10 Questions for John Ashbery

Newly minted National Book Award honoree John Ashbery has been called America's most important living poet

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Ryan Pfluger for TIME

Are you in fact America's most important living poet?

Important? I get talked about a lot. I enjoy writing the way I do, which doesn't please a lot of people and pleases others enormously, and I guess that's all one can expect.

What is poetry fame like? Do you have groupies?

I was once recognized by a sort of hippie taxi driver, but that was a long time ago.

How do you spend your days?

I don't write that often. Maybe once, maybe twice a week if I'm very lucky. More like once. Sometimes once a month. Sometimes once every three months. But somehow, I seem to end up with a great deal of written material.

There's a wide discrepancy in critical opinion as to what your work really means. Shouldn't you straighten that out?

Not at this stage in my career. It was a very long time before my poetry was first published and then read and then discussed. Those stages took decades, and it wasn't until I was about 40 that I felt that I had an audience. My first book only sold 800 copies over a period of eight years. Before it came out, I was expecting to be hailed as a poet the next day in the press.

Do you ever read what the critics write about you and think, This is just ridiculous?

No, because maybe they're right. I haven't got that much confidence in my writing. It's more like hope.

You're 84. Do you think about death?

I've never not thought about it. There are not that many things to write poetry about. There's love and there's death and time passing and the weather outside, which is horrible today. I'm so glad I'm not writing poetry today. The weather gets to me when I write.

What do you think it's going to be like to meet God?

Episcopals are famed for their martinis, so I imagine he will hand me one when I arrive.

You were banned from Poetry magazine for a while. Why?

My school roommate was a frustrated poet, and he took some of my poems and some of his own, which were terrible, and sent them to Poetry, and then I sent my poems some time after that. And they sent back a one-word note--"Sorry." It wasn't until six months later, when I saw my poems in Poetry, I realized what had happened. I was now down in their books as a plagiarist. That was really depressing.

You grew up in an era when it was considered shameful to be gay. How would your work change if you grew up now?

There is a school of criticism that says that my poetry is so torturous and obscure because I've been trying to cover up the fact of my sexuality all these years, and I think that's an interesting possibility. But I'm not sure whether that's the generating force in my poetry. I think I would have been attracted to the surrealists anyway.

If you could swap being America's most important poet for being America's most important something else, what would it be?

I guess it would be wonderful to be America's greatest living painter and have acres and acres of one's work to survey and have prizes and museums and wealth, but I think I'd rather stick with poetry.

VIDEO AT TIME.COM

To watch the chat with John Ashbery in his home, go to time.com/10questions