Delight and Devastation: A Conversation with Ben Purkert

by Jay Deshpande

Ben Purkert’s poems aren’t just concerned with intelligent life—they are intelligent life. Reading his lyrics, one feels an organism of language assembling, cobbling together casual talk, billboard advertisements, and wisdom to examine what we make and how it comes apart. For the Love of Endings is the kind of poetry debut that invites many rereadings as the poems turn in the light and take on new weight.

I’ve been reading Purkert’s poems for some time: we met in a college poetry workshop, and have continued to talk about craft, unremittingly, for nearly 15 years. For the book’s March release, I wanted to get Ben’s thoughts on For the Love of Endings and the world it enters into. Our discussion highlights Ben’s distinctive approach to making poems, but it also captures the enthusiastic speed and range of his thinking.

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JD: I wanted to start by asking about the place of wit in these poems. I see it in phrases like “really gasoline got me where I am today” or “at least the swallows outside // my window sound into / each other.” In each of those cases, the statement is true but gets stranger the longer we look. Familiar phrases fork into multiple meanings and force us to take them literally. How do you think about wit as an instrument in poetry? Are you conscious of it when you write?

BP: I’m not sure if I’m conscious of it as a writer, but I’m very attuned to it as a reader. I love poems that delight and devastate in equal measure, that strike many chords at once. Sometimes we associate being a “serious poet” with always being serious. But wordplay has been an integral part of poetry since the beginning. A serious part, even.

Wit, like poetry, is only as powerful as it is subversive. And I admire poets who take jargon and slogans and euphemisms and expose that language for what it is. Who break it open with enjambment and lay out the shards for the reader. A gasp and a laugh aren’t so far apart. They can even sound the same.

JD: The laugh and the gasp are also bonded in that moment of surprise, which is one of the great pleasures a poem can give us. It makes sense that you refer to enjambment here, as the potential shock of a linebreak is central to your process. In “Salivating Over Nothing,” the poem quivers between peace and unrest, depending how we read a line: “& they / let the mind be // ravaged…”

It makes me think about the sense of impending threat throughout the book. The poems are laced with ideas about destruction. The speaker suggests “You can nuke yourself / garlic knots” or admits he will “work a little / bomb into this page.” Or he considers his own obsolescence: “When I’m gone, the thing I’ll miss is missing, is describing the world I miss.” What interests you about these big and small deaths in the poems?

BP: “Big and small deaths” is such an interesting phrase, because every death feels so big, you know? But it’s hard sometimes to parse these differences of scale, particularly when gigantic icebergs are dissolving and small men are bragging about buttons on their desks that would make it all disappear.

I know we just talked about humor, so apologies for the dark turn, but I feel like all poems are inherently, as you said, laced with ideas about destruction. Dean Young describes poetry as being “formally involved with endings: its primary characteristic, the line, is defined by its ending, so poems are really ending all the time.” It’s poetry’s “terminal aspect.” And maybe that’s why poetry feels so necessary right now? It’s not that the world is ending and we need more poems about its demise. It’s that every poetic line is—by its nature—broken, interrupted, a life cut short. Poetry is the art form that’s closest to our condition.

JD: Giorgio Agamben hits that same note in his lecture “The End of the Poem”: when the poem ends and we fall back into prose, it’s something like a death, or at least “a decisive crisis for the poem… the poem’s very identity is at stake.” Similar to Young, Agamben sees the linebreak as an essential quality of poetry, and doesn’t show much interest in the prose poem.

BP: But I think the prose poem has that potency, too. This may sound weird but I’ve never understood why linebreaks in prose are paid so little attention. I talked with Kaveh Akbar recently and he expressed a similar feeling—shouldn’t the end word of any line (in all genres) sing? It’s the trophy you hand the reader before they trudge back to the left-hand side of the page. I’m indebted to my publisher (hi, Four Way Books!), for many reasons, not the least of which is that they indulged me and preserved the linebreaks of my prose poems as I’d written them. I’m also working on a novel right now and I’m always tweaking sentences and futzing with margins so that the story breaks in the “right” places. It was oddly comforting to discover that one of my favorite fiction writers, David Gilbert, does it too.

