INTERVIEW // by Connor Harrison
How These Words Lean on You: An Interview with Ben Purkert
I first came across Ben Purkert’s work in a copy of The New Yorker, where I read his poem “News.” A calm and beautiful poem, “News” is written in the voice of a close friend, and even in its most definitive lines, it remains open; it finds its way alongside you. “The wind turns grass into italics / saying See? Do you see? / Even mountains fall gracefully / like a red bucket emptied / of rain.” After first reading these lines, I read them again, and then I read them out loud, and then I took a photo of the poem, and sent it to a friend. Balancing the abstract perfectly against the concrete—the detail of a red bucket beside a mountain falling—Purkert brings each into the other, and somehow, we know precisely where we are. And when this balance is read over the length of For the Love of Endings—the lean-in questioning, the soft confidence of his skill—it is hard not to be invested in every single word. “So much depends upon you, reader,” Ben writes in the eponymous sequence. “Look how these words lean on you, not even knowing your name.” The collection, despite its title, is an open succession of questions, whether the subject is masculinity, or old love, or the threat of climate change. The kind of ending that Purkert is in love with, is that most important part of a successful poem: the audible click of a final line.
Ben Purkert is the author of For the Love of Endings. His poems appear in The New Yorker, Poetry, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a novel about the branding of masculinity. You can find him on Twitter when he really should be writing.
Connor Harrison: I’m always interested in how writers go about their work in a practical sense, and I wondered if you could talk a little about your own experience? You’ve talked in interviews before about allowing a poem to run ahead of you, almost. Do you begin each new poem the same way? Do you have a procedure?
Ben Purkert: When I start a poem, I’m basically releasing a marble at the top of a hill. And sometimes the marble gets stuck in a ditch and goes nowhere. But other times it rolls really far and ends up in a wild place I never could have imagined. That’s the thrill. The hard work that comes later is revision: going back and trying to understand the moves the poem has made and why.
When I start a poem, I’m basically releasing a marble at the top of a hill.
CH: Could you talk a little about when you first approached writing? Had it already come to you before university?
BP: I discovered a love of writing pretty early, probably in middle school. I wasn’t good at sports, but I was decent at words. I could throw them, catch them, spin them a little. And that was good enough, for a while. Then I got to college and realized, Hey, all these people are more well-read than I am. I need to put in the work. I need to orient myself in this world. Though, of course, the more you read, the more disoriented you are.
CH: This seems to be a common experience of university—arriving and feeling much less well read than our peers. Did you grow up with books? Or was reading something that you picked up more independently?
BP: I grew up with books, but I wasn’t a dedicated reader until much later. And I think there’s a gendered aspect to this. When I was a kid, I watched the Simpsons a lot, and I remember how Lisa was the bookish one. She was always losing herself in books, not just to learn about the world but also to escape it. And the world she was escaping was one in which men were unbearably loud and laughably dumb. The show, while a parody, captured something very real there, about who traditionally has had permission to project their voices and who is on the receiving end of all that. For me, cultivating an idea of myself as a reader meant dispensing with certain presentations of masculinity I’d been sold all my life.
For me, cultivating an idea of myself as a reader meant dispensing with certain presentations of masculinity I’d been sold all my life.
CH: In your poem “Dear Ex,” you begin with the lines, “I’m hardly alone – / like most men, I’ll gaze // at anything to avoid looking / inward.” I think this touches on a huge issue for a lot of men raised into an idea of masculinity. Do you feel as if there is a clash between that, and the introspective nature of poetry?
BP: I’m a new parent and I read this thing recently about how baby boys are generally more emotionally expressive than girls up to a certain age, at which point society effectively tells boys to repress it all. It’s tragic, really, and leads to such pain. So I’m very interested in how toxic masculinity is learned and how we can undo some of that damage and strive for something better. The male gaze is very harmful to those it objectifies, but it’s also harmful to the one gazing. If you’re looking at the world as something designed for your pleasure, what aren’t you looking at? What might you be missing, and at what cost? Poetry can, I think, promote a healthier and more honest mode of engagement. Anyway, I’m currently at work on a novel about toxic masculinity, so these topics are on my mind.
CH: Could you talk a little about the novel?
