Write a poem
Fail to write a poem
Strip Super Mario Bros. of everything but the clouds
Ben Lerner (b. 1979) is the author of three of my favorite poetry collections—The Lichtenberg Figures (2004), Angle of Yaw (2006), Mean Free Path (2010)—and now, to my surprise and delight, one of my favorite novels, Leaving the Atocha Station. Ben’s poetry collections had a “virtuosic” quality that made me both very interested in what he’d do with the novel form and aware that he probably wouldn’t ever write a novel. I felt this in a similar way to how a person interested in drumming might, without at all expecting it to happen, feel reflexively curious about what it would be like if Glenn Gould mastered drums with the same intensity and aesthetic and intent—not as a secondary thing or “for relaxation”—as he did piano, which, against similar unexpectedness, is what I feel Ben has done with his first novel.
Leaving the Atocha Station is about a young writer on a poetry fellowship in Spain. It spans the 2004 Madrid train bombings and is, among other things, a character-driven “page-turner” and a concisely definitive study of the “actual” versus the “virtual” as applied to relationships, language, poetry, experience. It’s funny and affecting and as meticulous and “knowing” in its execution of itself, I feel, as Ben’s poetry collections are. I was additionally surprised that Ben did not, with the automatic permission of a new form to do so, either ignore his previous poetry collections or directly address them—as an essay might—but seemed to allow an assimilation, in either direction, to occur, to a degree that I think if Ben’s four books didn’t have publication dates, and I didn’t know otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to easily discern in what order they were written.
Increasingly, each book by Ben seems to be edited with the knowledge of some future position (like how one edits previous pages of a book after completing the final pages, then edits the final pages again, then the previous pages again, etc.), as if Ben’s oeuvre were a single work that is already completed and is being released in parts. I don’t think I know of anyone else I feel similarly about. It feels exciting and unprecedented. I recommend reading all of Ben’s work. The following interview was done on Gmail Chat and by email.
I. FINGERS AND CLAWS
THE BELIEVER: Where are you right now?
BEN LERNER: Marfa, Texas. I’m in a very nice bungalow in the high desert and there are, at this moment, wild turkeys in my front yard.
BLVR: Wild turkeys?
BL: Yes. I don’t know if they are aggressive, but it’s a good time to chat, because I am afraid of them. Are you in Brooklyn?
BLVR: Yes. Weren’t you just in Germany being honored as the first American to win some big German poetry prize? How did you hear about that?
BL: My German translator, Steffen Popp, sent me an email that said we had to Skype because “something had come up.” Then he explained we had won an “important” prize, and would I come to Germany to be lauded?
BLVR: And then you went to Germany?
BL: Yes. There is a “lyrik” festival in Münster every two years. They had me sign the book of the city with a gold pen in the room where the Peace of Westphalia was signed, and where there was, for reasons that were never entirely clear to me, a shriveled human hand in a glass case. I was not allowed, however, to drink red wine from the golden rooster, as is typical of the winners, because only the mayor can remove it from its cabinet, and the mayor was traveling on official business. Everyone there was very nice to me, and the young poet who gave the “laudation” speech in a baroque palace—probably postwar reconstruction—seemed very intelligent, although I couldn’t understand her speech because I have no German. She has a book coming out on the wonderful press Burning Deck. Her name is Monika Rinck. Then Steffen and I traveled around.
BLVR: What did you think of Germany?
BL: It at first feels very old, but then one realizes that most of the old buildings are reconstructed; there is a thin line between erasure and memorialization, and it weirds me out. But it was very interesting.
BLVR: How did they translate the very American words in The Lichtenberg Figures? Spliff, for example?
BL: I don’t know. I don’t even know if that’s an American word. There were usually Q&As after the readings, and my translator often discussed the particular challenge of translating two moments in the text: finger-banged and the practice of declawing cats, to which one poem refers. Finger-bang, which already sounds antiquated to me, was apparently difficult to carry over into German. I would just hear a long stream of German and then the word, or the phrase, finger-banged.
BLVR: I feel like they must have an equivalent for finger-banged.
BL: So do I. I think he felt it’s more violent in English. There is apparently only a more tender formulation within my translator’s vocabulary.
BLVR: What was the problem with declawed?
BL: Apparently they don’t declaw their cats. This was really scandalous to the German audiences, the brutality of declawing cats. I felt I needed to assure each audience that I did not endorse the practice.
