Shouldn’t we all be quitters?

To accompany this exclusive extract from John Ashbery’s Parallel Movement of the Hands, Dai George talks to the book’s editor, Emily Skillings

DG: I’d like to start by thanking you, on behalf of all John Ashbery fans, for the wonderful work that you and Farnoosh Fathi have done to bring Parallel Movement of the Hands to fruition. It’s the first volume of previously unpublished Ashbery material to emerge since his death in 2017, and a complete treasure trove. Could you tell us a little about the project, and how you came to be involved?

ES: Thank you! It really has been a labour of love, an honour, and such an emotional process. I was Ashbery’s assistant from 2010 until his death in 2017. What happened was I came across some unfinished poems (and that word, ‘unfinished’, means very different things in this book – sometimes it means ‘not prepared for publication’ and sometimes it means ‘abandoned’ or ‘cliffhanger with no next episode’) while I was packing up Ashbery and David Kermani’s apartment in 2018, almost a year after John’s death. I came upon a section in a filing cabinet that seemed to hold a cluster of longer, unfinished works. I had just finished putting together a file of photocopies of unpublished short poems written after Chinese Whispers that had been published in periodicals (which meant Ashbery liked them) but hadn’t been included in the six books he published between 2005 and 2016. I did that because I was in mourning, I guess, and trying to preserve things, and thought maybe someone might like to do something with them someday, and that my labour might spare this hypothetical editor some extra effort. Those poems were great, of course, but when I saw these longer poems and sequences I thought ‘people might like to see these.’ Then David Kermani made a few more ‘finds’ in the NYC apartment. I started reading over them and feeling that swell of potential. I think I called Farnoosh Fathi pretty soon after and she came over and we started looking at the manuscripts, just fawning over them.

DG: Why do you think he never completed these poems?

ES: In my introduction I ask ‘What stops a poem?’ and I really don’t know! Kermani told me John was often critical of his poems/projects and would sometimes put them away for long stretches of time. He made revisions to The Kane Richmond Project a few months after he wrote its last entry, so he was still thinking of it as ‘in-progress’, but you can also tell by looking at the manuscripts that he still had some questions about what to do with the project as a whole (he wrote ‘begin here?’ in the margin in several places throughout the first quarter of the manuscript, and there was some confusion as to the order things should go in). Ashbery’s dear friend and the editor of his Selected Prose, Eugene Richie, remembered that Ashbery felt that these projects – The Art of Finger Dexterity and The Kane Richmond Project, specifically – didn’t fit within the other books he was publishing at the time, but that he liked them and was obviously invested in them. The Art of Finger Dexterity was abandoned midway (he had planned to write 50 poems and wrote 28). They all do feel complete to me in their own way. Fathi and I went back and forth about the word ‘unfinished’ but I like how roomy it is as a word, ‘finish’ being a kind of subjective, aesthetic quality as well as a practical one. It can be both like the polish on a piece of furniture, or like whether a car has all its parts.

DG: How do you think Ashbery’s relationship with the long-form, serial project changed over time? As you point out in your editorial introduction, he became known in later years for producing brief, condensed lyrics, and yet these poems seem to exemplify expansion, digression, amplitude – qualities that have always been present in Ashbery, but which also tally with certain preconceptions of a writer’s (quote-unquote) ‘late style’.

ES: Of course I’m not trying to say that Ashbery stopped publishing ‘long poems’ in his late career. But after 1999 with Girls on the Run there isn’t a book-length project like The Kane Richmond Project and the very long poems start to get fewer and farther between. I think a long poem really allows a poet space to take these very meaningful diversions, detours. I liked seeing him spread out and digress in these poems, if that makes sense. The Art of Finger Dexterity is interesting because it’s a long series made up of shorter poems that are actually very representative of his ‘late style’, but it also has this unifying, ekphrastic structure, a shell that I think distinguishes it from the other recent books.

DG: These poems seem to possess a drive towards the iterative, the comprehensive. The collection starts with a ‘History of Photography’ and then we have ‘The Art of Finger Dexterity’, a sequence that sets out to provide a partner poem for every variation in a musical sequence by the composer Carl Czerny. Do you think that the encyclopaedic quality of these poems has anything to do with their unfinishedness?

