Ben Purkert

Welcome to the first edition of I Want to Read Your Future Book!

We’re very pleased to bring you an interview with Ben Purkert, as well as a recording of his poem, “U-Haul & the Dream of Arrows.” If you know of an up-and-coming poet whose first (as-yet non-existent) book you’d like to read, let us know. We’ll reach out, or we’ll publish an interview you put together. 

Enjoy our email-chat with Ben below, and don’t forget to check out our equally new p+nTV!

Forever and for always,

Annik Adey-Babinski: Hi Ben! I’d love to talk a bit about ‘U-Haul & the Dream of Arrowsbefore we get to know more about your path as a writer. What I really liked about the poem was– a lot of things– but what struck me was the colloquial voice. I find that a great deal of poetry I admire these days, and especially poets coming from the U.S. — Matthew Dickman and Matthew Zapruder jump out as examples–use a very conversational tone and speak plainly. However, in speaking plainly, they paint these gorgeous neon images that are fantastical and simultaneously grounded in domestic life, full of pop culture. I’m still very much coming to an understanding of what it is that is so attractive to me about these writers’ poems. I think it has a lot to do with creating portals into possible worlds and other, mystical understandings of the everyday. This effect was achieved for me with your poem, ‘U-Haul & the Dream of Arrows.’ I took a look at the syllabus for the Introduction to Poetry and Fiction Creative Writing course you taught this year and I saw that you’d included a few of Zapruder’s poems, so I’m assuming he’s an influence among many for you. Can you speak to this trend I’ve suggested in new American poetry? (I’m a Canadian, so maybe I’m unaware that it’s already ‘a thing’ in writing circles in the US).

Ben Purkert: First off I should say that I’m humbled by the praise and appreciate your attention to my poem. In terms of your question about the colloquial, I’m very interested in how poems and poetries navigate different registers. There seems to be a sort of pressure to produce “accessible work” — how often do we hear that poetry suffers for not making itself understood? (By whom is a relevant question here.) At the same time, accessibility shouldn’t come at the expense of intricacy and complexity; it seems to me that Charles Bernstein has it right on this point. Many of my favorite younger American poets (I’m thinking here of Matthew Zapruder, Ben Lerner, Zach Savich, Heather Christle as a few examples) write in a way that strives to mimic the voice of the mind, and consciousness need not be artificially elevated. Rather it’s fast-paced. Not simple so much as central. I’m inclined to think too about Wordsworth (one of Zapruder’s influences) and his notion of reflecting the “real language of men.” As for placing this movement within a geographical context, that’s difficult for me to say. One of my favorite collections is Lemon Hound by Sina Queyras, a Canadian poet — her poems beautifully interweave the colloquial with an interpretation of Woolf’s The Waves.

AAB: On a more technical note, I liked the freedom of  ‘U-Haul & the Dream of Arrows, in terms of form and loose punctuation. I often find it hard to break out of ‘the box’ shape when I’m composing a poem. How do you decide where/when it’s the right time to break a line? What guides the physical shapes of your poems? Why do you choose to use the ampersand rather than ‘and’?

BP: I’m very interested in the line break as a kind of abrupt pivot. Matthea Harvey’s work often functions in this way — the reader falls off the cliff and then must climb back up somehow. Often it’s difficult to reconcile the two interpretations (pre-break and post-break) and this can be very beautiful. With regard to form, as with writing in general, I do my best not to inorganically impose my own constrictions on the work. But this is hard to do! What’s most exciting is when a poem begins to take shape on its own, or a poem seems to be asking for air, in which case I try to accommodate that request. (I realize this all starts to sound a bit crackpot.) As for the ampersand, I don’t use it exclusively but it does appear in my recent work, much of which is interested in the language of brands and consumerism. “&” has a fascinating history in this regard, and also satisfies a kind of “economy of language” that matters both in poetry and business — the virtue of being concise.

AAB: I don’t think that sounds crackpot at all. Poems ‘want’ things too, and part of the trick can be in silencing yourself so that you can get to where they want to be. A basic Google search of your name and the word ‘poems’ turns up an impressive array of journal editing credits. I learned you went to Harvard and edited their lit journal, The Gamut. The Internet also told me you edited Washington Square Review, NYU’s lit rag. What has working as an editor taught you that you’ll bring to Bodega Mag, the new publication you’re editing for? Could you tell us a bit about the editing board of Bodega and the concept behind the magazine?

