Delight and Devastation: A Conversation with Ben Purkert
Ben Purkert’s poem “Caged Words in a Couple” appeared in AGNI 78.
Ben Purkert’s poems aren’t just concerned with intelligent life—they are intelligent life. Reading his lyrics, one feels an organism of language assembling, cobbling together casual talk, billboard advertisements, and wisdom to examine what we make and how it comes apart. His first collection, For the Love of Endings, is the kind of poetry debut that invites many re-readings as the poems turn in the light and take on new weight.
I’ve been reading Purkert’s poems for some time: we met in a college poetry workshop, and have continued to talk about craft, unremittingly, for nearly fifteen years. For the book’s March release, I wanted to get Ben’s thoughts on For the Love of Endings and the world it enters into. Our discussion highlights Ben’s distinctive approach to making poems, but it also captures the enthusiastic speed and range of his thinking.
Jay Deshpande for AGNI: I wanted to start by asking about the place of wit in these poems. I see it in phrases like “really gasoline got me where I am today” or “at least the swallows outside // my window sound into / each other.” In each of those cases, the statement is true but gets stranger the longer we look. Familiar phrases fork into multiple meanings and force us to take them literally. How do you think about wit as an instrument in poetry? Are you conscious of it when you write?
I’m not sure if I’m conscious of it as a writer, but I’m very attuned to it as a reader. I love poems that delight and devastate in equal measure, that strike many chords at once. Sometimes we associate being a “serious poet” with always being serious. But wordplay has been an integral part of poetry since the beginning. A serious part, even.
Wit, like poetry, is only as powerful as it is subversive. And I admire poets who take jargon and slogans and euphemisms and expose that language for what it is. Who break it open with enjambment and lay out the shards for the reader. A gasp and a laugh aren’t so far apart. They can even sound the same.
The laugh and the gasp are also bonded in that moment of surprise, which is one of the great pleasures a poem can give us. It makes sense that you refer to enjambment here, as the potential shock of a linebreak is central to your process. In “Salivating Over Nothing,” the poem quivers between peace and unrest, depending how we read a line: “& they / let the mind be // ravaged…”
It makes me think about the sense of impending threat throughout the book. The poems are laced with ideas about destruction. The speaker suggests “You can nuke yourself / garlic knots” or admits he will “work a little / bomb into this page.” Or he considers his own obsolescence: “When I’m gone, the thing I’ll miss is missing, is describing the world I miss.” What interests you about these big and small deaths in the poems?
“Big and small deaths” is such an interesting phrase, because every death feels so big, you know? But it’s hard sometimes to parse these differences of scale, particularly when gigantic icebergs are dissolving and small men are bragging about buttons on their desks that would make it all disappear.
I know we just talked about humor, so apologies for the dark turn, but I feel like all poems are inherently, as you said, laced with ideas about destruction. Dean Young describes poetry as being “formally involved with endings: its primary characteristic, the line, is defined by its ending, so poems are really ending all the time.” It’s poetry’s “terminal aspect.” And maybe that’s why poetry feels so necessary right now? It’s not that the world is ending and we need more poems about its demise. It’s that every poetic line is—by its nature—broken, interrupted, a life cut short. Poetry is the art form that’s closest to our condition.
Giorgio Agamben hits that same note in his lecture “The End of the Poem”: when the poem ends and we fall back into prose, it’s something like a death, or at least “a decisive crisis for the poem… the poem’s very identity is at stake.” Similar to Young, Agamben sees the linebreak as an essential quality of poetry, and doesn’t show much interest in the prose poem.
But I think the prose poem has that potency, too. This may sound weird but I’ve never understood why linebreaks in prose are paid so little attention. I talked with Kaveh Akbar recently and he expressed a similar feeling—shouldn’t the end word of any line (in all genres) sing? It’s the trophy you hand the reader before they trudge back to the left-hand side of the page. I’m indebted to my publisher (hi, Four Way Books!), for many reasons, not the least of which is that they indulged me and preserved the linebreaks of my prose poems as I’d written them. I’m also working on a novel right now and I’m always tweaking sentences and futzing with margins so that the story breaks in the “right” places. It was oddly comforting to discover that one of my favorite fiction writers, David Gilbert, does it too.
