Luke Degnan: Scientific ideas seem to inform your poetry. Do you read science journals or magazines? Does science interest you in more than a metaphorical way?
Ben Lerner: I’m incredibly ignorant about the sciences, and the answer is no. I don’t read science seriously. I read a fair amount about the history of science, but in the work I tend to be drawn to these concepts from physics and from the sciences that I don’t entirely understand. Then I get interested in how the processes they describe, even when imperfectly understood, can function as tropes for the formal processes of the book. So here “mean free path,” which is a term from physics that describes the average distance a particle travels before it collides with another particle, becomes a kind of metaphor for the way the lines break off or fragment or recombine or collide with one another and the poems are very interested. I mean thematically my poems are very interested in the way we arrived at this position in which there is such a division between the cultures of science and what are called the humanities or the arts. In this book the science of military technology is a theme, but there’s a desire to unite that with some kind of concern that’s external to the so-called objectivity of the sciences. I write from a position of real ignorance about the science, but I’m interested in the way that the science got detached from the human concerns.
LD: How did you intend to show the Doppler effect through this section and the other section with the same name?
BL: One of the weird things about these poems is that the lines are kind of braided so that there’s more than one possible path through the poems. I like the idea of a traveling sound, like a siren, how its pitch shifts in relation to the observer. So there’s that idea of the shifting position of sound. It also has to do with the notion of elegy, just the idea that the formal shifts of the poems indicate that they’re kind of breaking up under the emotional pressures of the desire to perform the elegiac tasks of poetry. One thing I thought about reading them is that, because they have that multiplicity of orders, it’s really hard to vocalize that plurality. When you read it you tend to privilege one order or it can be difficult to know how to indicate more than one possible order once you start reading it in time. So the difficulty of actually vocalizing the poems becomes, formally speaking, a moment of silence. They’re occasioned by grief that escapes enunciation because the poems that they’ve produced don’t have just one linear order. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but certainly the shifts in the poems and the shifting positions of the subject who’s speaking and the object of his grief seems enabled by the metaphor of a kind of Doppler shift which is also, of course, a way of measuring distance. You can measure the distance of celestial bodies based upon Doppler shifts.
LD: Did you think about the Doppler effect in terms of Doppler radar at all? I noticed that you mention weather several times, especially in the first section that you didn’t read.
BL: Yeah. You probably noticed that at some point the weather stations, or weather channels started adopting the same language that the White House would use for the War on Terror. For me the meeting place of the weather vocabulary and the weather technology and the military technology became this way of talking about the overlap between the green world of lyric or pastoral and the heavily militarized and technologized world that the poems actually describe. There is a lot of talk about color in the book, especially green. Green is the color of money and night-vision green and the green of the green world, the green of the pastoral showing how that poetic trope has actually been militarized, how even the color and aesthetic response has been militarized. Similarly the shifts and environment and the technologies of measurement that are available, if its measuring weather or landscape or the measure that is the poetic line, they also have this kind of, as you mentioned, this kind of radar, this militarized technology. So yeah, the Doppler radar is there and certainly the poems are interested in various kinds of weather. I also think that I can’t think of radar without thinking of its military connotations. It’s a kind of measure the poems are interested in where measure both means the poetic line and its ability to detect military aircraft or approaching storms.
Ben Lerner’s books of poetry are The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and the brand new Mean Free Path, all published by Copper Canyon Press. Read an interview he did with poet Peter Cole for BOMB’s Fall ’08 issue here.
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Special thanks to Clinton Krute for editing the transcript.