BP: The best part of being a poetry editor is working with and learning from other poetry editors. It’s very thrilling when a piece comes in that genuinely surprises or moves you; what’s even better though is when a fellow editor helps you discover something radiant in a different piece that you might have otherwise passed on. Bodega Mag is an exciting venture! I’m very happy to be working with my fellow editors, in particular my two poetry co-editors: Lizzie Harris and Amy Meng. We’re aiming to produce an online journal that presents a sampling of established and emerging writers across an aesthetic range, all in bite-size quantities — we want each issue to be striking, digestible and absorbed fully, not skimmed.

AAB: I read most of the poetry I consume on the Internet. It’s been an excellent venue through which to learn of poets on the rise. With the increase of online lit publications, do you feel that the literary playing field is evened, or are the old guard still reigning over literary taste? How do you consume the majority of poetry that you read?

BP: The internet is of course an incredible resource for poetry — DIAGRAM in particular is an online journal that makes great use of the medium. The Claudius App is another that comes to mind. At the same time, while the internet allows for greater innovation and experimentation, I think it’s important to make sure that as readers of poetry, we’re supporting poets. I buy new collections whenever I have the inclination and means to do so; that’s how I consume most of the poetry I do. I’m also just very interested in the curation of collections, the organizing principles by which poems become sequences, larger patterns.

AAB: I get understand that you just finished your MFA at NYU. Congratulations! Perhaps this is poetic blasphemy, but I often wonder if the connections made in top-tier MFA programs are more valuable than the writing time and mentoring you receive in those two years (which I suspect is sparse and pressured by other academic responsibilities). Do you feel that the program has set you up in such a way that you’re double-bounced into the literary world with greater ease than someone who is simply sending poems to various publications from their local cafe in Alaska or Ontario? In other words, in such a digital world, is there still value to be had in literary networking connections made IRL? I guess I’m also asking about the influence of professional and personal connections on perceptions of literary merit. Any opinions on this?

BP: “Networking” and “connections” are such ugly words! I think it’s in part because these terms are so fundamentally dehumanizing, in the sense that the emphasis is placed on the string between two people rather than the people themselves. Individuals as means to an end. This is where the charge of nepotism comes into play. But maybe this is all beside the point. For me, the NYU MFA experience was incredibly rewarding both because it afforded me time to write and because I worked closely with so many talented and generous fellow writers. Certainly many people become wildly successful published writers without attending such programs. But ultimately publication shouldn’t be the goal I think. It’s about striving to develop as an artist, and finding a supportive, challenging community in which to do so. It seems to me that your community in Ontario no doubt serves that same purpose quite wonderfully.

AAB: Your bio mentions that you are working on a book, One Good. In working on thiscollection, do you center the poems around a singular theme or story, or is it a collection of single poems? How has it been to craft your first cohesive, larger work (if it is your first)?

BP: During college I wrote a collection of poems as my senior thesis. That was an exercise in producing a cohesive body of work, but I wasn’t ready yet. I hadn’t read nearly enough and the poems suffered as a result. (I still need to be reading much more — this is, and probably should be, a writer’s constant anxiety.) In the years following graduation I worked at a branding agency and this experience helped shape much of what I’m writing now. Thematically the poems in One Good are interested in the relationship between people and products, though certainly not every poem fits this categorization.

AAB: Who/what are some of your favourite poets or poems?

BP: In addition to the folks listed above, here’s some of what I’m loving now: Alphabet by Inger Christensen. Fall Higher by Dean Young. My Poets by Maureen McLane. Mule by Shane McCrae. Place by Jorie Graham. Her poem “Earth” is so amazingly urgent — I hope the planet finds it in time.

AAB: What do you do when you’re stuck? What inspires you?

BP: When I find myself getting stuck, as is often the case, I figure it’s because I haven’t read enough poetry lately.

AAB: You’ve lived in two American literary meccas, Boston and New York. Which would you say is more electric? Where are things crackling?

BP: It’s true that a number of amazing writers live in both these cities, but I think it’s important not to fetishize too much the contexts out of which poems sprout. (By “contexts” I’m referring to both the cities and the actual poets themselves.) Literary “scenes” are wonderful when they lead to readings, conversations and access. Less so when they become stifling or exclusionary. I do get excited thinking about the fact that poetry can come from, and does come from, everywhere. This is probably part of why Iowa remains such a compelling narrative from the perspective of the New York writer’s terribly biased mindset: wow, look at all the writing coming out of there! But that’s garbage. What’s exciting is not that the poem came from there or there, but that it’s here, right now, and we can hold it.

Many thanks to Ben for giving us such a strong start to this new series. Enjoy a recording of his poem, “U-Haul & the Dream of Arrows,” below.