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.