II. POETIC LOGIC IS BITTER
BLVR: After three books of poetry, you’ve written a novel whose protagonist—Adam Gordon, a young American on a one-year poetry fellowship to Spain—views himself as a fraud on many levels. He considers, even, at one point, that maybe only his fraudulence is fraudulent. Do you think of your novel as arguing for the existence of poetry or exposing its fraudulence? Or something else?
BL: I think the novel both celebrates and savages poetry—or you might say that the novel celebrates poetry but savages poems. Early on Adam says something about poetry quoted in prose. Let me find the passage:
I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose, in the essays my professors had assigned in college, where the line breaks were replaced with slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility.
I don’t think this is just an admission that he’s not interested in poetry, or a confession of fraudulence. He does find lines of poetry beautiful, but what he tends to find beautiful is an abstract potential that’s betrayed by actual poems. I can sympathize with this kind of negativity. It captures something about why poetry retains its power in the face of so many failed poems. You’re a poet; don’t you hate most poems?
BLVR: I wouldn’t say “hate,” but I get what you’re saying.
BL: My thinking about all of this is indebted to a position that Allen Grossman develops in his weird and beautiful essays. Have you read The Long Schoolroom?
BL: He describes what he calls “virtual” poetry. Poems are virtual for Grossman because there is an unbridgeable gap between what the poet wants the poem to do and what it can actually do. For Grossman, this arises out of a kind of contradiction at the heart of poetry that’s always been with us, what he calls “the bitter logic of the poetic principle.” Poetic logic is bitter because the poem is structurally foredoomed. The lyric poet is moved to make a poem because she is dissatisfied with the human world, the world of representation. But the stuff of poetry, language, invariably reproduces the structures it aspires to replace. According to Grossman, poetry issues from the desire to get beyond the human, the finite, the historical, and to reach the transcendent or divine. But as soon as the poet moves from the poetic impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. So the poem is always a record of failure because you can’t actualize the impulse that gave rise to it without betraying it.
BLVR: So given all this about poetry’s inevitable failure, why not just allow the “transcendent” to exist, pre-language, within each of us?
BL: I don’t think there is something “transcendent” that exists within us—I think poetry can arise from a desire to transcend the given, the actual, and that desire can be described in a variety of ways—the desire to think something outside capitalism, for example; it doesn’t have to be about divinity or the noumenal, as it seems to be for Grossman. It’s not that the poet has something inside him he wants to express (which is one model of lyric poetry), something that would just be there if he left it alone, but that poetry is an attempt to figure—with the irreducibly social materials of language—possibilities that have not yet been actualized.
BLVR: But it fails?
BL: Yeah, but a failure can be a figure, can signify. Maybe poetry can fail better than other art forms, because poems can point to what they can’t contain—that desire for something beyond what’s actual. That’s part of what Benjamin is arguing about Baudelaire, I think—that he makes a lyric out of lyric’s impossibility in modernity. Or you might say that even the failed attempt to write a successful poem makes us aware of having the faculties, however atrophied or underdeveloped, for such an undertaking in the first place, and so keeps us in touch with our formal capacities for imagining alterity even if we can’t achieve it.
BLVR: What about your own poems—not Adam Gordon’s but Ben Lerner’s—how do they fit into this idea that all actual poems are failures?
BL: Well, my last book of poems, Mean Free Path, can be read as seeking out a form that never quite becomes actual—the way lines in some of the poems are out of order, or belong to several possible orders simultaneously, creates a kind of suspension, a kind of “choose your own adventure” for the reader, who is invited to collaborate in the articulation of the stanzaic space. More generally, the failure of the poem to reach the objective right margin of the page is for me one of the almost definitional ways poetry makes absence felt as a presence.
III. ONLY THE CLOUDS ARE LEFT
BLVR: What other kinds of works, besides poems and novels, have you been thinking about lately?
BL: Have you seen Cory Arcangel’s work?
BL: My favorite is Super Mario Clouds. It’s a Super Mario game in which he’s removed everything but the clouds. It reminds me of a John Ashbery poem. To be in the world of the game and to have time passing but for it no longer to be game time… it opens up an experience of purposelessness and is quite beautiful. It’s also a little scary because you can imagine this being all the afterlife can offer you within the realm of Nintendo.
BLVR: Some nights, really late at night, I look at Wikipedia pages of Nintendo or computer games I played in elementary or middle school. I do this for hours.
