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The Mind in Solitude: An Interview with Claire-Louise Bennett

July 18, 2016 | by

Photo © Conor Horgan

Strange things happen when you live alone. When youre no longer required to eat dinner at a particular time, or to close the bathroom door to shower, your relationship to the space around you changes. All of a sudden it is things, rather than other people, that seem to direct your thoughts.

In the most literal sense, the twenty stories that make up Claire-Louise Bennett’s debut, Pond, record a series of moments in the life of an English woman living alone on the west coast of Ireland. The woman eats fruit, tries to replace a broken dial on her Salton mini oven, and wonders if the cows in a nearby field believe she is Jesus. What makes the book unique is the voice in which those moments are described—unfolding in a bird-like language that feels closer to thought than public address.

These are not stories in the traditional sense—neither are they essays, monologues, prose poems, letters or diary entries—but a series of improvisations on each. “Pond is the way it is,” Claire-Louise told me recently when we chatted over email, “because of the way I am, more or less.” Most essentially, Pond is an account of the mind as it exists in solitude. It attempts to engage with the universe at its fullest and not just the little portion of it we identify as human. I began our conversation by asking Claire-Louise where she was writing to me from. 

BENNETT

I’m in an apartment. And since I pay the rent on it each month and have a key to its door and the codes for the two entrance gates it’s reasonable to say it’s my apartment. I don’t feel much for it though. It seems thin, insubstantial, and often when I sit at the table, to eat, and at the desk, to write, I have the sensation the furniture and me are going to fall right through the floor into the thin, insubstantial, flat beneath. It’s raining, of course it is, it’s always raining. My dapper striped deckchair is swollen stiff with rainwater and will probably never close now. I can’t think why I ever opened it here, on a balcony on the west coast of Ireland. Read More »

The Hatred of Poetry: An Interview with Ben Lerner

June 30, 2016 | by

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What do we want from poetry? To read a poem is, on some level, to loathe it—both poem and poet aspire to fulfill a set of impossible expectations from the culture. In his new book, The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner argues that a disdain for poetry is inextricable from the art form itself. Earlier this month, Michael Clune spoke to Lerner at Greenlight Books, in Brooklyn. The exchange below is an edited version of that conversation. —Ed.

INTERVIEWER

One of the most striking things you do in The Hatred of Poetry is to reorient our sense of value. Your canon is “the terrible poets, the great poets, and the silent poets,” as opposed to the merely good or the mediocre. You write about the worst poet in history, McGonagall, and his horrific masterpiece, or antimasterpiece, “The Tay Bridge Disaster”:

Beautiful railway bridge of the silv’ry Tay
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last sabbath day of 1879
Which will be remembered for a very long
time.

LERNER

Wikipedia says that he’s widely considered the worst poet ever. Read More »

Dialogues: An Interview with Aaron Stern and Jordan Sullivan

June 22, 2016 | by

Rebecca Norris Webb, Blackbirds, color photographs. From the series “My Dakota,” 2005–2011.

Rebecca Norris Webb, Blackbirds, 2006, color photograph. From the series “My Dakota,” 2005–2011.

A few weeks before the end of 2014, Aaron Stern and Jordan Sullivan wrote me to request permission to reprint the poem “My Gift to You,” by Roberto Bolaño, which was published in our Summer 2012 issue. Stern and Jordan, both of whom are photographers, had recently opened a small space called 205-A in which they hosted group photography exhibitions with the aim of creating an artistic community in dialogue. They had also begun publishing small-run books; “My Gift to You” was intended for a book pairing images by nine photographers with the work of nine poets. Titled 36 Photographs & 20 Poems, the slim volume is published under the heading Dialogues 01, indicating future installments in a series.

The book appeared in limited quantity in 2015. Its dimensions are slightly smaller than those of the Review, and its pale pink covers are unassuming: with only the title and a white rectangle on the front, suggesting an empty frame, it has the austerity of a classic Éditions Grasset cover. Stern, who lives in New York, spoke with me in person; I corresponded with Sullivan, who resides in Los Angeles, over e-mail. The assembled conversation returns again and again to the linked ideas of collaboration, correspondence, and correspondences.