ES: Yes! I love that theory. They are ‘Capital P’ projects with ‘end goals’ that have to do with completeness, ‘the comprehensive’, as you say. ‘The History of Photography’, as Ben Lerner points out in his foreword, is one of the more ‘finished’ poems in the collection, and I love how the poem – though it uses photography as a kind of connective tissue or tether – is, of course, not really ‘about’ photography at all. He lets himself abandon it as a subject and then return to it.

DG: What were some of the challenges you faced as an editor when you were sifting through this material and deciding whether or not – and how – to publish it?

ES: Fathi and I made up a kind of rule that the poems should be a) ‘long-ish’ and b) have a connection to an outside art form or text (i.e. loosely ekphrastic). We did find some things we decided not to include because they didn’t fit within these parameters. As I explain in the introduction, none of these poems were found in Ashbery’s archives at Harvard. All were found in his home(s). We liked the idea that they hadn’t been ‘sent away’, only put aside. There was a poem that we originally included that I decided not to publish in the book called ‘For Leopardi, or Tolstoi.’ One day I was leafing through Your Name Here [Ashbery’s 2000 collection] and started seeing all these familiar phrases in multiple poems. I realised that John had kind of sprinkled this long, unfinished poem throughout the book. After thinking about it, I realised it had already fulfilled its potential in John’s work as he intended. It was like fertiliser for this amazing collection (one of my favourites of his). In his poem, ‘And the Stars were Shining’, he writes: ‘Rummaging through some old poems / for ideas – surely I must have had some / once?’ This self- stealing was something I saw him do on a smaller scale while I was working for him, as he often worked from handwritten fragments that could end up in multiple poems. (A funny aside: I came across a short, unpublished poem from the Quick Question era in the filing cabinet in New York that had a note from Kermani on it indicating that one of the lines in the poem was also in a poem in Planisphere. Kermani noted on the typescript that when he asked Ashbery about whether or not he wanted to remove the line, Ashbery said something like, ‘Keep it in. It’ll give the critics something to talk about.’)

DG: Ashbery was famously ambivalent about his status as a feted poet, and generally tried to resist overtures to dissect his work or put it on a pedestal. Did that play on your mind at all while you were paying it such close, editorial attention?

ES: John’s self-consciousness about his poetry was not false modesty. He was hurt by negative reviews, or readers who were befuddled by his poems. He was generally disinterested in scholarship that attempted to ‘explain’ his poems, but he did love being written about! He was a classic Leo in that he really liked attention. John kept little folders ‘of interest’ in his desk in NYC: clippings, research, materials on various curiosities, things he might or might not use for a poem. This is where I found some of his printouts and other source materials for The Kane Richmond Project. One of my biggest challenges was that while it was so fun looking up John’s references in the poems and illuminating some of them in the appendices, I had to ultimately resist being exhaustive or comprehensive about it; it would have been too much for me. But then I remembered these little folders and thought the appendices could kind of be like that. I could just prime the poem for further research by others. I guess what I’m saying is I wanted to leave a lot of room for discovery. I didn’t have to uncover everything, nor did I want to! I also wanted to leave a trail of some of my more significant editorial decisions, for the sake of transparency.

DG: Could you talk a bit about The Kane Richmond Project, the longer poem from which ‘The Quitter’ is taken? Who was Kane Richmond, and what was Ashbery’s interest in him?

ES: Kane Richmond was this actor who appeared mostly in cliffhangers. One of his most famous serials is Spy Smasher, where Richmond plays a superhero who fights Nazis with his twin brother. One of the other Kane Richmond serials that comes up in the poems is The Adventures of Rex and Rinty, which also stars Rin Tin Tin (Jr). Rex, a horse, and ‘Rinty’ become main characters in the poem. Rex actually kind of switches back and forth between being a horse and a dog at some points, which I love. John had a giant poster of Rin Tin Tin in his house in Hudson above a stairwell, and his first play, The Compromise, was written after seeing a Rin Tin Tin film (this moviegoing experience is chronicled both in Karin Roffman’s biography and in Mark Ford’s book-length 2003 interview with Ashbery), so it was interesting to see him return to this old friend. Kermani told me that he remembers JA’s interest in Kane Richmond was mostly due to him being a total dreamboat. You can look up some pictures – he is! I watched many of the serials and movies that Ashbery references in the poems (some were unwatchably bad, no fault of KR’s) and Richmond is pretty magnificent, a well-respected serial actor. He had an undeniable presence on screen and apparently, on occasion, did his own stunts. Here’s how John describes him in the poem, towards the end: ‘Next is a serial starring the American actor Kane Richmond, a tall, dark, good- looking man who seems to prefer the company of horses and dogs to that of men as well as women. Maybe that’s why his shyness seems about right.’ I love that he points out his shyness. John could be very shy, too.

