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Interview With Ben Lerner, Author of Leaving the Atocha Station

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Ben Lerner is the author of three books of poetry: The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and Mean Free Path, all from Copper Canyon Press. Angle of Yaw was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2006, and Lerner has also won a Fulbright Fellowship for Spain and was recently the first American to be lauded with Germany's Preis der Stadt Münster für internationale Poesie.

But now the 32-year-old co-editor of No: A Journal of the Arts has switched genres, publishing a novel of ideas about a decorated and desultory young poet dubious of poetry's and his own authenticity while on a prestigious fellowship in, um, Spain. Leaving the Atocha Station (Coffee House Press), named for a 1962 John Ashbery poem, has garnered strong advance reviews from the likes of Library Journal and Publishers Weekly, which called it a "noteworthy debut," and blurbs from Paul Auster and Ashbery himself, who has labeled it ""An extraordinary novel about the intersections of art and reality in contemporary life." We talked with the Topeka native, now living in Brooklyn, about some of those intersections, the 2004 Madrid bombings that play a role in the novel, and Lerner's own shaky purchase on the Spanish language.

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As an obvious starting point, what challenges did writing fiction as opposed to poetry present? Were you tempted to write in a prose style that was closer to an elliptical type of poetry, to assemble a narrative that didn't adhere to fiction conventions, to skirt any other tropes of the genre?

The fact that the novel is narrated by a highly neurotic young poet on a yearlong fellowship in Madrid and that the book has a lot to say about poetry actually led me away from writing in a style that we might associate more with the poetic than with narrative prose. I didn't want the musicality or ellipticity or unpredictability of the language to be primary; I wanted instead to explore the novel as a vehicle for thinking about poetry and the arts in our age of spectacle and a tension between form and content seemed crucial for that exploration. The narrator is trying to figure out (among other things) if poetry is still a viable art form -- for himself and in general -- and I didn't want the novel to try to answer that question with a style that approximated poetry. I mean: I didn't want the prose to be an example of his poetry, but rather hoped that the relationship between his prose and what his prose says about poetry would be an important part of the experience of reading the book, if that makes sense. But I keep saying I wanted, I wanted, as if I had it all planned out; the thing I both love and hate the most about writing is that I only discover what I'm capable or incapable of doing in the act of composition, so what I consciously desired probably had little to do with it. I do believe the fact that poetry was a theme pushed me away from it as technique.

That said, there are plenty of ways in which this novel doesn't adhere to the contemporary conventions of fiction, at least not the dominant ones. The protagonist doesn't unequivocally undergo a dramatic transformation, for instance, but rather the question of "transformation" is left open, and people seem to have strong and distinct senses about whether the narrator has grown or remained the same, whether this is a sort of coming of age story or whether it charts a year in the life of a sociopath. My being a poet probably has something to do with my preferring questions to answers, ambiguity to resolution, and with my being bored to tears by most of the mainstream supposedly realistic novels that run bland 21st-century sentences through 19th-century structures in order to produce what's essentially very inefficient television.

The novel's protagonist, Adam, is a young, lauded American poet on a prestigious fellowship in Spain; you were a Fulbright Scholar in Spain. I won't ask what similarities you share with him, except for his skepticism toward poetry (and of art, in general). As he says, "I had long worried that I was incapable of having a profound experience of art and I had trouble believing that anyone had... I was intensely suspicious of people who claimed a poem or painting or piece of music 'changed their life'... " How much of this sentiment do you carry, at least in regard to poetry?

I carry a lot of it. Adam goes on to speculate that the closest he's ever come to a "profound experience of art" is his experience of the distance between the claims made on behalf of artworks and the actual artworks themselves, what he calls "a profound experience of the absence of profundity." He tends to find poems most compelling when they haven't yet become fully actual -- lines of poetry quoted in prose, for instance, where what he encounters is "less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility." I certainly share this experience of the gap between what art sets out to do and what it does, and I've come to think that the gulf between potentiality and actuality is constitutive of the arts, not a reason to give up on them.

Most art and literature I care about arises from an impulse to do something impossible -- whether the medium is language or paint or Vaseline -- and then the question is how will the artwork fail in a way that nevertheless enables a glimmer of what escapes it. Adam is alternatively wracked with worry that his inability to have a profound experience of art is some kind of aesthetic impotence or full of anger at what he experiences as fraudulence, his or the culture's; maybe I felt that way at his age. I've come to think (does Adam come to think?) that what might "change your life" about the arts is precisely this attention to how serious artworks occupy that zone between potentiality and actuality, thereby providing an opportunity to experience our capacity to think beyond the merely real, the merely given.

The novel takes a dismissive attitude toward the impact poetry has on politics. Let's put aside poetry's marginality in the culture, which is a big part of its political impotence. If it were somehow read as widely as television is watched, would it still be as politically negligible? And if so, why bother writing about politics at all?

If I write a poem that arises out of the desire to, say, abolish our corporatist oligarchy, I know the poem is going to fail to effect that change. If the poem had the power to achieve such a thing it would cease to be art altogether and become historical intervention (which is a traditional avant-garde fantasy, and you're right that the novel is often dismissive of it, although it's a fantasy I've sometimes shared). But even if the poem is doomed to stop short of achieving what it sets out to do, it can nevertheless gesture towards something beyond the tyranny of the real, our status quo. And I do consider this political, although not to be confused with direct political action. Maybe it's like that scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest when McMurphy tries to lift that impossibly heavy hydrotherapy machine, claiming he's going to use it to break the window and escape. It's impossible for him, he fails, he was always going to fail, but the dignity of the struggle awakens his fellow patients' atrophied sense of their own freedom.

