Conundrum Press

“I write with experiences in mind, but I don’t write about them, I write out of them.”

January 6th, 2014  |  Published in Blog

by Debbie Vance

The follow Q&A is from the 1983 Paris Review Interview: “John Ashbery, The Art of Poetry No. 33″:


You said a minute ago that reading modern poetry enabled you to see the vitality present in older poetry. In your mind, is there a close connection between life and poetry?


In my case I would say there is a very close but oblique connection. I have always been averse to talking about myself, and so I don’t write about my life the way the confessional poets do. I don’t want to bore people with experiences of mine that are simply versions of what everybody goes through. For me, poetry starts after that point. I write with experiences in mind, but I don’t write about them, I write out of them. I know that I have exactly the opposite reputation, that I am totally self-involved, but that’s not the way I see it.

I include this today because it is, I think, a vital element to writing well, this writing out of personal experience. (Unless you are a memoirist, of course, and then you must write about your personal life in a very intimate way for readers to fall in love with you.) For the writer of poetry and fiction, there needs to be an emotional core-a central feeling of a moment that is both truth and relatable-but that emotional core can (and, one might argue, should be) separate from any real instance in your personal life. Say I know the particularities of an emotion. Let’s say, the emotion loss. I know what it feels like to lose something invaluable to me-a person, trust-and how that feeling creates a deeply empty cavern in the pit of your chest, your stomach. How you start to look for small distractions and focus entirely too much on them instead of on this empty pit. How people and voices around you become thin and gray, and a dry, bitter taste arises on the back of your tongue while your eyes feel a little too loose in your head. Having had a personal experience that led me to this understanding of the emotional reality loss does not mean that I have to share with you, my readers, this reality. Rather, I can create any number of fictional scenarios where the character, or the speaker, might undergo this emotional experience and it would be entirely true-in the sense that I, too, understand this emotional reality, whatever the cause may be, and can evoke it well.

So, as writers we do not have to write the particularities of our personal lives in order to write truthfully. And yet, that being said, our personal experiences do offer a great deal of material to work with. But it is the masterful writer who can take a personal experience, find the emotional core, and convey that truth in a fictional setting without needing to recreate the really real. As John Ashbery-the great American poet-says, ”I write with experiences in mind, but I don’t write about them, I write out of them.”

“Forties Flick”
by John Ashbery, from Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

The shadow of the Venetian blind on the painted wall,
Shadows of the snake-plant and cacti, the plaster animals,
Focus the tragic melancholy of the bright stare
Into nowhere, a hole like the black holes in space.
In bra and panties she sidles to the window:
Zip! Up with the blind. A fragile street scene offers itself,
With wafer-thin pedestrians who know where they are going
The blind comes down slowly, the slats are slowly tilted up.

Why must it always end this way?
A dais with a woman reading, with the ruckus of her hair
And all that is unsaid about her pulling us back to her, with her
Into the silence that night alone can’t explain.
Silence of the library, of the telephone with its pad,
But we didn’t have to reinvent those either:
They had gone away into the plot of a story,
The “art” part-knowing what important details to leave out
And the way character is developed. Things too real
To be of much concern, hence artificial, yet now all over the page,
The indoors with the outside becoming part of your
As you find you had never left off laughing at death,
The background, dark vine at the edge of the porch.

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