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Literature : Interview

Jack Christian talks to Ben Kopel about Victory, an energetic, noisy book of poetry which turns it up to 11.

Ben Kopel’s Victory comes to readers as a collection of poems rooted deep in the artistic life-force. Their energy is their singularity. It is what causes their swerve. Likely many poets who have grown up with rock-n-roll can relate to the desire to make a poem that works like a guitar-anthem, or really that works not like the words the singers sings, but the noises he howls. That Kopel sets out to do this might not be particularly remarkable—he’s not the first to want to—but the way that he succeeds, over and over again, in various measures and phrasings, through seven sections of poems in this debut album, is what I’ve come to see as the victory implicit in Victory.

When I listen to a rock-god sing his or her guts out, then, later when I see the lyrics printed somewhere, I’m susceptible to a disappointment where the power of the voice seems not to be matched by the words sung. Kopel has written the words that I always wished were in the songs. These poems do a magical thing; they don’t fool around with aspiring.

Jack Christian How did the poems in Victory come together? What did you tell yourself were the parameters of the project? What did you think about as you tried to organize them?

Ben Kopel Victory was written over a five-year period, but it wasn’t until about two years into it that I even realized it was becoming something resembling a book. Some people have very specific ideas and instincts in place when they sit down to write. There is a whole to be achieved, and they sit and they write their way towards it. Others just write sixty to eighty pages of material, and ZAP! it’s a book. I’m personally situating myself somewhere in the middle.

I was always going for all killer, no filler. Each poem had to pull its weight, one way or another. As I started working on the order of things and putting it into sections (and this could have gone on forever), I began to notice some of the more subtle connections between certain poems. I tried to think of the sections as little mixtapes, while the book itself is the whole concert, JumboTron, and costume changes and acoustic sets and all.

JC How did you settle on seven sections?

BK Somewhere in this process I came across a Garcia Lorca poem that became a guiding light. It’s called “Song of the Boy with Seven Hearts,” and its refrain can be translated as something resembling Seven hearts are the hearts that I have, but mine is not there among them. That hit home to an insane degree . . . the idea that one could contain a multitude of love and yet still be somewhat shot through with a lack that sings.

Seven itself is a special number. It’s a holy number. Man is five. The devil is six. God is seven. Monkeys go to heaven. With the holy ghost in the machine, I felt like things would fall into place for the best. Also, I love beginnings and endings, and this structure allowed me seven of each.

JC How has your writing changed in the years from when you wrote the earliest poem in Victory? How has it changed lately?

BK A few weekends ago, I was in Baton Rouge, and I bumped into someone I hadn’t seen in years. Maybe he went to my high school, maybe he didn’t. Anyway, he had heard about the book coming out and had searched around and found some poems of mine on the Internet, and he was like, “You haven’t changed a bit! I mean, you’re better . . . but the voice is still the same.” I’m deciding to take that as a compliment.

Maybe what a friend said once somewhere is true: that we spend our lives rewriting the first poem we ever loved. Here’s mine. It’s a haiku by Basho.

Even in Kyoto
Hearing the cuckoo’s cry
How I long for Kyoto
I’d say that still rings pretty true, for sure. Yeah, it’s all there, I guess.

JC Where and how would you want to situate your work on the contemporary poetry landscape? What’s your constellation looking like these days?

BK I’m going to try to avoid Rattle & Humming myself into oblivion here and say that I feel insanely lucky to be writing and publishing at this point in the starscape of contemporary poetry. We have access and reach, and we’re actually using it! Poets are creating and sharing new and exciting and vital work, and it’s traveling through the wires at a beautiful speed. My Iowa people, my Massachusetts people, the New York crew, my new and old Louisiana pals, everyone everywhere else . . . we’re all talking and sharing and creating a conversation that can’t be contained by labels or anthologies. We want the airwaves back, and we’re getting them back, in our own way, on our own terms. The key is supporting each other, getting the word out, being brothers and sisters in the fight against the end of the imagination. No one makes it unless we all make it. It’s like Tuttle says to Lowry in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil: “Listen, kid. We’re all in it together.”

