I Got It!! Week 1


Look what showed up in my mailbox! Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, from borkali and the book swap, arrived the day almost two feet of snow fell, so it took me another day to be able to hike out to the mailbox to get it. I had wanted to read this book ever since borkali posted about it in the last challenge, and I am so excited to add this to my reading for these upcoming weeks. I just want to hurry up and get started on it immediately.

But then I have to remind myself to slow down and enjoy the scenery along the way. I’m actually so deeply drawn into The Songs We Know Best by Karin Roffman, the biography of John Ashbery’s younger years (many of which took place here in Rochester less than a mile from where I live. So if he survived winter in Western New York, I should be able to also!) that I don’t want the book to end. Maybe it’s also because I’m very interested in Ashbery’s family life and his education, especially the time when he began to realize that he wanted nothing more in life than to be able to write poetry. But then, according to Roffman, he went through long stretches, months even, when he wrote no poetry at all and even questioned his ability to write, and this makes me admire Ashbery even more, knowing that he faced these same anxieties and found ways around them by engaging in many different kinds of expression–writing plays, music, painting, making collages, being silly with his friends. And eventually he would be able to make his way back to writing. It’s this cyclic nature of production that seems both so logical but also surprising, each time resulting in another incredible poem that probably needed gestation time in silence in order for it to emerge.


I am also beginning to appreciate Rochester’s bygone past, so evocatively described in the biography. It’s as if the landscape of Western New York, the brutal winters (tell me about it!) balanced against the stunning lushness of late spring and summer, is itself a shaping force in Ashbery’s poetry. I also have to confess that it was upon first hearing a recording of Ashbery reading “Some Trees” just three months after I had moved here from Southern California (what was I thinking??) and recognizing that twang of a midwestern flat-voweled Rochester accent that I realized I would actually survive this forced transplantation, and that there was cultural history here that made a new life in this cold place more thinkable. And I can understand the way this land was both an inspiration and a torture for Ashbery. He did everything he could to escape the physical confines of a provincial life by living in Cambridge, New York, and France, but the solitude of the farms and the wide open spaces of Sodus and Pultnyville and the seeming limitlessness of Lake Ontario become quietly thematic throughout his much of his work. However, growing up on an apple farm led to his life-long hatred of apples!

I am 217 pages into the biography, and as much as I find myself racing ahead, there is so much density in the writing–not to mention all the poems Roffman quotes from–that I keep trying to slow down and concentrate on the sheer volume of details that make up his life–anyone’s life, really, but here, even more so and all so fascinating. There’s a bit of a gossipy feel, too, with all the artists and poets and musicians in Ashbery’s entourage, all these big name people who make appearances, and who did what to whom, all the intrigues and affairs that make for delicious reading. And through it all, Ashbery emerges as a human figure, beset by setbacks, doubts, and conflicts, as well as astounding feats of creativity.

Another reading practice I am going to try to institute for this challenge is to spend Wednesdays reading from the ever-growing pile of journals that I somehow have convinced myself to subscribe to–some for big discounts, some because I was curious what kind of writing they publish. This week I focused on n+1, a politically inclined journal with fiction, nonfiction, and commentary and is published in Brooklyn. Most notable were the recurring column, “The Intellectual Situation” this month by Dayna Tortorici, about the current climate of #metooism and its impending backlash and Dawn Lundy Martin’s essay, “When A Person Goes Missing” about her brother’s incarceration and the differences between “missing” and “freedom” and who gets to claim one or the other based on color, class, or sheer luck.


So I think that I am on track page-wise, at least barely. I am going to have to build up a bit of a cushion for the inevitable days that I will get distracted with the usual excuses. But I am always excited to have more books to look forward to, especially now in these early days. Thank you, borkali!

10 comments on “I Got It!! Week 1”

  1. I am so glad it arrived- snow and all! I am also inspired to read this bio after your commentary– I’m sold! It sounds so lovely to get those cursory details to inform the poetry. So happy to have you with us again! You bring so much to this group ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. PS- so glad you are digging into your periodicals! I feel this is such a ripe opportunity for such exploration 🙂


    2. Thank you! And thank you for keeping this group going. It means so much to me and makes this time of year an opportunity for staying inside and reading.Now if the snow could only shovel itself….

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Hi Nadia! Oh, I love hearing about Ashbery and his varied interests which probably both fed into and allowed him some breaks (as you mentioned) from his poetry. And to think of how he navigated those winters that you are experiencing is intriguing! There is something about the cold winter- we have a bit in New England but where you are has a whole literary and aesthetic feeling of it’s own…

    I am also digging around some periodicals that have been gathering dust and calling to me, thank you for the reminder to peek back and see if there are any pages I can add from those sources.. (would like to hear more about the #metoo backlash, if you come across anything worth sharing!)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sure! Will do, Meredith. I have to say that I didn’t quite understand Danya Tortorici’s piece. I will have to go back and read it at least one more time. But basically I think she is writing from a place of uncertainty about the effects of perceived persecution, and how the revelations that come practically every minute may relieve pressure temporarily but with the elements of the patriarchy still firmly in place in our country, the future may be no better than the past.


  4. Nadia, how happy it makes me to see the cover of this Ashbery book! There were aspects about his early life that are so helpful to me in the appreciation of his poetry. I know there is a school of thought that biography shouldn’t have much influence on our reading of a poem, but I won’t deny myself. This book deepened that which I take away from the poems. His love of trees from childhood delights me. And then to know where he was in his life when he wrote “Some Trees,” a poem so important to ModPo, is powerful. Thanks to the poetry gods for his grandparents!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. How could you not interpolate someone’s biography into their poetry?! I can understand writers of fiction wanting that distance because even if their personal life informs their writing in certain ways I respect that creating characters is their artform. But poetry seems like a different beast entirely.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That’s the thorny question, Daniela. I suppose it’s because the biographical interpretation can be carried too far, and thereby damage the poem. I think about Emily Dickinson. A reader who is not careful may know something about her, but not enough, and thereby jump to the conclusion that every time she uses the words “love” or “solitude” she’s speaking personally, from the viewpoint of a recluse–a person who knew nothing of love and companionship. So, the poems suffer from that stereotyping. Biography is a fine line. (All of this, of course, is from my inexpertise with poetry!) Thanks for your comment. I appreciate the opportunity to think about this again. (By the way, I don’t want to leave the impression that ED was a recluse, or did not know love.)

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Nadia, I too found Dawn Martin’s essay in N + 1 intriguing and moving…especially because I know her as a poet. I had not read such a long essay by her. Very skillful. I have the current issue of Kenyon Review near me, too. So many things to read and dip in and out of. I brought books with me to Minnesota in October and to India in December and only managed to get through a handful each trip.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sejal, I am still behind one whole issue of Kenyon Review! It will take me a year of Wednesdays to catch up. In the November/ December issue, I was really struck with Vanessa Cuti’s “A Box from the Moon,” a disturbing spin on the motherhood narrative, in which the narrator has to choose between her baby or her husband. There’s a dream-like (or nightmarish) quality to the story, and an almost affectless tone that absolutely nails the ending. I also really liked Kevin Young’s “Cowboys and Aliens.” Yes, there is too much to read, not enough hours in the day….

      Liked by 1 person

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