Ben Lerner has a diligent mind. In both his allusive, interrogative poetry and his reflective, combinatorial novels, Lerner exhibits a sort of hyperactive self-awareness. His compositional practice—one characterized by real-time self-examination and revision—is palpable even in the freest conversation.
On February 6, 2017, the poet, novelist, essayist, and professor came to campus to read some of his poetry, discuss his new book No Art—which compiles his three previous collections of poetry alongside some newer work—and answer questions from a packed LC audience. Afterward, I asked him about SMS, airlocks, The Hatred of Poetry, and our present political climate.
What follows is an edited version of that discussion.
Griffin Brown: In the Q&A session after tonight’s reading, you said you often experience “embarrassment” when you read fictional dialogue because of how hard it strains to emulate real conversation. I couldn’t help but think of the part of “Leaving the Atocha Station” that functions as a text conversation between the narrator and his friend Cyrus, which you render in a completely natural, 21st-century way. How did you approach crafting that dialogue?
Ben Lerner: Chat is really interesting. In a way, it solves the traditional formal problem of dialogue, because it’s a method for depicting dialogue that enters the world as writing, but in real time. It’s kind of a synthesis of these two novelistic traditions: the epistolary novel — which doesn’t let you have a dialogue; you have to send letters back in forth — and then novelistic dialogue, which looks more like writing than it does like speech. That chat is also the only dialogue in the novel that isn’t filtered through the narrator’s narration. I actually think it’s the most immediate image of his voice.
And novels are about displaying the way new technologies alter structures of experience. I think that’s a really exciting thing novels can do — you know, like when Proust talks about the first time he talks on the telephone. [“Leaving the Atocha Station”] is very interested in all those different technologies of mediation: payphones, chatting; what type of technology is the poem …
GB: Another question I have is about “The Hatred of Poetry.” So much of the essay emphasizes how debates about the worth of poetry are debates that have always been going on. Was there a particular event or atmosphere that made you say, “OK, now is the time for me to write this essay”?
BL: Harper’s published one of these big, glossy denunciations —
GB: “The Edmundson” —
BL: Yeah, and they asked me if I wanted to respond. I didn’t just want to do the thing where somebody says, “Well, where are all the good poets?” And then somebody says, “There’s this poet who’s really good, and there’s that poet who’s really good.” I wanted to know, why is this rhythm of denunciation and defense so fascinating to people? Why does the culture love to come out every X number of years and proclaim the “insufficiency” or “death” of poetry?
[The essay] also thinks about contempt for poetry as not just external to the art. There’s a really interesting species of contempt amongst poets. It’s not all poets, and it’s not all poetry; the book doesn’t mean to make a general pronouncement about what poetry is or how poetry is treated. The book means to say, what’s up with this transhistorical tendency in the West, in certain communities, to always proclaim the death or irrelevance of poetry?
Part of the answer is that poetry is a word in the culture for our kind of human creative capacity. So really, when we say that poetry is “dead” or “dying,” we’re expressing an anxiety about the kind of space for creativity in a world that’s increasingly administered. And I think that anxiety about poetry is evidence of its importance.
GB: Definitely. And on the topic of formalizing thoughts about one genre in the language of another: in your poem “The Dark Threw Patches Down Upon Me Also,” which is excerpted in “10:04” and which you read in full tonight, there’s a bit about how the speaker passes through “a series of airlocks en route / to imperceptible work” —
BL: It’s thinking about how they built the Brooklyn Bridge, when they invented these caissons that lowered into the water so they could work underwater. It was crazy: they were lit by lamps (and so they were full of gas), and [the designers] didn’t understand pressure in the right way. A lot of people got the bends — including the guy who was designing the bridge — you know, because of nitrogen in the blood.
The lines also explore this idea of whether or not poetry is labor — a kind of invisible labor. Poems and poets often embarrass people because they don’t observe the normal labor-leisure divide. You ask somebody like, “What do you do?” And you say you’re a poet: there’s a Peter Pan element to it, and there’s also a kind of braggadocio. But the question about what kind of vocation poetry is — is it labor or is it leisure — is also really traditionally caught up in the disdain for poetry.
It’s very similar language that’s used when there are protestors. When people were at Occupy, when something like that happens, the right will say, “Who are these people? They need to get a job.” And then on the other hand, they’ll say that they’re working tirelessly to bring down America. They simultaneously accuse them of doing nothing and having this incredibly elaborate plot.
Basically, I think part of what’s valuable about poetry is that it embarrasses — or renders complicated — the conventional division between labor and leisure, which is a big concern of every revolutionary project. What would it mean for work not just to be about acquiring money? And what would it mean for leisure not just to be passivity, to actually be creative energy? It’s kind of a funny thing about being a poet in the world, but it also gets at this deeper question of the way that poetry — and the language of poetry — challenges accepted vocabularies of value.