JD: Let’s go back to this idea of “differences of scale.” I think your poems teach the reader how to parse them. For example, “Self-Portrait as Infinite Smallness” begins by acknowledging the speaker as a collection of microbes, then considers a car crash, then the street, then the city’s grid, then the ocean. It’s like a primer on how to expand from self to an environmental scale, step by step.

But when the poems look at the world on that macro scale, they often turn toward the possibility of abandonment. In addition to “Escape Plans,” there are a number of poems that contemplate leaving our ravaged planet behind. It’s like science fiction, but considering climate change, maybe this moment is nearly upon us. What are the ethics of imagining an escape from our home planet?

BP: I don’t know much about science fiction, but I do know that our existence here is tenuous. That’s especially true for communities where resources are scarce, where the evacuation routes are already submerged. It’s horrifying to think about, and more horrifying not to think about. To answer plainly: if my poems are dreaming of an escape from Earth, it’s only because they’re so hopelessly attached to it.

On the topic of poetry and the environment, I have to mention Inger Christensen’s Alphabet. It’s such an incredible book; it attempts to take account of nearly every single thing that exists, as the threat of apocalypse looms. And here’s the miracle of her book: it’s not depressing! It’s strangely kind of joyous. Yes, tomorrow brings nuclear winter and floods and famine, but *today* still exists. Today is a gift, and poets must praise it.

JD: And praise is no small task, especially for poets right now. But I’m curious about that accounting-for-things you mention. There’s a coy adherence to things in For the Love of Endings, specifically the physical matter of our late capitalist existence. A closeout on ice cream, a visit to Target, El Diablo Doritos “screaming my name”… I sense both an admiration for these products and a cynicism toward their power over us.

BP: I wouldn’t say admiration, but definitely an obsession. Working as a branding copywriter really shaped (or misshaped) how I see language and its applications. Target, for example, is an interesting case… If you look at their marketing, notice how often they use the bullseye logo as a substitute for spelling out the brand name. Like the Nike swoosh, the symbol alone says it all. Once a brand is burned into our consciousness, it bypasses language altogether.

JD: Your poems have a meticulous spareness. Even your colloquial phrases are poised and concentrated. So how do you revise? For instance, “Passing Thoughts in a Couple” was originally published in AGNI 78 as “Caged Words in a Couple.” The adjustments to it are small but significant. What’s the principle behind your revisions? 

BP: For me, revising means working in service of the poem on the page. I’m not trying to impose some idea I might have (Donald Hall: “There is no poem inside the head”). I like how George Saunders describes revision, this idea that every writer is outfitted with a compass that points either to good or bad, and you make edits through trial and error while keeping one eye on the quivering needle.

I will say, though, that revising a book is different than revising individual poems. It compelled me to make some changes I hadn’t expected. For instance, I think “Caged Words in a Couple” is possibly a stronger, more intriguing title. But there are sacrifices you make for the sake of the collective. Uh oh, I feel a sports metaphor coming on.

JD: Running through the theme of environmental destruction is also an undercurrent of guilt and responsibility. It’s there in “Blame Game” (“Pin the ozone layer on me… I clearly went too far”) and it carries throughout the book. Sometimes it’s on the personal level, too: “like most men, I’ll gaze // at anything to avoid looking / inward.” Where do you get your poetics of self-incrimination from?

BP: Well, I’ll say this: poetry is like prayer, and as such, it spans both praise and confession. I’m drawn to a speaker who feels burdened, who’s carrying some weight. It’s what makes writing compelling. As for me, I am absolutely culpable, and can’t hide that from my poems. I wouldn’t want to.

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AGNI BPBen Purkert is the author of For the Love of Endings (Four Way Books, 2018). His poems and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Guernica, AGNI, Best New Poets and elsewhere. A former New York Times Fellow at NYU, he teaches creative writing at Rutgers New Brunswick. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

 

 

AGNI JD.jpegA former AGNI poetry editor, Jay Deshpande is the author of the poetry collection Love the Stranger (YesYes Books), named one of the top debuts of 2015 by Poets & Writers, and the chapbook The Rest of the Body (YesYes Books). He is a Kundiman and Civitella Ranieri fellow. His poems have recently appeared in Denver Quarterly, Poetry Project Newsletter, LARB Quarterly Journal, and Horsethief. He teaches at Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn. 

