B E N L E R N E R        C    o    u    r      t    e    s    y    o       f       C    o       f       f    e    e      H    o    u    s    e      P    r    e    s    s       C    o    u    r      t    e    s    y    o       f       C    o       f       f    e    e      H    o    u    s    e      P    r    e    s    s  Contemporary Literature 54, 2 0010-7484; E-ISSN 1548-9949/13/0002-0219 ᭧ 2013 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System an interview with B E N L E R N E R Conducted by Gayle Rogers O ne of the most important and prodigious youngwriters in America today, Ben Lerner is an omniv-orous reader whose work situates itself in relationto a host of antecedents, many of them notablyopposed to theories of writing as the expression or revelation of a singular, coherent interiority. Perhaps the clearest line extends,as Marjorie Perloff might trace it, from the early modernism of Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and William Carlos Williams toObjectivism, through the Black Mountain poets and Languagepoetry, and to current figures such as John Ashbery, CharlesBernstein, and those whom Stephen Burt has termed “elliptical”poets. If there is or was a tradition of the American avant-garde,Lerner would seem to belong to it, and the theories of referen-tiality and unsrcinality posited by Ron Silliman or Allen Gross-man that he cites in this interview seem explicatory. But thisgenealogy is partial. One is likely to find, in Lerner’s poetry andprose alike, traces of or allusions to Leo Tolstoy, Ludwig Witt-genstein, or Walt Whitman; or quotations from Walter Benjamin, Jean Baudrillard, or Jacques Derrida colliding with cliche´s fromTV melodrama; or oblique citations of theories of images andsimulacra, not as explanatory or exegetical concepts, but as fig-ures for the acts of  poesis and consumption. His writing contin-ually changes shape, employing masks, borrowing and recyclinglanguage with both innovative and self-alienating flair, andemphasizing process over product, composing over composi-tion, and limits over ideals of transcendence. Lerner is a multi-  220 ⋅ C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E form talent who crosses genres, modes, and media to representa leading edge of contemporary writing, and he has alreadyfound success in both academic and literary “prize cultures.”All of this—the intra- and extratextual—is complexly woventogether in Lerner’s debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (2011). Called by Lorin Stein “one of the funniest (and truest)novels I know of by a writer of his generation” and praised ubiq-uitously en route to winning multiple awards, the book takes itstitle from one of Ashbery’s opaque poems in The Tennis CourtOath (1962). Ashbery himself sees Atocha as “[a]n extraordinarynovel about the intersections of art and reality in contemporarylife”; indeed, its fusion of poetic and novelistic materials revealsmuch about the relationship between these and other genres inour day. Leaving the Atocha Station is the first-person narrative of Adam Gordon, a sort of untrustworthy alter ego of Lerner. Heis a habitual liar, a drug-addled poet who thinks of himself as afraud, a vain and fragile womanizer, and perhaps most impor-tantly for the novel itself, a character who steals others’ experi-ences and language and relates them as if they were his own.Adam spends a year in Madrid on a prestigious fellowship,working on his “project,” which is to be (we are told) an epicpoem about Franco, fascism, and the Spanish Civil War. He fre-quently claims to have progressed from one “phase” of his proj-ect to the next, but little evidence supports that assertion. Hecan’t keep track of which lies about himself—that his motherdied, that his father is a fascist—he has told to which of his twogirlfriends.But the external plot—Adam’s time in Madrid—is more a set-ting for the bigger concerns that the novel takes up, which arethe relationships among language, experience, art, mediation,authorship, and the spectacle of violence. The novel culminateswith Adam’s witnessing the bombing of the Atocha Station inMadrid, on March 11, 2004, an event that he wants to “feel,” toexperience as presence, but only absorbs secondhand throughnewspapers, others’ responses, and afterimages. Themajoreventof  Leaving the Atocha Station becomes a nonevent; most of thenovel takes place when nothing happens, when Adam drifts orescapes into gaps between conventional communications and  L E R N E R ⋅ 221 exchanges. In a compelling and darkly comic style, Lerner