Ben Purkert is the author of FOR THE LOVE OF ENDINGS (Four Way Books), named one of Adroit’s Best Poetry Books of 2018. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The New Yorker, Poetry, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Tin House Online, and elsewhere. He holds degrees from Harvard and NYU, where he was a New York Times Fellow. He serves as the editor of Back Draft for Guernica, an interview series focused on poets and revision.
By: J. David
Q: What was the most interesting thing someone else taught you about your own poems?
Ben Purkert: When my mom read my book, she asked me why I write so much about water. And I was like, what do you mean? But, of course, she's right: water makes an appearance in practically every poem. And I had no idea, it wasn't anything I did consciously. Apparently my subconscious likes to swim.
Q: Pick one—beginning or end? And why?
Ben Purkert: Definitely the beginning. Because it's a twofer: whatever begins must eventually end. As Mary Ruefle writes, "In life, the number of beginnings is exactly equal to the number of endings."
Q: Favorite form poem?
Ben Purkert: I don't have a favorite, but I enjoy when poets seemingly invent their own forms. Like Jon Woodward's Rain, where he uses five-line stanzas of five words per line, or Renee Gladman's Calamities, where she starts each poem with "I began the day...". I understand why some traditional forms are revered, and they have rich histories, but do we really think there is something inherently sacred about fourteen lines versus, say, thirteen or fifteen? In my mind, it's all about what happens creatively when constraints are applied to the imagination. I'm less interested in what form a form takes, if that makes sense.
Q: In your book you obviously talk a lot about endings, which itself is the doorway into absence. That made me curious, what is it you wish most to be absent from the world (ya know also taking into account what its absence would mean)?
Ben Purkert: Your question makes me think of Mahmoud Darwish's In the Presence of Absence. He wrote the book near the end of his life, a self-elegy of sorts, and it includes this line: "You are a dead man who has found himself alive." In a way, I think Darwish is describing generally the role of the poet: to re-animate the past, to bring what is hidden to light, to make absence present again.
Q: What was the genesis of the book? Where did the idea come from?
Ben Purkert: There wasn't really one idea that governed its creation. As a first-book poet -- and I think this is the case for many first-book poets -- it felt more like a small body of work was accruing, and then I had to try to make a coherent collection from it. I had to step back from the work and see what themes were naturally emerging and which poems were speaking more directly to one another. That process of organization, for me, was the hardest part. Suddenly you're not a poet anymore; you're a curator.
Q: Can you say something about the architecture of the book? What was the writing and editing process? Did you decide the sections and what poems applied or did you have help?
Ben Purkert: So much help! I'm indebted to the various poets / friends / teachers who read multiple versions. After looking at the poems for so long, you start to distrust yourself. You know sometimes when you forget the password to something and initially you try a few combinations that you *think* might be right, but then eventually you get fed up and try one that's completely random? Like, even though you know there's only a 1/1,000,000 chance, you still give it a shot? I kinda reached that point with my book, because ordering poems is just such a different skill than writing them. I don't know if this is true or not, but I once heard that Lucie Brock-Broido, after writing enough poems to form a book, would glide to the top of her stairs and throw all the pages over her shoulder. However they landed, that was her next book.
Q: There is something within us that allows us to be in relationship with the outside world. Do you think that if we lost our planet, our ability to love others, and our minds, would we still be human (drawing from your three sections)?
Ben Purkert: Damn. I love your question, because it puts so much pressure on what being human really means. Let me try to respond this way... For me, I think the ending of a poem is always the most interesting part. Because that's when the poem waves goodbye to you or gives you a hug or pushes you out of a moving vehicle. That moment of abandonment is also, I think, the most human. It's the fallibility of the poem, its own mortality. It must end. And so, to attempt an answer to your question, I do think that the various forms of loss you describe are fundamentally human. "The art of losing isn't hard to master," Bishop writes, and I do feel like humanity has indeed gotten it down pat. Losing is what we know best, or will know eventually. Maybe that's what will signal the end of humanity, when there is quite literally nothing left to lose.
Ruth Awad is an award-winning Lebanese-American poet whose debut poetry collection Set to Music a Wildfire (Southern Indiana Review Press 2017) won the 2016 Michael Waters Poetry Prize and the 2018 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry. She is the recipient of a 2016 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in POETRY, Poem-a-Day, The New Republic, Pleiades, The Rumpus, The Missouri Review Poem of the Week, Sixth Finch, Crab Orchard Review, CALYX, Diode, Southern Indiana Review, The Adroit Journal, Vinyl Poetry, Epiphany, BOAAT Journal, and elsewhere.
by J. David
Q: Lately I’ve been really interested in the things we sometimes take for granted as writers, but are integral to every aspect of our writing – things like why it is we write, what our art is capable of, why our is art important – so to you, I ask what is your intention for your art in the world?