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Between a Book and its Cover: Room for Conversation

by David Ebenbach

I feel for Joan Wong. It must have been intimidating, the prospect of designing a cover for Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Clothing of Books, a slim volume about the complicated relationship between books and their covers, and also about how much Lahiri dislikes the covers of her books. She calls them generally “upsetting.” She says, “They depress me, they confuse me, they infuriate me….There is a certain awful cover for one of my books that elicits in me almost a violent response. Every time I am asked to autograph that edition, I feel the impulse to rip the cover off the book.”

LahiriLahiri is not likely talking about Wong’s design—in which the book is made to resemble a cartoon denim jacket—if only because she didn’t seem to know what the cover would look like when she wrote the text. Late in the book she just says, “The American edition will wear its cover, the Italian another.” Nothing beyond that. And so maybe all Wong can do is wonder what Lahiri thinks of her work.

I’ll admit it: my sympathies incline toward Wong on this, because Lahiri’s testiness sometimes comes off as unchecked privilege. Jhumpa Lahiri is the kind of author whose name sells zillions of books all by itself, no matter what else is on the cover (or underneath it). As evidence, consider the fact that I paid money for The Clothing of Books, which a book that only reaches seventy-one pages, and only gets there because of very small pages, a great big font, and generous spacing. It’s basically a longform essay—the kind of thing you might read in an issue of the Atlantic—packaged as a book. You get to do that when you’re Jhumpa Lahiri. And so when she writes, “I am forced, at times, to accept book jackets that I dislike,” I don’t find myself crying lots of rivers on her behalf.

On the other hand, I am a fan of Lahiri’s fiction, and she also makes some good points in this essay. For one thing, there’s the ugly way in which her work is sometimes covered in visual stereotypes—either saris or American flags, depending on what aspect of her identity is being targeted. And of course her work is not alone in receiving this treatment. A Korean-American friend of mine points out how Asian writers’ books always seem to feature a picture of an Asian woman from behind, so that you can look at some shiny, black hair—or they feature an Asian person’s eye. For Jewish books, it’s got to be bagels, six-pointed stars, or black hats. For African writers it’s all acacia trees and setting suns. So, that’s a place where Lahiri’s word “upsetting” describes my reaction, too.

At a more general level, there’s the fact that a cover’s “function is much more commercial than aesthetic….if it doesn’t sell the book, it has no value.” If stereotypes end up on covers, in other words, that must mean that stereotypes sell; anything that ends up on a big-publisher-book must be there in order to sell copies. Lahiri publishes with big publishers, of course, and their focus on the bottom line means they probably do put a lot of pressure on her to accept commercially-appealing jackets. And what gets lost is the possibility of an image that simply “reflect[s] the sense and style of the book.” Or, also lost, the possibility that the text and the cover could end up in an interesting creative conversation with one another.

All of my personal experience has been with small presses, places that may not have a marketing person, let alone a marketing department. They don’t have the staff to sit around a conference table and debate the commercial potential of various images. In fact, the process usually begins with an editor asking the author, “Hey—do you have any ideas for what you want on the cover?”

People Who Moved front cover jpgThis is, then, one of the advantages of working with small presses: if you want there to be an interesting conversation between the cover and the book, you have some say in that. Three of my books, for example, feature paintings by artist David Guinn on the front, because I was able to suggest those paintings to my editors. David is a very close friend—a creative brother—and we have been in an ongoing creative conversation with one another for almost three decades now. We’ve talked about the purpose of creativity, about the way our emotional lives inform what we do and vice versa, and about so many other things. When I look at those three books on my shelf, I see the continuation of that long, wandering dialogue. And I see that my writing changes his paintings and that his paintings change my writing, in ways neither of us could have predicted when we separately set out to do our work, not anticipating that it would end up literally bound together.

Miss Portland -- cover -- front jpgOr there’s my novel, Miss Portland, set in Maine, and inspired in part by my mother and her approach to life. The image on that book’s cover is a photo by my mother, who was, among other things, a talented amateur photographer. She died three years ago, and there is something deeply wonderful about the experience of her work and my work talking to each other, including talking about things that she and I were never quite able to say to each other as people, things about the challenges of making your way through a world equipped only with your small collection of skills and aspirations and courage.