I think that’s a good way to think about art generally: that art, in all types of different media, is a way of proposing an alternative measure of value.
GB: Do you ever consider your criticism and your fiction — or your prose in general — as “airlocks en route” to a larger poetic project? How do your different ventures communicate?
BL: I definitely think it’s all one work. The way I write is to imagine a syntax across works and how one book pushes against another. Writing across genres gives you this laboratory where you can take an idea and put in a poem, then put it in an essay, and then put it in a novel, and each one is like a different facet.
GB: I’ve come to admire your novels for exactly this curatorial quality you describe: not only your ability to transpose your own work across genres, but also your ability to bring in other writers as almost fully realized characters, not merely interlocutors. When Adam Gordon describes his obsession with John Ashbery, or the narrator of “10:04” his obsession with Whitman or Robert Creeley — is that a form of ekphrastic writing for you?
BL: Yes, and not just in the sense that the language narrativizes the artwork; ekphrastic writing in fiction is really powerful because it’s a great technology of characterization. You learn something about Adam Gordon from his engagement with a work of art. It’s funny: I think a lot of people who have written about “Leaving the Atocha Station” just sort of skipped the part where he’s going on and on about Ashbery; it’s a really different book whether you think that’s his “profound experience of art” or you don’t take that seriously.
GB: It’s pretty effusive, if I’m remembering it correctly.
BL: Yeah. And this is true of a lot of literature; this is hardly something I’ve come up with. [Ekphrasis] lets you see the way [the characters] see; it lets you get into the rhythm of their consciousness because you can track their aesthetic experience as it unfolds. It’s really central to how I think about the novel — more so for me, or at least how it’s ended up, than how I think about poems.
GB: Yeah, it’s captivating. OK, I have one more question, but I think it may take a bit of time, so I’ll just get to it. You opened your reading today with a sharp criticism of the culture of “post-semantic doublespeak” in which we’re currently living. As the fall of 2016 unfolded, I started thinking about the idea of “retrospective erasure” that’s found throughout “10:04”: that is, when a present is somehow fading or dilapidated because it was based upon a future that never came to be. So, I’m curious: how was your November 9th?
BL: Bruno Latour has this book called “We Have Never Been Modern,” and it talks about how we’ve never really separated out science and ideology. And I feel like one of the things we’ve learned from the election is just the extent to which we have never been a democracy.
And we knew this. Any person knew this on some level who was really paying attention: the killings with impunity of black people by police, the ghettoization of whole populations … But I think it’s still kind of like a shock, even if it’s largely dumb white people who are shocked — dumb white people like me — that civil rights were an even more tenuous part of the cultural fabric than we thought. Even though I’ve been a big opponent of the whole political system, I still think I realized that, ideologically, I had thought certain things were no longer contestable. And it turns out that the basic decency of a certain set of “other” people — the basic decency of women, say — is openly contestable, still, and I think that that gives a new texture to the present. Do you know what I mean? It’s a new way of experiencing the fact that we have never been democrats, that we have never been a democracy.
But that’s a good thing, too, right? Because while it’s surprising to a lot of people of relative privilege, part of the story that I hear from a lot of people of color is a story about continuity: the continuity of the state being an instrument of repression and violence. Maybe one of the narratives that’s collapsing is a kind of benevolent, white, privileged narrative about how history is “moving in the right direction.”
But I don’t know what’s going to happen, and the resistance is going to be real. And although I’m good enough of an Adornian to have always believed that the dialectic of enlightenment is true, I still didn’t think that someone who openly confesses to sexual assault and is proud of his ignorance was going to win the election—even though the election was by no means a serious democratic election because of disenfranchisement and other things.
I grew up with this kind of avant-garde, disjunctive poetics notion, which was that you had to break the smooth functioning of sense. But all of those techniques have basically been recuperated by this political class. And these democratic officials who get in there and are like, “Well, you know, you can’t really change much, you can’t really offend anybody, you can’t rock the boat” — Bannon just doesn’t give a shit. It’s like a nightmarish version of what I would want for the left, which would be for people to get up there and use presidential power and Supreme Court appointments to make it a more just world as opposed to one based on race hatred.
Even though intellectually I thought I was fully disgusted by the American political system and its ideologies, I’ve realized that I was telling myself stories, even subliminally, about the security of certain discursive norms or certain kinds of “sanity” (even if they were the humane face of neoliberalism).
If I could start over, I would say that it both changed a lot of stories — in terms of, like, the degree to which think we have ever been a democracy or have ever made progress on civil rights — but has also really made me realize in a new way, even though I knew this intellectually, how many segments of the population already operated under a state that was almost exclusively an instrument of violent repression.
So I think we both have to be amazed and shocked and then shocked that we’re amazed. And how fiction will relate to that is going to be interesting to see, but I don’t know yet.