Ben Lerner has written three poetry collections and received a National Book Award nomination in 2006. His first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, was published by Coffee House Press in 2011 and attracted praise across the critical spectrum. The narrator of his latest novel, 10:04 (Granta, 2015), is a poet named Ben who has experienced great critical acclaim for his debut novel, further evolving Lerner’s signature bent towards fiction flickering between art and life. He spoke to Maria Dimitrova from New York, where he is based and where teaches in the MFA programme at Brooklyn College.
Maria Dimitrova What are you up to?
Ben Lerner Last night I was with Norwegians. [Karl Ove] Knausgard is in town; I had to interview him.
MD How was that?
BL Good. He was unaffected and talkative. He’s very beautiful, physically I mean. And he has all these fans. There were like a thousand people there. It was like interviewing Rihanna.
MD Do you think the kind of writing he is associated with, his undifferentiating, equalising point of view, or “radical inclusiveness” as you called it in the London Review of Books – a cornflake described as of equal value to a face – signals a new direction in contemporary fiction?
BL A lot of writers have produced interesting effects by confusing scene and summary, blowing up a detail that should be insignificant while moving quickly over a thing or event we assume is significant. I think of Flaubert as an example: Madame Bovary might get married or pregnant in a paragraph but Flaubert might slow down and describe what ash from a cigarette looks like at some length. That experimenting with what the attention of a novelist should dignify is kind of an old technique, but I do think Knausgård’s extremity is pretty new: everything warrants a scene! And he has an interesting if kind of troubling disregard for quality: he says he will write passages in a hurry to try to access some kind of immediacy or reality even if the writing is bad. Anyway, it’s an old logic: one claims to be breaking with existing forms in order to capture the real, and then of course the latter turns out also to be artifice – it’s the Modernism-Realism debate.
MD It seems sometimes that there is too little sense of the author’s own perspective in his work, and something of the opposite has been said about your novels – an over-awareness and self-consciousness of the narrator.
BL I’m interested in how a novel tracks – from the inside, as it were – the disconnect between internal experience and one’s social self-presentation, a very traditional novelistic concern. In the first novel solipsism was very much an explicit theme: the narrator can’t see others because he’s so concerned with projecting how others are seeing him. In 10:04 self-awareness is a moment in the effort to imagine possibilities of collectivity – how can the narrator inhabit his relationships and his art without ironic detachment? How can he go beyond cool distance and stylised melancholy, while acknowledging the preposterousness of his own position as a privileged subject in a fucked-up empire? I think every novel is full of the author and the contingencies of her experience and for me it’s more interesting to make that material for art than it is to act like one can write from a position of disembodied omniscience.
MD In 10:04 the narrator talks about the imperative of art to “offer something other than stylised despair”. How does one transcend despair or maintain a necessary optimism about things that keep failing him? I am thinking of the Conservative Party’s victory in the UK’s general election today, for example.
BL One answer that I can’t always access emotionally but do believe in is: maintaining a position of wonder before the world prevents the collapse into despair. What good art can remind you of is the imaginative powers of redescription and as long as we have a kind of collective power of redescription, then we’re not stuck with the merely real. It’s important not to confuse that imaginative power with actually intervening in history; it’s not the same thing as an actual revolution in the streets, a mistake that the avant-garde has often made. But I do think there’s something pre-political or proto-political about it. It is still about exercising a set of faculties and staying in touch with a set of human capacities that are important if we’re even to conceive of alternatives to the murderous status quo. It’s a depressing day when David Cameron wins but you know, a lot of these dominant regimes are taking care of destroying themselves. What passes for politics is so detached from the reality of lived experience that we feel not only horror at the dissimulation but hope at its unsustainability. It’s easy to despair because everything feels like a minor practice relative to the privatisation of everything in our gilded age, but it’s worth remembering that minor practices are what make life worth living in the first place.
MD There is this famous passage by Adorno about practising philosophy in the face of despair, concluding that thinking has to derive “entirely from felt contact with objects”. 10:04 seems to, stylistically and otherwise, tread similar ground, emphasising language’s capacity as a sensory medium for critical thinking. However, it also acknowledges the limits of radical potential, like when the narrator tries to “assimilate” his Adderall-addled student’s apocalyptic outburst back into academic discourse in order to keep his own identity intact.
