AGNI: Can you say a little bit about how this collection, Five Sextillion Atoms, came together?
Benjulian: I wrote about half of the poems between 2010 and 2013. Over the next two years, I composed the others, revised everything, and assembled and re-assembled the book. It was clear to me early on that I was working toward a collection because so many of the poems began with visual or aural memories from childhood; some of the less than idyllic experiences of motherhood; the fierce and complicated love between mother and daughter; and, although rarely explicit, the scrim of Eastern European Jewry in the background. With shared myths, overlapping concerns about mother and child, child and mother, and the particular crucible of stepfamily and siblings, all of these poems felt as if they belonged together.
Only in the last two years did I understand the voice of the poems not as that of a child but of a woman panning the experience of childhood for the shimmering moments in which a life changes course.
AGNI: You have a background in theater. Does that influence your work as a poet?
Benjulian: I think about the theater all the time when I’m writing poetry; I imagine moving characters on and off stage—and I use dialogue in the poems to characterize people and suggest action and gesture. As on stage, characters don’t always answer the questions they’re asked or tell the truth. No question, my poems are influenced by my work in theater. Physical space is prominent in my thinking—even if it is not described, I am always writing with a scene in mind: in a bedroom, a tree, a kitchen table, a garden bench. More important, perhaps, is the influence of subtext and silence. What is unsaid is as important as what is expressed. In poems, we achieve silence with white space, skipped lines, endings that close but don’t finish. When I’m in the audience, my least favorite thing to experience is feeling as if I’m ahead of the play. I feel the same about poems. I’m always asking: Where can I leave room for the reader?
AGNI: Speaking of what ends up on stage, in the process of assembling this book, you presumably had to make tough decisions about which poems to include and which to leave out. How did you make those decisions?
Benjulian: On out-takes: Several poems previously published don’t appear because I did not want the collection to be predictable or organized around themes. I sought a more compelling assembly of poems with beginnings and endings that resonate with the poems before and after. For example, I didn’t want to create a section about motherhood, one about having a daughter, one about romantic love. There are poems, some published, that do not appear in the collection: they seemed to cover ground other poems had covered or didn’t seem to fit the universe that defines the book. When I was close to what I considered “finished,” I asked a mentor to list the poems she thought could be cut, and I took out every one. When in doubt, I cut.
AGNI: Family is a recurring theme in this collection. Can you say a bit about why family is, for you, such good fuel for poetry?
Benjulian: Family was the scene of my first drama. Family is the stuff of conflict and opposing wants—in other words: theater, opera. Family teaches you how to love. Intellectually, I’m interested in how events in the same family produce people so unlike each other. Siblings, for example, who grow up with different personalities and experience the same crucial family event at different ages. In a room occupied by three or four people, something small may transpire—a moment, an instant—that changes the life of one individual in that room while the rest go on talking and never notice—like Breughel’s The Fall of Icarus as expressed by Auden: “Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky” while “everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster.” You will not be surprised this is one of my favorite poems—and the fact that it refers to a painting thrills me. I am highly motivated to create when I experience paintings.
A child can remember hearing words no one else in her family remembers, but to her they resound so loudly, nothing afterwards is ever the same. This is the case in “Pistachios.” Actually, that’s interesting because this poem does have wings. To the child, the moment has mythic proportions. But we don’t know if anyone else remembers it.
The poems are also concerned with memory: how we remember first as a child, later how we remember when we filter the child’s experience through the adult’s, and how we choose our focus as poets. To write these poems, I had to see how the child sees. But as I said it is not a child’s voice.
Mind you, there is fiction in these poems. Five Sextillion Atoms is not a documentary. Even so, we can concede, it is a portrait of the artist.
AGNI: It strikes me that Five Sextillion Atoms ultimately wrestles with the knowability of people and things. The title of the collection comes from your poem “The Drop” (in which you reveal that a drop of water contains five sextillion atoms). The effect is profound. On the one hand, this revelation makes physical reality concrete and real because numbers make things countable and therefore determinable. On the other hand, the number is so large that it actually makes counting all but impossible—and that’s just a drop of water. What do you think the limits are to our ability to know others, to know our world?
Benjulian: You are astute! Yes, the number is impossibly large, too large to count. This speaker’s experience is that she cannot know others, even others physically close to her. And certainly not others who disappear suddenly. That is the central mystery for the voice of this collection. She must make it up. She must put the pieces together to make herself up. The portraits here are very much her creation with no pretense to present an objective archeological expedition.
As for me, yes, the poems help the poet create her past and the people in it. I put them to bed like dolls in my doll house.
Jayne Benjulian is the author of the debut poetry collection Five Sextillion Atoms (Saddle Road Press, June 2016). Benjulian served as chief speechwriter at Apple; Teaching Fellow at Emory; Visiting Professor in the Graduate Theater Program at San Francisco State University; Fulbright Fellow in Lyon, France; and Ossabaw Island Project Fellow. Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous literary and performance journals. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.