“Who was chasing me through the brush? He’s staring at neon graffiti and doesn’t look away. He looks like a rich kid on acid. He turns into a duffle bag. The man I have sex with is me. I don’t dream about you. I find your feelings’ cloud.” In episode 10 of Phoned-In, BOMB Magazine’s poetry reading by phone podcast, Ben Mirov reads from his book Ghost Machine.
Luke Degnan The poem, “Ghost Node” from Ghost Machine is published in Elimae, but it is labeled as fiction. I’m guessing you submitted it as fiction.
Ben Mirov I can’t remember what I submitted it as. I’m pretty sure I just sent it to them. I remember once that got put up I was kind of surprised that it had been put under fiction. I don’t think it was what I intended, but it also didn’t bother me. I like the fact that Coop Renner, the editor of Elimae, decided that it was fiction.
LD I was wondering if you could talk about your relationship with fiction in relation to your poetry. There is a narrative in this book.
BM Absolutely. That was something that came out over time as I was revising the poems. The unit the poems were built out of was the sentence. So right away they had this relationship to fiction that was sort of incidental. When I was writing the raw material for the poems, they were just pages and pages of sentences. I would just sit down and write to pass time or work out difficult emotions that I was having at that point in my life. I would sit down and write, I hate to say it, as a form of therapy. I would write as a form of coping with my life and reality at that time. I found that the sentence was a convenient unit to work with. I wasn’t really thinking about line breaks or poetry at that time. I was thinking about filling pages or passing time. I was just writing to get from the beginning to the end of the sentence. Over time as I started to revise, I had put everything away for a while, I moved from San Francisco to New York. When I felt that I had the impetus to revise those poems, I started taking the sentences and collaging them together or taking large chunks of sentences that went together and manipulating them into poems. There is an element of fiction in those poems. I wanted that to come out as I was revising more and more. I didn’t want the book, Ghost Machine, to be just a book of poems. I wanted it to be a hybrid, perhaps something people haven’t seen as much.
LD It kind of reminds me of Murakami ’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. There’s definitely a woman who has left, and you’re going through these mundane tasks, but instead of making pasta and cleaning you’re drinking and jerking off.
BM It’s funny that you bring up that book. Ghost Machine was basically written in 2007, most of it was. At that time my good friend Brian, one of my oldest friends, who I mentioned in the machine poem, from that line “the next step is to think like Brian,” he had been telling me to read Murakami a lot before that point. I had never really wanted to. Then I went through a horrible break up with my girlfriend, and I decided for whatever reason to pick up The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle simultaneously while I was writing these poems. Throughout my life I’ve had this relationship to literature where certain books will choose me at certain times in my life, and it will be completely appropriate, and it almost won’t be my decision. My experience with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was very much like that. I felt like that book was written about me. I felt that Murakami had written that book so it could come into my hands at that moment in time, and it was for nobody else and for no other purpose which is totally selfish and self centered, but it was an amazing feeling to encounter that book.
The character in that book is almost transparent. He’s almost not a character at all. He doesn’t make decisions for himself. He winds up in these weird predicaments but not because he got himself there but because he’s followed this thread of decisions that has led him to these places and these weird incidences. It’s been in the back of my mind, but I’ve never really made that comparison so directly until you said that. That’s kind of who I was at that moment in time. One of the predominate emotions, if you can call it that, I was experiencing at that time in my life was a feeling of emptiness like a feeling of not being there or being a witness to things that were happening in my life. Even the more grotesque things, or the very, very quotidian, very mundane things I was doing. Like just staring out an empty window or something more extreme like having sex and not really feeling super present during sex.
LD Later in the book, a lot of the action takes place in a forest. Why the forest? What does the forest mean to you?
BM I’ve been reading the book a lot since it came out cause I don’t really understand it. The last section is filled with more dream imagery. There’s lots of sleep that happens or not sleeping or not being able to sleep. I think the forest is tied into that. I was living in the Mission district of San Francisco and there were no forests anywhere. I think that whenever the forest comes into the poems it has something to do with a sublimated desire to be outside of my life or to enter into something that wasn’t the city. I also think the forest is, in fables and whatnot, always a symbol for a deep inhuman mystery, inaccessible to humans or inaccessible to individuals. I think that’s there too.
LD You mentioned on Scattered Rhymes that you collaged your words “into Ghosts or Machines” and that “Legos are analogous to what’s going on in the poems.” How do you go about collaging your own work?
BM I was thinking about this recently, and I was talking to my friend Alina Gregorian, who is a wonderful poet, and we were critiquing each other’s poems. One of the most important things that we share as poets is we write by intuition. When you sit down to write a poem, you have all these words and images and ideas in your head, and the only thing that helps you put together a poem is an instinct, what goes well with something else, what piece fits with another piece. In the case of Ghost Machine it was like what sentence went well next to another sentence. Like I said before, the sentence is the constructive unit of the ghosts and of the machines. In the same sense that Legos, you stack them together to make some kind of larger object, that’s what happens in Ghost Machine too. The sentences are stacked together. What happens in between each sentence, that is the most important thing I think about these poems. Almost like Legos, the most important thing is how the pieces snap together.
LD Could you please ask yourself a question and then answer it?
BM I’ve been asking myself this since about the time the manuscript was done. Even before the book was even printed. I’ve been asking myself, What do I want people to get out of this? What is the takeaway from the book? I don’t even know if such a thing exists in the first place. When you offer a stranger a book of poems, what justifies them reading this? What is it that they can take away from it? I guess I’d ask myself that. Ostensibly the book is about a person just wasting his time or a person who is just standing by and watching his life happen in front of him.
I was talking to my father on the phone the other day, and he said he hopes I write poems when I’m happy sometimes. He finished Ghost Machine he called me and was like, I really enjoyed it but try writing poems when you’re happy sometimes. That got me thinking that the book is pretty depressing and boring. I think the most important thing is that it exists. Somehow by virtue of its form it exists in the world. The insubstantialness of my experience has been quantified by the sentences and quantified by the poems, and the lack of valuable material within those lines has been altered or has been constructed into these poems which I hope are productive machines or productive ghosts that people think are beautiful in whatever way possible. I hope that in the end their insubstantialness makes people feel something. That the book is a hopeful book in the end and a positive book despite all the negativity and all the bad things that people do to each other in the book. I hope its existence is positive.
Ben Mirov has writing in, or forthcoming from: Did I Shit Me (I & II), The Agriculture Reader, Lungfull!, Absent, Verse Daily, The Best American Poetry Blog, and We Are Champion. He is the author of Collected Ghost (H_NGM_N, 2009), I is to Vorticism (New Michigan Press, 2010) and Ghost Machine (Caketrain Press, 2010). He is general editor of pax americana. He is also poetry editor of LIT Magazine. He blogs at isaghost.blogspot.com.
Luke Degnan is an audio engineer, a poet, and a musician. He has received countless accolades from highly respected institutions.