An Interview with Ben Lerner

I was quite surprised and pleased to discover that Ben Lerner (b. 1979) had written one of my favorite novels, Leaving the Atocha Station, in addition to his three acclaimed poetry collections — The Lichtenberg Figures (2004), Angle of Yaw (2006), and Mean Free Path (2010).

His poetry had such a “virtuosic” quality that I wondered what he would do with the novel form, though I never expected him to actually write one.

It’s almost as if somebody expecting a great pianist like Glenn Gould to only ever play the piano suddenly heard him master the drums with the same intensity, aesthetic, and intent as his piano playing. That’s what I felt when I read Ben’s first novel: unexpected, yet amazing.

The novel Leaving the Atocha Station is a character-driven story set after the 2004 Madrid train bombings.

Written by a young poet on a fellowship in Spain, it is both a gripping read and a concise examination of the contrast between the “actual” and the “virtual” in regards to relationships, language, poetry, and personal experience.

It is both humorous and thought-provoking, as well as being as intricate and “well-versed” as the author’s poetry collections.

Interestingly, the author does not use the novel as a platform to disregard or address his previous works, instead allowing for a synthesis of them to occur, to a degree that if Ben’s four books had no publication dates, it would be difficult to determine the order in which they were written.

As Ben’s body of work progresses, it almost appears as though each book has been edited with a foreknowledge of a larger, unified work, as if it was already finished and being released in pieces. This kind of pattern is something I haven’t observed elsewhere.

It’s an exhilarating and unique experience, so I suggest reading all of Ben’s work. The following conversation was conducted via Gmail Chat and email.

— Tao Lin

The writings of this author depict a unique perspective which helps to illuminate our understanding of the world. His works are able to convey a range of emotions and thoughts that otherwise might not be accessible to us.

They offer us a look into a different way of seeing and interpreting life.



A FAITHFUL ONE : In what location are you currently situated?

BEN LERNER : At the moment, I’m in Marfa, Texas, staying at a pleasant bungalow in the arid region. Wild turkeys have taken up residence in the yard of my temporary abode.

Q: Have you seen any wild turkeys?

BL : I cannot tell if the animals are hostile or not, but it is a good opportunity to talk since I’m wary of them. Are you located in Brooklyn?

BLVR : Right. Didn’t you recently receive an accolade in Germany as the first American to get a major German poetry award? How did you find out about it?

BL : Steffen Popp, my German translator, sent me an email with the message that we had to talk on Skype as “something had come up.” He then proceeded to tell me that we had achieved a “significant” award, and asked me to come to Germany to be honored.

BLVR : So, did you travel to Germany later on?

At Munster, every two years, there is a “lyrik” festival. For me, this included signing the book of the city with a gold pen in the room where the Peace of Westphalia was signed and, for some unknown reason, there was a shriveled human hand in a glass case.

Despite this, I was not allowed to drink red wine from the golden rooster, as is customary for the winners, because the mayor was away on business.

Everyone I met was friendly to me and the poetic speech given by a young poet in a baroque palace (likely a postwar reproduction) was very intelligent, though I couldn’t understand it since I don’t speak German.

This poet will be releasing a book on the Burning Deck press, her name is Monika Rinck. After that, Steffen and I continued our journey.

BLVR: How did you find Germany?

At first, it felt like a place stuck in the past, yet upon closer inspection, many of the buildings had been reconstructed. It struck me as odd, the notion of erasure and memorialization existing side-by-side, although I found it fascinating.

BLVR : How did they take the words which are very characteristic of American culture and convey them in The Lichtenberg Figures? For instance, Spliff?

At the readings I attended, there were usually Q&As afterwards. My translator and I had a conversation about the difficulty of translating two phrases: finger-banged and the practice of declawing cats.

I found finger-banged to have an old-fashioned ring to it, and it was apparently difficult to render this phrase into German. All I heard my translator say was a long stream of German followed by the word or phrase finger-banged.

BLVR : It’s as if there must be a phrase that would be the equivalent of finger-banged.

BL: I agree with that sentiment. He sensed that the English language was more direct and aggressive than what my translation device could offer. It appears that my translator only had softer words in its database.