 

INTERVIEWER

The epigraph is from Arseny Tarkovsky’s “On the Bank,” a sublime and foreboding poem about the natural world. The book’s opening photograph, by Rebecca Norris-Webb, depicts an army of brown, bowing sunflowers and a plague of birds and echoes Tarkovsky’s line about “the terrible, vegetable sense of self.” Why did you choose to begin this way?

SULLIVAN

The poem explores the moment when one realizes nature has a language, though that language is incomprehensible. This realization makes the world both troubling and beautiful, and perhaps the world made more sense to him before he was able to contemplate it, before he was fully conscious, before he “counted life in years.” This narrative speaks to this large cosmic complexity, and I think it makes for a nice ground from which the rest of the poems and pictures in the book can grow. Essentially, this book is an exploration of the world at large. There isn’t a concrete thesis or message we’re trying to convey. We were more interested in presenting poems and images we found interesting and organizing them in a way where meaning could be generated from their interaction. Whatever that meaning is, it will be different for each person. Read More »

Surrendering to Your Own Maneuvers: An Interview with Jana Prikryl

June 21, 2016 | by

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The After Party, Jana Prikryl’s debut collection of poems, is divided in two. In the first half, the reader is mainly in New York, swaying between the modern and the classical, easing between Internet aphorisms and well-dusted literary lives; in half a dozen gently mocking, moving lines in “Ars Poetica,” we find ourselves falling from an observation about Kelly Oxford’s tweets into Arthur Conan Doyle and the history of spiritualism. The collection’s second half switches modes, and we find ourselves engaged with a long, bold sequence of fragments that carry an air of nostalgia. These later poems explore the natural world, the interplay between femininity and masculinity, and a lingering sense of not belonging. Perhaps it’s an odd comparison, but the closing sequence, “Thirty Thousand Islands,” made me think of Matisse and his 1940s cutouts: the preeminent sense of environment, but also the way that techniques of balance and contrast seem to give the work its structure and much of its impact. Read More »

Is That All There Is?: An Interview with Stephanie Danler

May 24, 2016 | by

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The first sentence of Stephanie Danler’s riveting debut novel is perhaps more an injunction than an imperative: “You will develop a palate.” Over the 355 pages of Sweetbitter, the narrator, twenty-two-year-old Tess, encounters a number of appetites. She arrives in New York City during the heat wave of 2006 and applies for a job at a prestigious Manhattan restaurant. The manager, a man, stares at her just a little too long—the black sundress, the pilled cardigan wet with sweat—and we sense that her education will soon begin. Oysters, Pinot Noir, lines of coke at the bar. “The sour, the salty, the sweet, the bitter.”  Read More »

The State of the Political Novel: An Interview with Édouard Louis

May 3, 2016 | by

Édouard Louis

Édouard Louis, born in 1992, grew up in Hallencourt, a village in the north of France where many live below the poverty line. Now his account of life in that village, written when he was nineteen, has ignited a debate on class and inequality, foisting Louis into the center of French literary life.  

En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule (Finishing off Eddy Bellegueule) is unsparing in its descriptions of the homophobia, alcoholism, and racism that animated Louis’s youth in Hallencourt. “We thought the book would be as invisible as the people it describes,” said Louis, who rejects any romantic views of the “authenticity” of working-class life. His publisher thought the first edition, two thousand copies, would last years. But hundreds of thousands of copies have sold in France, and the book is being translated into more than twenty languages. The novel, which has earned Louis comparisons to Zola, Genet, and de Beauvoir, is set to appear in English later this year.

Eddy Bellegueule can be read as a straightforward coming-of-age story, but beneath its narrative is an almost systematic examination of the norms and habits of the villagers—inspired, Louis has said, by the theories of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. It’s as if he’s taken the whole place and put it behind glass—like observing the inner workings of an anthill.

Who is Eddy Bellegueule, and why do you want to finish him off?

Eddy Bellegueule is the name my parents gave me when I was born. It sounds dramatic, but yes, I wanted to kill him—he wasn’t me, he was the name of a childhood I hated. The book shows how—before I revolted against my childhood, my social class, my family, and, finally, my name—it was my milieu that revolted against me. My father and my brothers wanted to finish off Eddy Bellegueule long before, at a time when I was still trying to save him. Read More »