BL: What I remember really well is playing King’s Quest on my mom’s Tandy 1000.
BLVR: What was that like?
BL: I don’t remember the plot exactly, but it was this very rudimentary but absorptive world you could wander around, looking for magic rings and weapons and encountering gnomes. I liked that the world was enchanted but also how boring it was. Either because I was too young to understand the game or because it was poorly designed, I would often just wander between screens for hours, listening to very rudimentary sound elements: electronic birds, electronic babbling brooks. When you walked offscreen there were several seconds you had to wait while the next screen loaded, and I remember the computer making these almost manufactural sounds as it did the work of constructing the next scene.
BLVR: Do you have a favorite movie from your youth?
BL: I guess it would probably be Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Maybe because my brother looked a lot like Matthew Broderick, especially in WarGames. But also because of all the movies of my youth it captured something powerful about the suburbs.
BLVR: How so?
BL: Well, Ferris uses all of this technology and strategizing to skip school, but he does it in order to access the metropolitan core of Chicago. The day off is actually a pretty educational and studious day. They go to museums and a baseball game and a parade and a fancy restaurant. It’s basically a tour of cultural and civic spaces, and they encounter black people who dance around Ferris as he’s on the float, lip-synching—that is, there’s even diversity and a kind of racial harmony! The scene with Cameron staring at the Seurat was particularly powerful; it keeps zooming in until the image of leisure dissolves into pointillism’s cold atomism. And then there’s the climax, where Ferris beats his parents home because he violates the suburban grid by cutting through people’s yards.
BLVR: When did Ferris Bueller’s Day Off come out?
BL: In 1986. I was seven. I remember watching it whenever I was home sick from school. But 1986 is a very significant year in my imagination. That’s when the Challenger exploded, which was the first of the televised disasters, and also when that girl fell into a well and became a star. Jessica. Or maybe Jessica was ’87.
BLVR: You write about painting, don’t you?
BL: I’ve done that a little lately.
BLVR: What are some paintings you like?
BL: Have you seen Bastien-Lepage’s Joan of Arc in the Met? It’s in the hall, and it’s kind of hard to look at paintings in the hall, so I feel like a lot of people don’t really look at it.
BLVR: What do you like about it?
BL: It’s a bizarre and powerful painting. The verisimilitude of Joan of Arc—especially her midsection—is incredible, and yet it occupies the same canvas as three floating, ethereal angels. And then there’s that hand that grasps for leaves but seems just to find paint. It’s like the clash between the physical and metaphysical within the painting produces that glitch in the pictorial order around her hand, if that makes sense.
IV. FRAUDULENT IN ONE’S FRAUDULENCE
BLVR: What is the function of the novel, in terms of poetry?
BL: I’m fascinated by poems within novels. In my novel there are two poems that Adam Gordon claims to have written: one is from my book The Lichtenberg Figures, although its authorship is fictionalized in a way that makes it a different text in the novel than it was in the volume of poems. I like how a novel can do that: how it can build the world in which a poem is read or misread. The second poem is what Adam reads at the gallery, and that poem is made out of lines from the novel itself. It’s a virtual poem in the sense that it’s a structural impossibility for Adam to have had available to him language from an as-yet-unwritten novel.
Maybe the novel is a good medium for “virtual poetry”—is itself a kind of virtual poem. There are influential accounts of the novel that argue it emerges when the conditions of possibility for poetry have been lost. Like in Lukács: the epic unity of experience that was supposedly available to Homer has passed away, and the novel emerges as the dominant literary form of a world in which meaning is no longer immanent. Insofar as we experience the novel as something that emerges out of poetry’s impossibility, I think the former is haunted by the latter: verse is a present absence in its prose. So that’s one source of my interest in the novel’s relationship to poetry, how the novel as a genre is inextricable from the banishment of poetry to the realm of the virtual.
BLVR: The idea of the virtual seems to apply to all domains of human experience, not just to novels and poems—the inevitable disappointment of the actual due to the awareness of a virtual. But what if one suppresses the virtual? Or attempts to experience and communicate only the virtual? Adam realizes, at one point, that his relationship with Isabel… let me find it:
depended upon my never becoming fluent, on my having an excuse to speak in enigmatic fragments or koans, and while I had no fear of mastering Spanish, I wondered, as we walked past the convents and gift shops, how long I could remain in Madrid without crossing whatever invisible threshold of proficiency would render me devoid of interest.
