“There could be that glimmer of collectivity”
Ben Lerner at the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice 2013
From The Quietus:
Both of your novels so far have started life as poems: do you feel at all like the novel-writing instinct has usurped the poem-writing instinct?
There’s a weird way in which the novels had a relation to poetry: with 10:04 I wrote that long poem, the one that’s excerpted in the book, before I wrote the novel – but I had no idea that it was going to have a life in the novel. The novelistic frame got built up around it. And, in Leaving the Atocha Station, I had written some academic criticism and kind of soured on that and I had written a book of poems but it had really exhausted me with thinking about the line. And so the novel became this way of thinking about some of the ideas that had concerned me, both in poems and in thinking about poetry, but letting them spread out in to a world with these different characters.
I’ve been thinking of the novel a lot as a kind of curation; like the way you can stage encounters with works of art. So it’s less that it’s usurped poetry but more that it’s a framework for dramatising a certain kind of engagement with poetry. But I don’t know – I seem to have no fucking control over what I write. I didn’t mean to write either novel. I was really resistant to the idea of writing a novel at first and then with the second one I was like ‘okay, I’ve written my one novel’ – poets get one novel, right? – and then I worked on this poem and I worked on some art criticism but it started growing in to this book despite my self. Now that I want to write a novel and I’m thinking that means I’ll probably never write another novel.
It’s all poetry from here on out.
I know. Exactly. But I am still writing poems… they just come a little more slowly.
So, you’re finding it a harder process?
It’s all hard for me. My three books of poems were really like book-length serial works. I wanted to write a book of discreet poems that could stand on their own but that is apparently harder and slower for me and, in fact, I think in a way what happened is that as soon as I made that rule for my self, that’s what started causing me to write novels. When you’re writing a series, like a sonnet sequence or something, the seriality of the work always helps to indicate the next move – you always have something to work against.
Reading 10:04 I’m struck by a similarity in effect to O’Hara’s poetry, in that the narrator is traversing this hulking city in the face of these totally mammoth moments and movements but it’s the miniscule points of grace that last for only a second or two that seem to matter more than anything.
Part of what happens when you’re a poet is that you get more interested in pattern than plot; you get interested in how a patterning of events and a patterning of language relate, as opposed to the big dramatic transformations. If you write a novel in which nobody gets blown up or nobody turns in to a wizard then everybody says your novel’s plotless, but a lot of my favourite novels are “plotless” by that standard.
What some people love about the novel is its ability to be kind of cinematic in the sense of presenting these big events in a spectacular fashion. And there are novels that do that really well. But I’m much more interested in the way that the rhythm of a character’s thinking shows up in the prosody of the syntax. I don’t think that’s just a poet’s concern – any serious novelist cares about that – but I think that it’s primary for me, maybe in a different way.