Originally published in Willow Springs 76
From the author
Notes on the Ben Lerner Poems
My inspiration for these pieces is two-fold: 1) My jealousy of Ben Lerner and 2) My fascination with my own teenage years and Midwestern upbringing. The inspirations are intertwined. I am jealous of Ben Lerner partly because he’s in many ways the person I wanted so badly to become when I was in my late teens and early twenties: We are the same age. We both grew up in the Midwest—Lerner in Kansas; me in Indiana. We both went to well-known schools out east for college. We both wanted to be poets, writers. While I feel lucky to have done relatively well in the pursuit of this path (or as well as can be said of someone who now makes their living as a librarian in Idaho; OMFG WTF happened…), Lerner has achieved a kind of wild success, and deservedly so. I remember reading his first book, The Lichtenberg Figures, and being blown away (a response that Lerner has managed to garner from me with each subsequent book as well, that asshole). So not only did he achieve this success, he established early on that he was on that path.
And so I have had a somewhat complicated relationship in my head with Ben Lerner ever since I first encountered his work. This is doubly complicated by my own (possibly false and most definitely contrived-to-make-these-poems) belief that we share the similarly bleak cultural heritage of growing up in the pre-good-internet, 1990s Midwestern United States during the rise of the chain restaurant and big box store. And I call this upbringing bleak, but I keep wanting to go back to the sentence and delete the word “bleak” because at the same time there was something wonderful about what that type of experience does to someone, which is also what the poems explore, particularly the power of male friendships in that context.
And more generally, I also like the way “Ben” sounds, as it is repeated throughout these; I feel like it establishes a type of theme, like the tolling of a bell. My big dream for these and the other Ben Lerner poems I’ve written is to make them into a chapbook and enter that into a contest being judged by Ben Lerner so that the book would be called, if it won the contest, something like: Ben Lerner, Ben Lerner, Ben Lerner, and Other Poems, selected by Ben Lerner, and then of course Lerner would have a blurb on the back as well. I just think that would be really funny.
Notes on Reading
Part of a poem in my recent book, Shame | Shame, goes: “But I don’t trust big religions, I prefer little ones, like Reading. / Reading says, none of us, not one of us, is alone. / Reading says, we are speaking to each other even now from our little homes … ” I believe what I wrote. Reading is a type of religion, one made up of a certain type of person/reader for whom the act of reading has taken on a sort of transcendent importance in that it allows them relief from his/her self through participation in a tradition and community that connects people over large distances of time and space. That sounds a bit crazy/pedantic, I know. I also wouldn’t know exactly how to describe what constitutes my fellow believers in Reading, but I definitely know a fellow believer when I meet one.
But enough of the highfalutin. More importantly, what have I been reading:
In terms of fiction, I’ve been reading a great deal of post-apocalyptic books this year. I just finished Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which I think is the best of what I’ve read so far, but I also read and enjoyed Edan Lepucki’s California and Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars. I find a great deal of peace in reading about the landscapes in these books. The violence and depravity found in this type of catastrophically driven environment is disturbing, to be sure, but I think the writers who do the genre well are able to capture a great deal of beauty in these altered landscapes as well. On a side note, this attraction to people-less landscapes is also what keeps me living in Idaho. (Please don’t move here; it’s beautiful.)
As for poetry, I’ve been rereading my fellow librarian/poet Philip Larkin lately. He’s a master; I will always have a great deal to learn from him. I have a number of poetry book stacks going as well, which always happens after AWP. Right now the main stack includes Richard Siken’s War of the Foxes, Cecily Parks’ O’Nights, Brian Blanchfield’s A Several World, Nin Andrews’ Why God is a Woman, Craig Morgan Teicher’s Ambivalence and Other Conundrums, and Erika Meitner’s Copia. I am finding each of these to be excellent in its own way. There is too much good poetry in the world these days.
Other excellent poetry books I’ve read this year include:
- The Open Secret by Jenifer Moxley – If I were to write another series of poems to another contemporary poet, they would be to Moxley, whose work (including her giant memoir The Middle Room), I usually can’t put down once I start reading it;
- The Errings by Peter Streckfus –like his first book, strange and beautiful;
- Bugle by Spokane’s own Tod Marshall – dark, funny, formally fascinating and faithful to the Inland Northwest in a way I find admirable;
- and This Can’t Be Life by Dana Ward – a mind-blowing work for me in both style and content.
I should mention that I read Lerner’s novel 10:04 this year, and disliked it through the first third until I got over myself and then really liked the rest, albeit slightly begrudgingly—this was not my best Reading moment, to be sure. I still prefer Lerner’s poetry, mainly because I learn a great deal from it as a poet. I think Mean Free Path is a particularly fascinating book, one that took me a long time to finally “get” but that really moved me when I finally found my way into it, which happened on a plane from Pullman, WA to Seattle very early one morning.
I also am lucky enough to work at a library, which allows for a type of serendipitous discovery of poets and books during the breaks I spend browsing the American Literature section (Call Number Range: PS 3550 -3576). My two big finds for this year so far are The Animals All Are Gathering by Bradley Paul and The Enormous Chorus by Frank Kuenstler. Both are books I can’t believe I didn’t know about previously to my happening upon them in the stacks.
About Devin Becker
Devin Becker’s first book, Shame | Shame (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2015), was selected by David St. John as the winner of the 2014 A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize. He works as a librarian at the University of Idaho Library in Moscow, Idaho, where he lives with his wife, his daughter, and his dog.