis. B stands for beginning, E stands for electricity [end]. Now then, if you get into this trade of mine, the people who can afford to go to movies, and buy magazines and buy books and so forth don’t like to hear about people who are poor or sick. So start your story up here somewhere. If you stayed at home tonight and watched TV you would have seen the same story over and over again. I call it man-in-hole. But it needn’t be about a man or a hole, just somebody who gets into trouble, gets out of it again. People love that story. And I haven’t used drawing instruments here, but ideally the far end should be somewhat higher then where we began because to read such a story encourages everybody. My god, that little old lady did that. Well, I’m a human being too, so, my god, I must have that much in reserve if I get into trouble.

Now there is another story, which has a beautiful curve. I call it boy-meets-girl. But it needn’t be about a boy or a girl. There is somebody on a day like any other day, expecting absolutely nothing, who comes across something perfectly wonderful. Oh boy, this is my lucky day. Shit. Gets it back again. Now then, the very pessimistic story by Franz Kafka. There is this unprepossessing man in Prague, with a lousy job, with rather uninteresting relatives, and everything, who doesn’t make enough money to take a girl to a beer garden or have any fun. He wakes up, it’s time to go to work again. He has turned into a cockroach. I guess most of you know that story.

Now there is a story that is much beloved—none of these are copyrighted incidentally—that we love to hear told again and again and it violates my law and it starts down here. It’s somebody who is very low; it’s a girl whose mother has died, now that’s not very damn funny is it? And her father has remarried almost at once and he has two ugly, mean daughters, and so there is a party at the palace that night. You’ve heard it? And she has to help everybody else get all dressed up for the party, while she has to stay home. And what, does she get even more unhappy? Well, she is a stouthearted little girl in maximum grief because her mother died. So the fairy godmother shows up and gives her mascara, pantyhose. Everything you need to go to a party and have a good time, means of transportation, and so forth. So she goes, but understands that she has to go home at midnight. The prince falls in love with her. She is so heavily made up her own relatives don’t recognize her. So, all right, the clock strikes midnight, boing, boing, boing, she loses all that was promised. Do we drop down to the same level? No. For the rest of her life, no matter what happens, she’s going to remember when she was belle of the ball and the prince was in love with her. Ok, she whips along at this much improved level, I must say, until the glass slipper fits and she becomes off-scale happy.

Now I told you that I couldn’t stand primitive people. I had no idea what the hell anthropology was about, and it was GI bill anyway. Anyway, the proof of how uninteresting the minds of primitive people are is, I went to the library there and dug out stories told by primitive people gathered by missionaries, by explorers, imperialists of different sort, authentic reputable reports, and boy, are these stories lousy. I mean look at the wonderful rise and fall of our stories. Us, we do this. And they do this: as we came to a mountain, as we came to a stream, a little beaver died. You wonder why anybody would want to listen to a story like this. Anyway, has this any value in criticism of literature? Perhaps a true masterpiece cannot be crucified on a cross of this design.

All right, what is the greatest treasure we have in our treasure house of English literature? Hamlet. Now let’s see what happens. Situation: a parent died, and immediately the surviving parent remarries. I mean, Hamlet’s situation is very similar to Cinderella’s, except he is a guy, and she is a girl. Ok, so Hamlet is downstairs minding his own business, and his friend Horatio comes down and says there is a thing up in the parapet and you better talk to it. Claims he’s your dad’s ghost. So Hamlet goes up there, talks to it, and it talks to him. Now those of you who have been involved in spiritualism, and have read Madame Blavatsky and so forth, know that when you are messing around with a ouji board or a wine glass on the table or whatever, you may attract a malicious spirit, who will lie to you. Now what Madame Blivosky says is you are very likely to attract a suicide, a person who has been murdered, who is on earth still when it should go up to wherever they go next. So we don’t know what the hell this ghost is. Was it Hamlet’s father? I don’t know. It could be a malicious ghost wishing harm to the state of Denmark. It could be a Norwegian ghost pretending to be Hamlet’s father. It thinks, hey, I was murdered here, you gotta get revenge. Ok, is that good news or bad news? Well, we don’t know what the damn thing is. So we just go dead level here on the parapet and then Hamlet says I’ve got a good idea. I’ll hire a bunch of actors, I’ll have them act out the crime as it was described to me and I’ll have the murder suspect watch. Ok, what happened? Does the murder suspect, his uncle, his mother’s new husband, go crazy—I can’t stand it, yes I did it, blah blahs? No. He’s quite unmoved by this, it’s a flop. The play is neither good nor bad news. Hamlet is up talking to his mother after this flop and the draperies move up there, and he says, ok my uncle is back there, so he pulls out his sword, tired of being indecisive, and sticks it through the draperies. Who falls out? Polonius. This big, porky, draft-dodging Rush Limbaugh. This man, is a windbag throughout the play, and dumb parents think that the advice that Polonius gives to his kids when they go off to college is good—that this is Shakespeare’s idea of good advice. Shakespeare regards it as a kind of crap that parents load kids up with before they go to college. "Neither a borrower nor a lender be." Thanks a lot dad. Anyway, is this good news or bad news? Well, Hamlet’s not going to get a rest. His ploy didn’t kill anybody. And this man, as I say, is a windbag. So we go along, neither good news nor bad news, and finally Hamlet gets in a duel and is killed. Does he go to heaven or to hell? Well, we have no indication from Shakespeare, and I suspect it’s quite probable that Shakespeare has the same opinion of heaven and hell that I do—he doesn’t really take it seriously. So, I have just proved to you that Shakespeare is as poor a storyteller as any quakidoddle. Have I cooked the books? No, I have not. What I have done here is quite fair. It explains why we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece, why we are so grateful for it. He tells the truth, and the truth is we don’t know enough about life to know what the good news is and what the bad news is. And he has demonstrated this here, and we are so grateful.

Now, I’ve told you that I am honorary president of the American Humanist Association, a completely functionless job. The one reason I wish there were a heaven, is to be able to go there and say what was the good news and what was the bad news. As children, we are taught to imitate others about their opinions of what’s good news and bad news. Take a three-year-old kid. Kid’s parents are so excited. There is the most tremendous piece of news. It’s your birthday. What could be a more empty piece of information? But the kid, in order to please it’s parents, says ha ha ha. And you know it never stops. Our political candidate won. Our team won and everything. And so goodnight.

Faulkner: We decided together that we can’t top this. So we are going to call it a night. God bless you all. Thank you John, thank you Kurt, thank you all for coming.

John Ashbery
Kurt Vonnegut