Cover (front) -- The Artist's TorahOr take the cover to my non-fiction book The Artist’s Torah. I didn’t have any say in this design choice, actually, though probably only because I didn’t assert myself; Wipf and Stock probably would have listened to me if I had made a suggestion. But now here was a book that was almost demanding a stereotype—bagels, black hats, etc.—and yet the publishing house came up with a cover of fire, like the whole book was fire. Well, Torah, in mystical literature, has been referred to as black fire on white fire, so it was a tremendously thoughtful and beautiful choice, and it put my work into deeper dialogue with mystical tradition.

Covers can go wrong, obviously. I was once looking at some possibilities for a short story collection of mine that was all about parenting, and one of those possibilities—not a painting by David Guinn—elicited this response from a friend: “When I see this, I think ‘child murder.’” Which is to say that not all creative conversations are good ones (e.g., between a book about parenting and a cover that suggests “Maybe somebody should kill our kids”). So again I was lucky that I had a say and could move things in a different direction.

For her part, in The Clothing of Books Lahiri expresses a longing for “the naked book”—the book with a blank cover or no cover—so that the text might be appreciated and understood for itself, and only itself. And I understand that longing. But I also like the fact that a book is a multimedia object, that its full expression is not entirely verbal. Even ebooks, which Lahiri seems to relish for the way they deemphasize their covers, are full of visual choices, in terms of font, spacing, size, and so on. Books are inescapably multimedia; the only way to consume the book without any visual input is either to hear it read aloud or to read it in braille, which are both sensory experiences of their own.

Again, this multimedia collaboration can go wrong, but we cannot avoid the collaboration. And so why not embrace it, and get actively involved in it? Granted, it’s complicated; instead of a writer and visual artist working directly together, there’s a publisher in the middle, and often that publisher has an understandable profit motive. But lots and lots of good things happen, too. And they do become part of the work, whether we want them to or not. As Lahiri herself says, “Even when I don’t particularly like one of my jackets, I end up feeling some affinity for it. Over time, the covers become a part of me, and I identify with them.”

Late in the essay, Lahiri asks, “What is the perfect book jacket? It doesn’t exist.” And of course she’s right, which is why I think we should change the question, should stop looking for perfection and start looking for conversation.

The first step, in any case, is a conversation about the conversation, which gets jump-started by Lahiri’s The Clothing of Books—and which is in the rest of our hands to pursue further.

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2017-03-23 01 King JoeDavid Ebenbach is the author of six books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the debut novel Miss Portland. He’s also AGNI’s blog editor. Find out more at davidebenbach.com.

The Way It Went

by Nance Van Winckel

For me alone the book had been waiting untouched on its shelf since 1976. Forty-one years. The last time anyone checked it out—a certain Cheryl Mason—was in March of that year, the 19th to be exact. (Ah, to be as exact again as a day in ‘76!) Here was Miss Mason’s faded blue name on a card in the book’s back pocket.

I turn a page, read a few passages from the book, and tumble unexpectedly into love. A man is lonely; he walks around Paris all the way to page 63, where I blink, turn to the card again, and touch the neatly scripted one nine seven six beside Cheryl’s name. I wonder if she too lingered upon page 63 or at least felt a smile arise unbidden after its last paragraph’s perfect black period.

I put my nose deep in the book’s musk, its ivory pages with brown edges. Certainly the neighboring books on the shelf had tried but failed first to embrace and then to smother what ticks between the copyright page and dear Miss Mason’s “return by” date. I read and feel her eyelashes flutter. Maybe Cheryl had been a girl when she entered this book, but no doubt by April, a mature young woman walked the book uphill to return it to eternity.

Halfway through, I go backward in time and forward in space, feeling my way across the inky black ridges. My pencil tries not to but can’t help but put an asterisk on page 209 by that bit about the wee doves. Oh, oh, just…here. Dearest Mister Beckett! I drift asleep with you, my cheek upon page 222. Perhaps after the book resumes its crotchety life alone, my black asterisk will wink once to the very cursive Miss Cheryl. Or such is my brief thought on page 282, where I linger in the sudden icy chill of a swift breeze of words wildly blowing open the blah beige drapes.

