Ben Lerner has received numerous awards for his three collections of poetry – The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and Mean Free Path – and most recently has made his debut as a novelist, with Leaving the Atocha Station, to great acclaim. The novel tells of Adam Gordon, an American poet on fellowship in Madrid who finds himself inventing alternate histories for himself and incurring the disapproval of his Spanish hosts. Ben Lerner’s poem, ‘Dilation’ will also be appearing in the next issue of Granta, Medicine. Here he spoke to online editor Ted Hodgkinson about the fictions we construct about ourselves, the relationship between poetry and breakdown, the ‘elasticity’ of the novel and the generative properties of failure.
TH: In your novel Adam seems beset by failures of language, both in his at first tenuous grasp of Spanish, and with an ability to capture experience in poetic form. Is the novel in some ways the story of a faltering relationship between an individual and language itself?
BL: You’re right that he’s beset by failures – but he also seems to believe that linguistic and artistic failure can catalyze a certain experience of plenitude and possibility. For instance, his tenuous grasp of Spanish isn’t just a source of anxiety; it also allows him to experience a kind of ambiguity and polysemy even in mundane exchanges. As he puts it at one point, ‘it was less like I failed to understand that I understood in chords, understood in a plurality of worlds.’ Similarly, while Adam fears that most actual poems are failures, he treats those failures as negative figures for the abstract potentiality of the medium: ‘the more abysmal the experience of the actual the greater the implied heights of the virtual’. So I would say that, yes, to a large degree it’s a novel about – and an instance of – the unstable relationship between identity and language, but that the ‘faltering’ you describe can also be generative. Of course, Adam thinks – or often claims to think – of himself as a fraud and a failure in a less redeemable sense, as a talentless fuck-up halfheartedly practicing a bankrupt art. One of the central questions of the book is whether or not Adam’s anxieties and modes of contempt can actually ground a commitment to the arts or whether they’re indications that he should stop pretending to a be a poet and go do something else. In some ways I think of Leaving the Atocha Station as a very contemporary and very neurotic reading of Marianne Moore’s famous and whittled down poem, ‘Poetry’: ‘I, too, dislike it. / Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in / it, after all, a place for the genuine.’
Adam’s occasional deceits land him in some hot water with those he cares for and yet at the same time often expose him at his most endearing and also authorial. Is part of the pleasure of writing a character like Adam rescuing his actions from narrow judgments of good or bad behaviour?
Maybe writing about someone who lies a lot is pleasurable because it’s a kind of narrative doubling? You’re constructing a fiction about someone constructing fictions. But Adam is brutally honest about his dishonesty; some people find that endearing, an authenticity achieved via acknowledging how social life is always performative, always involves posturing, while others seem to think it makes him insufferable company. Regardless, I’m not interested in rescuing Adam (in part because he doesn’t exist) from such judgments, but I admit I’m baffled by how certain readers think evaluating the behavior or likability of a character constitutes a verdict about a book. It would seem to me that if you find a character good or bad, endearing or repulsive, that’s a starting point for reflection, not a conclusion. I have been startled by how some readers – even readers who apparently like the book – seem to consider Adam one of the most despicable characters in literature. A friend was joking the other day that people seem more scandalized by Adam’s clumsy lying than they do about Meursault committing a random murder.
I guess there is one fundamental way I attempted to rescue Adam: I wanted the novel itself to give the lie to Adam’s claim to have no literary ability.
One of the most arresting scenes in the book is recounted via instant messenger. Is the novel’s elasticity – its ability to incorporate so many different kinds of writing – one of the qualities that drew you towards the form, or had you always wanted to write a novel?
Early in the book Adam says: ‘I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose, in the essays my professors had assigned in college, where the line breaks were replaced with slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility.’ Adam offers this as an embarrassing confession of poetic fraudulence, but you could also read this as a statement in support of prose’s ability to incorporate other modes of writing in a manner that retains or even amplifies their power. And this novel does assimilate many other modes and sources: it contains a poem from my first book of poetry (a poem I feel is changed considerably by being transposed into the fiction); entire pages from an academic essay I wrote on John Ashbery; lines from my third book of poetry; language stolen from friends and heroes; and so on. So yes, I do love how a novel can absorb and constellate other forms, what you called its ‘elasticity’.
