Famed poet to visit campus

John Ashbery will spend a day at the Kelly Writers House.

The Daily Pennsylvanian
March 25, 2002

Famed American poet John Ashbery will be making rounds at the Kelly Writers House today and tomorrow, participating in a poetry reading and a Web interview.

Today, Ashbery will spend three intimate hours with the students in the Writers House Fellows seminar class before reading from some of his works at the Writers House at 6:30 p.m.

And tomorrow morning, Ashbery will be interviewed by Writers House founder and Faculty Director Al Filreis. The interview will be broadcast live over the Internet.

Ashbery, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, will visit the Writers House as part of the Fellows program, which seeks to maintain sustained contact between young writers and accomplished authors in the informal atmosphere of the cozy house at 3805 Locust Walk.

"These famous writers... [are] used to filling auditoriums," Filreis said. "Ashbery could fill Irvine [Auditorium]!"

Fellows Program Coordinator Tahneer Oksman added that in an venue such as Irvine, the large number of audience members is a major hindrance to the sustained contact between aspiring writers and the author that the Fellows program seeks to provide.

"I feel that especially with a poet like John Ashbery, whose work can sometimes be seen as incoherent -- especially for students who are just starting to learn about his poetry -- it's important to come face-to-face with him and see him as a human being," Oksman, a 2001 College graduate, said.

Students in the seminar said they were looking forward to seeing a giant of American literature come to Penn.

"I think Ashbery is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, living American poets," said College sophomore Jacob Cytryn, one of the students in the Fellows seminar.

"His writing in particular can seem very difficult to read and difficult to interpret, and I don't expect to get answers from him, but it will be easier to understand within the context of the writer and his life," College senior Ariel Horn added. "You can't ask Henry James something, because he's dead."

In the Writers House Fellows seminar, students study the work of the three writers who will visit the Writers House during the course of the seminar. In addition to Ashbery, novelist Michael Cunningham visited the Writers House as a fellow in February, and playwright Charles Fuller is on deck for April.

Ashbery's visit to campus will begin with an intimate discussion with members of the seminar in the three hours during which their class is normally held.

Many of the students in the seminar have questions about Ashbery's work, and the time spent with him will provide an opportunity for them to have their queries answered by the poet himself.

"To hear his thoughts on his work is really important and useful and relevant," said Cytryn, who is also the chairman of the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education. "I'm interested in hearing in non-poetic terms what he thinks about the world and to hear him talk and answer any questions will really help to address that."

According to Filreis, who teaches the seminar, this opportunity for students to meet the poet whose work they have been reading and discussing in class brings something extra to their studies.

"There is an extra kind of pressure on the student to read and to imagine that a person wrote this, and to be prepared to meet the person," he said. "It's a wonderful way to teach."

Later tonight, a small dinner for 14 will be held in the Writer's House dining room, followed by a public reading by Ashbery of his own work. Filreis said that he intends for Ashbery's visit to allow his students to see the poet in a whole new light.

"I want students to get a sense that writers and writing are real, that writers are people and they make choices just like we make choices," he said. "I want them to see that there's something really alive and exciting about contemporary writing."

The Writers House, founded in 1995, annually hosts about 150 events, including poetry readings, film screenings and lectures. The Fellows program has been funded by a grant from Paul Kelly, the namesake of the house.