Is Adam’s feeling of fraudulence simply a self-aware desire to want to communicate only the virtual, to allow others a greater potentiality? Is this a basic human desire? Do you think Adam is only fraudulent in his fraudulence, as he considers at one point?
BL: I don’t know. You’re right that Adam believes his relationships are virtual: that Isabel, for example, is interested in him primarily because she intuits from his fragmented Spanish depths of intelligence he doesn’t really have—or at least claims he doesn’t have. He thinks of himself like a mediocre poem in that sense: that she projects onto him what she thinks she discovers. And he lies a lot in order to amplify his mystery. But it turns out that his projections of her projections are off, that his conception of how virtuality functions in their relationship is inaccurate, and the vision he’s constructed comes crashing down around him. So his attempt to ground his relationships the way he grounds his aesthetic has some painful results.
One problem with cultivating the virtual in relationships is that it can produce solipsism—you end up relating to your image of your relationship in a way that blinds you to the actual relationship.
BLVR: Can anybody ever fully avoid that play of projections?
BL: To a certain extent you can’t. All relationships involve what we’re saying Adam is doing—they involve a social performance based upon our projection of what the other is projecting, a virtual component that can be a source of excitement, whether anxious or erotic. So there is also a sense in which Adam’s awareness of the virtual is a heightening of experience and not just a denial of experience: a way of “experiencing mediacy immediately,” to use the phrase he uses while praising John Ashbery. So it’s ultimately very difficult, at least for me, to know when Adam’s obsession with the virtual is ironically a way of going deeper into the actual reality of his life.
V. THERE’S A STRONG RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN WRITING AND SHAME
BLVR: Are there parts of yourself that you try to keep out of your writing?
BL: That’s an interesting question. It depends on what kind of writing. Generally I think I probably go at those parts of myself about which I might feel most ashamed or uneasy. Which is not to say I “write from experience” in any conventional sense, but certainly some of Adam’s more contemptible aspects and his tendency toward a kind of self-contempt and anxiety shade into my own. I think there is a strong relationship between writing and shame. My friend, the brilliant Aaron Kunin, has organized much of his writing around the idea that the part of yourself that you’re most ashamed of can and perhaps should be used as material for art.
BLVR: What’s your sleeping schedule like?
BL: I sleep regularly. I often have very intense dreams that I remember, although when I’m recounting my dreams I find myself often unsure what I’m recounting and what I’m making up. This is probably a common experience? The way in which it makes you feel like you’re remembering what you’re fabricating—that’s what it felt like to write the novel. It’s not how it feels for me to write poems or criticism.
BLVR: Was the novel, then, while it was in your head, very visual? It felt—in its choice and quality of details, of what was noticed and specific and what was vague—based on memory, to a large degree, like something you’d lived.
BL: I’m glad it seems lived. It is lived, in many ways. When I describe the character’s apartment, it’s an apartment I lived in. Part of what impoverishes discussions about fact and fiction is that they tend to forget the degree to which what doesn’t happen is also caught up in our experience—is the negative element of experience. I think you can write autobiographically from experiences you didn’t have, because the experiences you don’t have are experienced negatively in the experiences you do.
I don’t think the novel was in my head prior to the act of writing. You know how Tolstoy talked about rushing home to see what Vronsky would do next? I think that sense of composition as discovery is one of the most interesting things about writing. Marx said that the difference between the worst architect and the best of bees is that the former erects the structure in his head—in his imagination—before he erects it in reality. I don’t know where writing fits into that, because the material for erecting the building in your head and erecting it in reality is the same: language. If it’s in your head, it’s already actual.
BLVR: Do you think most people will read your novel as autobiographical? Would that bother you?
BL: There is enough overlap between me and the protagonist that I assume people will wonder about the relation, but it would seem pretty weird to me if anyone assumed there was a direct relation—that it was just memoir dressed as fiction. I mean, in a novel so much about mediation, the question of how the novel mediates my experiences, would seem to arise even in a pretty unsophisticated reading.
BLVR: I feel like readers of this interview will want to know personal things—your own drug use, your marriage, what parts of the novel are based on your memory and to what degree. I don’t know you very well, but I feel like you won’t feel attracted to answering those kinds of questions.
BL: Probably not.
BLVR: Why not?
BL: In part for boring reasons—like I don’t want my father-in-law or dean or doctor to see that information. But also because it’s different to collapse the distinction between art and life within art, and to collapse the distinction between art and life in life. I’m much more interested in the former—in exploiting the blurriness of that distinction within an artwork, as opposed to investing further in me, the historical author of the books in question.
