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.

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The Space Between the Words—Poets Writing Plays

by Jayne Benjulian

Dear Poet,

I hear you want to write a play. You’re in luck. If you were a novelist, I’d tell you to forget it. In my years of reading plays for theaters, including those as Director of New Play Development at Magic Theatre, I have never read a play by a novelist I thought made good theater. I did read some mediocre plays by some of the country’s most famous novelists. (You can prove me wrong: be Chekhov. But remember: he didn’t write novels.)

Tony Hoagland was the inspiration for my thinking about poets writing plays. After a long and famous career as a poet and essayist, he says he wants to write plays. He and novelist (sorry) Robert Boswell see all the theater they can—in Houston, New York wherever they travel. I started thinking about what advice I would give Tony—theater being the only area in which I could give him advice. The fact that he is pretty much a genius when it comes to thinking about poetry became a challenge for me: what could I tell someone so savvy and so brilliant about words and syntax about an actor’s lines on a page? Here’s what I am telling him.

Plays are not about words but the space between the words. Poets understand that space. A poet’s words point to what remains unsaid, and poems, like plays, resound with subtext—cannot in fact, succeed at a high level without it. And so it is with theater.

But everything in a poem, including what’s not in it, must spill from the words and the space between the words. A script needs action to complete itself. If all meaning is contained in words, the play doesn’t work. In fact, it’s boring—and the audience will be well ahead of the play—never where you want it to be. The difference between the text of a play and a playable script is 1) action and 2) space for collaboration among multiple artists, including those in words, light and sound.

The playwright leaves room for the actor to invent.

“Will these hands ne’er be clean?” does not come with stage directions for the actor to stick her hands under a faucet. The playwright suggests or opens possibilities for action: what does an actor do while she’s speaking the lines? What does she do while she’s silent? While someone else is speaking? The playwright can note gesture, but the actor adds dimension and character to such description or else the action on stage is formulaic.

Way back, when I worked in advertising, the first thing I learned is that the art is not an illustration of the copy. Copy and art together create the concept. So it is in theater—with more dimensions and exponentially more complicated.

The playwright specifies the setting for the play: time and place. Perhaps she elaborates. Tennessee Williams, for example, wrote gorgeous prose within the play text specifying scenic elements. But even in a Williams play, a director invents and interprets how that time and place are materially realized.

Although we poets love our work to be read out loud, a poem must on the page suggest everything about the voice the poet wants the reader to know, because there won’t be any actor to embody character. Even in Shakespeare, where poetry is play text, the actor doesn’t simply read or declaim the text, but interprets and expresses text as character. Character manifests itself in costume, lighting, action—and in what my friend, the director Jeff Zinn, calls “shape”: the way an actor walks, physical habits and tics he exhibits, the way his mouth moves, the way he holds his head and hands, how close he approaches other characters—whether, in fact, he acknowledges other characters. For people who don’t have experience working with actors, know this: actors are the most underestimated element of writing drama by those who have not yet written it. The actor is to theater what words are to the poem. There can be a play without words but there cannot be a play without an actor (or puppet or actor stand-in). Many actors, in fact, make terrific playwrights. Sam Shepherd, Zayd Dohrn, Beckett, Ben Johnson, Shakespeare, Anna Deveare Smith, Emma Thompson—all were or are actors.

To poets who want to write plays, I say: forget the playwriting workshop. Tony and Boz, take a class in improv.

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JayneHeadshot ColorJayne Benjulian served as Director of New Play Development at Magic Theatre; Fulbright Fellow in Lyon, France; Teaching Fellow at Emory; and Visiting Professor in the Graduate Theater Program at San Francisco State University and continues to work as a new play dramaturg and editor of books about theater. Her poems have appeared in recent issues of Barrow Street, Poet Lore, Women’s Review of Books, Nimrod International, Poetry Daily and elsewhere; her essays, in HowlRound and The California Journal of Women Writers. “Ode to a South Window” and “Vidalia” appeared in AGNI 81. She holds an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers.