JC Music, particularly pop, rock, and punk, is obviously very important to the poems in this book. What connections / inspirations do you draw between, say, rock and poetry?

BK Jack, I knew this question was coming, and I’m glad it came from you, yourself. I’ll try to be brief.

It’s not about a style, it’s about an energy. The ability to make a joyful noise from inside the shit. The songs were always there for me. Then the poems appeared. They were everywhere. The poems looked like the songs, and the songs sounded like the poems. As far as obsessions go, it was a pretty natural transition for me from comic books to punk rock to poems. All of these things are about looking at what you have around you and saying “It doesn’t have to be this way! They built it! Let’s take it over!” Joe Strummer, Jack Kirby, Joseph Ceravolo, [The Clash frontman, comics innovator, and 2nd wave New York School poet, respectively] all of these people lived lives in opposition to cynicism. They believed in possibility. They took their anger and, through their art, transubstantiated it into something better, something surprising. These people give us back our bewilderment. When I read a section of Kenneth Patchen’s “A Letter to God” or hear Patti Smith beating her chest on “Break It Up,” I feel like life is forever and glittering and then I try to write something that might make someone else somewhere feel something similar. That’s the punk rock dream, right? Killing apathy with heartfelt action.

JC Since you and I have been prone to trading Guided By Voices lyrics back and forth, I wondered if you’d talk about what you like so much about the Guided By Voices?

BK I love art made by fans. I think it takes guts to be a genuine fan of anything. Not to hate on the haters, but it takes absolutely no imagination or courage to be cynical. When I listen to GBV or anything associated with St. Bob, I hear a desperate love and total respect for the teenage dream of every garage godhead. God bless ex-fourth grade teachers with dreams and drinking problems! I guess the only way to end this is to throw down my two absolute favorite Pollard-isms: “He who shits out magic may shine!” from “Pop Zeus” and “And we’re finally here! And, shit—yeah, it’s cool!” from “Echos Myron.” Put that last one on my tombstone, please.

JC What do you think are some ways to get noise onto the page? Who do you admire for their ability to represent it in writing?

BK Man, do I love a poet with a killer sense of distortion. When I think of noisy pages and poems, the first two people to come to mind are Lara Glenum and Matt Hart. Both of these hero-saints of mine have a way with not just sound and rhythm, but with VOLUME. Maximum Gaga and Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless are books that go all the way to 11. How do they do it? Man, if I knew the answer, I’d do it all the damn time.

One way to look at it is that they’re both writers who are not content just encountering language. They make language encounter THEM. They take their lexicon devils and, instead of trying to tame them, they take them out to shine in the sun and then back to the club to get trashed and thrashed on life. This is as personal as it is political, if you ask me. Glenum is as playful as she is violent, and Hart is as daily as he is extraordinary. This is the work that wakes me up.

When I think of noise in relation to Victory, I think about something Dean Young said one time somewhere, something like how we want our poems to read like they could be whispered into the ear of the person next to us on the bus while also sounding like they should be belted out though a megaphone at the crowd in front of us. Explosive intimacy. That’s something I strive for.

JC And of course, duende is a musical thing, too. The book’s second poem is called “Duende-Tripper”. It starts, “Decapitate the headlight, I did . . . ” What is duende to you, here, now?

BK Amen to the beauty of the black sound! Yes, this Lorca lesson is insanely important to me. Have you heard Nick Cave lecture, “The Secret Life of the Love Song?” That was what tuned my high school heart towards Lorca and the lessons he had to offer. For me, at this moment, duende is admitting to the fact that death is always there, which is all the more reason to live and love and put it all out there on the operating table right next to the umbrella and the sewing machine and the etherized patient waiting to be born again. We have to admit to this in order to be free of it, as poets, as people. The past is dead. Death is the future. Right now, let’s be full of feelings, the good ones and the not-so-good ones. Let fury have the hour / anger can be power.

