Friday, April 16, 2010

Coffee Chat #3: Ben Lerner

I'm a huge fan of Ben Lerner's work.  I think this is because he appeals to another side of my brain--the philosophical and thinking part of my brain.  Yet Lerner also is a lyric poet in some ways too.  I love his humor, his aphorisms.  I think also his work resists the personal or approaches the personal in different ways.  His work is ultimately very refreshing to me in many ways.  I've been thinking a lot about poets and suffering and whether poets need to suffer (at least in the way that I've seen a lot of books focus on a loss or a death) and I'll post more on this later, but Lerner proves that you don't, at least for me.  I really think reading his books is essential for any poet.  His books are The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and Mean Free Path.  I would recommend going backwards in order to support his latest book, Mean Free Path.  And Angle of Yaw was a finalist for the National Book Award.  My interview with him is below, but what a fascinating set of responses.


VC: I'm interested to learn about your writing process.  Can you talk about that? Do you approach poems as part of larger projects-your books seem to be thematic in focus, do you approach your work that way?

BL: I don’t really understand the process. And I’m not sure if I’m stuck with the process I have or if might change. I suppose I have a territory of thematic concern in advance of finding a form, but it’s pretty inchoate. For instance “night vision green” was a phrase/phenomenon I was interested in working with as a motif—the militarization of vision, of a color, and not just any color: the “green world” of pastoral. And I knew I wanted to write something for Ariana, to include her in the poems. But I don’t know how I get from those desires to the specific form in question. I play around with language until some kind of pattern emerges that I feel like I can elaborate, that isn’t exhausted in its first iteration. Eventually I feel like a form has emerged, and then I often re-describe the form I’ve discovered as a rule, so that then I have something to struggle with, a generative restraint. That sense that Wittgenstein describes in the Philosophical Investigations—that sense of sequence characterized by the expression “Now I can go on”—that’s an important compositional intuition for me. As I go I discover what’s sayable in a particular form. And discover what the procedures have to say.

Actually, maybe this is only an accurate description of the last book.

VC: How do you feel about writing--is it an easy process for you or is it tortuous or none of the above?

BL: If you polled the people closest to me and my writing—the people who observe and are involved in the process—I’m guessing they would say tortuous.

VC: You don't seem to be a "personal" poet in the traditional sense (writing about childhood, death of people around you, etc.); you seem more of a macro poet, someone who is a larger thinker, philosophical thinker, a cultural observer.  Would you agree with that?  And if so, why?  If not, why not?

BL: I sometimes write specifically about childhood, death, etc., but I don’t think of “aboutness” in the sense of narrating experience as the primary way in which poetry communicates. Poems are objects to be experienced, not just accounts of experience, and, say, the formal disposition of text on a page is as important a component of expression as its paraphrasable content.

How could one not write about childhood and death? What don’t those forces shape, I mean. Rosmarie Waldrop in “Thinking as Follows”: “I turned to collage early, to get away from writing poems about my overwhelming mother. I felt I needed to do something ‘objective’ that would get me out of myself. I took books off the shelf, selected maybe one word from every page or a phrase every tenth page, and tried to work these into structures. Some worked, some didn't. But when I looked at them a while later: they were still about my mother.” 

One thing I think poetry can do is dramatize how the “personal” crystallizes out of and dissolves back into larger systems. I don’t mean that it tracks these processes with ironic detachment. The sense that my “I” is constructed/polyvocal/complicit/imperial and so on can be an intensely felt first person state. So you’re right I’m interested in the macro, but largely because that forms and deforms persons.

VC: How did the project of your latest book, Mean Free Path come about? There's more love in this poem than in your previous books, it seems.  Can you talk about that?   

BL: I think to a certain extent I construct the genesis of a book retrospectively, as a fiction, so I probably shouldn’t be trusted, but I believe the project arose out of my wanting to stage failures of expression that were themselves expressive—to make hesitation and fragmentation and recombination communicate an emotion that exceeds description. I mean this is the set of concerns I discovered as I went. In this sense Creeley’s “For Love” was an important poem for me, a poem I learned to read while writing this book. And “Mean Free Path” is largely a love poem, and a chronicle of the difficulty of writing such a poem with such a language. 