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nance pixNance Van Winckel is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently Our Foreigner, winner of the Pacific Coast Poetry Prize (Beyond Baroque Press, 2017) and Book of No Ledge (Pleiades Press Visual Poetry Series, 2016). Ever Yrs, a scrapbook (Twisted Road Publications, 2014), is her most recent book of fiction. The recipient of two NEA poetry fellowships, the Paterson Fiction Prize, a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship, and three Pushcart Prizes, Nance teaches in the MFA Programs at Eastern Washington University and Vermont College of Fine Arts. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

On Running a Democracy Without Reading

by Kelly Cherry

I don’t get out much these days. There are two reasons for this: I have Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and my husband and I live in the middle of nowhere, which is to say that there is nothing near enough for us to get to. We do, however, have televisions—plural, because Burke has games to watch, especially basketball and tennis. I turn on the TV in the bedroom sometimes even when I’m writing, although I don’t have it on at the moment. We have a couple of shows we watch—The Americans is terrific!—and Designated Survivor, because we are Kiefer Sutherland fans, even though we liked him better when he was defeating enemies and saving lives around the world. But mostly, in these traumatic days, I watch the news.

I was once in Trump Tower, the night it opened. I didn’t meet Trump himself, who was just a blank to me, and all I remember of this event (the opening) is seeing a famous literary figure—the head of a well-known publishing house—stuffing cocaine into his nostrils and sucking it up into his nose. I’d never seen anyone do this before; I was fascinated by the event, or perhaps I should say ritual. I admit I concluded that his ability to tell a good manuscript from a bad was likely impaired—assuming he actually read the manuscripts, and I think that’s doubtful.

I still have not met Donald Trump and I hope it never happens. He is, after all, a liar, a bully, desperately thin-skinned, and foolish. Foolish because he is poorly educated. He doesn’t read books; I doubt he even reads newspapers. Well, he did tell us that The National Inquirer is a factually correct device for finding out what is going on. He said this because the so-called newspaper had put him on their cover. What would be the point in meeting him? He wouldn’t listen to anything I said, nor would he care to know anything about me. He lives in the smallest of worlds and has even less communication with it than we in our isolated house do.

He has now established his team, the people who will serve him in his presidency. He must depend upon them because, despite his many “deals,” he knows very little. Very little of anything. How can someone who doesn’t read books know anything about the world? How much did he learn by dialing Taiwan? How much has he learned from Putin’s hackings? How much has he learned by tweeting?

Pretty much nothing.

And how much has he learned by doing deals in various countries? He has certainly learned about doing deals in those countries, but otherwise, he has learned—let’s all say it together—pretty much nothing.

Why do I think his lack of interest in reading is crucial? Not only because books inform us, though I am glad they do. Not only because books entertain us, though I am glad they do. Not only because books remind us of the beauty and power of writing, though I am glad they do. Books also teach us how to be human. They finely and delicately and forcefully demonstrate for us thoughts we have never thought or only barely thought. They teach us compassion and the need for it, illustrating the excitement of observation, the heartbreak and perpetual grief that occurs in every life, the gorgeous peace of serenity, the exhilaration of discovery. Yes, these experiences happen in people’s lives, and some people manage them and some don’t; but books instruct us in the details, the particularities of events, and thereby strengthen our understanding of love and loss, of being one and multiple, of feeling. They ready us for life and allow us to think on it. Even that publisher snorting coke in Trump Tower would have known this.

Watching our outgoing president presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to his outgoing vice-president, those of us in front of TV sets saw both men cry. That was an exalted moment. In that moment, we knew both men, Obama and Biden, were as human as ourselves. Neither struggled to outdo the other in any way. There was no bullying, only comradeship, two guys who had worked well with each other. There were no lies on their tongues nor any desperation. Neither did or said anything foolish, because both are grown men who are well acquainted with the world and unafraid to acknowledge their limitations.

And now we have this incoming president who knows nothing but “making deals.”

I would be glad to have a writer as a president, or a painter perhaps. I don’t think the best president is necessarily a politician. I’d be glad to have a business man who also reads, or listens to Beethoven’s string quartets.

But Donald Trump is so benighted that he doesn’t understand why some people cry. He doesn’t know what other people feel, what they go through. He can’t allow himself to feel his feelings of inferiority and is unaware that others feel their own. He can’t tell the truth and is unaware that others do speak truth.