also builds on the recombinatory, unsettled nature of his own poetry.Adam, whose Spanish is dubious (he claims), relates conversa-tions with locals through a series of phrases such as “she saideither that . . .” and has a prolonged text message exchange withCyrus (Lerner’s friend the writer Cyrus Console) in which thetwo correspondents’ fragments of sentences coalesce in unin-tended ways as they discuss the latter’s having witnessed adrowning. Adam comes to stand for a version of the contem-porary artist abroad: he will not encounter for the millionth timethe reality of experience, nor forge in the smithy of his soul theuncreated conscience of his race. Rather, he will propose, feint,assert, and pseudo-theorize his way to an incomplete statementon aesthetic materialization. His personality, he claims, is a “tis-sue of contradictions,” and perhaps “only [his] fraudulence wasfraudulent.”The novel continues many of the concerns that intersect inLerner’s poetry and criticism, severalpiecesofwhichareworkedinto or quoted in the narrative. Lerner’s poetic style is experi-mental, indirect, meticulously formal without proposing unity,and filled with eclectic, avant-garde explorations of violence inall of its senses. With his first book, The Lichtenberg Figures (2004),he became the youngest poet ever published by Copper CanyonPress and won the Hayden Carruth Award. The German trans-lation led to his becoming the first American to win the Preis derStadt Mu¨nster fu¨r Internationale Poesie. The Lichtenberg Figures gathers a heap of broken images into an engrossing loose sonnetsequence that mixes history, self-deprecating autobiography,dreamlike visions, linguistic theory, absurdity, comedy, and gro-tesquerie. At times, Ce´sar Vallejo’s notoriously inscrutable epic Trilce (1922) promises to be a skeleton key to the work, only forthe poems themselves to undo that possibility—and then toundo the possibility of a skeleton key per se and of deciphera- bility as a critical or readerly aim or goal. Instead, one finds linessuch as “I wish all difficult poems were profound. / Honk if youwish all difficult poems were profound.” One poem is composedentirely of commonplace inquiries and phrases juxtaposed asquestions and answers (“‘Is this seat taken?’ I don’t understand  222 ⋅ C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E the question”); another riffs, in part, on Lerner’sownauthorship, beginning with “The author gratefully acknowledges the objectworld,” and concluding with the Library of Congress title infor-mation for The Lichtenberg Figures broken into poetic lines (butwith the Dewey decimal number changed to 911’.01).After spending a year in Spain on a Fulbright fellowship, Ler-ner published his second book of poems, Angle of Yaw (2006),which was a finalist for the National Book Award. A paradig-matic prose poem in this volume has a man in the crowd at asports stadium watching his portable TV, which itself displaysthe image of him watching his portable TV. That image is cur-rently being broadcast on the stadium’s Jumbotron, and we areremoved by several more layers of mediation from thisimaginedscene—reading about this image in a book, envisioning itthrough our own memories of such scenes that we’ve seen onTVs and/or Jumbotrons. These multiple levels of mediated per-ception and experience are both a topic of meditation and a motif throughout Angle of Yaw . Art and myths of experience continueto combine and conflate; flatness, aerial views, and “[t]he dis-placement of the horizontal plane by the vertical plane: the dis-placement of the God-term by the masses” prevail over presenceand experience. “No street, no land, no sky—just scape,” hewrites while looking back to Ashbery’s Parmigianino. Lerner’smeditation on 9/11 (or rather on images and depictions of 9/11) begins: It is difficult to differentiate between the collapse of the towersand the image of the towers collapsing.The influence of images is often stronger than the influence of eventsas the film of Pollock painting is more influential than Pollock’s paintings. To speak in poetry of the mediation of 9/11 is commonplace; toread these images through one of Pollock at work is a strikingdisplacement of affect and a commentary on the nature of authorship and artistry that Lerner often interrogates. A prosepoem in the form of a letter to Cyrus appears multiple timesunder erasure and hesitation, never articulated. Another poemstates, “I just want to be held, but contingently, the way the mindholds a trauma that failed to take place.” The closing section,