On February 12, 2013, I interviewed John Ashbery in his Chelsea apartment, and moderated a discussion with people gathered at the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia while hundreds watched via live webcast. The live webcast, of course, was recorded and here is a link to the YouTube recording of the GoogleHangout video. Ashbery was the first of three 2013 Kelly Writers House Fellows, and this was his second time as a Fellow; he is the only writer, in 14 years of the series, to be asked to serve as a Fellow twice. The previous visit was in 2002. On Monday, February 11, the poet met for three hours with students in the KWH Fellows Seminar and then gave a public reading (also available as a recorded webcast). During the reading he performed several poems from his new book, Quick Question, and read two unpublished poems — one of them having been written just a few days earlier.
But there is one unfortunate difference between us [the British and the Greeks], one little difference. We Greeks have lost our capital – and the results are what you see. Pray, my dear Forster, oh pray, that you never lose your capital. — C.P. Cavafy to E. M. Forster, 1918
The proliferation of English translations of Cavafy’s poems in recent years has been remarkable, notable even for the work of a poet to whom recognition came belatedly and international acclaim largely after his death in 1933. The first extensive selection, by George Valassopoulo—presumed to be the only one seen by Cavafy himself—remained unpublished until 2009. John Mavrogordato’s versions, preferred by Cavafy’s executor, appeared in 1951; Rae Dalven’s volume, introduced by W.H. Auden, came out in 1961.
He became especially interested in listening to the room tone and background noise in all the recordings: the recorded texture of the room, the sound made by the recording device itself, and the non-vocal presence of Ashbery himself (a page turning, lighting a cigarette, sipping from glass of water and swallowing). Working with a friend, the artist Simone Kearney, Hawkey scanned the roughly 45 extant recordings on Pennsound to find, in each one, a clip of “silence” — a brief 3-to-7-second non-vocal moment (longer proved impossible to find) between poems, or between commentary and poems, or between title and poem. They then assembled the clips into one audio file.
It was surprisingly difficult to do this, they found, since most sound engineers remove as much dead sound and background sound as possible, or they snip off the silence at the beginning or end of a reading.