A Phone Call From Paul: Ben Lerner
Talking Poetry, Failure, Fatherhood, and the Gaudy Greeks
Just before writer, poet (and Topekan) Ben Lerner was officially declared a genius, our Paul Holdengraber was able to catch him on the phone in between late-night bottle feeds and not writing poems (Mr. Lerner has an exceptionally new child). The first part of their conversation follows, in which poetry, failure, and the avant-garde are discussed. The word ekphrasis is implied, but not used.
Ben Lerner on teaching creative writing…
The good thing about being a poet or writer in the academy is that you’re kind of less a scholar and more of a court jester. You don’t really have any area of expertise, and you can be Bartleby-like because—both, I mean because people enlist you into committees and you can prefer not to because you can claim not to be sufficiently knowledgeable—but also, I mean, in the sense that instead of assuming some position of authority in relation to the students, you can read in company. And when you do that, I think you can learn a lot.
Ben Lerner on (mis)reading…
Robert Creeley developed his whole kind of poetics based upon his reading of William Carlos Williams’ line breaks, which he thought of as like felt silences, or hesitations. But then when Creeley heard Williams actually read and Williams just read right through his line breaks, he was like, horrified. It’s not that Creeley was wrong, exactly, but he never would have developed that poetics if he had heard Williams read his poems early on; it was based in a sense on a misreading, or a kind of creative pretending, that you know, was really productive. So I think that you can learn to be more sensitive, I just think it’s less about acquiring some more stable knowledge, and more about a kind of attitude.
Ben Lerner on the poetics of failure…
I do think that poetry—and the teaching of poetry and the writing of poetry—is really involved with failure. And not just failure in a depressing way—we all know about the kind of romanticization of suicidal despairing artists; I don’t mean that. I just mean with the sense that like, what makes a great poem great isn’t the way that it manages to actualize all the abstract possibilities of poetry, it’s more the way it kind of dances with its own limitations and the limitations of language.
Ben Lerner on writing with a new baby…
I’m writing something about art conservation. And I’m trying to write many different things, but I’m writing something about the conservation department at the Whitney museum, and I’ve been reading all of this really great stuff about controversies in art conservation, which is basically just the history of controversies. And it’s really–it’s been kind of amazing to read about it with this new life in the apartment because I keep conflating thinking about artistic reproduction and futurity with biological reproduction and futurity. I’m reading about how you care for a painting into the future or whatever, or the way a painting changes over time, and I’m watching this infant become a toddler.
NEXT WEEK: BEN LERNER, PART TWO
In which the search for Leonard Cohen’s Greek cottage is discussed, among other things.
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