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Ben Lerner in Conversation with Cyrus Console

Ben Lerner is widely regarded for his poetry, and I expect his first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (Coffee House Press), will soon be shelved alongside 2011’s best books in any genre. That’s a very sterile way of saying that I like it very much—I read paragraphs at a time while driving, large chunks during an elementary school play, and finished it in bed, in a mental state not too unlike some of its protagonists own. Leaving is a slender volume that employs occasional photos to great effect, like Bellatin, Nagaoka, or Rulfo. It is contemporary but will age well; on some college campus deep into the future we will admire its historicity.

I’m grateful to Coffee House Press for allowing Molossus to publish this interview, conducted by fellow poet Cyrus Console.


A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in the Age of Spectacle: Ben Lerner in conversation with Cyrus Console

Adam Gordon—the brilliant, conflicted, anxious, hilarious, self-contemptuous, drug-abusing, childish, dishonest, and possibly bipolar poet-protagonist and narrator of your novel—is always wondering if he’s capable of having a genuine experience of art. As he puts it early in the book: “Insofar as I was interested in the arts, I was interested in the disconnect between my experience of actual artworks and the claims made on their behalf.” And yet the novel is full of Adam’s profound insights into the arts, especially poetry. I wonder if we could start by discussing this tension or complexity of Adam’s? It strikes me as central to the novel.

I think you’re right that it’s central. And I think the way a suspicion about and a commitment to the arts can coexist is one of the most interesting things about that domain of practices and experiences we think of as artistic. For the narrator of my novel, the issue isn’t just that there is bad art, or that there is a lot of bullshit in the arts, or bullshit artists, or that people pretend to be moved when they aren’t—what he’s trying to come to terms with is the fact that his interest in poetry, painting, etc., is largely grounded in the distance between the supposed potential of art and actual artworks. As he puts it in the second half of the sentence you quoted: “the closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity.”

He is a young poet moved by his failure to be moved by poetry, inspired by his disbelief in inspiration, and I think one of the important questions of the novel—for the protagonist and for the reader—is whether this makes him a cynical fraud, who should just stop pretending to be a writer, or if he has actually developed a powerful approach to the arts based on that negativity. In that sense the book is very much a “portrait of the artist as a young man,” as Adam is testing whether or not his anxieties about the arts can be made part of the arts, or whether he needs to abandon the fiction that he’s an artist altogether. (“The idea of law school occurred to me repeatedly, involuntarily, often with a shudder.”)

Adam’s terms for the difference between the idea of poetry and specific poems are the “virtual” and the “actual,” keywords in the book.

Yes, and I basically stole those terms. The narrator’s belief that the virtual possibilities of art are always in a sense betrayed by actual artworks is, I think, a serious aesthetic position. It’s been articulated beautifully by the poet Allen Grossman in his book of criticism, The Long Schoolroom, and also more recently by his student, Michael Clune.

Adam makes merciless fun of bad poets and posers of various sorts, is often full of self- loathing about his own relationship to poetry, and I think people who have no patience for poetry might get a kick out of that. But ultimately I feel the book is anything but dismissive of poetry and the arts, which is not to say it’s necessarily convinced of their contemporary viability. Indeed, one way to read the novel’s attitude towards poetry (and there are certainly others) is as an elaboration of Marianne Moore’s famous poem, “Poetry”: “I, too, dislike it. / Reading it, however, with a perfect con- tempt for it, one discovers in / it, after all, a place for the genuine.”

Adam doesn’t just have these anxieties about the genuine regarding art and literature—they seem to dominate other aspects of his experience: language, relationships.

Right. When he describes attempting to conceal his (especially at first) limited Spanish, or his fraught relationships with women (to whom he often lies about himself ), as “research,” I don’t think he’s only making a snide joke about how he’s ignoring the dictates of his fellowship (he’s supposed to be studying the “literary response to the Spanish Civil War”) in order to get high and hang out; I think he’s also expressing his serious sense that his relationships are mediated in a way that makes art and life difficult to separate. For instance, Adam’s relationship with Isabel is, he believes, largely based on the meanings with which she invests his fragmented Spanish: (he thinks) she thinks he’s deep because she projects the significance she discovers. That’s very similar to how he believes people often respond to poetry, reading into lines of verse a significance that doesn’t necessarily reside there. And he has a similar if distinct dynamic with Teresa. Does he have real relationships with these women? Do all relationships to a greater or lesser extent involve this play of projection, speculation, etc.?

And the novel is not just concerned with personal relationships.

Certainly the notion of a disconnect between the virtual and the actual extends into the domain of the historical or political when the terrorist attacks of March 11 take place at the Atocha station.

On the one hand the narrator feels he is having—or should be having—a firsthand experience of this tragic historical event, the worst political violence in Spain since the Civil War (which he was supposed to be studying). On the other hand he is acutely aware of how mediated his experi- ence is, despite his literal proximity: mediated by his foreignness, and mediated by the mass media, the inevitable spectacularization of the tragedy into a “media event” (“I could feel the newspaper accounts modifying or replacing my memory of what I’d seen; was there a word for that feeling?”). Maybe there is a sense in which the power of the arts is the way they model—and so give one the opportunity to explore—the mediacy that is generally characteristic of our experience in an era of spectacle. That they let us experience mediacy immediately, to paraphrase something Adam at one point says about the poetry of John Ashbery. I think it’s an interesting question, by the way, if Adam gains or loses faith in the notion of the “virtual” as the novel progresses.

