Thursday, June 8, 2023

TtD supplement #241 : six questions for Ben Meyerson

Ben Meyerson holds an MFA from the University of Minnesota and an MA in philosophy from the Universidad de Sevilla. He is currently a PhD candidate in comparative literature at the University of Toronto. He is the author of four chapbooks: In a Past Life (The Alfred Gustav Press, 2016), Holcocene (Kelsay Books, 2018), An Ecology of the Void (above/ground press, 2019) and Near Enough (Seven Kitchens Press, forthcoming in 2023). His poems, translations and essays have appeared in several journals, including Interim, PANK, Long Poem Magazine, El Mundo Obrero, Great River Review, The Inflectionist Review, Rust+Moth, and Pidgeonholes. His debut collection, entitled Seguiriyas, is forthcoming from Black Ocean Press in the fall of 2023.

His poems “Summer Storm,” “Under the Antigua Iglesia de San Miguel in Guadix” and “Living Together” appear in the thirty-seventh issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Summer Storm,” “Under the Antigua Iglesia de San Miguel in Guadix” and “Living Together.”

A: All three of them are trying to reckon with the delicate uncertainty of contact between two cultures, either in real time or in memory. “Summer Storm” describes one of the many times when the basement of my childhood house was damaged by flooding, but it’s really about Jewishness and the ways in which occupying a home has taken on particular significance for diasporic Jews, who have constantly navigated living situations in which they have been minorities relative to other dominant cultures. In the home, life takes on a shape, and that shape delimits and forms the continuous, cyclical (re)production of collective memory, thereby overcoming whatever might have threatened to interrupt or destroy that communal remembrance and serving as insulation against the dangers of the outside world – as I observe in the poem, “the will to have becomes the will to remember.” Practices of remembrance tend to perform the annihilation of their own content over and over for the sake of its preservation – memory destroys and renews itself all at once so that it can exist both as a subject of discourse and as an inarticulate dimension of somatic experience or an undecidable inflection of voice, producing a yearning that renders it doubly present, a pang that both pulls the individual into a choral relationship with the community and leaves them isolated in their own body. Memory, then, is always “dying so that it is never to die,” purposive in its self-compromising process of preservation and yet purposeless when it generates a feeling of loss in us, having never set out to hurt us.

“Under the Antigua Iglesia de San Miguel in Guadix” looks at similar questions from a totally
different angle, and moves beyond the scope of Judaism to consider the layering of Muslim and
Christian history in Andalusia, which was ruled by several Muslim dynasties from the 8th century until 1492, when the Emirate of Granada finally fell to Christian forces in the culminating phase of what was known as the “Reconquista.” Within the next decade or so, all the Muslims in Spain were forcibly converted to Christianity, and just over a century later, the Spanish crown ordered the expulsion of these Moriscos (converted Muslims) from the country. In the poem, the layering of Christian and Muslim history in Andalusia is literal: the Iglesia de San Miguel, which is located in Guadix (a town in the Sierra Nevada mountains about an hour’s drive from Granada) is a church that was built atop the remains of a mosque – a relatively common phenomenon in Spain during the years following the Reconquista. Even after the Moriscos were expelled from the country in 1609, the churches remained intertwined with the mosques. My goal in the poem is to demonstrate the ways in which the absence of one culture is constructed and reconstructed by the layering of history – stones atop stones, then memories atop memories. I’m interested in the pressure of that layering. On the one hand, it’s definitely destructive, and reproduces the violence that set it into motion – after all, “each brick is deaf to its brother.” On the other hand, though, it exerts a kind of pressure that’s much more generative, that adds rather than subtracts: a more expansive sense of space and time, a “pearl that erupts from what enfolds it.” So where does that leave us? I had to end the poem, because I didn’t know. Histories alway seems to be caught up in a double-bind whereby their accretion is both destructive and generative all at once, but as I stood in the thick of that dilemma on Calle San Miguel, the weather was unseasonably hot even for July in Andalusia, and I was sweating, my attention wandering. The idea of the destructive and generative dual-motion of historical accumulation became a bit of a brain-worm for me, though, so I do revisit that theme at greater length over the course of my book Seguiriyas, in which all of these poems are set to appear.