I think the Internet chat is a crucial moment in the book in part because it presents an exchange that isn’t filtered through Adam, through his unreliable Spanish, his self-contempt, or literary style. So that even while he says very little in the exchange, it’s the most immediate depiction of his voice in the book. Instant messaging is obviously a very new form for the novel but its power derives from its synthesis of two very old forms: the epistolary and dialogical. Or it ‘dialogizes’, to use an ugly word, the epistolary – suddenly you have characters who can write each other in real time, and you have a way of textually representing interruption, simultaneity, hesitation, delay, etc. (Sheila Heti’s new book, which I’m currently reading, contains some interesting experiments with transcription, with alternatives to conventional “realistic” dialog, which is so often embarrassingly theatrical. Aaron Kunin’s recent novel, The Mandarin, is a great book partially about – and almost exclusively in – dialogue).
I have no memory of intending to write a novel. I think I was halfway into this book before I admitted that’s what it was.
Your poem, ‘Dilation’, seems to capture the myriad ways in which consciousness can be at its most lucid and promiscuous in its associations when at the point of psychological collapse. Is a poem in some ways a species of breakdown itself?
I like that phrase, that the poem is a ‘species of breakdown’, both formally and thematically. It reminds me of the first line of one of Ashbery’s prose poems in Three Poems: ‘The system was breaking down.’ Or Steven’s: ‘The imagination is always at the end of an era.’ I think I do have a sense that poetry often begins in some extremity, and that ‘poetry’ is a word we use to denote language placed under such pressure that it’s at risk of breaking up. Or down. I was looking at some of Ann Lauterbach’s poems today and I was struck by how beautifully they seem to fall apart and then fall back together again as you read.
And ‘promiscuous’ is a good adjective for the poem in question – for its dream of harnessing the libidinal energies of the city into the ‘spontaneous formation of a public, however brief.’ Recently I’ve been writing poems that are loosely organized around a notion of corporate personhood – not as an antisocial formation for the pursuit of private gain, but in the older sense of a transpersonal subject capable of figuring collective life. This is of course an old idea for poets, e.g. Whitman’s attempt to model in his un-enjambed lines and capacious pronouns a kind of poetic commons in which the first person can perform epic tasks. The urgency of that desire is certainly heightened by the threat (or promise) of collapsing orders – psychological, societal, etc.
Your most recent poems are almost in dialogue with your earlier collections, as if they act as a kind of palimpsest. Does writing poetry necessarily enact a conversation with previous poems, previous selves?
I don’t know how one could not be in conversation with one’s previous work – at least not without suffering some kind of head trauma. I think I tend to work against a previous book to a certain extent, at least formally: I wrote a book of sonnets (of a sort) and then a book primarily comprised of prose poems. Then I wrote a book in which restricted form and the line break returned and then I wrote a novel – took up the sentence again as a unit of composition. And now in a poem like ‘Dilation’ I have a line that’s suspended undecidably between prose and verse – exceeding the imposed right margin of the page most of the time but nevertheless breaking, becoming a species of breakdown. (It’s a strange thing about Whitman that you can read his long line both as exuberant excess – exceeding the frame of Victorian verse forms – and as approaching the comparative flatness of prose.) I’m not describing conscious decisions so much as retrospectively noting what might be a pattern. And of course ‘working against’ keeps all the books in conversation because the new writing is always shaped by how it pushes off the old. I also tend literally to share language and motifs across books, to recycle and recombine. As I mentioned, many lines from my poetry and criticism are tipped into the novel. I think some version of what I’m describing is pretty common. Maybe strategically appropriating yourself – explicitly if subtly using your previous writing as one of your materials – is a way of avoiding merely imitating yourself.
Your work embraces a great many styles and traditions, many of them distinctively European. Adam in your novel engages with Lorca and his Spanish inheritors but remains bound to the mysteries of John Ashbery’s poems. To what extent do you think of yourself as a primarily American writer?
I’d say Leaving the Atocha Station is more engaged with Cervantes than with Lorca. I do believe the novel was influenced more by European and Latin American writers than by fiction writers from the US. But I’m still influenced as an American (setting aside all the problems with the word) even if the influencer is from another language and culture. I guess I just mean to say the obvious and important thing that everything I write is in some way shaped by my having come of age as a privileged subject during the violent decline of an empire in which the bankruptcy of the language and landscape feels increasingly total. If all my favourite writers were, say, French, or if I moved to Morocco, I’d be no less an American writer for that (in fact I’d be following a rather long American tradition). And now that ‘American style’ capitalism has so reorganized global space and speech it’s harder than ever to locate and limit what an aspiring expat would be trying to flee. Part of why I don’t have a good, pithy answer to this question is that it implies I could choose to think of myself as some other kind of writer and I can’t.
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner is published by Granta Books.
Photograph © Brooklyn Book Festival 2016