Ruth: I’m just trying to tell a story that has personal meaning and that other people might relate to. The world is chaotic, and confusing, and mean; and I think one of the kind things in the world is art. Art can make you feel seen and understood – and if my work can accomplish even a moment of that, I will be satisfied.
Q: That answer ties perfectly into one of the themes that emerges in your book: conditions of visibility. Whether it be the young men in Lebanon during the war being recruited by local militia groups, to the invisibility of casualties in war, or I’m thinking specifically of the poem Town Gossip- where you and your sisters stuck out as being outliers, perceived as strange because of cultural differences.
Ruth: Definitely, and that’s also one of the great things about art: we can put those smaller moments under the magnifying glass and find meaning in them in order to elevate these personal stories so that they are not only personal but they’re also capturing something universal. The collection as a whole deals with assimilation and immigrating to the United States while attempting to navigate the process of holding on to your homeland and also trying to find somewhere to belong in this new place.
Q: Where did the idea for this collection come from? Did the idea come to you and then you went and asked your father if you could write about him or was there a first poem you wrote and then the idea followed?
Ruth: I definitely had no idea what I was doing for a long time. When I first was in grad school, I writing a lot of breakup poetry, which there is definitely a time and a place for – but Judy Jordan, who ended up being my thesis advisor, was like, I hate this shit, essentially. She said: Write something that is meaningful to you, like what is your story, who is your family? I took that to heart and I wrote one poem about being young and watching my dad pray and just what kind of magic it seemed like to me as a child – the poem that ended up in the book was a later version of this: My Father Keeps the Pack Together. So Judy saw that poem and liked it because it was a story only I could tell, and that’s what kind of started the collection. I began writing more poems about my father’s faith and how he grew up during the war and everything took shape from there.
Q: As much as this collection is about your father, it is even more so about you because tied in to entire collection is the idea of “home” in broad sense – what is belonging, and what places or people do we belong to. Along with that is the idea of things being carried and passed on, and I am thinking specifically of the poems Inheritance and New Mother. What have you inherited and what is home for you?
Ruth: There’s a study I read that looks at the link between trauma and heredity and I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately in the aftermath of the book, as I’ve been in more of a reflective mode with the collection. Just thinking about how even though you don’t experience something firsthand, when you’re close to someone and close to that history and related to them by blood, there is this inherited history, so to speak. One of the things I’ve inherited from both sides of my family, for lack of a better word, is grief – as long as I’ve known my dad there has been this heaviness to him, something you can’t pinpoint. And my mom has struggled with depression her whole life; it’s something that has been a cornerstone in both my familial and personal history. That’s not to say I never experienced happiness, but I learned a lot because my parents didn’t shield me from the spectrum of human emotion and were honest with me.
To answer your question about home, it has been kind of elusive for me because we moved around a lot when I was growing up. My dad was climbing the corporate ladder so we kept passing from state to state all over the Midwest. Columbus is probably the closest thing to home for me, just because it’s a place I chose to be and not I place I was brought to. I always say wherever me and the dogs land is home, but more and more Columbus is starting to feel like home. I like that it feels like a place that has spoken to me directly.
Q: What kind of grief was it that you were least prepared for?
Ruth: I hope this doesn’t sound trite, because I know people who’ve lost children, or their parents at a very young age, and on and on. But I’ve learned grief is unreasonable, you can’t really tell it what to do. The grief I was least prepared for was my dog Pete’s death last year. She was my first dog, I had her since she was 12 weeks old, and I had her for 11 years. I got her on the heels of kicking a bad drug habit and being sexually assaulted multiple times in a very short amount of time. Then I remember Pete coming into my life and thinking this creature fucking saved my life. She forced me to care about myself and take care of myself so I could take care of her, and I wanted to. So losing her was like coming to terms with an enormous debt I could never repay and I was heartbroken over losing her and humbled with gratitude that she ever existed. It was the biggest spectrum of emotions I’ve ever felt, and I’ve had to learn how to carry that love differently ever since.
Q: Which poem from the collection was your favorite?
Ruth: Let me be a lamb in a world that wants my lion is my favorite for many reasons. It’s the last poem I wrote toward the collection, so it’s more endeared to me because it’s newer. And then, I love reading it out loud. That voice came to me and it just felt powerful and compelling, so I just ran with it. I challenged myself to write past where I thought the poem should end and see what happens, and it took the poem in interesting directions.
Q: Now that the collection is finished and out in the world, what’s next?
Ruth: I’ve been trying not to put too much pressure on myself to come up with a theme to write toward. I’m doing my best to produce good poems and seeing where the process takes me, so for right now, there are so many possibilities that I can’t say where I’m going yet.