National Poetry Month with Les Kay and John Ashbery

To celebrate National Poetry Month, our authors talk about the work that has influenced their writing, reading, and publishing goals and proclivities.

Les Kay holds a PhD from the University of Cincinnati’s Creative Writing program and an MFA from the University of Miami. His poetry has appeared in a variety of literary journals including Whiskey Island, Sugar House Review, Stoneboat, Menacing Hedge, Third Wednesday, Santa Clara Review, The White Review, PANK, South Dakota Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Cincinnati with his wife, Michelle, three dogs, and their collective imaginations. His chapbook, The Bureau is forthcoming from Sundress Publications

A Brief Reflection on John Ashbery’s Houseboat Days. Or, How I Became This Poet. Sort Of.

If you subscribe to the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, you’ll grant me this somewhat narcissistic assertion: somewhere, in parallel, or more likely, in many wheres, I am an expert on Ashbery’s poetry who successfully convinces university administration, year after year, to let him teach undergraduates an entire semester devoted solely to Ashbery’s work. Here, however, I am taking a respite from writing corporate instructions to share a memory and a fantasia or two with you.

The lecture halls at the closest university are filled only with sleepy students learning integration as I return, hesitantly, to when I first read Houseboat Days. To say that nothing in my experience prepared me (a junior in college studying Creative Writing) for the book is an understatement. I was befuddled. So befuddled that I sought help from friends who lived in the basement apartment beneath mine—a Computer Engineering major and a Creative Writing major.[1] I showed them the reason I was rattled enough to bang on their front door, interrupt their approaching dinner, and beg for help: “Daffy Duck in Hollywood.”  I asked them both to read the poem, to help me understand the mad persona poem and its collisions of “high” and “low” art.

Both—bless them—willingly did the former; neither, alas, could manage the latter. For me, that singular experience shaped many of the reading experiences that followed. Houseboat Days is a singular book, unlike any I’d read before or since. It is a hybrid of languages—though almost all of them are English, technically speaking. It is, occasionally, an ars poetica. It is, often, an excursion into the occasional, a journey into the unconscious, and a cavorting through consciousness itself. It is, if I remember correctly, fragmentary in that it offers us glimpses of so much more.

I do not doubt that Ashbery and I would disagree, perhaps vehemently, on what that “so much more” entails, but that is beside the point. Rather, what matters is the field of possibility that Ashbery’s poetics can open up. The multiple identities he helps us see within ourselves and, concurrently, in the psyches of all of those around us. This mind numbingly humbling vastness of human experience is the point, or my point. Even if, as in “Daffy Duck in Hollywood”—there is so very much experience to which I—or should I say “you”—do not have access.

And along the way, the weather changes. We change. And, here and there, we find beauty—whatever that means. This morning, while fearing the early summer flash of yellow jackets on my front porch, I reread “Daffy Duck in Hollywood.” I still do not entirely know what it “means,” but now I do know—thanks to Houseboat Days—that not knowing is integral to our collective experience. And that not knowing—at least not yet—belongs in poetry. Experience that poem for yourself 


[1] And Michelle Kay is her name. She married me—even after that.