Ben Lerner, finalist for the National Book Award, current MacArthur Fellow and professor of English at Brooklyn College, visited Olin Hall on Thursday, November 2 as part of the Living Writers Series. He read some of his poetry and an excerpt from his 2014 novel, 10:04, to an enthusiastic audience. 10:04 was shortlisted for the Folio Prize in 2014. Lerner is from Topeka, Kansas, and he uses his home as inspiration in his poetry.
Associate Professor of English Jennifer Brice introduced Lerner and gave a brief description of his book for the audience members that had not yet read it, although a majority of the audience seemed to be familiar with the novel and had enjoyed it. There was a buzz of excitement in the air, coming from fans of Lerner’s writing that were eager to hear him read.
Before reading from 10:04, Lerner shared several poems with the audience. His first poem set the tone for those that followed and showcased his unique writing style. The poem flowed with limited structure, and was full of descriptive phrases and images that captured the audience.
His second poem, “Camperdown Elm,” was written in a similar style, and the words rolled off Lerner’s tongue effortlessly, entrancing the audience. This poem was very personal in nature, adopting a first-person perspective and creating imagery of children playing with fireflies.
As Lerner introduced his next piece to the audience, he revealed the modern way in which he had captured his thoughts.
“This is a poem I wrote on my phone,” Lerner said.
The way he wrote this poem matched its content, as it sounded like a slightly scattered, simple voicemail message.
The fourth poem, “The Pistol,” was less gentle, and ended as abruptly as it began. It demonstrated Lerner’s talent of flowing from one voice to another and changing tones. After this poem, Lerner transitioned to the reading of 10:04.
Lerner chose to read an excerpt from the book during which a character is giving a speech to an audience of students about his background in poetry. This was a very fitting portion of the novel to read, because it could be understood by the audience with little context.
The character addressed how the Challenger explosion and Ronald Reagan’s subsequent speech affected him at the young age of seven. Reagan’s final lines had resonated with the character, but he later found out that these weren’t Reagan’s own words. They weren’t even his speech writer’s words – they had been taken from a poem called “High Flight” written by a young pilot during the Second World War. “High Flight,” however, still wasn’t the original work, as several lines from it were also borrowed from an even earlier poem. The character then discussed how, instead of feeling betrayed, he finally understood the transcendence of poetry through time, saying this was “plagiarism that moves through bodies and time.” This is what inspired him to write.
Lerner captured the power of poetry beautifully through this reading, and at times it was even difficult to determine where Lerner’s words ended and his character’s began. The fact that they were both so powerful made Lerner’s writing all the more interesting and moving.
Lerner finished off his reading with two final poems. The first was “Contre-Jour,” a poem Lerner wrote in honor of the late John Berger, a poet and huge influence for Lerner. The poem itself had a beautiful but sad tone to it, reflecting the loss of such a great man. The final poem, “No Art,” was a perfect ending to the reading. With its unique first-person style, it seemed like Lerner was thinking out loud, just for the audience.
Following his final poem, Lerner opened up a question-and-answer session. He was asked how he was able to make his novel 10:04 timeless while structuring it around so many historical and time-stopping events, including 9/11 and the Challenger explosion. Lerner’s response was simple.
“The story you’re telling about the future determines your experience of the present,” Lerner said.
Lerner was also asked to speak about the meaning of friendship to him, because 10:04 has a centralized theme of friendship. For Lerner, there are many forms of friendship, and he used his novel to explore what kinds of caring can exist in the world, especially in the world of his characters. He also wanted to emphasize the possibility of friendship between male and female characters to show that it is possible to form a familial bond in a more modern, non-traditional way, where the romance is not between the two friends but in their friendship and care for each other.
Lerner’s striking poetry and resounding prose captured the audience, and the meaning he revealed behind his writing in the question-and-answer portion of the series were eye-opening. The event allowed peopel to see an author incorporate issues and topics he is passionate about so subtly and yet so strongly in his writing.
Contact Sasha Balasanov at [email protected]