BLVR : What was the issue with removing the cat’s claws?

BL : Evidently, they do not declaw their cats, which was incredibly shocking to the German spectators. I made sure to make it clear to everyone that I was not in favor of this cruel practice.


BLVR : Having written three books of poetry, your novel has Adam Gordon, a young American on a one-year poetry fellowship to Spain, as its protagonist. He even contemplates the thought that perhaps his own fraudulence is the only thing that isn’t fraudulent.

What do you believe your novel is trying to communicate – the existence of poetry or its fraudulent nature or something else?

BL : The novel both commends and criticizes poetry–or one could state that it commends poetry but denounces poems. Adam expresses something about poetry quoted in prose at the start. Let me find the passage:

I would only really appreciate poetry when I read it in academic essays that my professors had given me in college. The line breaks had been removed and instead replaced with slashes, which gave me an idea of the potential of poetic expression, rather than a specific poem.

I don’t believe this is a simple declaration of his lack of interest in poetry, or a statement of deceit. He does think certain lines of poetry are beautiful, however what he finds captivating is the abstract possibility that is not fulfilled by actual poems. I can identify with this sort of negativity. It conveys something concerning why poetry continues to have an effect on us, even when so many poems come up short. You write poetry; don’t you dislike the majority of poems?

BLVR : I wouldn’t go as far as to say “hate,” but I understand the point you’re making.

BL : My ideas are based on the concept that Allen Grossman outlines in his peculiar and arresting essays. Are you familiar with The Long Schoolroom?

BLVR : Not at all.

Grossman claims that what he calls “virtual” poetry emerges from a contradiction in its core, which he dubs “the bitter logic of the poetic principle.”

He states that the poet is motivated to construct a poem as a result of their dissatisfaction with the human world and its representations.

However, the poem is doomed to fail as soon as the poet begins to produce it, due to the inconsistency between the infinite and the finite, the divine and the human.

Thus, the poem ultimately records the failure of the poet’s attempt to actualize the initial impulse that prompted the poem.

BLVR: Considering the fact that poetry cannot always successfully express what we feel, why not just keep the “transcendent” inside ourselves, without having to resort to language?

BL: I don’t believe that something that can be called “transcendent” exists within us. Poetry, however, can be a result of the need to leave behind the accepted and the existing.

That urge might be articulated in many different ways, like attempting to think outside the constraints of capitalism. It doesn’t have to be linked to spirituality or the metaphysical, as Grossman implies.

Lyric poetry’s notion that the poet holds something inside of him that he wants to convey is one model, but poetry is really an attempt to take language, something that is inherently social, and use it to explore potential that has not been realized yet.

BLVR : Does it not work?

BL : One might say that a failure can, in fact, be seen as a figure of something greater, and in many ways poetry can do this better than other art forms. What Benjamin is discussing with Baudelaire is the idea of creating a lyric out of the impossibility of modernity.

The unsuccessful attempt to compose an effective poem can make us aware of our capacity to imagine something different, even if we cannot attain it.

BLVR : How do your own poems (not Adam Gordon’s, but Ben Lerner’s) fit into the concept that all real poems are unsuccessful?

BL: My most recent collection of poetry, Mean Free Path, explores a form that never fully materializes – the way the lines in the poems are out of order or have multiple possible orders generates a type of gap, a “choose your own adventure”.

Element for the reader who is encouraged to partake in forming the stanzaic space. To me, the inability of the poem to reach the right margin of the page is a distinct way poetry allows the effects of absence to be felt.


BLVR : What other types of writing have been occupying your thoughts recently, aside from poems and novels?

Have you viewed the creative projects of Cory Arcangel?

BLVR : Not a chance.

BL : Super Mario Clouds is my favorite. This version of Super Mario features nothing but the clouds. It brings to mind a John Ashbery poem.

Entering the game’s world and having time pass without playing the game produces a feeling of purposelessness, which is both beautiful and a bit frightening. It makes one think that Nintendo’s afterlife is limited to this.

At times, particularly in the wee hours of the night, I spend considerable time viewing Wikipedia entries of Nintendo and computer games I used to play in my early school days. This can go on for multiple hours.