Then there is the mediation of drugs: hash, pharmaceuticals, alcohol. . .

How does the novel’s use of images—I mean the photo- graphically reproduced images you’ve included in the book—relate to these concerns about mediation and spectacle?

One of the things that interests me about the use of images in a novel is how it complicates the prose’s relationship to what you could call “optical realism,” the way novelistic writing is often given the goal of dissolving itself into an image, a vision of a world. Joseph Conrad in 1897: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.” The claim of writing to make you see is interestingly strained, simultaneously restricted and enhanced, by the juxtaposition of prose with actual images, even ambiguous ones: the difference between reading and looking is more acutely felt. The givenness of the image—how much realistic and optical detail is automatically present—makes it difficult to maintain the illusion that prose makes us “see” in any truly ocular way. At the same time, of course, they can supplement the prose’s claim to realism: an image of the Alhambra illustrates a prose description of the Alhambra; the image of a woman becomes your image of a female character, so that the novelist doesn’t have to describe every physical feature, and so on. In my novel, there are passages of very thick or realistic description, but there is also a lot of physical detail left out or with- held. The way Teresa widens her eyes or squints, for instance, is talked about at length; but what color are her eyes? This withholding of description in the presence of images that necessarily contain a comparative surfeit of a visual information activates the question of prose’s capacity to make us see. And so the relationship between seeing and writing becomes a live issue throughout the book.

Your images aren’t illustrative in any straightforward way.

That’s right. There’s an image of the Alhambra, for instance, but that’s something the Adam never actually sees in the novel. There is an image that might be of Teresa, or somebody who looks like Teresa, but it’s a fragment, cropped so as to withhold the eyes, which the novel, as I mentioned, often, but never fully, describes—whatever “fully” would mean. And then there are captions that inflect how we view the images, so that they end up illustrating the problematic nature of the illustrative as much as actually anchoring the prose in a visually intelligible world.

And what is the history of these images? Are they reproductions the narrator knows are in the book, are they diegetic in that sense, or are they external to the world of the fiction?

I think the text-image relationship in the novel raises and sustains the question of the degree to which either prose or the image have a purchase on the real, and the extent to which the meaning of one is stabilized or undercut by the other. So this very much links up with the conversation about mediation, spectacle, etc. There are few images in the book, but I think their presence and their ambiguity is crucial to the work. And for what it’s worth, I think this relationship is crucial to the contemporary novel as a form.

As contemporary as your novel is in its concern with spectacle, it also strikes me as very much steeped in tradition. I don’t just mean it is full of allusions (I even found language from Georg Lukács and Walter Benjamin hidden in section II, where Adam is meditating on, among other things, drugs and narrative); I also mean that this topic of the relation between art and experience is one of the novel’s oldest concerns.

Absolutely, from Don Quixote’s conflation of courtly romance and reality on down. One canonical antecedent I think I had in mind while writing was Stendhal. Take that great scene in The Charterhouse of Parma where Fabrice is wandering around asking himself if he’s actually been in a battle, if he’s actually taken part in Waterloo, participated in history—a scene that was said to have influenced Tolstoy and that’s been celebrated as a break with the dominant romanticism of the time. Questioning whether you’re actually experiencing your experience, whether you really are identical to yourself, strikes me as a foundational issue for the novel, and it’s certainly live in mine.

I want to end by asking you the inevitable question about the relation between this Adam Gordon character and the historical Ben Lerner. There are unmistakable similarities: both of you are from Topeka, both of you went to school in Providence, both of you have a good friend named “Cyrus Console,” both of you received a prestigious fellowship to study in Madrid. I won’t ask you to itemize what’s fact and what’s fiction, but I wonder if you’d say something about the ways you overlap with or depart from the first person in this novel—or if you’d say something about why you won’t be saying anything about it.

I’m not sure I’m in the best position to judge my relationship to the narrator, or that I would have any privileged insight into our similarities or differences. I can say that the people and events in the novel are almost all fabrications, that I was a lot more honest and healthy than Adam at that age, but I’m not sure that’s the relevant answer. Not relevant because you’re right that the novel invites the conflation between me and Adam, and so I should have something to say about it beside the fact that I’m not him: One thing I’d note is that the roman à clef is such an established tradition that even the conflation we’re discussing is a convention—so that it’s not a question of artifice versus reality, but of two orders of artifice. More generally, and more to the point, I would say that this confusion as to what’s fiction and what’s fact, what’s “him” and what’s me, is another layer of the theme of fraudulence in relation to authorship that’s explored throughout the book.

CYRUS CONSOLE holds degrees in poetry and biology from Bard College and the University of Kansas, and is completing a PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Kansas. His books include Brief Under Water (Burning Deck, 2008) and The Odicy (Omnidawn, forthcoming 2011). He teaches at the University of Kansas and the Kansas City Art Institute.

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