Right now, I’m sitting in New Orleans a.k.a. Duendetown, USA. When Papa Death takes anyone or anything from this place, the people throw a party. It’s not an act of denial, it’s an embracing of the paradoxes that power the human condition. There’s a deep dark want that lines the vein where insincerity and authenticity, beginnings and endings, destruction and protection, meet up in the center of the city of your heart. Right there, in the middle of a contradiction . . . that’s the place to be. Sam Shepard said something like that. It’s all about the blackness in our bone white bones, Jack. Duende reminds us that we’re temporary, while our poetry isn’t. It’s the best part of all of us, and it’s forever, and that’s a mighty long time.

JC While reading Victory, I was drawn to thinking about the way you work between tight controlled lyric in poems like “There is No There There,” on the one hand, and more long-lined narrative poems like “The Day the Ambulance Came,” on the other.

Do you feel or think about this difference when in the process of making your poems? Is it all pretty much the same to you while you’re composing?

BK I’ll be honest; I don’t really think about process much when I’m, you know, in the process. I’m just listening. Moving my hands. Placing one word after another. Seeing what sparks fly off. Luckily, the lines have a way of doing what they have to do to get where they’re going.

JC Fair enough. So, what do you think about process when you’re editing? How do you think you end up with these two, at least seemingly, different modes?

BK I can tell you that the more narrative, prose-y pieces were born out of me discovering James Tate’s work. He’s that person for a lot of people. He gives poets access to our ability to tell a story without telling everyone everything. There are often no explanations, and that’s one of the most productive elements of poetry: creating questions out of questions. In this, the poems are very much like life. I’m pretty distrustful of anyone or anything that offers me answers. Answers are road blocks in art. To be totally honest, I feel like when I was starting out, most of my work was longer in line-length and scope out of a fear of sounding like I didn’t have anything to say. Length was equated with worth . . . I don’t know where I got this idea. It was writing the poem “Because We Must” that broke me free of this, way back when.

JC “Because We Must,” which starts, “The kids from the federal / tanning booths have burned / down Dairy Queen again . . . ”

BK Yeah, with that one I felt like I was able to create something simple and fucked without giving away everything. I was able to trust that the reader would be able to fill in the blank spaces with their own experiences, their own pasts. I want to write a poem that not only trusts the reader, but one that trusts Poetry itself as well.

That’s the greatest lesson I learned from working with Dara Wier: that, when you encounter a poem, the two most generous and generative questions you can ask are “what does this poem think of the reader?” and “how does this poem feel about poetry?” The poems I’m interested and invested in love and respect both equally. But, to return to your initial questions, the longer, story-esque poems come to me fewer and farther between now, but I try to always be ready and willing should one rise up and out of me.

JC I wondered, in a poem like “Ratio” :

Your body
was bright
with one last
signal-to-noise
from the tape
head heart
as its beating
grew weaker
than the speakers
of this student loan
stereo . . .

would you consider the surprising, lyric twisting a form of storytelling?

BK Well, there are people involved, and where there are people, stories are sure to follow. With “Ratio” in particular, I tried to allow the sound to guide the narrative. There were two people. They were in a car. They had the radio on. They are far away from each other now. In the poem, they are forever together. You can kind of go anywhere from there, right?

JC For sure. I guess I’m getting at the feeling that I have when reading this poem and other poems of yours that are somewhat like it, that the “story” is a word-to-word thing, that the idea of getting from one part to the next comprises a narrative of lyric problem-solving, of writing yourself into one place and trying to get out, and also making the stakes pretty high for yourself. (And, of course, maybe this is all poems.)

I’m trying to ask about your penchant for surprise in your lines, for moving elegantly in tight spaces. What’s the story of making these maneuvers? Does looking back at a poem like “Ratio” allow you any insight into the story of Ben Kopel vs. Blank Page?