I have a vivid recollection of when I was playing King’s Quest on my mother’s Tandy 1000 computer.

BLVR : How was that experience?

BL : I don’t recall the details of the plot, but I remember the game having a very simple yet captivating world. You could search for magic rings, weapons, and meet gnomes. Not only was the world filled with enchantment, but it also had its dull moments.

I was either too young to understand the game or it was simply not very well-crafted. I would often just walk from one screen to another for hours and listen to the electronic sounds of birds and babbling brooks.

Whenever I left the current screen, I had to wait for a few seconds for the next one to load, and the computer’s mechanical-like noises as it worked on constructing the next scene always stayed in my mind.

Do you have a movie that you especially like that you watched when you were younger?

BL : I suppose the one movie that stands out the most from my childhood is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It’s likely because my brother resembled Matthew Broderick, particularly in WarGames.

However, it’s also due to the fact that out of all the movies from my youth, it captured a certain something special about the suburbs.

BLVR : Would you explain further?

BL: Ferris utilizes a range of technology and tactics to take a day off school and experience the city of Chicago. His day is educational, consisting of visiting museums, a baseball game, a parade, and a fancy restaurant.

There is a sense of diversity and even racial harmony, evident in the scene with Cameron admiring the Seurat painting before it dissolves into pointillism.

The climax of the movie is when Ferris beats his parents home by taking a shortcut through people’s yards, breaking the suburban grid.

BLVR : What year was the release of Ferris Bueller ‘s Day Off?

In 1986, when I was seven, I recall often viewing it while I was absent from school due to illness. However, 1986 has a special relevance in my mind.

That is the period when the Challenger detonated, which was the primary of the televised calamities, and when the female tumbled into a well and became a celebrity. Jessica, or possibly her episode was in the following year – 1987.

Do you happen to be an author who specializes in painting?

BL : I recently took some steps in that direction.

BLVR : What type of artworks are you fond of?

Have you had the opportunity to view Bastien-Lepage’s Joan of Arc at the Met? It is situated in the hall, and due to the difficulty of viewing the painting in that area, I believe many people overlook it.

BLVR : What aspects of it do you find appealing?

This artwork is a strange and powerful piece. The likeness of Joan of Arc, particularly her torso, is astonishing, and it is featured alongside three heavenly angels.

There is also the hand that appears to grab for foliage but instead meets paint. It is almost as if the conflict between the physical and spiritual in the painting causes a malfunction in the pictorial arrangement around her hand – if that makes sense.

IV. Deceitfulness in their Deceit

What is the purpose of fiction writing when it comes to poetry?

BL : I am captivated by the incorporation of poems within novels.

In my novel, Adam Gordon is purported to have written two poems: one of which originates from my book The Lichtenberg Figures, but its authorship has been manipulated in a way that makes it distinct from its original form.

I find it fascinating how a novel can manipulate a poem and have it interpreted differently. The second poem recited at the gallery is composed of words from the novel itself which creates an illusion that the poem had already been written when the novel was non-existent.

The novel is sometimes seen as a kind of virtual poem, as there are theories which suggest the form emerged when poetry was no longer possible.

An example of this kind of thinking is Lukacs, who argued that the epic unity of experience had disappeared, leading to the novel taking the place of a world of lost meaning.

In this sense, we can view the novel as the result of the departure of poetry, with verse being an absent presence in its prose. This is what sparks my intrigue in the relationship between the two, and how the novel is inextricably linked to the virtuality of poetry.

BLVR: The concept of the virtual can be extended to all aspects of human experience, not just literature and poetry. There is a sense of let-down when the real is compared to the virtual.

So what if one disregards the virtual and focuses on attempting to solely experience and express the virtual? Adam recognizes that his relationship with Isabel … Let me see:


As we strolled past the convents and shops, I was dependent on not becoming fully fluent in Spanish, so that I could continue speaking in mysterious phrases or koans.


I held no trepidation about mastering the language, yet I pondered how long I could stay in Madrid without surpassing the level of aptitude that would make me seem unexciting.


Could Adam’s sense of being fraudulent be a self-conscious wish to only relate virtually, allowing others to have more possibilities? Is this a fundamental human need? Do you think Adam just has fraudulent intentions in his dishonesty, as he ponders at one point?