BP: It’s been in progress for so long! I started it in 2014. I wrote the first draft of the novel very quickly, in about six months. And now it’s been roughly six years of revision. One thing I’ll say is that I think poets are really well positioned to cross over into other genres. And partially that’s because poets are highly skilled at musicality and imagery, and partially because we’re just more comfortable not knowing what the hell we’re doing lol.
CH: Back when you started it in 2014, did you know it would deal with toxic masculinity? I was just thinking that in the last six years, with the MeToo movement, and Trump’s presidency, the topic has rarely left the political conversation.
BP: I think toxic masculinity has always been relevant politically, since societies are so often governed by toxic men. But I agree that it’s a part of the conversation now in a way that feels different than before. I certainly didn’t set out to write a novel that tapped into the zeitgeist or something. If anything, it began more from a personal place of inquiry. What in me might be toxic and how can I confront it? It seems like men sometimes construct their identities (or brands, really) expressly to avoid that sort of emotional reckoning. Phillip B. Williams gave a commencement speech recently and it included this stunner: “What have you experienced that has planted a seed in you that if it blooms to its fullest capacity, it could undo you?” That, in my view, is a question we all need to be asking ourselves, maybe men especially.
CH: I noticed that three of your more recent poems have this repetition of “only” —”The Only Museum,” “The Only Lesson,” “The Only World”—and of course your first collection was a meditation on endings. Do you build towards a theme? Or is this more of a coincidence?
BP: I tend not to build toward a theme, at least not intentionally. I like Dorothea Lasky’s Poetry Is Not a Project, where she talks about the pitfalls of laying out your project in advance. (“You can plan a party, but you have to make the people show up for it to really be a party. Any other way, all you have created is just a decorated empty room”). Having said that, I do find it thrilling when a coherence starts to emerge organically. And then as a poet, you have a choice: are you going to write toward that coherence or away from it? Or might you resist that binary and find a new way through altogether?
CH: Speaking of binaries: as a poet who also works in advertising, writes essays, and is now working on a novel, do you feel that you shift at all, between forms? Do you feel like you engage different voices?
BP: I’m always of two minds here. I agree with those who would argue that genre is largely an artificial contrivance, a boundary wall that serves more of an economic purpose than an aesthetic one. I also agree with those who would argue that different forms have different conventions and thus engage different voices, as you said. But for me, the form that feels most categorically different from what you listed is advertising. When I’m writing a tagline, that’s not my voice. That’s not my art. I remember going to an Andy Warhol exhibit a few years ago and the museum featured many ads he made early in his career, alongside the pop art he later produced riffing on iconic brands. And while it does make a certain kind of sense to include both, I also feel like a meaningful difference is potentially being erased there. What about you? What’s been your experience crossing genres?
CH: While I’m in the process of writing in any genre, I don’t feel as if there’s a difference. It’s only once I read them back that I feel I’m reading different people. And I agree, I think that poets definitely seem more adaptable, especially in regard to the music of a piece—learning to write by ear.
BP: Yeah! I like this notion that we become different people when we write in different genres. And maybe that’s why it’s so worthwhile to experiment across genres: it enables you to inhabit different personae. In that way, it’s a bit like learning a new language. As William Carlos Williams says, “A new music is a new mind.”
CH: Lastly, I wondered if you could talk a bit about what you’re reading at the moment? Are there any debut authors you’ve recently been intrigued by?
BP: Yes! Since we’ve discussed both poetry and fiction, I’ll offer one of each:
Lean Against This Late Hour is Iranian poet Garous Abdolmalekian’s first collection translated into English (by Ahmad Nadalizadeh and Irda Novey) and it’s utterly brilliant. As far as I’m concerned, it really is without equal, though it does feel a little like reading W.S. Merwin’s The Lice, with its dark surrealism set against the aftermath of war. “We aimed at our targets / but war / shed its bullets in the dark.”
A Burning is Megha Majumdar’s debut novel and it’s masterful. If you haven’t read it, it’s such a rich and vivid study of how political corruption can greatly benefit some while costing others their lives. It features three main characters, and we cycle through all three intersecting storylines. Just astonishingly well balanced and paced. As I revise my novel, I find it’s teaching me a lot.