On Accepting—and Leaving—Mentors

by Jayne Benjulian

You must know, M— said when I submitted my MFA thesis, the sonnets about your daughter are magnificent. Two of them promptly appeared in a venerable journal. A year later, R— , a publisher, critiqued my manuscript. What might be the most difficult for you is that I suggest taking out all but one of the daughter poems … their inclusion makes for a rather predictable book. I deleted them.

To clarify further what I ought to do to land a publisher for what I believed was a near-complete manuscript, I sought the perspective of someone who had not mentored me in grad school and had no previous knowledge of my work. D—, a Pulitzer nominee, cautioned: Too elliptical, too many leaps. And then, as H— slashed through the opening stanzas of an elegy I had just written, she reminded me: Poetry requires economy. Don’t say it all. Don’t explain.

Learning to revise your own work from geniuses is bewildering. Editors of prominent presses; Pulitzer, National Book Award, Kingsley-Tufts, MacArthur winners—no matter the level of accomplishment, one mentor sees strength where another sees weakness. And why should they agree? They’re poets! It is their articulation of their absolutely eccentric visions that we admire.

What is an apprentice to do? My first year out of grad school, their accents and idioms played in my ear: Compression is your gift. Here are your challenges. Don’t close. A Kentucky voice said, Let the string go. I obeyed. When my endings summed up what I meant to say, I burned them. I have internalized these powerful poetic voices, and I have rested my own voice so that it floats gently on theirs. I see their lips move when I revise.

At some point, however, perhaps when you have reason to believe you are maturing as a poet, colleagues become more attractive than mentors, and since those first apprenticeship years, the best thing I have done is share work with colleagues who are smart readers. For one thing, they don’t charge money to read your work. And you can disagree vehemently. As one colleague said of a suggestion I made: No, I don’t think I want to do that. But when I write, I try not to listen to the voices of mentors or colleagues because I am listening so acutely to the voices I have swept up and stored, whether from three minutes or three decades past. Hearing my own mind is a task far more difficult than hearing others. I have to focus more intently. There can be no noise around me. No music with words.

The longer you write, the more you fortify your own ear, and the more eccentric your voice becomes. That is the nature of art—if it weren’t, it would be wallpaper. People who never liked your work will dislike it even more. To my mind, in order to mature as a poet, you have to exploit your own gifts.

My work is highly compressed, and has been since I first began to write letters to myself and hide them under the mattress. A few years ago I tried to revise a poem that addressed one reader’s comment—a reader I paid to completely humiliate me, and I hope I have been smart enough to deglaze the pan for his drippings. The poem was mysterious and confusing. Who is Jacinte? Why does she go to Thailand? Whose kids are they? Who waits at the cemetery? Dutifully, I filled in the narrative leaps. But then, the poem bored me. It had lost the quality of missing pieces in a remembered landscape, which is what I had set out to evoke. It was no longer the poem I wanted to write. A dud, I decided and deleted it from my manuscript. But the next morning, I tore through my files for the original version and the comments I had received from a favorite reader—not a reader in the habit of flattering me. (In fact, she’s the poet who told me to rip out the daughter poems from my manuscript.) About “Jacinte,” she had written, It’s a jewel, pure and simple.

Here’s the principle at which I’ve arrived: The greatest danger of the post-apprenticeship years is sounding like mediocre versions of other poets—not surprising when many of us spent years trying to sound like Wallace Stevens and Louise Glück. For me that has meant resisting the urge to pick off my flaws one by one (to detail a clear narrative, use x number of metaphors, eschew punctuation so I sound less formal) and instead deploying more deftly the eccentricities that make my work—well, mine. My job as assigned by me: to create blank spaces on the page that sound a counterpoint to what’s written; to make the narrative gaps that are so characteristic of my work potent; to make my own heart leap.

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JayneHeadshot ColorJayne Benjulian’s poems have appeared in Barrow Street, Poet Lore, Women’s Review of Books, Nimrod International, Poetry Daily and elsewhere; her essays, in HowlRound and The California Journal of Women Writers. “Ode to a South Window” and “Vidalia” appeared in AGNI 81. She served as chief speechwriter at Apple; Fulbright Fellow in Lyon, France; teaching fellow at Emory; and lecturer at San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. She holds an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers.