On “Burn Lyrics”: An Interview with Benjamin Landry

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In Burn Lyrics, a collection that harks back to the work of Sappho, Benjamin Landry harmonizes the contemporary voices of his poems with Sappho’s ancient fragments as translated by the poet and classicist Anne Carson. “White space always threatens to swallow up words; it nips away at them, don’t you think?” Landry says. “It nudges them through the breaks. There is something transgressive about duplicating speech, recording language, aspiring to creation — even permanence — under such conditions. Poetry arranges chaos, holding entropy at bay.”

Of the ten thousand lines of poetry Sappho probably wrote, just 650 lines survive today. We fill in the gaps of Sappho’s fragments reading Landry’s modern accompaniment. “I am not // someone who likes to give away / the ending. I am not someone / who. I am not someone,” says the speaker in “Stray.”

A graduate of the University of Michigan, Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English, and Brown University, Landry has taught English and creative writing for over a decade. His work has appeared in numerous journals, among them Guernica, Prairie Schooner, The New Yorker, and Subtropics, and previous book, Particle and Wave, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2014.

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with Landry about his latest collection, the art of incompletion, and the cultural perception of poetry in America today.

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Congratulations on your newest book, Burn Lyrics. Heartfelt and melodic, the way you reimagine Sappho’s fragments with contemporary voices is exquisite. What drew you to Anne Carson’s translations of these fragments (as rendered in If Not, Winter), and what did you want Burn Lyrics to accomplish in conversation with Carson and Sappho?

Thank you. Carson is one of my touchstones: I enjoy almost everything she writes, in any genre. Strangely, though, it wasn’t so much Carson’s (within the confines of a translation) beautiful diction as her literalization of the spaces between Sappho’s remaining words — the work of deterioration, erasure, what have you — that drew me to the work. burnlyricsI had the immediate sense of being in a room, at a party, perhaps, and overhearing only snippets of conversation. Except, in the case of Sappho, the conversation is generally the lyric self declaring adoration, longing, or resignation for a lover, usually absent — more than a monologue, since the narrator is so intimately familiar with the addressee. So, I felt a strong compulsion to fill in the missing thoughts in a manner that would sound more or less intuitive to a contemporary reader/listener.

As I wrote, I felt a harmony developing, the result of two threads of thought: despite the gaps, I felt I knew Sappho’s speaker, her concerns, vulnerabilities, and intentions; meanwhile, I allowed my own speaker’s thoughts to develop. In essence, Sappho’s extant words are brief stretches of unison in what is otherwise a harmonic venture. I’m not sure that Burn Lyrics is, strictly speaking, “in conversation with” either Carson or Sappho. The model I have in mind is more like concomitant dimensions. I hope that a reader might experience a frisson of recognition, an emotional yet perhaps unplaceable feeling, when those dimensions overlap or communicate with one another.

What is your reading of the cultural perception of poetry in America today, and how do you as a poet work with or against that perception?

I taught secondary school English for a long time before returning to graduate school to focus on my poetry. I am endlessly encouraged by the natural predilection young people have for dwelling in the deliciousness of language, and then terribly discouraged by how poor a job our nation does in allowing this predilection to continue into adult life. Thank goodness some music and theater continues to underscore the possibilities of language. But there is an acknowledgment and utilization of null space inherent in written poetry that will never be effectively conveyed in another genre. White space always threatens to swallow up words; it nips away at them, don’t you think? It nudges them through the breaks. There is something transgressive about duplicating speech, recording language, aspiring to creation — even permanence — under such conditions. Poetry arranges chaos, holding entropy at bay.

I also see poetry as an architecture for linking disparate disciplines, getting dance and science in the same room, for instance. I don’t see my work as adhering to any particular school or grouping of poets, but I do want it to draw in people who are passionate about something and see their desires or relationships or philosophical questions reflected in poetry, perhaps for the first time. Like it or not, the Internet is the dominant platform of culture, so the extent to which readers have access to the Internet, or that those readers are permitted sufficient algorithmic leeway to stumble upon poetry that speaks to their concerns are now limiting factors for the vitality of poetry. That said, there are a number of things we could be doing to allow for a more effective space for poetry in our lives, from improved arts funding to a greater valuation of work-life balance that might leave people with more temporal, emotional, and physical reserves to experience and make all kinds of art.

Do you think there’s a need for poets and publishers to make poetry more accessible to the general public? Where do you see evidence of this happening in the public literary community, particularly here in Ann Arbor, and what more could we do?