BL : It seems that Adam has a notion that his relationships with people such as Isabel are virtual, and that she is interested in him due to the depths of intelligence he claims he doesn’t have.

He sees himself as a mediocre poem, because he believes that she projects what she perceives onto him. He has been lying to her to create a sense of mystery, but it turns out that his interpretations of her motivations are incorrect.

His attempt to base his relationships on his own aesthetic has caused him some distress.

A potential consequence of emphasizing the digital side of relationships is that it can lead to solipsism–where one’s own mental image of the relationship is the only thing that matters, thus preventing one from seeing the reality of the connection.

Is it feasible for anyone to stay away from the projection of imagination?

BL : To a certain degree, it is not possible to avoid what Adam is doing.

All relationships entail some level of social performance built on our own understanding of what the other is demonstrating, a virtual element that can be stimulating, either in a worrisome or pleasurable way.

This means that Adam’s consciousness of the virtual is not simply a rejection of experience, but rather a way of heightening it, in the same way he lauds John Ashbery when he speaks of “experiencing mediacy immediately”.

As a result, it is very difficult for me to determine when Adam’s fixation on the virtual is, in fact, a method of delving further into the actuality of his life.


BLVR : Are there elements of your identity that you do not express in your writing?

BL: That’s a thought-provoking question. It depends on the type of writing. In general, I would say I tend to write about the parts of me that I feel most embarrassed or uncomfortable about.

This is not to suggest that I “write from experience” in a usual manner, however certain aspects of Adam’s more disreputable qualities and his inclination toward a form of self-deprecation and stress can be seen in my work.

I believe there is a strong link between writing and shame. My friend Aaron Kunin, who is exceptionally gifted, has used the concept that the part of yourself that you feel most ashamed of could be utilized for artistic purposes in his writing.

BLVR : How is your restful routine structured?

I am in the habit of sleeping regularly and I usually dream quite vividly.

However, when I attempt to describe my dreams, I’m not always certain what I am recounting and what I’m inventing. Is this a common experience? Writing the novel was like that – feeling as if I was recalling something while simultaneously making it up.

In comparison, it is not how it feels when I write poetry or criticism.

BLVR: When the novel was in the form of an idea in your mind, was it very pictorial? It seemed like it was based on recollections, taking into account the selection and quality of details, what was noticed precisely and what was obscure–like something you had experienced.

BL : It’s great that this is coming across as lived. It really is, in many ways. I draw on actual experiences while describing the character’s home; it is one I have personally been in.

Unfortunately, conversations about reality and fiction often overlook the fact that events which do not take place also have an impact.

I believe one can write autobiographically without having gone through all the events, as the ones which never happened still form part of our experience, in a negative way.

Before I put pen to paper, I don’t believe that the novel was already in my head. Tolstoy wrote about how he eagerly waited to see what Vronsky would do next. I find this idea of composition being seen as an exploration to be a captivating part of writing. Marx thought that a main difference between a great architect and the best of bees is that the former designs the building in their imagination before constructing it in reality.

However, when it comes to writing, the material used to create the structure in the mind and in reality are the same: language. So, if it is in your head, then it is already tangible.

Would you be concerned if the majority of readers interpreted your novel as a reflection of your own life?

BL : I expect some people to make connections between me and the protagonist, however, it would be strange if someone were to think that this novel is just a memoir in disguise.

Since this story is so heavily focused on mediation, even an unsophisticated reader would have to consider how this book is mediating my life experiences.

BLVR : It is likely that the readers of this discussion are interested in hearing about your more personal experiences–for example, any drug use you have done, your marriage, and the extent to which the novel is based on recollection.

Although I do not have an extensive knowledge of you, I sense that you would not be inclined to respond to such inquiries.

It is unlikely that the answer is yes.

What do you think about it?

BL : Both for mundane causes – such as preventing my father-in-law, dean, and doctor from viewing the info – and also because I am more excited in blending together the art and life within a given artwork than further investing in my own personal history as the author of the books.

The distinction between art and life within art, and between art and life in life, collapses for me.


BLVR : Could you talk about which other novels had an impact on yours? What kind of style would you classify it as part of?