VI. SEEING SIDEWAYS
BLVR: Will you say something about other novels that influenced yours? What tradition do you see it as part of? I thought sometimes of Bernhard’s Woodcutters—its narrator’s simultaneous self-hatred, hatred of others, and hatred of having a hatred of others—when reading your book, though I feel more attracted to and stimulated by your book’s narrator.
BL: Maybe the self-contempt of Bernhard’s narrators was an influence. Yeah, it probably was. Steffen was reading the novel, and he wrote to ask me why I’d “quoted” and “rewritten” the opening scene to Bernhard’s book Old Masters in my novel. But I haven’t read Old Masters. And in fact that opening scene in my novel about following that guy through the Prado is one of the few moments in the book lifted directly from my experience. This seems appropriate for a novel about the messy intersections of art and life—my life has plagiarized Bernhard!
I don’t have an exact sense of the constellation of books into which my novel fits. I mean, Bartelby and Wakefield are the two characters in American fiction always on my mind. That line of antiheroes cataloged in Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co is probably my most immediate company in some sense.
I was really moved and marked by that scene in Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma where Fabrice wanders around wondering if he’s really fought in a battle, if he’s really been in Waterloo, if he’s really part of history.
BLVR: What about living writers? Or the more recently living?
BL: W. G. Sebald, Javier Marías, and Alexander Kluge are all very important to me as prose writers, although only Marías is really a novelist in the traditional sense. One way to note their influence on Leaving the Atocha Station is around the question of images. Marías uses them the least often, but he does use them. I’m particularly interested in what the photograph can do in or to fiction, how the inclusion of even a few photographs changes the novel’s relationship to the conventions of realism.
The old claim of the novel to make you “see” is complicated by the surfeit of visual detail that’s provided by almost any photograph. The thickest novelistic description is less optically realistic than any conventional photograph. As a result, including photographs both subtracts and adds pressure to the prose: it relieves it of the burden of simulating the optical if only because it reminds us how narrative prose just isn’t as good at that as the camera. Then the novel has to figure out what it is good at. A lot has been said about how painting responded to the photograph, but I haven’t heard nearly as much or as interesting talk among novelists about how fiction has had to reassess its priorities in light of cheaply reproducible photographs.
BLVR: How do hash, SSRIs, tranquilizers, alcohol, and the “white pills” you mention so frequently in your novel relate to the actual and the virtual?
BL: Well, I’ve always been struck by how a range of drugs is celebrated and denounced in somewhat contradictory terms: drug x is said both to obliterate the real and intensify your experience of reality. There is—often for the same drug—a discourse of Dionysian enthusiasm and a discourse of numb somnambulance. Or SSRIs are at once praised and denounced, depending who you ask, for helping you be yourself again, and for artificially altering your personality. Chemical mediacy becomes another site where the virtual and the actual are hard to tease apart—which pole does the drug push us toward—or push Adam toward? I love how people who abuse drugs are said to “have a substance problem.” It sounds like a philosophical problem distinguishing semblance from essence or something.
BLVR: Just to finish off: why are you in Marfa now?
BL: I’m at a residency. I’m supposed to be writing, but I’ve been reading. And watching movies.
BLVR: What movies?
BL: I streamed a really weird movie last night on my computer: Anastasia. Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner.
BLVR: For a long time I thought Ingrid Bergman was a man.
BL: That’s Ingmar Bergman. It is confusing.
BLVR: Where did you watch it?
BL: I watched it in bed.
BLVR: Lying on your back?
BL: I think I normally watch movies on my side, except at home Ariana and I have a projector, so we watch them on the wall.
BLVR: So you lie on your side, with the computer also on its side?
BL: No, the computer is upright—is normal—but I watch on my side.
BLVR: Why don’t you turn it? You see things sideways then, right?
BL: It doesn’t feel sideways. I think my head is too big relative to the screen for it to feel sideways, if that makes sense.
BLVR: I always turn the computer sideways if I’m watching something sideways.
BL: I’m trying to picture that.
BLVR: Normally I lie on my back, and put my knees up, and put the MacBook against my thigh and torso.
BL: I think we should worry about the radiation.
The first 10 pages of the novel Leaving the Atocha Station are excerpted at http://muumuuhouse.com/bl.fiction1.html
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