I think your question perhaps hints at both literal and compositional “accessibility,” so let me try to address both. To the extent that anyone writes for an audience, all poets have a responsibility to think about how their work might reach and move people. It behooves most poets to reach out to young people in schools or through reading series, to maintain collegial relationships with their peers, and to continue to enrich their art by reading other poets, alive and dead. But I do not think that “accessibility” should have any role in guiding technique. I try to write precisely the sort of poem that I want to read; otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to conscience myself in the mirror, as an artist.

I suppose, strictly speaking, this means that my audience is very small, and some days it certainly feels that way; however, and mercifully, I believe in the Barthesian notion of an open text, which dictates that meaning is created through a complex series of negotiations among the writer, the writer’s influences, the reader, the reader’s influences, etc. My original intentions come to mean less and less, but the poem also becomes more and more alive, with a concomitantly greater readership. And I suppose this goes back to your previous question: in this nation, we indoctrinate our students away from inquiry and toward rote learning, from the open-ended question toward the close-ended question. We need to foster a more robust culture of inquiry, and a willingness to make connections to those people and ideas that may not seem wholly like our own. In such an environment, poetry is a natural and a native expression.

I suppose Ann Arbor does as good a job as any city does in terms of fostering a public literary community. There were some dark days, with the closing of Shaman Drum and Borders, when the town was without a downtown general interest bookstore, but thankfully, Literati Bookstore has stepped in with a well-curated selection and a bustling reading series. Michigan’s MFA program has a number of wonderful readings (both students and visiting writers), and I remember wishing that the readings had been more widely publicized, to draw in more of the general public. 826 does stupendous work in fostering kids’ innate, joyful approach to language. There are a number of missed opportunities, though. I would like to see Top of the Park (the summer arts venue) incorporate more literary arts, along the lines of the Dodge Poetry Festival. This would be a really wonderful opportunity for the public to engage with living language outside of the traditional school months. Ann Arbor also has many venerable watering holes, and it would be amazing to regularly stage readings and performance poetry in some bars, as a way of reaching a wider audience. Ann Arbor is, understandably, a huge football town, but what if you could watch the game and hear some poetry at the bar (perhaps not simultaneously)?

Do you have a disciplined writing schedule or routine? How did your MFA experience at the University of Michigan influence your writing?

I snatch time where I can. But I am the primary caregiver of a delightful, pre-school-aged child, so “discipline,” “schedule,” and “routine” have lost their traditional meanings for me. Thankfully, when I am not physically exhausted, I can usually muster a poem in a fairly condensed interval. Rewriting is difficult, though, since the broken-up nature of my days means that I cannot maintain a frame of mind, or a consistent lens, for very long.

I think about my MFA experience at Michigan much as some folks would describe summer camp: it was hectic, intense, and I met a lot of wonderful people I would’ve never expected to encounter outside of camp — er, school. My teachers were and continue to be tremendously supportive and influential, especially in terms of modeling how a life could be built within and around an artform. In terms of technique, I became increasingly comfortable with allowing abstraction and incompletion in my work. I developed more faith that a reader will fill in the gaps with their own experiences, really putting into practice that idea of the open text. I don’t experience life as a complete narrative, so overly tidy poems just feel artificial to me, now.

Do you have a favorite place where — or time of day when — you feel most creative and productive?

Usually there is a good night’s sleep and/or some coffee involved. Other than that, there is no telling when I’ll feel productive. Actually, I take that back. Being in proximity to visual art, dance, or live music usually shakes something loose in me. Oftentimes I take a journal on a trip on which I expect to be in the mood to write. But that usually backfires.

How and when did you start writing? Who were some of your earliest influences? 

Like almost everyone, I wrote fiction about mice and squirrels in elementary school. It wasn’t until middle school that I began to write poetry, and at that time my influences were entirely dictated by school curriculum: Shakespeare, Poe, Dickinson. When I began to write poetry seriously in college and beyond, my influences were Linda Hogan, Luis Rodriguez, Charles Simic, and a Russian/Finnish poet I love, Edith Södergran. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee left a huge impression. James Welch’s Riding the Earthboy 40. Ashbery and Stevens and Trethewey, Swensen and Kenyon, Carson, Gilbert and Silko. Then there were the non-poets. Proust, Ruskin. Gosh, I have to stop somewhere.

What about Sappho’s fragments connects with you, and how did you approach your new interpretations of Carson’s translations of her fragments to create a complete poetic arc in Burn Lyrics? Do you feel Sappho’s poetry is relevant today?

I find the indeterminate nature of the addressee beguiling in Sappho. To whom was she writing/singing? For how long? It’s safe to assume that the identity of the second person (“you”) changed many times over the course of Sappho’s composing life, but to what extent do our infatuations follow a pattern?

My gravitation to Sappho may also have been a case of oppositional attraction: Sappho’s poetry is naked, fierce, and emotional, and I tend to a more restrained technique, not because I register emotion superficially, but I like to put the emotion in service of something else, say an image. Anyway, it was refreshing to dwell within Sappho’s boldness for the duration of Burn Lyrics.