BLYes. There are plenty of people for whom this novel, because it still imagines and thinks out loud about bearing children, or because it isn’t an affirmation of a total anarchic destruction of all existing structures, or because it’s narrated by a white guy with a book advance, just isn’t sufficiently radical. This is a book that tries to explore the moments of real care and possibility that are sedimented in more mundane structures. And it’s a book written from – and about the contradictions of – privilege. It doesn’t resolve those contradictions; it presents them.
MD Indeed, the thread of critical thought running in the book doesn’t exist outside lived experience. Is theory important to your writing?
BL The theory that’s most appealed to me is the theory that tries to reflect on the content of its own form and that wants to engage the relationship between the way we live in language and our ideological situation more generally. Right now I’m much more interested in books like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, in which the theory is really felt and lived and opens up spaces. I’m sick of the repetition of a certain kind of received, largely professionalised set of tics and gestures some people call theory. Maggie is an example of somebody for whom the intellectual questions are lived, but lived experience isn’t proffered as an excuse for not thinking rigorously or as a depoliticising sentimentality.
MD Your fiction often borrows its method from poetic practice. Do you have any formal or informal rules on the composition of sentences?
BL I don’t have rules, but I think you’re right that I often think in terms of patterns more commonly associated with poetry than prose. When will a motif return, at what interval. Certainly the prosody of a sentence often matters to me as much as what the words denote. I’m sure this is true of many novelists who aren’t poets. And then poems literally give form to these novels, anchor their structure in a certain sense. The Marfa poem in 10:04 preceded the rest of the book.
MD As a field that’s even more socially and economically marginal than fiction, are there ways you think poetry could be reinserted more into the everyday?
BL I don’t know that I think poetry needs to be a huge part of mainstream culture. I certainly wish more people were engaged with the particular kinds of reflection and thinking that are in poetry but I think sometimes it thrives precisely because it doesn’t have a certain set of corrupting possibilities. I think you can both believe that there is an avant-garde that’s pushing the limits of the language and feel like there are real energies at work in the popular. Part of 10:04 is an effort to feel real glimmers of collective possibility even in corrupted forms. It’s more about understanding the real forces at work in both the popular and the real forces that can only exist in different, relatively marginal conditions, and trying to harness those energies in order to have that position of wonder before the world. I think my answer here is: I don’t know.
MD You’ve mentioned Maggie Nelson – who are some other poets who interest you right now?
BL There will be people who it’s highly unlikely anybody who isn’t a poet has heard of. There is a poet named Geoffrey G. O’Brien, an American poet who is really important to me. I’ve been reading Fred Moten recently, who is very good, as well as Ariana Reines. There are older poets who mattered a lot to me as well, like John Ashbery of course. Rosmarie Waldrop is a very interesting poet here and there is a young poet named Dana Ward who’s really good. Also Anna Moschovakis. I mean, there are these really good writers and they’re there, the work is getting done. But I did get kind of tired. The insularity of a certain kind of poetry is really good in certain ways as it can produce a community and it can produce innovation but it can be really bad in other ways. It can produce cliques and it can produce stagnation and I do feel a little bit more aerated. I do think it’s important to not feel beholden to one genre or subculture.
MD To be permeable, in a sense?
BL Yes, I feel more comfortable that way. Maggie is a good example; she is a poet but her last books aren’t really poetry, but it’s not clear what they are. They cite poetry and they incorporate poetry and some of them are read as books. I think it is not just cross-genre writing, whatever that means, but understanding the way literary forms can collaborate in a book and the way a book can gather a live tradition from these different modes of production. That is really kind of compelling to me.
MD What are you working on next?
BL I just finished this collaboration with the German photographer Thomas Demand, a book published in the UK by MACK. I’m also finishing this monograph on the hatred of poetry – why people hate poetry, why poetry is the art form that’s historically denounced and defended, and it kind of talks about my own love-hate relationship to it. And I’m thinking about a novel, but I’m not writing it. §
Ben Lerner’s latest book 10.04 was published by Granta in January 2015.