An Interview with Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner’s work reads something like a poetic analogue to the uncertainty principle: meaning can never be located locally, without a concurrent loss of overall sense. Conversely, any attempt to create an overarching methodological schema fails because it is in precisely those concentrated nodes of local significance that all meaning resides. The result is a poetry that seems polyphonic, even as the voice empties itself of affect; which implies some absent and greater narrative unity, yet is dependent on that unity never being found. This idiom has developed over three books of poetry (The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and Mean Free Path), and he has won “Preis der Stadt Münster für internationale Poesie” and been shortlisted for the National Book Award as a result. His first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, found itself on numerous end of year lists, and captures, according to James Wood, “the drift of thought, the unmomentous passage of undramatic life.” It begins to clear up some of the ambiguities of his elusive aesthetics, and reads as a strange meditation on modern restlessness. We conducted this interview by email over late January and early February, and discussed negative space, the use of the subject “I”, and the temporality of narrative.

Ed Sugden: Reviews of Leaving the Atocha Station have focused on various forms of mediation that you explore in the work – poetic, medicinal, linguistic, cultural – and how they impact on the narrative. To start with, I’d like to change direction somewhat and focus on your use of the first person. What sort of challenges did this pose when creating a “mediated” narrative? Was it difficult to write with a stable subject “I”? More generally, how did it feel to write with a continuous “voice”, especially when your poetry is known for its tonal variations?

Ben Lerner: I’m not sure the subject is very stable. One thing I like about first person retrospective narratives—and this is sometimes true of poems and not just novels—is the tension between the narrated actions and the action of the narrative, between the I within the story and the I telling it, how a book can dramatize a disconnect or sudden identity between the two I’s, their persistence or change over time. I know what you mean when you say the voice is continuous, but one could also say there is a kind of foundational contradiction in the novel between Adam Gordon’s anxiety about whether he has any serious literary investments and the heavy literary investments of the prose itself, such as it is. To give just one example of how the novel evokes this very basic but to me endlessly fascinating facet of narrative: at the poetry reading early in the book Adam Gordon reads a poem that is made entirely out of language from the novel, a little collage. But Adam Gordon couldn’t have had access to that language, as the novel was at that point unwritten. You could say this is a way of dramatizing through an impossible continuity—a collapsing of the time of narration with the time narrated—the fact that Adam Gordon’s “I” is discontinuous, both subject and object of the narrative.

I think a voice is its tonal variations. A truly monotonic voice isn’t a voice in the sense we usually mean that, isn’t a marker of personality. (Which means a very flat affect can be an interesting poetic instrument, especially if you’re attempting to dramatize depersonalization; I’ve been interested in this lately.) I think my poems—say in Mean Free Path—are at their most personal when there is simultaneously a sense of the first-person as a node in a system (grammatical, economic, etc) and as a medium of lived experience. I am writing out of my experience most directly when I am writing about my difference from myself in time, which means what’s authentic about my voice has to be discontinuity as much as continuity, right?

ES: I guess the obvious question to ask then is, if you are writing “about my distance from myself in time”, is there a temporal point that you privilege when it comes to conceiving of authorial subjecthood? – a sort of still point of the turning world that grants value to narrative, that provides definition to that distance, and, if so, “when” (rather than “where”) would you locate it, and what effects does it have? How does it manifest itself in your poetry and prose? I guess I’m basically asking you to extrapolate on the quote from Atocha that reads: “far more important to me than any plot or conventional sense was the sheer directionality I felt while reading prose, the texture of time as it passed, life’s white machine.”

BL: I suppose the moment the novel privileges as capturing this paradox of identity in difference is the moment of an encounter with a work of art. I don’t have any general theory of authorial subjecthood (that I know of), but I agree with Adam Gordon’s sense of how a certain kind of poem can allow you to experience your experience in real time. I think that bears on your question about the effects of a certain calibration of narrative distances. Maybe I should say that “Life’s white machine,” Gordon’s phrase for the rhythm of mundane life, the texture of time as it passes, etc., is very close to Hart Crane’s “white machine of life,” but it’s also a line from a collaboration between the poets Geoffrey G. O’Brien and Jeff Clark, a line in turn quoted by Ashbery as an epigraph to one of his own poems. I think Ashbery is one of the greatest artists of “life’s white machine,” of intensifying our experience of time, allowing us to experience that medium immediately, and Adam Gordon and I are in agreement about what it’s like to read him:

The best Ashbery poems, I thought, although not in these words, describe what it’s like to read an Ashbery poem; his poems refer to how their reference evanesces. And when you read about your reading in the time of your reading, mediacy is experienced immediately. It is as though the actual Ashbery poem were concealed from you, written on the other side of a mirrored surface, and you saw only the reflection of your reading. But by reflecting your reading, Ashbery’s poems allow you to attend to your attention, to experience your experience, thereby enabling a strange kind of presence.

That “strange kind of presence” is the effect I think the passage you quote is describing, anticipating–but it’s not the presence of the author that’s privileged, but rather the presence of the reader.

ES: I’m intrigued by this idea of a poem existing “on the other side of a mirrored surface”, within a sort of unstated, yet absolutely vital, negative aesthetic space. When I read your poetry I’m often struck by the sense that the lines feel as though they are a refraction of some greater, yet invisible and half-conceived, reality, which, if understood, might provide a mooring for conceiving of narrative unity. In a lot of poetry of the past 50 or so years, these type of “off the page” spaces seem to have gained importance – whether in the great blank spaces of The Maximus Poems or the erasures of Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os or Jen Bervin’s Nets. How do you conceive, if at all, of these negative aesthetic spaces, and what function do they have in your work? More generally, does this discussion link with Adam Gordon’s almost obsessive fixation with “presence” and “absence”?

