Spotlight: Ben Lerner
Interview by Ken L. Walker
To recall the first breach or encounter I had with the idea of a Ben Lerner poem: I was helping with a presentation on Angle of Yaw in my workshop at Brooklyn College and wanted to bring up the idea that poets should have more audacity—that too many seem too afraid. Lerner was firing shots at Reagan, breaking down the American response to 9/11 without pretense, cataloging the oppressive and repressive mannerisms of culture, demonstrating the blood-thirst of profiteering, and is pretty damn smart about how to attack each animal, offering up a fresh poetics to boot. Angle of Yaw wound up nominated for the 2006 National Book Award. His follow-up, the exceptional Mean Free Path, was released this year. His first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, is forthcoming from Coffee House Press and he teaches in the writing program at Brooklyn College.
Following many e-mail exchanges, Lerner and I compiled the following conversation.
KW: What was the impetus for Mean Free Path–that is, can you explain its pre-writing, forethought, thinking stages?
BL: I think I project the fiction of a book long before I have any concrete sense of how to realize it. Retrospectively, the fiction tends to replace the reality—that I had little idea where I was going, what formal problems and solutions would arise in the act of composition, etc. But the fiction is what allows me to keep going, because it feels like premonition. I do know that after Angle of Yaw, which mainly consists of prose poems, I wanted to turn back to the line. And I wanted to experiment with more personal forms of address, not just the détourned registers of (much of) Angle of Yaw. But there’s a big gap between having those vague concerns and finding their formal measure or correlative or whatever. I don’t have any articulate sense of how that happens. I mean, I think I began describing the “stutter” in Mean Free Path as expressing an emotion that goes beyond description, and as a central technique of the kind of love poem I was writing, after I’d already written several poems in which it appeared. I was convinced by that reading, and ran with it, but the point is I’m not sure it was initially the impetus behind the technique, so much as a way of narrating the significance of the form after it began to unfold. Then that narrative became part of the book.
You seem to be committing an important act in all your books, but especially in Mean Free Path, which is training the reader how to read the work as he or she traverses it. By the end, or in a second reading, a reader has not only been trained, but assimilated. Can you speak to this?
Assimilated—that sounds a little scary. The effects in Mean Free Path are accretive. I do think a lot of the formal procedures are only perceptible over time, and so in that sense, yes, a reader has to acclimate to the form, and the form has to both make that acclimation possible and keep it from becoming total, to establish recognizable patterns and then modulate their fulfillment and frustration so they don’t stabilize into predictability. This is how I read Valery’s famous dictum that order and disorder are equal threats to a poem. While I do think that Mean Free Path teaches you how to read it, I don’t really feel like the teacher. I’m not sure I had that much control. Writing the poems might actually have been closer to reading them in the sense that I had to figure out what was possible within the constraints I gave myself, and the poems are the record of that discovery more than a mode of instruction. I’m not Milton.
That said, you’re correct that the poems in Mean Free Path are often explicit about their procedures and the thematic significance of those procedures. So there is a didactic element in the book. But as I mentioned above, that narration of form didn’t necessarily precede the form.
Assimilation is a scary thing; it’s interesting that you say you didn’t have that much control. Did you not want that much control?
Maybe it’s more that I feel that there are multiple and potentially competing orders of control. You can establish a restraint, but that decision, that form of control, forces you to make all manner of adjustments in the act of composition that you wouldn’t otherwise make. Some artists have been interested in only making the initial decision that then generates the work more or less automatically (e.g. Sol LeWitt). They outsource execution. I’m more interested in how the drama of negotiating an imposed form can be thematized, becomes part of the meaning of the poem.
Explaining the formulas for “mean free paths” in ordinary language—the magnitude depends on the characteristics of the system—can also act as intriguing metaphor. This seems to happen often with normal rhetorical explanations of dense scientific theories, in corny ways with the galaxy but in highly acceptable ways with things like bee flight patterns or, again, “mean free paths.” The Wikipedia page for mean free path could read, almost, like a prose poem. Does/Did this attract your attention at all when thinking of the framework for the book, the title?
I am interested in how science uses metaphors, or maybe I should say in how it denies its dependence on metaphors in order to secure its claims to objectivity, but I selected this title because the concept struck me as an apt trope for the poems’ formal procedures, for the line as a space between collisions, for the line as measure. And of course the title gets swept up into a connotative field in which “mean” means all sorts of things, from signification to meanness, and “free” evokes the murderous cheapening of that word by American capitalism and its permanent wars. And so on. Using the scientific phrase as an organizing metaphor for a book of poems invariably places the discourse of objectivity under all sorts of destabilizing pressures, so that in “Angle of Yaw,” for instance, you hear angel and Yahweh, metaphysical echoes behind the physics. The title focuses attention on the procedures of the poems, their motion and energy and force, but any scientific specificity is dissolved in the play of meaning, I think.
A poet (especially) takes on the task of estimating the size of infinitesimal things. As in, when a measurement is damn near invisible, one has to approximate or compare its size. Is this, to a certain degree, what is going on in Mean Free Path?
