HC: May I preface the interview by saying how thrilled I am with the two stunning translations from the French, masterfully edited by Rosanne Wasserman and Eugene Richie: Collected French Translations: Poetry and Collected French Translations: Prose.  That was a titanic endeavor.
I’m fascinated by your childhood and upbringing. Can you share with us how French came to play such a pivotal role in your life? In particular your early introduction to the tales of Charles Perrault and Madame d’Aulnoy. What is it about French you liked, what was the attraction?
JA: It’s a beautiful language, which I was attracted to since I was a child. Everybody loves French.
I had a younger brother who died of leukemia at the age of nine and when he was ill some friend of my parents sent him a volume of Madame d’Aulnoy’s Fairy Tales which I read. I fell in love with them and perhaps associated them too with my little brother and years later translated La Chatte Blanche. It seems to me I was asked to translate that particular one, possibly by Marina Warner, who writes a great deal about folklore in England. I also read the Perrault Fairy Tales and others of course too, Grimm, Oz… I grew up on a farm. It was rather rough. I was always trying to escape into fairy tale worlds. I also had a children’s Encyclopedia called The Book of Knowledge, which among other things featured French lessons and other topics of knowledge for children. These were particularly charming because they featured many Edwardian drawings of French children, and the conversations were always about things like having tea or walking in the park, things I didn’t get to do in my particular situation.
In the local high school I took Latin the first year and ended up doing that for four years, enjoying studying a foreign language. Then I took French the next year and studied it for three years. Later at Harvard as a freshman we got to read old French classics such as L’Arlésienne by Daudet, which I’m sure nobody reads any more.
The interviewee (born July 28, 1927), is the author of nearly thirty books of poetry. He has won nearly every major American poetry award, starting with the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1956. In addition to his own poems, Mr. Ashbery has translated the work of many French poets. His influence on contemporary poetry is such that the literary critic Harold Bloom has deemed the last six decades of American poetry as the “Age of Ashbery.”
John Ashbery’s most recent book of poems is Breezeway (2015, Ecco/HarperCollins). A two-volume set of his collected translations from the French (prose and poetry) was published last year (FSG). Also active in other areas of the arts, including theater and film, he has served as executive editor of Art News, and as art critic for New York Magazine, Newsweek, and the International Herald Tribune, and exhibits his collages at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery (New York). He has received many honors and awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the Griffin International Poetry Prize, a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, two Guggenheim Fellowships, and recently the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation (2011) and a National Humanities Medal, presented by President Obama at the White House (2012).
Ashbery was Professor of English and co-director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Brooklyn College (CUNY), Distinguished Professor at CUNY from 1980 to 1990, and Professor of Language and Literature at Bard College. He delivered the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard in 1989-90, published as Other Traditions (Harvard University Press, 2000).
Recently, he has inspired an annual writing conference known as the Ashbery Home School.
the interviewer is a poet, literary translator and actor.
She is the author of three bilingual poetry collections: Life in Suspension (Salmon Poetry, 2016); Dreaming My Animal Selves (Salmon Poetry 2013), winner of the USA Best Book Award in Poetry, the Pinnacle Book Award for Best Bilingual Poetry Book, and the 2014 Readers’ Favorite Award in Poetry, finalist for the International Book Award in Poetry and the Julie Suk Award; and The Astonished Universe (Red Hen Press, 2006).
Hélène was awarded a Hemingway Grant for Beyond Elsewhere (White Pine Press, 2016), her translation of Plus loin qu’ailleurs by Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac. She also translated What We Carry by Dorianne Laux: Ce que nous portons (Éditions du Cygne, 2014), and Walt Whitman’s Civil War Writings for the Iowa International Writing Program’s WhitmanWeb.
Hélène holds a Master’s in American Literature from the Sorbonne, taught at Hamilton College and Loyola Marymount University, and received fellowships from the Goethe-Institut and the Universidad Internacional de Andalucía. She co-edits Fulcrum: An Anthology of Poetry and Aesthetics, is a contributor to The London Magazine, and co-producer of Pablo Neruda: The Poet’s Calling. Publications include Washington Square, World Literature Today, Poetry International, Irish Literary Times, The Warwick Review, Plume, The Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere.
Born in Paris and raised all over Europe, Hélène has lived in Switzerland, France, England, Wales, Monaco, Germany, Spain and the United States. She speaks English, French, Spanish, German, Italian and Greek.
Hélène was the Linguist of the Month for Le-mot-juste-en-anglais in July 2014.