“Living Together” is my attempt to write something that looks like a love poem even as it continues to explore the same sorts of relations that I address in the other two poems: cultures doing their best to come to an understanding and remembering one another once that fragile understanding has been ruptured. It’s about two people sitting beside one another, but also about two cultures attempting to do the same, and then the way that fraught cohabitation gets reproduced and perhaps idealized in memory. Given its proximity to “Under the Antigua Iglesia de San Migul in Guadix,” one might be tempted to read “Living Together” as a tacit critique of Américo Castro’s rose-tinted conception of the medieval period in Spain as a time of “convivencia,” in which Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities coexisted in relative harmony; that interpretation would certainly be fine with me!
Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: The three poems in question share some thematic affinities with the poetry that I’ve been writing more recently in the sense that I continue to be interested in the ways in which the back-and-forth between communal and individual memory accumulates both in bodies and on a historical or intergenerational scale. However, I’ve been trying to expand my thinking on that front and explore how the constructive-cum-destructive dynamics of memory might relate to some of the oldest philosophical fascinations – in particular, I’m drawn to the presocratic thinkers’ persistent attempts to delineate the substrate of all being, its composition and its movement – generation, destruction, preservation and exchange are central physical and social principles in the ontology of thinkers like Anaximander and Heraclitus, and they resurface in the work of many of my favorite modern philosophers. Since memory (and especially diasporic memory) seems to operate according to permutations of the those same principles, it is my hope that in elaborating a correlation between memory and ontology, my poetry might be able to function as a space in which they are constantly bringing one another to life and extending into a whole host of more particularized concerns, including but not limited to: the establishment, codification and enforcement of legal authority, the interplay between property and debt, communal attachment to territory, and the foundational ethical imperative that orders one’s encounter with another. All of that might sound rather grandiose when put in such terms, but in practice I’m mostly writing about rivers, rock and soil formations, tree roots, light and shadow – my goal has been to describe a rock or a river in such a way that I end up at, say, a consideration of state power and the practice of keeping ledgers, and that approach has led me to experiment a lot with form in an attempt to tweak my own mode of attention. I’ve been playing with sonnets and ciphers, I’ve tried to use visual spacing that approximates the layout of medieval musical notation, and I’ve had a good time attempting to translate the discursive arrangement of Talmudic commentary into a poetic register. All of that tinkering has impacted the ways in which I’ve been building imagery, using rhythm and cadence, and ordering my thoughts. That said, there are still plenty of resonances between what I’m working on now and the poems from Seguiriyas – I like to revisit motifs, and I’m as guilty as most other writers of falling too often into my favorite patterns of speech, no matter how hard I try to be mindful of my own habits. I am not remaking myself so much as finding pressure points in what I’ve already done and then turning them into loci of something a little more modest than transformation – ‘adjustment’ is very nearly the word I’m looking for here, I think.
I should also mention that I’ve been slowly but steadily translating the poetry of Javier Egea into English over the course of the last several years. Egea was one of the most prominent Andalusian poets of his generation and published his most important books in the 1980s and 1990s. Having come of age as a writer in the wake of Francisco Franco’s long-lived fascist dictatorship in Spain, he was deeply concerned about the ways in which poetry could be complicit with such ideologies, even in cases wherein complicity was the opposite of its intent. Accordingly, he made a point of drawing rigorous distinctions between the sincerity of lyric expression and the truth about the material conditions of the society from which that lyricism has emerged. The influence of his sensibility and rhetorical inflections has accreted over time in the stylistic choices that I tend to make in my own work, so that’s one thing that unites the pieces that make up the Seguiriyas manuscript with the poems that I’m writing right now: all of them have been produced in concert with my ongoing engagement with Egea.

