Friday, September 08, 2017


In the Fall of 1990 I was an Associate Professor at San Jose State University, directing and producing a twice-weekly broadcast of a literary arts program over KSJS FM. In that capacity, I was cooperating with the local Center for Poetry and Literature on a reading by John Ashbery. I was to meet Ashbery in San Francisco, drive him to a dinner in San Jose and then on to his reading in a local church, and then shortly thereafter I would  broadcast a program featuring my recording of the reading.

As always when driving North up the Bay, I built in time for my then ritual trips to Cody's and Moe's books in Berkeley.  I came away with my accustomed bags of new books and journals, including Derek Walcott's epic Omeros, which had just been released. Then I headed across the bridge to San Francisco and to Ashbery's hotel and our appointed meet-up.

The desk clerk rang the room; there was no answer; I took up a comfortable seat in the lobby and began flipping through my new books. Went to the desk and tried again; still no answer. After about forty-five minutes of this I was getting a bit worried, so I phoned the organizers of the reading down in San Jose, advised them that Ashbery was nowhere to be found in the hotel. They said they'd try to contact the organizers of his San Francisco reading to see if they had any idea what was up. (None of us had cell phones yet.) 

Time passed, my new books were not comforting me . . . still no sign of our guest poet.

Finally, the desk clerk beckoned me over to take a call from San Jose.  They had tracked Ashbery down. He was out seeing the city with Bob Gluck.  There was nothing for me to do but continue waiting in panic mode, but they somehow caught up with Gluck and Ashbery, and word came to me that they were on their way to the hotel.

They came through the door in a rush -- This was my first meeting with Gluck -- turned out the problem was that Ashbery's assistant back in New York had told him the San Jose reading was a day later than it was scheduled.  Ashbery had said he'd thought it was this night, but that assistant (maybe I don't feel so bad about having no staff after all) had insisted that he didn't have to be in San Jose till the following day.

By this time, it was well past the hour when we were supposed to be meeting Anna at the home of our dear friends John and Eve for a pre-reading dinner Eve was preparing. Takes a good while to drive from downtown San Francisco to San Jose under the best traffic conditions, so we  jumped in the car and raced.

Though I had been in autograph lines at Ashbery readings twice before, we had never really met, so I introduced myself.  "Oh, you're that A.L. Nielsen," he said, a bit of recognition that I was to feed off for months to come.  Ashbery had included a segment from my book Evacuation Routes in the 1989 volume of Best American Poems he had edited.  I owe that honor entirely to the fact that Rod Smith had not only stood in an autograph line after Ashbery's Library of Congress reading, but had presented Ashbery with the latest issue of Aerial.  And I was not the only writer Ashbery selected from that journal. Like Williams, Ashbery was always ready to acknowledge and champion the new and the unheard of.

We were making the sorts of conversation one has when driving too fast in California, when I asked if he had seen Walcott's new, book-length poem.

"Yes," he responded, then: "I have a book-length poem coming out soon too, and Derek's is longer."

Nearly drove off the road laughing . . . 

We got to John and Eve's house just minutes before his reading was supposed to start. John rushed off to the venue in his car to assure the gathering audience that we really were going to appear. Dear Eve sat us down to glasses of wine and was about to serve up the dinner she had made for us.

"What do you like to do before a reading," she asked him.

"Drink," was his reply, with a room-warming grin.

And so we did.

With just a bit of salad in us, we rushed off to the church, where the already impatient audience had to wait a bit longer while I set up my recording equipment. This was still in the heroic age of tape recording.

Ashbery was in a great mood despite the frantic afternoon, and his reading showed the change in his public style that had taken hold in recent years.  Nothing so dramatic as the change in reading style we'd seen in Ginsberg and Baraka in the sixties, but there had been a period when Ashbery often read his own poems in much the tone he might have used to read a cafeteria menu. But along the way, he had begum to have fun with his readings, allowing himself to recognize that he was a funny, brilliant reader.

And that was the first we heard from Flow Chart, that more than timely work of genius and mischief that was about to be published.  Shorter, yes, than Omeros, but that double sestina section! And passages like this one:

Quick--the medication. But the house had no sense at all, and having
become a limited partner in my own disestablishment, I watched in terror
as it moved on us . . .

You can hear the reading Ashbery gave that night by clicking here.

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