Ben Lerner discusses his first book of poetry, “The Lichtenberg Figures.” Part of “The Paris Review”'s “My First Time” video interview series.
“My First Time” is a video series in which we invite authors to discuss the trials of writing and publishing their first books. Consider it a chance to see how successful writers got their start, in their own words—it’s a portrait of the artist as a beginner and a look at the creative process, in all its joy, abjection, delusion, and euphoria.
This installment stars Ben Lerner, poet and novelist. While an undergraduate at Brown—and later as an M.F.A. student—Lerner wrote the cycle of fifty-two sonnets that would become 2004’s The Lichtenberg Figures. At the time, he and roommate Cyrus Console were, says Lerner, “always writing under the sign of crisis ... now when I look back, we had a kind of really intense practice.” He discusses the process of imposing form, his thematic inspirations, and the challenges of taking one’s place in the creative universe. “With the first book, you don’t really know if you can do it. You have a kind of constant anxiety about whether or not you have something to contribute to the conversation. And that anxiety—it can ruin your life, but it’s also really generative. Like, it’s a kind of discipline.”
This series is made by the filmmakers Tom Bean, Casey Brooks, and Luke Poling; we’re delighted to collaborate with them. Be sure to watch the previous interviews in the series:
Mesmo no final do ano passado, li um dos meus livros favoritos do ano, '10:04', de Ben Lerner. Tão favorito que uma das poucas mensagens de ano novo que enviei estava ligado ao nome do livro. 10:04 PM é a hora em que um raio atinge a torre do relógio, no filme 'Regresso ao Futuro', momento essencial para permitir a Marty McFly... regressar ao futuro. Já agora, a mensagem era "Que um raio de 1,2 gigawatts alimente o vosso flux capacitor às 10:04 do dia que vos der mais jeito. E bom futuro!"
Nunca me apetece falar muito sobre livros, só de vez em quando, e nem sei se o livro vai ser traduzido. O anterior, 'Leaving the Atocha Station' não foi, que eu saiba. Note-se que por alturas da passagem de ano, andei pela estação de Atocha. Isto anda tudo ligado. Seja como for, gosto da maneira como o texto cruza ficção e autobiografia, histórias dentro da história, narradores narrando outros narradores, Nova Iorque e a nossa difícil relação com o tempo.
Quando escolhi comprá-lo e lê-lo, contudo, não foi por nada disto mas, em primeiro lugar, pela magnífica capa. Tenho, por vez, o mau (?) hábito de julgar um livro pela capa. Mas sim, leio a sinopse antes. Esta capa em particular está assente sobre uma fotografia aérea de Iwan Baan, invertida da esquerda para a direita, de Nova Iorque por alturas do furacão Sandy, quando parte da baixa estava submersa em escuridão. É esta abaixo.
Andava para fazer este post há algum tempo mas decidi-me hoje porque vi entretanto um outro conjunto de fotografias que anda a circular, as que Vincent Laforet fez por cima da mesma cidade a 7.500 pés de altitude. Podem vê-las todas aqui, assim como um pequeno vídeo sobre a sua produção. São, de facto, extraordinárias, no seu horizonte de escuridão, cortado pela luz da tecnologia e da humanidade. E a ideia original de as fazer surgiu de um olhar sobre essa rede como se fossem sinapses a disparar no cérebro. Uma espécie de ciberespaço.
