Conversations with Contributors: Ben Purkert / by Peter LaBerge

BY ERICA BERNHEIM

Ben Purkert is the author of FOR THE LOVE OF ENDINGS (Four Way Books, 2018). His poems, essays, and book reviews appear or are forthcoming in The New Yorker, Kenyon Review, Tin House Online, The Rumpus, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. A former New York Times Fellow at NYU, he teaches at Rutgers. He is also the editor of Back Draft for Guernica.

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Erica Bernheim: As I was reading For the Love of Endings, one of the first poems that I returned to was about midway through your collection: “Setting Bear Traps for Myself.” I think of the loss articulated in this poem, particularly when the speaker describes the doomed salmon leaping out of its skin and wants a love as powerful and transcendent as that. For me, this also describes part of the editing process, the cutting away of connections in order to liberate a poem. How do you whittle the poem down to becoming the knife itself?

Ben Purkert: Hm, I’ve never conceived of a poem as a knife before! Truthfully, I don’t love thinking about editing in terms of violence, though I’m into the idea of liberation. The salmon leaping out from its skin—that, to me, is the ideal form of revision. The shedding of what’s close but unnecessary, in order to pick up speed. A greater fluency, freedom of movement. It’s interesting to me, if unsettling, how commonly we turn to metaphors of violence when discussing revision. It’s always about whittling down, cutting fat, slicing away, killing darlings, etc. To be clear, I’m all for revising rigorously! But I’m not sure why we frame the relationship between author and text as a confrontational one. I started Back Draft for Guernica precisely for this reason: to better understand how different poets revise, so we might expand our editing vocabulary in new ways.

EB: You list some incredible poets as your mentors and teachers. As an instructor of poetry yourself now, what value do you place on obtaining a formal education in poetry?

BP: To me, the education is what matters, less so the “formal” part. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to the academy, or anti-MFAs, or anything like that. I love teaching creative writing at Rutgers, but that’s because of the community there, not the campus or the institution. A group of poets hanging out in a garage somewhere… That could potentially be the best classroom you’ll ever find. A garage is a form, if not a formal one. But maybe your question is more about grounding oneself in certain poetic traditions, reading “the classics,” stuff like that?

EB: Could you talk a bit more about the "form" part of the question, and how you approach it, which forms you use most often in class, how you navigate form with your students. I know from my own experiences that students can be incredibly resistant to trying form themselves or, conversely, incredibly resistant to writing poetry without form.

BP: You're right, it's an interesting contradiction: how is it that the same student who believes Poems Must Rhyme is also resistant to form? The first thing I usually stress with my students is that every poem has a form; even the word "poem" constitutes a formal imposition. I also think there's this perception that form is necessarily stodgy. Which, of course, it can be! Neo Formalism is its own thing. But form can also be liberating, it can free the mind to do other things. I love to juxtapose these two poems: Shane Book's "Sestina" and Ciara Shuttleworth's "Sestina." The two are different in every way, yet they both exist within a given set of constraints. Same birdcage, wildly different birds.

EB: Maureen McLane describes your work as “compact, yet aerated,” which can apply as much to the content, perhaps, as well as the form. How do you envision your poems before moving towards committing them to the page?

BP: I don’t really! I like what Donald Hall says: “There is no poem inside the head.” For me, the poem is a collaboration between me and the page. Whenever I try to conceive of a poem and then write it as envisioned, it always fails. The page sees right through me! It’s like it senses that I’m trying to transcribe, rather than participating in a genuine creative process. It has to be a kind of mutual arrangement, give and take. In that way, every poem is a group effort, even if it’s a lonely one.

EB: One of the questions I hear most frequently is about knowing when a piece of writing is complete, but I’m also interested in how other writers read texts until we’re “done” with them. Are there writers who were once crucial to you, but that you don’t return to anymore, or that you view differently now? What has been most recently on your reading list? And what texts do you find yourself continually returning to? 

BP: I’ve been thinking recently about what we do when we finish reading books, how we tend to place them on bookshelves, which are usually found along the walls of a room. And so there’s this centrifugal thing that happens: we consume the books, and then they get relegated to the perimeter of our lives, in a way. I think my answer is informed by the fact that I have a pretty bad memory… I’ll read something, profoundly love it, but then once it’s on the bookshelf, it’s out of reach somehow. I’d almost prefer to keep my books scattered all over the floor, so I could just stumble over them/into them constantly. There are some books that I carry with me pretty much everywhere. Heather Christle’s The Trees The Trees has been in my backpack since it came out in 2011. Too many recent favorites to choose, but here’s a few: Eye Level by Jenny Xie; Bridled by Amy Meng; Equilibrium by Tiana Clark.

EB: Your website says that you do freelance writing work for branding agencies, and that you are working on a novel about branding. As someone who spent a few years working in the marketing and PR side of publishing, I’m fascinated by branding and am hoping you can describe that part of your writing life in a little more detail, without giving away trade secrets, of course! I also wonder if you see any overlap in developing a poetic “voice” and the idea of branding, especially in your students’ work and in the literary world. 

BP: I wish I had trade secrets to give away! I find working as a branding copywriter to be fascinating/bewildering in a bunch of ways. In terms of overlap, there’s no shortage of poets who have worked on Madison Avenue (Ogden Nash, Stephen Dunn, Matthew Dickman, many more). I’ll be honest and say that I think applying the logic of branding to poetry (or any art-making) is dangerous. David Remnick wrote this piece recently about Philip Roth where he noted how most writers experience a burst of originality early on, and then self-imitate for the rest of their careers. He’s arguing that Roth didn’t follow that model, but it still bummed me out to read. Because what is self-imitation if not the glorification of one’s own brand? It’s an awesome thing when a writer—or a student—finds their voice, so to speak. But it’s no less awesome when that same writer discovers a multiplicity of voices, even discordant ones. Art offers an escape from the tyrannical constraints of brand, this notion that everything Coca-Cola does must feel Coca-Cola. My novel tries to explore this stuff, looking at the self as a mix of artificiality and authenticity.

EB: In her blurb for your book, a poem unto itself, Brenda Shaughnessy writes about an era to come when human life may be extinct, and how this collection might reach “future and existing forms of intelligence—to let them know there was at least one beautiful/difficult, dark/brilliant side to us earthlings.” What’s your next poetry project?

BP: I’m hesitant to describe in too much detail, because the new poems are still so malleable, you know? But the ones I’ve been writing recently are born out of the kinds of anxieties Brenda is articulating. We’re living in a time of great inequality, growing scarcity. And so these new poems seek to confront—if at a slant—that urgent reality. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is how the various changes imperiling our planet will change how we read. You put a rose in a poem and it’s automatically a cliché. Too many roses in poems, damnit! But what happens when there’s widespread blight or sustained drought? What happens when roses die out entirely, and then poems are the last remaining place for them to live? It’s risky to characterize any image as cliché. You never know how much longer it will appear.

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Erica Bernheim is the author of the full-length poetry collection, The Mimic Sea, and of a chapbook, Between the Room and the City. She is currently Associate Professor of English at Florida Southern College, where she directs the creative writing program. Her writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, The Missouri Review, Hobart, and Burnside Review.