“Erje Ayden’s novels provide a little-known but fascinating view of American bohemian and bourgeois society from the point of view of a sympathetically bemused Turkish observer. The wonder is that Ayden’s not more famous, as he can be as addictive as Simenon or Proust.” - John Ashbery
Erje (pronounced like the letters R and J) and his wife Lisa make all his books essentially by hand. Perhaps a single step removed from the literally handmade books of B O D Y contributor Edgar Oliver, Erje’s books are small and simple and have the feel of the samizdat. If there’s an image on the cover, it’s there not because a graphic designer cooked up some smart, attractive, wrap-around advertisement. It’s there because it has a very specific, personal connection to Erje. Willem de Kooning’s art is on the cover of The People of Imprisoned City and Summer Frank O’Hara Died (in collaboration with his assistant John McMahon) because “Bill” was Erje’s friend — they built a theater together in the ‘60s out in East Hampton, where, he told me, “we had steaks every night. I remember the steaks.”
Similarly, and in accordance with the proverb, Erje writes about what he knows — although the breadth of experience from which he draws can seem preposterous at times, and not just to someone like me who is of a much younger generation. Sure, New York in the ‘60s and ‘70s was a different world than New York in 2013 — for one, there were still bookstores then. And authors could still take a book directly to a local bookstore, as Erje did at the legendary Eighth Street Bookshop, where The Crazy Green of Second Avenue first took hold as a cult hit. But the exoticism of another time doesn’t account for the varied worlds that Erje travelled. He really worked as a spy in Europe in the ‘50s? Yes. He really wrote in Frank O’Hara’s studio while Frank worked at the MOMA? Yes. He really went to James Cagney’s house… and Cagney danced a jig for him? Yes. O’Hara says in his preface to Sadness at Leaving that Erje’s characters are always “on the go, whether their destination is set or not,” and I think that that kind of knowledge can only come from a writer who has frequented many, many worlds.
This sense of personal connection across and through layers of different cultures, combined with a do-it-yourself means of production, resonates for me in several ways, especially with my work as B O D Y‘s Performance Text editor. I joined the team out of friendship — I’d known Josh from college, first in Tennessee, later in the Czech Republic, where he lives now — though I live in New York, and our separate work moves us around the globe throughout the year. And most of the writers whose work I’ve selected, including Erje, are people I know personally. I don’t champion nepotism — it’s just that I’ve been fortunate enough to know some great writers, and now I have the opportunity to meet even more. And like many of those writers, again including Erje, we operate on our own: B O D Y exists completely free of advertising.
I see B O D Y as a kind of new Eighth Street Bookshop: come in and browse around, spend all day if you like — there’s plenty to read, lots to discover. But we also value the printed page and the spoken word — and we always try to link to a site where you can buy an author’s books or a ticket to a show. These are all writers who deserve our support. And nothing would make me happier than eliminating John Ashbery’s wonder by making Erje Ayden more famous.
- Ben Williams
Watch Scott Shepherd, Jim Fletcher, Sibyl Kempson, Kate Valk and B O D Y editor Ben Williams perform a reading of Erje Ayden’s work at The Performing Garage, Sunday, May 26th at 3 PM. Get tickets and event info here.
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Editor’s note: Erje’s books now are available only in very limited editions on eBay – see the links to selected titles below. If you’re interested in more of his works, please contact Ben Williams.