I finished the reading and looked up Changed in the familiar ways. Now for a quiet place To begin the forgetting. The little delays Between sensations, the audible absence of rain Take the place of objects. I have some questions But they can wait. Waiting is the answer I was looking for. Any subject will do So long as it recedes. Hearing the echo Of your own blood in the shell but picturing The ocean is what I meant by
You startled me. I thought you were sleeping In the traditional sense. I like looking At anything under glass, especially Glass. You called me. Like overheard Dreams. I’m writing this one as a woman Comfortable with failure. I promise I will never But the predicate withered. If you are Uncomfortable seeing this as portraiture Close your eyes. No, You startled
Identical cities. How sad. Buy up the run The unsigned copies are more valuable I have read your essay about the new Closure. My favorite parts I cannot follow Surface effects. We moved to Canada Without our knowledge. If it reciprocates the gaze How is it pornography? Definitions crossed With stars, the old closure, which reminds me Wave to the cameras from the
The petals are glass. That’s all you need to know Lines have been cut and replaced With their opposites. Did I say that out loud A beautiful question. Barbara is dead Until I was seventeen, I thought windmills Turned from the fireworks to watch Their reflection in the tower Made wind. Brushed metal apples Green to the touch
All pleads for an astounding irrelevance Structured like a language, but I I like the old music, the audible kind We made love to in the crawlspace Without our knowledge. Robert is dead Take my voice. I don’t need it. Take my face I have others. Pathos whistles through the typos Parentheses slam shut. I’m writing this one With my eyes closed, listening to the absence of
Surface effects. Patterns of disappearance. I I kind of lost it back there in the trees, screaming About the complexity of intention, but But nothing. Come to bed. Reference is a woman Comfortable with failure. The surface is dead Wave to the cameras from the towers Built to sway. I promised I would never Tell me, whose hand is this. A beautiful Question her sources again
Unhinged in a manner of speaking Crossed with stars, a rain that can be paused So we know we’re dreaming on our feet Like horses in the city. How sad. Maybe No maybes. Take a position. Don’t call it Night-vision green. Think of the children Running with scissors through the Where were we? If seeing this as portraiture Makes you uncomfortable, wake up
Wake up, it’s time to begin The forgetting. Direct modal statements Wither under glass. A little book for Ari Built to sway. I admire the use of felt Theory, like swimming in a storm, but object To anti-representational bias in an era of You’re not listening. I’m sorry. I was thinking How the beauty of your singing re-inscribes The hope whose death it announces. Wave
In an unconscious effort to unify my voice I swallow gum. An old man weeps in the airport Over a missed connection. The color of money is Night-vision green. When Ari removes the bobby pins I remove the punctuation. Our freezer is empty Save for vodka and film. Leave the beautiful Questions unanswered. There are six pages left Of our youth and I would rather swallow my tongue Than waste them on description
A cry goes up for plain language In identical cities. Zukofsky appears in my dreams Selling knives. Each exhibit is a failed futurity Like a star survived by its own light. Glass anthers Confuse bees. Is that pornography? Yes, but But nothing. Come to reference. A mode of undress Equal to fascism becomes obligatory In identical cities. Did I say that already? Did I say The stranglehold of perspective must be shaken off
A live tradition broadcast with a little delay Takes the place of experience, like portraits Reciprocating gazes. Zukofsky appears in my dreams Offering his face. Each of us must ask herself Why am I clapping? The content is announced Through disappearance, like fireworks. Wave After wave of information breaks over us Without our knowledge. If I give you my denim Will you simulate distress
Then, where killdeer had been, the pattern Of their disappearance. Wave after wave Of disappearance. Take a position. Call it Fascism. Zukofsky appears in my dreams Wake up, wake up, it’s time to begin Elegies built to sway. Felt Silences startle the present Absence of the killdeer Into flight
To lay everything waste in the name of renewal Haven’t we tried that before? Yes, but But not in Canada. The vanguard succumbs To a sense of its own importance as easily as swans Succumb to the flu. I am writing this With my non-dominant hand in the crawlspace Under the war. I can feel an axis snapping In my skull, and soon I will lose the power To select, while retaining the power to
All these flowers look the same to me Night-vision green. There is nothing to do In the desert but read Penthouse and lift weights My blood is negative. That’s all you need to know Sophisticated weaponry marries the traditional Pleasures of perspective to the new materiality Of point and click. I’m writing this one As a woman comfortable with leading A prisoner on a leash
Combine was the word I was looking for Back there in the trees. My blood is Scandinavian Modern. I kind of lost it But enough about me. To return with a difference Haven’t we tried that before? Yes, but But not from the air. Unique flakes form Indistinguishable drifts in a process we call All these words look the same to me Fascism. Arrange the flowers by their price
Then, where despair had been, the voice Of Nina Simone. Parentheses open On a new gender crossed with stars Ari removes the bobby pins. Night falls There is no such thing as non sequitur When you’re in love. Let those who object To the pathos swallow their tongues. My dark Rebarbative people, put down your Glocks And your Big Gulps. We have birthmarks to earn
Around 1945 the question becomes: Sleepyhead Since the world is ending, may I eat the candy Necklace off your body? Turn the record over Turn the pillow over. It has a cooler side Like a vein on the wing of a locust The seam of hope disclosed by her voice It cannot save us. But it can remind us Survival is a butcher’s goal. All hands To the pathos. Let the credits
Bend the plastic stick and break the interior tube The reaction emits light, but not heat The tragedy of dialectics. Sand-sized particles Of revolutionary possibility fall constantly Without our knowledge. The capitol lawns Sparkle with poison. Since the world is ending Why not let the children touch the paintings The voice of Nina Simone contains its own