How can a man without awareness run a democracy?

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KellyPhoto1EditKelly Cherry’s most recent poetry collection, just published, is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. She has also recently published Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories (Press 53); A Kelly Cherry Reader (SFASUP); A Kind of Dream: Stories (U of Wisconsin); and a poetry chapbook titled Physics for Poets (Unicorn Press). Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Books as Bibles

by David Ebenbach

Don’t mess with Moby Dick. And I’m not talking about the whale, though you should probably leave the whale alone, too—I’m saying don’t mess with the book.

A while back I posted a piece on Medium called “Call Me Irritable: A Chapter Outline of Moby Dick in the Form of an Increasingly Frustrating Conversation with a Guy Named Ishmael.” I had just finished reading Moby Dick for the first time (For shame! How could I have waited for so long?) and I had not enjoyed the experience. So I wrote the fictional conversation as a way of poking fun at what struck me as a novel whose scattered great parts got lost in a book that was in general bloated, shapeless, and dull.

Some people liked the fun-poking; I’m not the only person in the history of the world to not enjoy Moby Dick. But some other folks had advice for me. They told me to read the book more slowly, or to apply different standards to the book, or to try to appreciate the little things instead of the big picture. In one way or another, these folks told me that I was reading the book wrong, or that my dislike of the book just pointed to my own deficiencies.

This confirmed my perception that Moby Dick is one of those special books that has become so firmly entrenched as a literary classic that it has become something more than a novel—it has become the literary equivalent of the Bible.

What do I mean by that? I mean this: when a piece of literature becomes a Bible, it is no longer open to question, or at least to certain questions. We can ask, “Hey—why is this so amazing?” and “What did Melville mean with this symbol?” and “How can I get more out of this?” We can ask questions intended to help us understand and appreciate the book more thoroughly. But we can’t ask questions like, “Um, isn’t this book a complete mess, with truly striking, beautiful, exciting stuff broken up by many incredibly boring chapters full of protracted (and often misinformed) lectures about whales and whaling equipment and whaling technique?” We can’t ask questions, in other words, that question the goodness or rightness of the text.

Because here’s the thing about a Bible, understood traditionally: when you have a problem with a Bible, there is no possibility that the Bible is wrong—this is supposed to be divine stuff, after all. There is only the possibility that you are wrong, and you can only hope to work harder in order to better grasp the wisdom of the Bible.

For the record, I don’t think that the Bible should be read this way, either, but that’s a subject for another essay. More to the point, classics of literature may be wonderful, but not one of them was written by a god, and it seems to me, as a reader, that every one of them should ultimately be open to all possible questions that enter your mind. These include: “Is this working?” “Should some of this be cut/expanded?” and “How might this be improved?”

And here’s another question that ought to be allowed: “Should I stop reading?”

I want to get something out of a book, but if it just isn’t happening, there are approximately 78 quadrillion other books out there that might prove more moving and useful. If, after putting in some real effort, my dissatisfaction builds up too much, I try to figure out what’s not working for me (so that I can be sure not to reproduce the problem in my own work), and then I do a potentially sacrilegious thing: I put the book down. I put it down and move on. And surely that happens sometimes with my own books—people put them down and walk away. That’s the reader’s prerogative.

Of course, it’s a delicate balance. When I start reading a book—not just a “classic” but any book—I do enter it somewhat Biblically, in the sense that my mind is open and my stance is humble. I’m ready for it to be good, to teach me something. And if I have early buzzings of uncertainty, as long as they’re not too loud, I try to stay in there. I want the book to succeed. I want to get something out of it. After all, being a writer in part means being very inclined to get things out of books. If lots of other people have liked the book—if it is considered a classic, for example—I work even harder to keep my mind open. If trustworthy friends have recommended the book, I work harder still. I definitely don’t want to miss an opportunity to be wowed by a piece of writing, so I give it every chance I can.

And don’t we want people to approach our own work that way? I think each writer produces work that, if it’s any good, makes fresh demands of the reader—by messing with the rules of point of view, say, or using voice in a new way, or taking an idiosyncratic angle on structure or pacing or characterization or whatnot—and we don’t want people to say, “This isn’t what I’m used to, so it’s bad.” Naturally we each hope that readers will be open to the possibility of meeting the work’s demands. And we believe that they’ll be rewarded for hanging in there with an open mind.

