THE EXPERIENCE OF BEING
A POET WRITING A NOVEL
An Interview with Ben Lerner
by ELSBETH PANCRAZI
Ben Lerner is the author of three poetry collections: The Lichtenberg Figures (2004), Angle of Yaw (2006), and Mean Free Path (2010). In 2011, his first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, was released by Coffee House Press. The Poetry Society asked him about the experience of being a poet writing a novel.
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In Leaving the Atocha Station, the protagonist, Adam Gordon, is a young poet living in Spain on fellowship money. Adam grapples with doubts about the usefulness of poetry—and art in general—within the format of the novel. Did you feel that you had to leave the medium of poetry to talk about that medium? And what made you choose to write a novel, rather than, say, a critical essay?
Poetry is pretty good at talking about the medium of poetry, can't not talk about it on some level, so I don't think I generally feel one has to leave the genre to criticize or celebrate it, but I did become interested in the novel as a vehicle for meditations on poetry, what the specific opportunities afforded by that distance might be. A major theme of the novel is the gap between Poetry with a capital "P"—the virtual possibilities of the art, the immense claims traditionally made for those possibilities—and actual poems, which to a certain extent must always betray the abstract potential of the medium the second they become merely real. Leaving the medium of poetry to talk about poetry was a way of keeping in contact with the virtual—a way of analyzing or flirting with the poetic without producing actual poems. At one point in the novel Adam Gordon talks about how he finds poetry most beautiful when it's quoted in prose—line breaks replaced with slashes—because it's not an actual poem, but has the glimmer of poetic possibility. A poem in a novel, or the idea of poetry in a novel, can similarly glimmer, I think.
My thinking and language about all of this was very influenced by essays by Allen Grossman and his former student, Michael Clune. And an essay I wrote on John Ashbery for boundary 2 was one source for the novel. But what a critical essay can't really do is dramatize how these ideas infect or animate other areas of experience. The novel can build a character and a world in which a critical concept ramifies into a life, into the social. "Adam Gordon" is concerned not just with the tension between the abstract and the concrete in poetry, but also with his relationships with people, drugs, politics, etc. I did feel I had to leave poetry and the essay for the novel in order to render all of that live.
Despite or maybe because of Adam's anxieties about poetry's fraudulence in general and his own fraudulence in particular, poetry pervades the text. Reading and writing are a matter of course, and Adam's internal argument about mediation and communication spins along behind the action. It's a novel that doesn't for a moment forget art, which seems unusual and even brave—certainly I've been warned in workshops against writing about writing, as though mentioning that the poem is a poem will break the spell. Was this a concern? Are there special difficulties in writing about art?
I don't think you can not write about writing, or paint about painting, or make films about films—if the work is recognizable as a genre of writing or painting or film, it's already doing things that claim that status, fulfilling or strategically disappointing expectations that attend the medium, that are part of the medium. I guess that's acknowledged in the idea that a spell has to be cast in order to make a reader forget that fact. And I guess one could say that if art is always already about art the risk is redundancy or a level of self-reflexivity that cancels other potential pleasures and inquiries. I didn't experience that worry with this novel because it's largely about that worry—it's interested in mediation, whether the mediator is art or Zoloft or Spanish or the internet, and so it dramatizes the blurriness of the border of art and life, aesthetic experience and the aestheticization of experience. This is a very traditional novelistic concern, I think.
Your narrator Adam's anxieties about language are highlighted by the way he both doubts his Spanish, and invests extra meanings in things he and others say. "I formed several possible stories out of her speech, formed them at once, so it was less like I failed to understand than I understood in chords, understood in a plurality of worlds." This could almost be a description of how to understand poetry, holding several possibilities in the mind at once. Do you think of Adam as "reading" reality like a poem?
Yes, he claims to relate to reality on the model of one way of reading poems—a reading that thinks that ambiguity or indeterminacy or polysemy are what keep artworks from being finished, real, closed, and so, in a sense, dead. His experience of being adrift in a language is sometimes terrifying for him and sometimes a source of erotic and semantic possibility. But this causes all sorts of problems, because what he reads into conversation is often not there and because what he believes others read into his conversation is often inaccurate. And because he believes that the failures of his Spanish are what enrich his social interactions, his relationships with Spanish-speakers actually depend on his not becoming fluent. So as the novel progresses the acquisition of fluency is a threat to the world he's constructing, not a way of entering it more fully. I think Adam is particularly unreliable as a reporter on his own level of fluency. One way to think of the book might be as a collision of an ars poetica with a Bildungsroman.
The obvious question, but one that holds a certain fascination for poets: how did you think the process of writing a novel differed from the process of writing poetry? Maybe you could compare it to your narrator's writing process. Do you think Adam is typical of a poet?
I had all of these really basic realizations about novel writing with the force of revelation. It was kind of embarrassing. Things like: editing a novel is different because you can't easily reread the book every time you want to make a change. I couldn't hold all the language in my mind the way I could if I was working on a poem in Mean Free Path, for instance. Even stranger and more disquieting for me was how someone would suggest I change the syntax of a particular sentence and I might be startled to realize I didn't always have a strong opinion about which of two grammatical formulations was superior. This is because in a narrative there are certain sentences whose job is to disappear into the story, there are moments in which the self-effacement of language is a virtue, and if the goal of a sentence is to melt into air, that sometimes relieves a certain kind of pressure on its construction. I assume this is related to the "spell" we talked about earlier—how to make the language disappear. What I'm saying is sacrilege for poetry; think of how Silliman's influential "New Sentence" is all about arresting the dematerialization of language into higher orders of meaning. (Maybe writing a novel about art is a way to have it both ways: to make the reader forget the materiality of language as it dissolves into narrative but then to make them remember that they're forgetting via artifice as theme). I am in a hurry to say I don't at all mean I didn't sweat over all the prose, revise and revise again, but just that some of the sweating was about the inapplicability of a set of compositional instincts when the priority of certain passages of writing was narrative over and against the texture of the language itself. This notion of poetry as language at its most material and prose as language that disappears into the action of its syntax is something Adam Gordon talks about, and thinking through the difference between a poem and a novel enters the novel itself:
"I came to realize that 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. Even in the most dramatic scenes, when Natasha is suddenly beside him or whatever, what moved me most was less the pathos of the reunion and his passing than the action of prepositions, conjunctions, etc.; the sweep of predication was more compelling than the predicated. Reading poetry, if reading is even the word, was something else entirely. Poetry actively repelled my attention, it was opaque and thingly and refused to absorb me; its articles and conjunctions and prepositions failed to dissolve into a feeling and a speed; you could fall into the spaces between words as you tried to link them up; and yet by refusing to absorb me the poem held out the possibility of a higher form of absorption of which I was unworthy, a profound experience unavailable from within the damaged life, and so the poem became a figure for its outside."
Last but not least, will you write another?
I have no idea.