John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
A staged reading of John Ashbery’s great, dense work-one of the defining poems of the 20th century. Six readers, accompanied by projected text and image, illuminate and bring to life Ashbery’s tonal shifts and juxtapositions.
Directed by Jim Paul with technical direction by Beth Thielen.
John Ashbery (July 28, 1927 – September 3, 2017) won nearly every major American award for poetry since his second volume, Some Trees, was selected by W. H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Series in 1956. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award. Ashbery began writing about art in 1957, serving as executive editor of Art News (1965-72), and art critic for New York Magazine (1978-80) and Newsweek (1980-85). A selection of his art writings was published in 1989 as Reported Sightings.
Since its publication in 1975, I’ve been reading John Ashbery’s long poem Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, gradually encompassing its modulated proceedings and always surprised at its further depths and gorgeous highlights. The work is ostensibly a description and meditation of Francesco Parmigianino’s Mannerist masterpiece, and my exploration of the poem has led me to a similar exploration of the painting. I decided to set the poem for six voices with projected text and images, as a way of arraying its juxtapositions, embodying its tonal shifts in different voices and keeping Parmigianino’s painting in view as the poem proceeds, that it might offer some further illumination of the work. — Jim Paul