Q: What do you feel exploring the poetries of other languages allows your work, and even your thinking, that might not have been possible otherwise?

A: Well, there’s the general benefit of exposing oneself to writers and poetic modes that lack representation in the English language, of course, but even more importantly, I think that reading poetry across languages has helped me to develop more of an intuition about what a poem actually is – or, to put it in more precise terms, to intuit a certain selfsameness proper to ‘poetry’ that persists from situation to situation. This is different than saying that I know in certain and rigorous terms what a poem is (if I knew that, then I suspect writing would suddenly lose a lot of its luster for me); instead, I am developing a sense of how a poem appears to me. Poetic conventions differ across languages, cultures and eras. Accordingly, we can observe how rhetoric, meter, tropes and even modes of subjectivity have been constructed according to divergent ideologies, linguistic foundations and historical precursors, how they remain in flux and continue to accumulate into diverse practices and traditions. Moreover, no two languages possess exactly the same palette of sounds or grammatical idiosyncrasies at their disposal. And yet, amid such divergences, a poem – whatever that is – remains identifiable in some way. I’m hesitant to systematize things much more than that, but I suspect that if it is the case that poems in so many different registers, epochs and linguistic milieus chime forth as ‘poetry’ in such a manner, then there must be some convergence of intention and attention whose modality conditions and propels that emergence. I don’t claim to know with any degree of precision or surety what constitutes this poetic convergence between intention and attention, but I do know that exposing myself to its many different manifestations across languages teaches me to be aware of when it is happening and to identify certain of its features that feel especially important to me.

I should add that there are also translators out there whose work helps me in the same way, because in each translated piece, they self-consciously attempt to preserve what Walter Benjamin would call the poetic language’s “after-ripening,” and the English-language version is transparent about the fact that it is always performing a process by which it curates for itself what cannot be prescinded from the poem’s identity as such. A couple of examples that come to mind as I write this response are Erín Moure’s English-language renderings of Galician-Portuguese cantigas in O Cadoiro and a recent dual-translation of Miguelángel Meza’s poetry from Guaraní into both Spanish and English by Meza, Elisa Taber, Carlos Villagra Marsal and Jacobo Rauskin, entitled Dream Pattering Soles.

Q: With four published chapbooks and forthcoming full-length collection, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I can only speculate. Those five collections of poems span a period of fairly dynamic – and non-linear – growth for me: the first chapbook consists of poems that I wrote when I was eighteen and nineteen years old, while the most recent chapbook (Near Enough, which is set to come out next month, if all goes according to schedule) and the full-length (Seguiriyas) largely include poems written throughout my mid and late twenties. Like most, I changed a lot over the course of that first decade of adulthood. As a result, the development of my poetic work is difficult to extricate from my maturation as a person, which is still very much – sometimes too much – a work in progress. Some of that is connected to place: I’ve moved around quite a bit, and the palette of images from which I draw has come to incorporate aspects of the landscapes that I’ve inhabited. I’ve also grown more particular in my interests, and that particularity has allowed me to cultivate a more granular sensibility in my poems – large chunks of Seguiriyas, for instance, arose from extensive research relating to the history and cultural exchanges surrounding flamenco music in Andalusia, and that kind of reading has furnished many of the poems written over the course of my years in Granada and Sevilla with a discursive depth that would otherwise be absent.