BK When I look at “Ratio” now and think about problem-solving, I think I’m seeing myself trying to save myself through sound. I wrote it in memory of a memory. It’s one I’ve never read too often at readings, but as of late, it’s been slipping itself into the sets. It’s a fun one to say out loud.

A lot of times, in the middle of writing something, I’ll stand up and read it over and over again. Getting it out into the air is crucial. Often, this is the best way for me to be honest with myself. Paul Westerberg often talks about how he just presses record and lets it loose in his basement with no one watching; he lets the nonsense fly out until he catches the tiger by the tail and says what he didn’t even know he needed to say. I mean, if you can’t surprise yourself, how can you expect to take off the top of anyone’s head?

JC Another thing I want to talk about is the speakers of these poems. I read many of them as dramatic monologues. For example, in “Gymnasium of the Sacred Heart” you write, “I scream City of Love! City by the River! / Don’t disown your skinny fisted sons / locked inside the locker room. They too are the father of you . . . ” Who is speaking “screaming” these lines? How are you thinking about voice in Victory?

BK When I go through the book, I see many of the poems as coming out of the single mouth of many different people. They’re yelling out in honor of everyone they’ve ever met. No one gets forgotten. We’re all forgiven. They’re making a break for freedom from the sadness of being young and good, and I hope they all make it. I want to say that about all of the voices at work in the book. They’re in a mess, as am I, and we’re counting on the threads between things (words, sounds, places, people) to carry us through.

JC Could you talk about the value you place on Youth in these poems? Collectively, I want to proclaim them songs of innocence, a hard-won, preserved, fraught kind of innocence, an innocence preserved almost despite experience . . .

BK Yes, these poems are often very much in praise of capital-Y Youth because that is where we come from and that is where we are going. See “Morning of Drunkenness” [by Arthur Rimbaud]: “It began amid the laughter of children, it will end with it.” It’s the contradiction we all live in. We’re always leaving something in order to return, right? The trick is to admit to doom but to remember it rhymes with bloom, people! It always scrapes me sideways when people rag on Kerouac and say he’s all bro-mance and be-a-jerk-forever-isms. Those people A) didn’t actually read any of his books and B) if they did, they missed the point because what Jack’s always on about isn’t perma-adolescence, it’s about trying to grow up without giving up while making your way to some great reward that may never come. It’s what the poet James Haug taught me about the song “I Fought the Law” by The Bobby Fuller Four by way of The Clash: to be Young is to fight and fail and to still sing out about it. To know what you know and to not let it break your heart of hearts. What did Wallace Stevens say? “There is no such thing as innocence in autumn, / Yet, it may be, innocence is never lost.”

JC And now you’re teaching poetry to high school kids in New Orleans. What’s that teaching you about writing? What do you tell them is important?

BK Teaching my high-schoolers has been as exciting and inspiring as any book of poems I’ve ever read. They are often in awe of the beauty of this world, whether they’ll admit it or not. Our job as teachers and adults and as poets is to make sure they don’t get impaled on this beauty, Holden Caulfield-style. I try to tell them that poems are never trying to be mysterious, they just are mysterious, and mystery is always something worth paying attention to. I want them to not worry about reading the poem that isn’t there and focus on the one that is right there in front of them, saying Hi! How are you? The poems I love and show them every week aren’t interested in making you feel more lost than you already are. I want them to take comfort in the fact that poems, through their tones and music and assorted accessories, are trying to tell you how to read them. They want you to read them, kid, because they have something to tell you, and if you listen to them the way you want and need the world to listen to you—because you are so full of everything to say about the ecstatic clusterfuck of a teenage miracle you and your friends and family are—if you listen to them generously and with mind and spine spread open to receive the good and bad news of the world, then yeah, maybe we can make the days something worth saving. That’s my story, and it’s sticking to me.

Jack Christian’s first book, Family System, is the 2012 winner of the Colorado Prize for Poetry and is forthcoming from The Center for Literary Publishing.

Victory is available from H-NGM-N.

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Poetry
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