DG: I love this piece and see so much in it that ripples through the rest of Ashbery’s work, often hearkening back to his purple period in the early ’70s. Two poems from The Double Dream of Spring came to mind while I was reading it: first, ‘Evening in the Country’ which sets up a similar vision of ‘rest and fresh air’ and benign recreation (‘relax’ is the word that takes me there in ‘The Quitter’); and then ‘The Task’, another great poem of consolation that nevertheless has a troubling undertone of ‘mess’ and disarray (‘Just look at the filth you’ve made, / See what you’ve done’). To what extent do you see continuity – or change – across the course of his career?

ES: There are so many people who have answered this question better than I can! I will say that while reading, transcribing, and editing these poems, I came across phrases or references that John had used previously in his work, or ones that he would make again years later. In a conversation I had with David Kermani in 2020, he described this as an example of Ashbery’s creative world being ‘of a piece’. There is both change and continuity. But I do want to talk about ‘The Quitter’ which is one of my favourite moments in The Kane Richmond Project. I love the associations you’ve made with these other beloved poems. I have been looking at these pieces in the macro, so it’s nice to zoom in. The first line describes a state I certainly identify with, a level of relaxation that edges on lethargy, depression, death, atrophy, disappearance. The speaker admits to eating an orange and transforming (along with the world), and his recalcitrance to speak on this phenomenon is both defiant and sagacious. Each moment, as it happens, shifts, then almost disappears. It feels like there’s a black hole in this poem. People disappear, though we aren’t sure who. The poem moves this initial ‘relaxation’ into a dissolving of reality and a merging of self with others (the use of the first person fades away as the poem progresses, the speaker kind of releases into the landscape). Some receive the kindness of an ‘aging present’, while others unfairly get the snake, the mess. ‘You see there was no other one of us / there, only us,’ at first suggests a kind of loneliness in being with others, while simultaneously defining a community. There’s this familiar concurrence of calm and hovering danger here that exists in so many Ashbery poems I love. This poem kind of makes me think, ‘shouldn’t we all be quitters?’

DG: That’s a lovely reading of the poem. I’d like to finish by asking you how it feels to see these poems finally enter the world. You write beautifully about Ashbery’s ‘Homeless Heart’ and the ‘hybrid sensation of melancholy and happiness’ that it captures in the experience of the artist letting go of the work. Does that go for editors too?

ES: Honestly, it’s been more emotional than I thought it would be. When I began, I don’t think I knew how much grief around John’s passing this would bring up. Though I have edited books of poetry before, this was my first time working with original manuscripts. I knew John’s handwriting, knew first hand his way of correcting, which helped a lot, but of course John was not there to answer my questions. I obsessively kept track of changes and queries on notecards, which I then reviewed with an advisor, Rosanne Wasserman. Even on a micro level, making a ‘final’ decision or interpretation regarding a variant or question in the text was difficult, in that it felt like ‘letting go’ of some other possibility. There was one moment, for example, where Ashbery forgot to close a parenthetical. I could not for the life of me decide where the aside should end, so I intentionally left it open so the reader could make that decision.

Thankfully, I had Wasserman and many others to guide me, including Farnoosh Fathi, David Kermani, Eugene Richie, Karin Roffman, John Yau, Adam Fitzgerald, Ben Lerner, and Marcella Durand. Feeling connected to these friends through John continues to be such a blessing, and all their advice is present in the work. I hope I’ve done it justice. It was a humbling experience, and I’m sure to have made some missteps, but I’m coming to terms with the fact that this book, by definition, could never be ‘finished’ or perfect. I wanted to leave the work open enough for people to enter while presenting it in a state that John would have been proud of. That was the line I tried to keep in mind.

Emily Skillings is the author of the poetry collection Fort Not (The Song Cave, 2017). She is a member of the Belladonna* Collaborative, a feminist poetry collective, small press and event series in Brooklyn. She received her MFA from Columbia University School of the Arts, where she was a Creative Writing Teaching Fellow. Skillings was John Ashbery’s assistant from 2010 to 2017.