MtvU, the subsidiary of MTV Networks that is broadcast only on college campuses, will announce Monday that it has selected its first poet laureate. No, he doesn’t rap. And it’s not Bob Dylan, or even Justin Timberlake.
It is John Ashbery, the prolific 80-year-old poet and frequent award winner known for his dense, postmodern style and playful language. One of the most celebrated living poets, Ashbery has won MacArthur Foundation and Guggenheim fellowships and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his collection “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.”
Excerpts of his poems will appear in 18 short promotional spots — like commercials for verse — on the channel and its Web site (mtvu.com, which will also feature the full text of the poems). In another first, mtvU will help sponsor a poetry contest for college students. The winner, chosen by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa, will have a book published next year by HarperCollins as part of the National Poetry Series.
“We hope that we’ll help discover the next great poet that we’ll be talking about for years to come,” said Stephen Friedman, the general manager of mtvU, which broadcasts at 750 campuses nationwide.
The idea of the laureate program was not to create more English majors, but simply to whet an appetite, said Friedman, a poetry aficionado since he majored in literature, philosophy and history at Wesleyan. Ashbery, he added, was the No. 1 choice to inaugurate the position. “He resonates with college students that we’ve talked with,” he said.
Ashbery, who was the poet laureate of New York State from 2001 to 2003, was immediately receptive. “It seemed like it would be a chance to broaden the audience for poetry,” he said.
The poems used in the campaign span his career, and the spots are simple: on a white background, black text floats in to a sound like a crashing wave, appears on the screen for a minute, then floats away. From “Retro” (2005): “It’s really quite a thrill/When the moon rises over the hill/and you’ve gotten over someone/salty and mercurial, the only person you’ve ever loved.” From “Soonest Mended” (2000): “Barely tolerated, living on the margin/In our technological society, we are always having to be rescued.”
The excerpts were chosen by David Kermani, Ashbery’s business manager, and two interns and an employee, all in their early 20s, in his office.
“We were just trying to pick lines that were catchy and sort of meaningful in some way, something that would appeal to what we thought younger people would be interested in,” Kermani said. These young people picked “things that had sort of raunchy references,” he added. “They thought it was sort of a hoot.”
Ashbery too was pleased by their choices, particularly because they reminded him of what was in his own canon. “I have a lot poems, so there are a lot of them that I don’t really think of very much,” he said. ( Ashbery published “A Worldly Country: New Poems” in February, and an anthology, “Notes From the Air: Selected Later Poems,” is due out in November.)
But will droves of young people respond?
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Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She serves on the executive board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and is co-editing with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edited the anthology Bettering American Poetry 2015 and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.