Sappho will continue to be relevant for as long as people ache for each other, for as long as we are stunned by her blacks and golds. Also, sadly, for as long as some among us are forced to live in exile. I’m guessing for a few more years, yet.

The arc of the poems in Burn Lyrics maps roughly onto the stages of a life, and as you can tell from the Fragment Sources Note, the order is very different from the translator’s chronology of fragments. In that spirit, I imagined “Objet Un” as a throwing off of the binds of earthly restriction, at least in terms of mode.

And, exciting postscript, we do not yet know the complete Sappho, but we may get closer in the coming years! A wondrous new imaging technique is allowing us to begin to read the contents of papyri too damaged to survive unwrapping (see “The Invisible Library” from The New Yorker and “Modern Technology Unlocks Secrets of a Damaged Biblical Scroll” from the New York Times). As ancient libraries become legible, it is possible that we will have many new poems from Sappho, and perhaps fill in some of the gaps in her fragmented work.

How do you read your own work through the writing and editing process (are you critical of yourself, open to feedback, etc.), and do you read your work differently post-publication? What was this publishing experience like for you as an author? Do you feel like Burn Lyrics reflects the work you intended to create?

Since my poetry is so dependent upon the specifics of my frame of mind at the moment of artistic conception, I do not do a whole lot of second-guessing. I certainly refine some diction, breaks, and titles at the secondary stage (when I transfer a poem from a handwritten page to a computer file), but I try to trust the self I was when I first wrote the thing. I also throw out tons of poems, even ones journal editors have taken but that I no longer find compelling.

In terms of book publishing, I have gone the large university press route (Particle and Wave) and the shoestring independent press route (Burn Lyrics). I enjoyed both processes, for reasons that I wouldn’t want to bore you with now. I enjoy giving readings of both collections, largely because the poems keep unfolding, and they take on new meaning in relation to one another and what is going on in the world.

I couldn’t be happier with Burn Lyrics. For better or worse, I had entirely free rein on the arrangement, editing, and production of the work, down to the selection of cover art, a painting by a dear friend.

The last two lines of your poem “Raiment” fascinate me: “Toothjungles animated / by jasmine dripping.” Did one poetic instinct — attention to sound, meter, or image, for example — come before another to conceive of lines like that? What do those lines mean to you in relation to Carson’s translation of Fragment 119?

It all starts with the image for me, a compound image in this case, like looking through several overlaid slides at once, or again, hearing several speakers at once. I’m not sure the poem has much to do with Fragment 119 anymore. The fragments are inputs, torsioned by the white space. Or like electrons set spinning in one direction or another. They recombine, in different atoms, in “Raiment.” I mentioned earlier that the relationship may be harmonic, and I guess I still stand by that.

The lines “toward / the laughing far gold-green / arms laden with future pitch / premonitions of rain / transparent net thrown over / the permanent record straining / with this moment always about / to come to fruition” from “Object Un” felt particularly powerful and resonant. There’s a ticking to it, an ongoingness swirling. (Your first book, Particle and Wave, reflects similar existential connotations.) Is transcendence beyond this swirling possible?

Ah, now we’re getting to the crux of it. “Transcendence” implies a further loosening, but I’m not sure that I want to transcend the swirling, only feel it more intensely, track it, reenact it. I’ve written elsewhere about incompletion being a powerful poetic technique.

Additionally, what is beyond swirling/questioning? Resignation? Certitude? I find that deadly boring, which is perhaps why I have so much difficulty with most religious practices.

I found the final lines of your poem “Pure Filth” (inspired by Sappho’s Fragment 40) mesmerizing: “We’ll go away like that someday, / all of a sudden, with a burnt, electric / circus smell in the air, it’s disgusting.” I especially like the comma splice, modern and strong, at the end. How do you feel about the future, and what role would you hope poets and artists might play in the trajectory of humanity?

Perhaps this isn’t evident in my poetry, but I am fairly optimistic that humanity means to do well by one another, even if we are so terribly weak in this resolve. I also believe that revolution, actual change, happens in a moment of reflection, a state for which poetry is uniquely adapted.

What have you been reading lately? Are you working on any new projects?

I can’t share what I’m working on now, but I will say that I have a number of completed manuscripts looking for a home, one of which is set against the backdrop of the decimation of North American bat populations as a result of White-Nose Syndrome, and one of which is an extended engagement with Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project. The last poetry collection that bowled me over was Voyage of the Sable Venus.

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Burn Lyrics is available to order from Spuyten Duyvil. Find out more about Landry’s work at benjaminlandry.wordpress.com.

Author photo by Carissa Russell.

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