Most significant, though, is how the role of poetry in my life has evolved. From the outset, I was busy cultivating multiple interests at once: I was invested in philosophy and literary studies on an academic level, and poetry and music on a creative level. At first, I viewed poetry as something that could act in counterpoint with my academic pursuits. While I believed that my poems ought to be informed by concepts that I was also considering in a more scholarly register and that they ought to engage with other texts and challenging ideas, my poetic project, in my estimation, was something separate from the rest of what I did, a repurposing of all else that I’d picked up into a larger and more personal movement of lyric exteriorization (“the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” as Wordsworth put it) that could only ever be related abstractly to the ideas that I’d encountered in my philosophical or theoretical reading; on a concrete level, the lyric opening of the poem as it moved through me had to exist entirely unto itself. Slowly, that conviction began to change. It was easiest, first, to see the similarities between what I was doing with poetry and what I was clumsily attempting to do with the songs that I would write and record in the bedroom of whatever apartment I happened to be renting at the time. But over the course of the time I spent doing my MFA in Minneapolis, I came to realize that poems could be used to build philosophical arguments, and that the flow of lyric exteriorization that I felt as I wrote wasn’t really internal to me at all in its inception: rather, it was my mind attuning itself to a much larger and more comprehensive movement proper to events on every stratum of being, an emergent unfolding that was historical, systemic, material, political, semiotic, somatic and psychic all at once.  Whatever it was that came from inside of me was only a vertex of what could be called upon. I remember being somewhat embarrassed at myself for having absorbed such a truth into my practice so belatedly. Suddenly, my academic work and my poetic work seemed to be permeating one another far more directly – the barrier between them had collapsed. As I continue forward, I see that mutual permeation intensifying. As I mentioned earlier, much of the formal experimentation that I’ve been doing in the past year or two has been in the interest of working out a poetics that both constructs its world by way of chiasmatic linkages between microcosms and macrocosms and excavates its surroundings with granular attention to historical detail. I’m repeating myself, but the goal is to be able to move from stones to state power and then return to the stones. We’ll see how that goes in the long haul – even as I try to write in concert with the concepts and methods that I’ve laid out for myself, I have plenty of days where all of those concerns fall out of my brain and I find myself sitting down and simply writing a poem, just as I’ve been doing ever since I was a kid. I suspect that I’ll need to do both of those things if I want to get much done in the years to come: I’ll have to arrive at some kind of equilibrium between the philosophical apparatus that frames my projects and the purposelessness that allows the words to keep on tumbling out.

I’d also like to do a poetry collection in Spanish one of these days! I may as well start speaking that into existence sooner rather than later.

Q: Having spent time living on either side of the Canadian-American border, did you encounter a difference in poetry or approach? How did your experiences encountering communities or writing differ, if at all?

A: That’s a good question. I should preface my response by saying that I doubt many of my observations will be new to a large proportion of your readers, but here goes: I think that many of the differences are reducible to a question of scale. In the States, there are so many more people writing poetry and clamoring to be heard than in Canada. Given that vast gap in numbers, I’d say that there are fewer real opportunities to go around ‘per capita’ in the US than in Canada, and so the poetry world south of the border has become much more of an attention economy. In Canada, poets still have the luxury of being more self-contained if they so choose. I’ve noticed that difference when it comes to institutions, too: Poetry Foundation is such a tastemaker in the US (despite its somewhat spotty track record), and it’s sitting on a massive $257 million endowment – there’s nothing like that in Canada, as far as I’m aware. A side effect of institutions like Poetry Foundation is that taste becomes somewhat centralized, and the books and writers that are getting buzz there also tend to be the ones that are on trend in MFA programs, at AWP conferences, etc. On the one hand, there’s an occasionally pleasant feeling of mass connectedness that arises when you know that you’ve read something in common with just about every other MFA student in the country, but on the other hand, it does produce situations where everyone expects your reference points to be the same as theirs. For me, that quickly became a locus of frustration. In Canada, it’s much easier for a small, local or individually run operation to become known on a national scale (at least in my experience – I’ve recently been reading more about the Mimeograph Revolution in the States half a century ago, so perhaps things weren’t always the way they are now) and I think that’s a good thing. Although the amount of competition – and corresponding professional despair – that I’ve observed in American poetry communities induces a pressure cooker environment that, at the best of times, can elicit bursts of productivity in me, I do prefer the situation in Canada overall, because I think fewer talented writers fall through the cracks in the Canadian poetry community. With several notable exceptions, American presses are less hospitable to writers looking to place their first books than Canadian presses and often rely on monetized contests rather than submission windows, which creates a multi-tiered prize economy and often coerces emerging poets to produce the kind of work that they feel is most likely to succeed in a contest-based model. Such pressures exist in Canada, too, but they’re less pronounced, because a large proportion of Canadian presses do not run those kinds of judged, prize-oriented competitions.