Let’s go back to this idea of “differences of scale.” I think your poems teach the reader how to parse them. For example, “Self-Portrait as Infinite Smallness” begins by acknowledging the speaker as a collection of microbes, then considers a car crash, then the street, then the city’s grid, then the ocean. It’s like a primer on how to expand from self to an environmental scale, step by step.
But when the poems look at the world on that macro scale, they often turn toward the possibility of abandonment. In addition to “Escape Plans,” there are a number of poems that contemplate leaving our ravaged planet behind. It’s like science fiction, but considering climate change, maybe this moment is nearly upon us. What are the ethics of imagining an escape from our home planet?
I don’t know much about science fiction, but I do know that our existence here is tenuous. That’s especially true for communities where resources are scarce, where the evacuation routes are already submerged. It’s horrifying to think about, and more horrifying not to think about. To answer plainly: if my poems are dreaming of an escape from Earth, it’s only because they’re so hopelessly attached to it.
On the topic of poetry and the environment, I have to mention Inger Christensen’s Alphabet. It’s such an incredible book; it attempts to take account of nearly every single thing that exists, as the threat of apocalypse looms. And here’s the miracle of her book: it’s not depressing! It’s strangely kind of joyous. Yes, tomorrow brings nuclear winter and floods and famine, but *today* still exists. Today is a gift, and poets must praise it.
And praise is no small task, especially for poets right now. But I’m curious about that accounting-for-things you mention. There’s a coy adherence to things in For the Love of Endings, specifically the physical matter of our late capitalist existence. A closeout on ice cream, a visit to Target, El Diablo Doritos “screaming my name”… I sense both an admiration for these products and a cynicism toward their power over us.
I wouldn’t say admiration, but definitely an obsession. Working as a branding copywriter really shaped (or misshaped) how I see language and its applications. Target, for example, is an interesting case… If you look at their marketing, notice how often they use the bullseye logo as a substitute for spelling out the brand name. Like the Nike swoosh, the symbol alone says it all. Once a brand is burned into our consciousness, it bypasses language altogether.
Your poems have a meticulous spareness. Even your colloquial phrases are poised and concentrated. So how do you revise? For instance, “Passing Thoughts in a Couple” was originally published in AGNI 78 as “Caged Words in a Couple.” The adjustments to it are small but significant. What’s the principle behind your revisions?
For me, revising means working in service of the poem on the page. I’m not trying to impose some idea I might have (Donald Hall: “There is no poem inside the head”). I like how George Saunders describes revision, this idea that every writer is outfitted with a compass that points either to good or bad, and you make edits through trial and error while keeping one eye on the quivering needle.
I will say, though, that revising a book is different than revising individual poems. It compelled me to make some changes I hadn’t expected. For instance, I think “Caged Words in a Couple” is possibly a stronger, more intriguing title. But there are sacrifices you make for the sake of the collective. Uh oh, I feel a sports metaphor coming on.
Running through the theme of environmental destruction is also an undercurrent of guilt and responsibility. It’s there in “Blame Game” (“Pin the ozone layer on me… I clearly went too far”) and it carries throughout the book. Sometimes it’s on the personal level, too: “like most men, I’ll gaze // at anything to avoid looking / inward.” Where do you get your poetics of self-incrimination from?
Well, I’ll say this: poetry is like prayer, and as such, it spans both praise and confession. I’m drawn to a speaker who feels burdened, who’s carrying some weight. It’s what makes writing compelling. As for me, I am absolutely culpable, and can’t hide that from my poems. I wouldn’t want to.
Jay Deshpande is a former poetry editor of AGNI. (3/2018)