Maybe this paradox -- how poetry's power in a sense derives from its powerlessness -- helps account for the fact that so many people hate poetry, that almost all of our culture's talk about poetry is about its marginality, death, etc. Poetry can make us aware of our capacity to think and feel beyond the merely actual, but it doesn't provide a blueprint for revolution or environmental stewardship or what have you. This can produce serious embarrassment and resentment. People who go around celebrating or lamenting the "death of poetry" are often really talking about the demise of our capacity to desire alternatives in general, to imagine some other organization of our societal forces, or at least to imagine imagining it instead of just surrendering to the world we've made as if it were a natural, timeless order.

If poetry were read as widely as television is watched because poetry was providing the same kind of pleasures and compensatory fictions and advertising platforms as TV, then it would have to surrender what makes it valuable, it would cease to be poetry as I've been using the term. And if we try to imagine a situation where serious poetry were somehow that widely disseminated and appreciated, we'd have to imagine an entirely different world. It says something interesting about what we mean by "poetry" that trying to answer your question requires either redefining the word or redefining the world.

Much of the novel concerns Adam's misadventures with drugs and sex in Madrid. It's a classic tale of American hedonism in Europe, yet he never seems to enjoy his ostensible pleasure-seeking all that much. Were you consciously rebuking this type of story, or was this just how his character played out?

You're right that he is either not interested in or is incapable of pleasure-seeking in any carefree and promiscuous sense. Drugs and sex for Adam evoke the same anxieties he has about art: Do drugs distance us from the real or intensify our experience of it -- or do they do the latter via the former? If he "consummates" his relationships sexually will that in fact be less erotic than having a relationship shot through with pure possibility? So he's too neurotic for hedonism unless one suspects that his spiraling ruminations serve, in fact, as cover for his behavior -- that his constant questioning of his drug use is a way of prolonging it, of investing in it under the sign of disavowing it.

I wasn't aware of rebuking the kind of story you mention, but what interests me about the American abroad isn't the prospect of a joyride so much as the situation that's obtained in which many Americans are embarrassed to serve as representatives of a (waning) empire even or especially as the reach of that empire has made them feel increasingly at home (look, a Starbucks!) wherever they go. I mean, for Henry James (or Pound or Eliot or others), it could be embarrassing to be an American because all the real culture, all the worthy pleasures were supposedly still located in the "old world."

For Adam part of the experience abroad is re-encountering the American in the form of other tourists or the effects of American-style capitalism and so on. The bombings that take place at the Atocha station on 3/11 are the moment where all of this collides in the novel. On the one hand the violence is linked to the U.S., is a response to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq which Aznar, an ally of Bush, supported despite its extreme unpopularity with Spaniards. On the other hand the way that 3/11 becomes a kind of periodizing disaster in Spain, dividing historical time into a pre- and a post-, and the particular Spanish political response to the events, heightens his sense of foreignness. His reading about what's unfolding around him on English-language news sites in the no-place of the Internet is one figure for how the "American abroad" trope has necessarily changed in step with the reorganization of global space.

Adam's get-me-by Spanish is a running joke in the book and plays a role in the plot. How's yours?

We never know how bad Adam's Spanish really is. The only person who claims Adam's Spanish isn't any good is Adam; he develops relationships in Spanish, almost never speaks English while abroad, and as the book progresses, the two women that he's involved with become increasingly frustrated by his claim not to be a fluent Spanish speaker. Since he believes his fragmentary Spanish allows his interlocutors to project all manner of depth into even his most superficial statements, he grows increasingly concerned that obtaining fluency will ruin his relationships -- another instance in which actuality is experienced as a threat to pure possibility. My Spanish is certainly better than Adam claims his is, but like him I'm often anxious that I've misunderstood something crucial and that I am responding not to what someone has said, but only to what I misheard. And that these parallel conversations will go on and on without my realizing my mistake.

I find myself drawn to the philosopher Donald Davidson's claim that there is "no such thing as a language" in the sense that communication depends upon a broad range of activities and capacities for "getting on" in the world and not just on a stable set of linguistic conventions. And often the novel focuses on facial expression, gesticulation, rhetorical accent, etc. over and against the utterance. This is why examining the breaches and infelicities that arise from trying to speak another language can serve as a foil for examining the complexities and intensities and vagaries of all communication. Adam's anxiety about his Spanish is also anxiety about the element of social performance inherently involved in "getting on" -- no matter if you're a native speaker.

But maybe I'm just attracted to this claim because it excuses my horrible Spanish grammar. Sometimes we're visiting my wife's grandmother (her family is Puerto Rican), with whom I have been close for over a decade, and after I've either said something particularly unintelligible or failed to understand something basic she will turn to Ariana and ask, at least momentarily unsure: ¿Ben habla Español?

Around the Web

Ben Lerner - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Ben Lerner : The Poetry Foundation

UW CSE > Benjamin Lerner

Berkeley poet Lerner writes from heartland - SFGate