I can think of ways in which that might be true. I mean, certainly part of the goal is to use poetry to track failures of representation—hesitation, fragmentation, doubling back—in a way that can measure the experience of feeling and thinking in time. So there is a kind of measurement taking place, and what’s being measured, if not infinitesimal, is not something I can capture in any positive sense. If the relevant emotion would be falsified by any definitive statement, then the challenge for the poems is making the failures of expression expressive. And any particular formulation in the poems has a sense of being provisional, always subject to being recycled and revised by the form, and so that might be analogous to an estimate.
I think, in that sense, Mean Free Path does a great job of cutting the primary part of a statement off at the pass (“I thought you were sleeping…”), as in, recycling but revising (as you say above). Was that an intention, to reform normal opening phrases into new entities, or at least, to twist them into new statements?
Certainly a major dimension of the book looks at how phrases, clauses, etc., can recombine (or fail to recombine) into higher units of meaning. One function of the recombinatory activity of the poems is to make it very difficult to identify the “original” usage of a phrase, clause, etc. in the book. (The way lines are out of order or belong to multiple orders at once has made some readers wonder if there was a prior, more linear version of the book I then cut up and rearranged. There isn’t—that is, there wasn’t an actual original that I then distressed—but I understand how the poems imply such a source, a kind of virtual hypotext.) I wanted to give a sense of language as found—that these phrases were being worked with, cut and pasted, not generated spontaneously, whatever that might mean. Even the most direct and emotionally charged statements in the book are made out of language that appears elsewhere in other configurations. This isn’t intended to ironize the statements, but to show how expression is always also construction, a working with materials that have a history (in the book and beyond). And to make that struggle to express expressive.
What does the “Dedication” piece do for the book? Why put it in?
The stanzaic pattern of “Dedication” returns in the “Doppler Elegies,” but it returns with a difference—this is the only poem in the book that has end line punctuation, and it’s certainly the closest thing to a discrete poem in the volume. Still, it’s part of the larger formal architecture of the book: each section of “Doppler Elegies” is eight pages. Each section of “Mean Free Path” is eighteen pages. “Dedication,” since it shares the stanzaic pattern of the “Doppler Elegies,” combines with those poems to make a sequence of eighteen pages. So there is a way that “Dedication” is both inside and outside the form, a part of the “Doppler Elegies” that pulls away to perform a different function. But its presence also balances the book, making another suite of eighteen, another multiple of nine (the number of lines in each stanza in the book, depending on how you count the lines at the end of “Dedication,” another way that poem hovers between fulfilling and violating the formal rules in the book).
I liked the idea of the dedication being part of the book, not something outside it. I mean, since the entire book is concerned with finding the right form for the expression of love, it seemed like cheating to just have a prose dedication external to the poems. And it is a dedication. The “for” begins as a coordinating conjunction in a litany of reasons for despair, but the way out of the numbness and solipsism and hopelessness becomes the modulation of that “for” into a preposition, into writing for another.
The line break in Mean Free Path becomes allusion for a culture of lost attention, for broken thought patterns, stuttering, things like that. Did you intend that to be a cultural reflection of some sort in order to create a more interesting poetics within the overall text?
I think poetic form always reflects a culture. Or refracts it. And of course I think of myself as reflecting my culture, and so the fragmentation and quick changes of direction can be poetic techniques and first person states and cultural characteristics all at once. I think the way thoughts “break up” in the book is part of my attempt to track what it’s like to be in time. Instead of editing out failures of communication, the book wants them to communicate what exceeds my powers of description. But it’s also true that the poems express some anxiety about the quality of contemporary attention. Distraction isn’t always bad, however. I mean, distraction sometimes masks a higher form of attention: “You’re not listening. I’m sorry. I was thinking/ How the beauty of your singing reinscribes /The hope whose death it announces.”
The poems here are less polished than your previous works. Was that done on purpose?
The poems are less polished than much of my previous work, where polish is associated with resolution. The poems make a drama of rejecting a certain kind of polish, a certain kind of facile closure. In the prose poems of “Angle of Yaw,” where I was often trying to inhabit, if only to expose as bankrupt, the language of advertising or political doublespeak, I wanted the closural effects of those discourses to be operative in my prose poems. And yes, the striation and fragmentation was certainly purposeful, and is often described in the poems:
I decided to work against my fluency
I was tired of my voice, how it stressed
Its quality as object with transparent darks
This is a recording. This living hand
Reached in error…
One way to read these lines is: “I was tired of my voice, how it stressed this is a recording”—that is, I was tired of the degree to which a certain fluency betrays the fact that the poem is staged speech, that there have been multiple takes, and that the “voice” is a textual object that’s been carefully worked. So that Keats’ living hand was never really living, the speech was never live. But these lines, like most of the lines in the second section of “Mean Free Path,” can be read in more than one order. And in fact the stanzas can often be articulated into orders that provide a high level of resolution or closure. But you’re right: the edges always show.