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Ben Lerner

in conversation with Kent Johnson

Ben Lerner is from Topeka, Kansas. His first book is The Lichtenberg Figures, published by Copper Canyon Press. Copper Canyon will publish his second book, Angle of Yaw, in early 2007. He co-founded and co-edits No: a journal of the arts.You can read three poems from Angle of Yaw in Jacket 25.

This interview is 2,000 words
or about 6 printed pages long

Kent Johnson: Your first book, The Lichtenberg Figures — a Lannan Literary Selection and Hayden Carruth Award winner for 2004 — has just been published by Copper Canyon Press. It’s presented, on the back cover, as a “sonnet sequence,” and nearly all the poems, though of varying stanzaic configurations, are fourteen lines in length. Now, modern day Lichtenberg figures are usually created and preserved as permanent 3-dimensional fractal figures inside a transparent receptacle, most often an acrylic cast of some kind. [See photo below. Ed.] And I’m wondering about the relation between the Lichtenberg trope and the formal energies of the book. Can you talk a bit about the role the sonnet form — or at least the idea of the form — played in the writing of the book? Did you begin with the notion of a “sonnet” sequence and use it as the container into which figural patterns were discharged, or did the writing seem to insist on certain formal conditions as you proceeded and revised? Or to spin the matter a bit, was the notion of the sonnet something initial to and propulsive of the writing, or was it more of a “retrospective” gesture, an after-effect sculpting of the material, one whose final form perhaps carries something of an ironic charge? I ask, in part, because the disjuncture between the trace of hallowed, courtly genre and the conceptual, sub-logical oddness (the novel and very powerful oddness) of the writing jumps out. Maybe the anachronism of form and language in that regard — the dressing up of an exploratory, sometimes even wacky linguistic body in our most traditional poetic vestment — is to the point?

Photo of Ben Lerner by Kent Johnson

Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner: It’s to the point. And I think you’re right to distinguish between the sonnet as a poetic form and the place of the sonnet in poetic discourse. I’m interested in manipulating the latter as much as the former. In so far as the poems are concerned with the status of poetry, framing the book as a sonnet sequence evokes a cultural framework the poems can then strategically disappoint.

The notion of the sonnet was ‘propulsive’ in that I wanted to make visible the arbitrary, generative violence of any imposed formal constraint: line count, for instance. And I am particularly interested in the sonnet cycle as a form, in the possibilities it affords for repetition, permutation, collage.

I understand the traditional sonnet as a fundamentally dialectical beast, a space in which two competing terms are resolved or shown as irresolvable, and in which that play of opposites is enacted in the structure of the poem itself. Those characteristics strike me as much more important than, say, rhyme. And the volta — the quick, constitutive turn (or, perhaps, the conspicuous failure of the poem to turn): isn’t that the peripetia, the pirouette, the cross over dribble, the sucker punch or punch line essential to so many performative modes?

Lichtenberg figure

Lichtenberg Figures are electrical discharges that have been permanently captured within clear acrylic plastic, combining the technologies of particle beam and dielectric physics with the natural beauty of fractals. The patterns within the plastic are the result of a multi-million volt electrical discharge that has blasted its way through the acrylic, leaving a permanent record of its passage, like a ‘fossil’, behind. Picture courtesy of Stoneridge Engineering. Go Here to learn more about how these works of scientific art are created.

When I saw a photograph of a Lichtenberg Figure that had appeared on the back of a lightning strike victim, I felt I had found a fine guiding trope for how form happens, for the violence and beauty and absurdity of it. That Lichtenberg’s aphorisms are lightning strikes of intellection — live wires, high voltage voltas without insulation — made the figure seem all the more fitting.

KJ: The notion of evoking “a cultural framework the poems can then strategically disappoint” is very interesting. Let me ask you about that from another angle: There’s no question our so-called post-avant scene projects, as a very big part of its “ontological raison d’être,” a marked agonistic stance vis a vis normative genre or rhetorical convention. And this oppositional positioning, as it were, what has sometimes been called the “politics of form,” clearly pervades the broad aesthetic purview and practice of recent innovative U.S. poetry. Now, I do also see that dialectic at play — you just acknowledged it yourself — in the Lichtenberg Figures, and what you pull off in that regard is plenty provocative, in complex, subtle ways, I’d say. But the poems in LF have much more than an “outward facing” metacritical push, it seems to me: They’re also (simultaneous to the serial unfoldings of the book) often very personal and inward turning. There is a lot of fantastic humor in the book, for sure, and that’s central. But it also strikes me that there’s a “metaphysical” cast — if you’ll forgive that term — to many of the poems, where formal and conceptual complexities get “figured,” in the sense of the book’s overlaying trope, against undercurrents of intense memory and emotion. I get the sense, in many of the pieces, actually, of an old-fashioned, if radiating, resolution at the end — one that perhaps doesn’t so much “disappoint” its host genre as it does a prevailing post-avant penchant for hyper-cool and fragged surfaces. Anything to that?

Lightning burn victim

Lichtenberg burn patterns on the skin after lightning strike. From “Burns from out of the blue” by CAPT Neil F. Gibbs, MC, USN; LCDR Douglas M. Keel, MC, USNR, in PostGraduate Medicine Online here at this URL:


BL: Yes. I would include the avant and post-avant scenes (whatever they are) in the ‘cultural framework’ the poems occasionally aspire to subvert. Willful irresolution can stabilize into a manner just as easily as facile resolution, right?