In terms of poetics, my sense is that preferences and allegiances run the gamut on both sides of the border. I’ve often noticed certain stylistic and thematic trends making their way into Canadian poetry a couple of years after they’ve caught on in the States, and I have never seen that same influence happening in reverse on a large scale. That’s not surprising, though – the sheer size of the American poetry scene means that it’s a lot easier for Canadians to come across zeitgeisty American poetry collections online than it is for Americans to stumble onto, say, the most recent Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize winner (I poured one out for the Griffin’s domestic category as I typed that). However, I’ve found that Canadians tend to have more exposure to poetry from the UK than Americans do and that as a result, Canadian poetry is more likely to feature some of the precise-but-understated phrasal and grammatical cleverness that has been a strength in contemporary British poetry – but obviously I’m making gross generalizations here, on a number of levels.

I do think that there used to be more stylistic distinctions between what was written in Canada and what was written in the States, but the internet has done away with a lot of that. Now, most of the stylistic differences that I see are mediated by history, I think – discourses surrounding race, indigeneity and national identity are not exactly the same on both sides of the border, though they do strongly echo one another, of course.

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: Well, I suppose the first name on my list has to be Geoffrey Hill, because whenever I dive back into his stuff, I emerge feeling ready to write, and uniquely empowered to do so. There’s something about his grim, irascible energy and deep engagement with history that has spoken to me ever since I was a teenager. I revisit Nathaniel Mackey’s Splay Anthem very frequently – the way he plays with time and breath has been hugely influential for me over the years. Since childhood, I’ve been drawn to Yeats’ early and mid-career work (up to and including The Wild Swans at Coole), Blake’s prophetic books, and Crane’s The Bridge (which crept into the mix starting in my high school years), so rereading that material allows me to recapture fragments of my own early, irreplicable fascination. Federico García Lorca has been a real source of poetic impetus for me over the years – his collections Romancero Gitano and Poema del Cante Jondo, in particular. Increasingly, I find myself returning to the work of José Heredia Maya – especially his books Penar ocono, Experiencia y juicio and Charol. Heredia Maya, a Gitano poet, offers a standpoint that entirely escapes Lorca, and does so with a depth and wit that compel me to reassess his work each time I pull it off my shelf. Octavio Paz’s Piedra de sol, Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts and A.F. Moritz’s Sequence are three long poems whose immersive cadences and sensory richness never fail to pull something worthwhile out of me. Jorie Graham’s poetry has had a similar impact, as has Jan Zwicky’s, and in both cases I am often inspired by their ability to produce real, direct philosophical insight without isolating it from the way their writing appeals to the senses. And when I want to declutter my poetic imagination, I often turn to Jack Gilbert’s books (especially The Great Fires), W.S. Merwin’s work from the ‘80s and Yehuda Amichai.

There have been several collections published more recently that have persistently lured me back and renewed my enthusiasm for writing in moments when it has flagged: Liz Howard’s Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, Ishion Hutchinson’s House of Lords and Commons, Nicole Raziya Fong’s Oracule, Jennifer Elise Foerster’s The Maybe-Bird, Jose-Luis Moctezuma’s Place-Discipline, Aracelis Girmay’s The Black Maria, Josh Fomon’s Though We Bled Meticulously, José Felipe Alvergue’s Gist: Rift: Drift: Bloom, and Peter Balakian’s Ozone Journal.

I have to admit, though, that reading philosophy reenergizes my poetry at least as much as reading poetry does. I am certain that Spinoza’s Ethics has been the spark of just as many poems in me as any literary work out there.