BL: Yes, I think it is linked. One way to conceive of those negative spaces—a way of thinking that’s everywhere in the novel and has been increasingly important to my poetry—is in terms of the actual and the virtual. I take that binary from Allen Grossman (and from Grossman’s student, Michael Clune), who in a brilliant and bizarre essay on Hart Crane, talked about “virtual poetry”—basically, the abstract potentiality of the medium, the originary poetic impulse that is necessarily betrayed by any actual, empirical poem. For Grossman, there is something “bitter” about poetic logic, because the poem arises from the desire to get beyond the world of representation but necessarily depends on the materials of that world. In The Long Schoolroom he writes:

[T]he manifest world (the only one there is) is subject to the logic of representation because it comes to mind only as representation And representation, our only access to the world, reproduces its hierachical and exclusionary structures as social formations. The poem is the site on which originality is expressed as the attempt to discover alternative structures of intelligibility that do the work of representation in another way. (11)

The poet always fails in this attempt because the stuff of poetry, language, invariably replicates the structures it aspires to replace; it turns out you can’t do the work another way.

But I think poets can develop a range of techniques for defeating mere actuality, for keeping in touch, albeit negatively, with the abstract possibilities of the medium. This is in part what Adam Gordon is saying about Ashbery: the poem never becomes merely real, it never attempts to force the impossible identification of the actual and the virtual in a way that leads to bitterness, but rather manages to catalyze an experience of presence by transforming itself into a kind of mirrored surface that lets the reader attend to her own attention as she reads. You mention The Maximus Poems, and certainly white space is a—maybe the—foundational poetic strategy for figuring what can only be represented negatively, but I might also mention the opening of “The Kingfishers.” You know that famous first line:

What does not change / is the will to change

But I’m not really sure if this is a line of poetry or two lines or zero, that is, is it actually one line of verse or is it two lines of verse presented as citation.

The slash exists in Pound; Olson is copying it from the Pisan Cantos (“That maggots shd/eat the dead Bullock”), and Pound is copying it, according to Guy Davenport, from John Adam’s letters, where such abbreviations were common. So the virgule itself is being quoted, troping the tradition, so to speak. Olson, in “Projective Verse,” describes the slash “as a pause so light it hardly separates the words,” as a mechanical advantage the typewriter offers for a poet who wants something softer than a comma, and so makes the virgule as much about a new mechanical compositional present as it is about the evocation of an archival past. (Olson’s selecting and foregrounding of the virgule as link with Poundian experiment seems particularly significant in this context because it’s a way of evoking Pound’s formal innovation in a manner that simultaneously signifies a refusal of that poet’s disastrous attempt to actualize his poetics as politics.) Anyway, there’s a lot more to say here, but what interests me about the virgule in relation to your question is that—at the beginning of postwar American poetry, at its threshold—we have a virtualized line break. It looks more like the citation of a poem from elsewhere, a critic quoting a poem instead of the primary source itself, and in that sense it’s off the page even when it’s on it.

ES: So you’re basically trying to create some sort of grammar of absence, using a set of pre-extant linguistic tools to formulate structures that are important precisely because they cannot exist?

BL: Yes, in the sense that you’re trying to formulate what can’t be formulated without being betrayed, so you develop tactics for defeating or deferring actuality so that you retain a glimmer of what the poem cannot contain. My way of talking here is very roughly analogous, as suggested by my use of the word “defeating,” to how Michael Fried (whose most recent book, by the way, is dedicated to Grossman) conceives of works of visual art defeating their objecthood, or, at a specific moment of French painting, defeating theatricality through the depiction of figures engaged in scenes of absorption. Don’t get me wrong, I’m cobbling together these different ideas in order to construct a fiction—all of this is a fiction the poem and I advance about the poem, an enabling fiction that allows me to position the poem in the gap between the actual and the virtual. It’s a way of talking that allows you to respond to a sense of the ultimate failure of all empirical poems without giving up or going crazy, because it allows you to make the formal dramatization of the poem’s limitations a figure for something beyond them.

A key word for me in “Mean Free Path”—a book where lines are often out of order or belong to several possible orders simultaneously—is “virga,” which is visible precipitation streaking from a cloud that evaporates before it hits the ground. To quote from one stanza where the term appears:

….how the eye moves constantly
To keep light from the object falling
Gently on a little clearing. They call this
Like rain that never reaches ground
Reading, like birds that lure predators away
Virga, or the failure of the gaze to reach
By faking injury, like flares that bend
Across the lake in total dark
Missiles from their path

Here the line “like rain that never reaches ground” can connect with “light from the object falling,” or describe “reading,” or itself seem to evaporate before the possibility of “They call this /// Virga” is discovered in the sixth line. I think the multiplicity of orders in that book was my way of defeating mere actuality. Many people have said that reading Mean Free Path makes them feel there was some linear ur-poem I then cut up and rearranged to form the book, and that they intuit—without ever quite being able to piece it back together—the ghostly presence of that original. As a matter of fact, there was no original, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a present absence, and I like to think of that as another way the poem avoids becoming merely real and keeps in contact with a virtual possibility, with some space beyond the page. Anyway, virga and virgule both come to us from the same Latin term for little rod, the mark for verse that is not yet or no longer or not merely actual, a rainfall that never quite closes the gap between heaven and earth, phenomena whose failure to become or remain fully real allows them to figure something beyond the phenomenal.