KJ: Ted Berrigan would be the best known example of an American "postmodern" revisioning of the sonnet tradition. Jack Clarke, though less known, another. Your work is very different, in ways touched on above, perhaps. But was Berrigan's gesture there in the background for you in any way?

BL: I admire The Sonnets. It is a beautiful, enabling book.

KJ: You recently went through what is probably the country’s most prestigious MFA program. What was your experience at Brown like? And do you have any particular views on the debate about the poetic and cultural worth of MFA programs? What would you now counsel your younger self to do: Go to Brown, or just move to New York and write?

BL: I’ve no idea how ‘prestigious’ Brown’s MFA program is, but it’s certainly a great deal: it affords you ample time to read and write and the faculty is exceptional. Of course the MFA industry can be unseemly, but the notion that there is some pure life proper to the poet is a little silly. I’ve most often heard it advanced by writers of independent means and those who simply dislike poetry.

KJ: While at Brown, you co-founded NO: a journal of the arts, which after three issues has come to be widely known as one of the most substantial — and certainly one of the most elegantly produced — literary publications around. Can you talk a bit about the experience of editing the magazine, the challenges involved, your editorial principles, how you see the journal’s position in the bigger topography of the poetry field? And is NO a project you envision continuing for a long time?

BL: I hope NO continues. Deb (Klowden) and I are discussing the possibility of publishing books as well.

Perhaps reading for NO has given me a greater sense of what trends are more or less general in contemporary poetry. I knew, for instance, that the long poem was on many poets’ minds, that there has been increasing sensitivity to the book as a form, but I was interested to find that 90% of our submissions were excerpts from extended poetic sequences instead of selections of short poems. The opportunities for permutation, repetition, and collage offered by serial poems are apparently irresistible to the vast majority of people sending work to NO. I think this is changing the nature of ‘magazine verse.’

I would prefer not to answer questions about the journal’s position. A Bartleby-like attitude toward such queries is one of my editorial principles. I think NO, such as it is, is as full an articulation of my editorial stance as I can muster. Melville to Hawthorne:

There is the grand truth about Nathaniel Hawthorne. He says No! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes. For all men who say yes, lie; and all men who say no, — why, they are in the happy condition of judicious, unencumbered travellers in Europe; they cross the frontiers into Eternity with nothing but a carpet-bag, — that is to say, the Ego. Whereas those yes-gentry, they travel with heaps of baggage, and, damn them! they will never get through the Custom House.

KJ: Is Hawthorne’s “No” the inspiration for the journal’s name?

BL: No.

KJ: I see... OK, to jump to another topic altogether: At the beginning of the Iraq war, in winter of 2003, a debate broke out over the role poets might play in opposing it. Some poets on the innovative side of things suggested that the outpouring of poetry generated by the Poets Against the War project was largely based (to closely paraphrase a prominent experimental poet) on the same pronouncement by moral presumption of President Bush and his partisans, a poetry enclosed in a language of social and linguistic norms that could only help compound the underlying problem, etc. To pose the question in the most general of ways: What responsibility, if any, do you feel poets have in making their art politically relevant to the times? And providing there is any hope of achieving such relevancy, are there forms or modes of language more fit for the task?

BL: I am a bit mystified by the knee-jerk association of experimental poetics with radical leftist politics, an association that a great many discussions regarding poetry and politics assume. Great writing might be able to function as a bearer of alterity, but that doesn’t mean the alternatives it figures are necessarily superior, even to our murderous status quo.

Poetasters who proudly assert that they are apolitical and armchair poet-radicals have at least one thing in common: they share the idea that poetry could somehow be free not to reflect the iniquities of its cultural moment. Criticizing Poets Against the War for sharing some of the ‘social and linguistic norms’ of the American war machine implies that there is a way of using language that doesn’t. It’s easy to dismiss any initiative as re-inscribing something of what it criticizes, but does that absolve us from the necessity of initiative?

I don’t know, Kent. The planet is sick. Our mass culture has made a deadly fetish of its stupidity. I don’t know what the use is of art, or if it’s the uselessness of art that is a bearer of hope, or what. I certainly cannot see the efficacy, aesthetic or political, of prescribing or proscribing certain poetic modes in advance of the poems themselves. Regardless, an exclusively literary response to the multifaceted madness of being in this world will never be sufficient in and of itself.

KJ: Well, speaking of places of multifaceted madness, you live in New York City now. What are you doing for a living — and what connection, if any, do you have with the NY poetry scene? Finally, I’ve heard that your second book will also be published by Copper Canyon. Could you talk about it a bit?

BL: I work at an after school program in Harlem. I’ve little connection with the New York poetry scene, save that I attend some readings.

My second book is called Angle of Yaw. It’s concerned, roughly speaking, with the commercialization of public space and speech. I’m also interested in the ways that technologies of viewing — aerial photography in particular — replace the God-term with a camera that feeds our spectacular culture an image of itself. This is, of course, a famous idea. The air war, the flight simulator, the crop circle, space travel, the marching band forming a flag at halftime for the omniscient Goodyear blimp — such ideologically rich phenomena recur throughout the book. Maybe their recurrence imposes an order on the poems ironically homologous to the cosmetic order such forms aspire to impose on us? Images bundled into experience, fascia... Anyway, if there is innovation in the book, it’s not primarily philosophical.

Kent Johnson’s author notes page gives more recent information about his work.

Jacket’s ‘author notes’ provide direct links to various pages in the magazine that feature more of an author’s work, reviews of their books, and interviews.

You can read more about Ben Lerner on his Jacket author notes page.

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