I found myself reminded of Bernhard’s Woodcutters and its narrator’s complex mix of self-loathing, detesting others, and hating himself for feeling that way while I was reading your novel. Nevertheless, I have to say that I was more positively affected by the narrator in your book.

BL: It’s likely that the self-loathing of Bernhard’s narrators was a factor in my writing. Steffen was reading the novel, and he sent me a message inquiring why I had “quoted” and “rewritten” the initial scene of Bernhard’s Old Masters in my own novel.

However, I hadn’t read Old Masters at the time. That episode in my novel, in which a person follows someone through the Prado, is one of the few moments taken directly from my own life.

It seemed fitting for a book about the complicated connection between art and life–my life had plagiarized Bernhard!

I can’t precisely determine the context of the literary world in which my novel belongs. Bartelby and Wakefield are the two characters of American fiction that I think about regularly.

It is likely that I am in some way linked to the collection of anti-heroes featured in Bartleby & Co by Enrique Vila-Matas.

The scene in Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma in which Fabrice strolls around inquiring if he had genuinely fought in a battle, if he was present at Waterloo, and if he was a part of history, left me deeply moved and impacted.

BLVR : How about contemporary authors? Or those who recently passed away?

BL : W. G. Sebald, Javier Marias, and Alexander Kluge are all of great significance to me as far as prose authors go, although Marias is the sole one who is truly a novelist in the traditional sense.

A way to recognize the impact these authors had on Leaving the Atocha Station is through the exploration of images.

Marias utilizes them the least but he does incorporate them. I’m particularly intrigued by what a photograph can do to or within fiction, how even a few photographs can alter the novel’s association to the principles of realism.

The novel’s traditional objective of providing a vivid visual experience is challenged by the abundance of photographic imagery. Even the most detailed narrative description can’t match the optical reality of a photograph.

This makes the use of photos in novels both a help and a hindrance to the writing: the prose no longer has the responsibility of recreating a scene but, simultaneously, it must find what it does excel at.

Much has been discussed about how painting adapted to the introduction of photography, yet there has been much less dialogue among novelists about how fiction has had to rethink its goals due to the availability of affordable photographs.

In BLVR, what connection does the author make between hash, SSRIs, tranquilizers, alcohol, and the “white pills” to both the real and the virtual realms?

I have frequently noticed the disparity between the ways in which drugs are both praised and condemned; for example, drug x is claimed to both destroy the truth and enhance one’s perception of it.

Similarly, SSRIs can be both celebrated and censured for aiding in returning to one’s original self or for changing one’s personality.

Here, the chemical element adds an additional layer of complexity, making it difficult to ascertain which direction the drug is leading the user – is it towards the virtual or the actual?

I find it intriguing how those who abuse drugs are said to “have a substance problem,” which almost brings to mind a philosophical quandary of determining the difference between semblance and essence.

BLVR : To conclude, what brings you to Marfa at this time?

BL : Right now I’m in a residency, where I’m meant to be writing, yet I’ve been reading and watching movies instead.

BLVR : What films have you seen?

Last night, I viewed an odd movie on my PC: Anastasia with Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner as the stars.

For quite a while, I was under the impression that Ingrid Bergman was a male.

It can be perplexing to identify that as Ingmar Bergman.

BLVR : What platform did you view it on?

I viewed it while I was lying in bed.

BLVR: Reclining with your back supported?

BL : Generally, I watch movies on my own, but when I’m at home with Ariana, we project the films onto the wall with a projector.

BLVR: Therefore, you are in the position of lying on your side, with your laptop also in a similar position?

BL : No, the computer is in the standard position but I view it from an angle.

BLVR : Why don’t you spin it? When you do, do you perceive things differently?

BL : The screen size doesn’t feel off-kilter to me. I suppose the size of my head in relation to the screen is too great for it to feel like it is angled in the wrong direction, if that is understandable.

Whenever I’m viewing something in landscape mode, I always adjust my computer so that it is in the same orientation.

BL : I’m attempting to imagine it.

BLVR : In my usual posture for laptop usage, I recline and bring my knees up, holding the MacBook against my body with my thighs and torso.

BL: We should be concerned about the radiation levels.

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