If I’m honest, I think that’s part of what bothers me about Moby Dick: envy. Not envy of the writing, but envy of how it’s received. It’s a “classic,” so people automatically come at it with a Biblical mind-set. Meanwhile, they probably look at contemporary writing (e.g., mine) with a more critical eye. (After all, Melville was pretty much dismissed in his own lifetime.) My ideal is something more equitable, with every piece of writing getting the benefit of the doubt provisionally, at first. That’s the hope I have as a writer, and it’s the ideal I shoot for as a reader: each text approached with the question Is this maybe kind of Biblical? If the answer turns out to be yes, great. If the answer is no, that’s fine, too. You’re allowed to put the book down. Let someone else call that guy Ishmael.

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David EbenbachDavid Ebenbach is the blog editor for AGNI, and also the author of seven books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the poetry collection We Were the People Who Moved. He lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches creative writing and literature at Georgetown University.

 

An Leabharlann

by Brian Doyle

One time I was in Connemara, that tiny remnant of the Gaelic kingdom that once ruled all the green rocky sprawl of the Irish island, when I finished the books I had brought to read while traveling, and realized, with a start, that I was well and truly screwed as regards reading material, for I had already read the books my companions had, one of them twice, and the cottages where we were staying had nothing whatsoever to read, not even old magazines, so I wandered off in search of the local library. This turned out to be a small cottage with a small librarian and a sweeping view over the sea behind it—“Bertraghboy Bay,” said the tiny librarian, “which is supposed to mean ‘yellow sandbank’ according to what’s in your guide books and such, but it doesn’t mean that at all, and in fact means something more like ‘a great place to find the oysters.’ Names mean more than the words that compose them, you know. But you know that, as a literary man. No, I am afraid we do not have any of your books, but yes indeed, if you send them to me we will happily shelve them, although where to do so is a mystery at present, as you see. We are sold out, as it were, in the matter of shelf space for books, and given the parlous state of the economy, and the ruinous political management of the district, I cannot imagine that money will be miraculously found for the expansion of the library system. But having too many books is a happy problem, is it not? Because the books do wander out every day, and most of them come back. I used to be much more fidgety about retrieving them from those who kept them too long, but I gave that up years ago, on the theory that if it took some fella in Errisbeg longer than a lady in Crumpan to read such and such a book, well, then it took him longer, and as long as he did return the volume eventually, all was well. Here and there someone would lose a book, twice into the waters of the bay, but almost always a new copy would appear somehow, and to be honest it seems to me if a book goes into the bay then it’s a good death for the book, and surely we owe the bay a bit of thanks after all it’s given us, don’t you think? Not to mention maybe there’s a well-educated lobster tribe down there, for all we know, and good for them.

“How did I become a librarian? Well, now, I’ll tell you, and it’s a strange bit of a story, for I think it all began with the very word itself. I was just a bit of a boy with not a word of the imperial English in my head when my grandfather first took me to the library. It wasn’t this building, no, it was a smaller one, someone’s old cottage, as I remember, and it was no bigger than two crows standing back to back. I remember as we walked up to it my grandfather said, with real respect and reverence, an leabharlann, which is the Irish for ‘the library,’ and the way he said it, slowly and gravely, has never left my ear. To him and so to me it was a holy word, a sacred word, a crucial word. Your library is where the community stores its treasures. It’s the house that imagination built. It’s where all the stories that matter are gathered together and celebrated and shared. It’s exactly like a church, it seems to me. People come to it communally for something that’s deep and ancient and important beyond an easy explanation. Who you are as a town is in the library. It’s why when you want to destroy a place you burn down the library. People who fear freedom fear libraries. The urge to ban a book is always an urge to put imagination in jail. But in the end you cannot imprison it, just as you cannot imprison the urge to freedom, because those things are in every soul, and there are too many souls to jail or murder them all, and that’s a fact. So a library is a shout of defiance too, if you think about it: dorn in aghaidh an dorchadas, a fist against the dark.”

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Brian Doyle Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine, in Oregon. He is the author of many books, most recently the novels Martin Marten and Chicago. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

Shimmering Moments: An Interview with Jayne Benjulian

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.

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Jayne 300 res colorJayne 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.