I suppose I was reacting against a kind of self-congratulatory diagnostic tendency in my work and in the work of some of the poets I read—a kind of stylized despair at the state of the culture. Because that’s just as easy and ultimately boring as the prefab lyric it ostensibly opposes, right? I wanted direct modal statements of affection and the murderous absurdity of our empire to interact in the poem as they interact in the world. 

VC: How did you compose that book? How does punctuation play (or not play into this work)?

BL: The absence of end line punctuation (excepting the dedicatory poem) is crucial in the book because it helps create the sense that there is more than one possible order of lines within a particular stanza—that a given right margin can link up with a variety of previous or subsequent left margins. In the “Doppler Elegies,” sentences often restart or change directions at left margin, an effect that also requires that the nature of the syntactic unit isn’t resolved at the right margin. The second suite of “Doppler Elegies” very much depends upon the comma as a mark internal to the line—especially the way it can be difficult or impossible to decide if a comma indicates series or apposition, what’s sequential and what’s qualification, etc. So the absence of punctuation at end line and the use of ambiguous punctuation internal to the line are part of the re-combinatory machinery of the poems, part of what keeps them from stabilizing into a definitive, exclusive order.

VC: What are some poets that you are interested in these days?

BL: Great books on my desk this instant by: Alice Notley, Aaron Kunin, James Schuyler, Graham Foust, Erin Moure, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, Rae Armantrout, Tan Lin, Cyrus Console.

VC: What are your biggest concerns about the state of poetry in contemporary life?  Or are you not concerned? 

BL: It’s not necessarily a problem for me that poetry is comparatively marginalized in contemporary life—most (but by no means all) of the people and practices I love are marginal relative to the dominant economic forces of the day. I can’t imagine the poetry I care about being popular in the sense that a pop star or sitcom is popular (which is not to say I hate all pop stars and sitcoms). I mean, to imagine a substantial poetry that can compete in the so-called “cultural marketplace” is to imagine an entirely different world, maybe a world without such markets. But I think that’s part of the appeal of the lament—when we say poetry is dead or dying, when we scold the masses for not caring about poetry, or poets for not caring about the masses, it’s an expression, often unconscious, of a desire for alterity, some other organization of societal forces. So sometimes worrying about the state of poetry in contemporary life is just one of many ways of expressing our worries about contemporary life in general. I’m certainly concerned about the state of contemporary life.

Part of what’s interesting about “the state of poetry,” about the word “poetry,” is how—without anybody having any stable idea about what it is (does it need to rhyme or scan? or have lines? express feelings? be beautiful? etc)—it provokes so many strong responses.  Did you see that George Packer thing on the New Yorker blog about Obama’s decision to have a poem read at his inauguration? Packer says it’s a mistake to include a poem because: “For many decades American poetry has been a private activity, written by few people and read by few people, lacking the language, rhythm, emotion, and thought that could move large numbers of people in large public settings.” One could say a lot about Packer’s post, but in a way the most interesting thing about it is that he felt compelled to write it at all. I mean, let’s say poetry is dead, empty, etc.—you think it’s the only empty ritual attending a presidential inauguration? Strange to even have time to be pissed off about such a thing when you have Rick Warren delivering the invocation. And who is the poet Packer’s nostalgic for—who had the language, rhythm. etc., to move large numbers of people in large public settings? And move them to what? A poetic ideal, however vague, is being posited negatively, as if he’s trying to protect Poetry from actual poems. This hatred of contemporary poetry—which apparently does not require actually knowing anything about contemporary poetry—is quite mainstream. I can’t help feeling it’s a sign of the art’s nagging relevance.


  1. 從人生中拿走友誼,猶如從生活中移走陽光........................................

  2. Wow. Great answers from Ben. Thanks for bringing back the coffee chats, Victoria!