It can be difficult for non-poets to get excited about a poetry collection, but Ben Purkert’s For the Love of Endings is well worth your time. Purkert is a master at building tension between the playful and the dead serious. The poems in this collection display an incredible love of language and a generous curiosity about human nature. They are often funny as hell, too.
I recently sat down with Purkert at Hungry Ghost on Fulton St. in Brooklyn to discuss his debut poetry collection, never seeing “Star Wars” and how his new book is not unlike asparagus.
Your collection opens with ‘Today Is Work,’ which I feel is the quintessential Ben Purkert poem. It feels at once lighthearted and very grave; infinitely curious and morbid. Are these ideas that you’re grappling with or is this just how it comes out when you write?
Maybe every generation could say this, but I feel like there’s something especially tragicomic about where we are right now in time. As a reader, I’m drawn to poems that have a sense of humor and are also getting at something darker or a bit more sinister–or at least aren’t trying to ignore those realities or shut them out. In that poem that you mentioned, there’s some degree of violence. Someone like George Saunders–obviously a different genre–but I love his ability to blend gruesome scenes with a kind of a comedy. He’s someone who’s a cross-genre model for me.
There is a playful violence in your work. You have lines like “I want you exploding like a bridge.” There’s a depiction of a car crash in ‘Self-Portrait As Intimate Smallness.’ Or a suggestion of violence in ‘The Past Is the Present Only Colder’ where you write “All movies end in tragedy / Names leaping off the screen.” How do you strike that balance where you go into that world of violence but not too far? To be clear, there’s nothing particularly gruesome in the book.
I hope not!
Yeah, it’s not a horror book.
I think these subjects need to be handled delicately and with care, but I would say that about any subject in a poem. To some extent, I’m playing catch up when it comes to the content of my poems. I’m letting them go and then racing to catch up. So if the poems continue to rush toward a darker place–one of the poems in the collection is ‘Dark Planets We Could Realistically Flee To’–which at one point was a working title for the collection–I feel like my work is most interested in going to those places because there’s something at stake there or it’s more treacherous ground. I certainly don’t want to glamorize or trivialize violence in any way. My hope is that the work doesn’t do that. But what I hope it does do is present an awareness or an attention to our own mortality and how vulnerable we are.
I feel like the title you did choose is really perfect: For the Love of Endings. You’re looking toward things like death and the difficult parts of life, going in clear-eyed, at once seeing the good and bad. The title really sums that up. How did you settle on that title?
That title settled on me! The phrase just sort of came to me one day and I liked it. I sent out the book with that title and it got picked up. Maybe that title gave the collection the cohesion it needed. Also, I should note: endings are my favorite parts of poems. I’d go so far as to say that the ending is the poem. I love trying to guess where a poem is going to go in the end. Jorie Graham used to say that every next line in a poem should feel totally surprising, yet completely inevitable. It’s such a reward when you’ve moved through a poem and you arrive somewhere strange and you don’t quite know how you got there, but it’s where you had to end up.
That makes sense. There is that sequence in the middle that feels like a lot of endings of poems. Were there other poems attached to those and you clipped off the endings?
There were so many other poems, haha. In my experience–and this is probably similar for a lot of other debut poets–there are so many cut poems and lines that live in the shadows of this book. A lot of my creative process is writing a long-ish poem to then axe the last third of it. You know when you’re preparing to cook asparagus and you bend it and it just naturally snaps wherever it needs to and that’s the fresh part?
Well, I’m always trying to figure out where the poem organically wants to break because I have a tendency to write past that.
This being a first collection, I do feel like it has this kind of raw freshness to it.
Your poetry has the potential to appeal to a broad audience. This book could be big! Do you worry about becoming–this is a luxurious thing to worry about–but becoming one of those established poets who’s just writing about their vacations in Paris? A poet where the thing that was appealing about them at the beginning is no longer interesting?
Of all my concerns, fame ranks relatively low. Every poet just writes the poems that they need to write. I can’t control who’s drawn to them. I will say that there’s something particularly satisfying about when a fiction reader shoots me an email and says, “Your poetry resonated with me.” That’s exciting to me because a lot of my favorite writers are ones who don’t see genre in traditional ways or cross genre with a kind of fluidity. I love a lot of books that don’t live comfortably on just one shelf in a bookstore.
There are some great movie references in your book. You write: “All movies end in tragedy, / names leaping off a screen.” And in ‘Humility,’ you write: “like an action movie / blowing up everything but the star.” Also, “I’m really happy for you / and your off-screen special effects.” Do you see a lot of movies?
Somewhere my wife is laughing. She makes fun of me for knowing nothing about movies. I’ve never seen ‘Star Wars,’ for example. But maybe that lack of familiarity offers a kind of estrangement that’s helpful as a writer.
Have you seen Marvel movies?
With my wife when she wants to go. Yes.
One of my favorite lines from your poems is “I can divide the world into two types of people: / one blankets my streets; the other paves them right over.” You have this way of writing things that feel completely definitive, but you also seem to be really respectful of readers’ boundaries. A line like that doesn’t feel like you’re saying, “Hey, here’s how the world is.” It feels like you’re saying, “Here’s how the world is for me.” Is that something you’re aware of? That tension around writing something that could be crocheted onto a pillow as a definitive line?
Maybe it would be nice to have one’s lines etched in stone (or crocheted) but I’m not sure that should be the writer’s aspiration. The best thing I can do, being human in this moment in time, is examine our world openly and honestly now, and use the poem as a space to offer up different questions or different ways of looking at it. I don’t have the answers, and anyway, I assume that my reader is smarter than I am.
I feel like that’s rare for an artist to do–to think about the reader in that way, saying, “This person gets it.” Writers can sometimes condescend to the reader. It’s generous of you.
I genuinely mean it. Also, for me the process of writing is a humiliating one–in that it forces humility. I’m constantly failing. I’m constantly writing poems that don’t work. It’s hard to get on your high horse when you’re perpetually face-planting.
This is kind of a clichéd question for a poet, but I feel like the way that you use space is really fascinating.
“Space” like outer space or space on the page?
Space on the page. Well, that too.
I am sort of space-obsessed with aliens and galaxies and stuff like that.
Let’s explore that first, actually. What do you think that’s about?
Well, without getting too dark, I think that our planet is in a bad spot. As a child, I was always fascinated by space, but outer space becomes something different when you start to think about the habitability of your home planet being in jeopardy. Suddenly outer space isn’t just a fantasy; it starts to seem like an alternative. At the same time, it’s terrifying to think about what we’re doing to this place and communities that are most at risk and are already suffering and will only suffer more. My poems look to outer space with a mix of desperation and hope.
You’re very charming, I feel like, as a writer. You get away with stuff that should seem sinister. At the beginning of ‘If I Shut My Eyes, What Other Doors in Me Fly Open,’ you write: “I’d like to meet my bones. / I’d strew them on a Minnie Mouse / beach blanket near the water– / her red dress, eyes peeking through / my rib cage. Isn’t this love: to marry / a plush background? I’d unthread / Minnie’s face, stitch it into places / I’ve lived.” Do you feel like you’re getting away with something when you walk that line between he’s going to go too far, but you actually never go too far? Is that a balance that you’re trying to strike?
This question has me reeling into existential crisis. I think what I’d say is that–and, again, I’m going to look at it from the reader’s perspective–as a reader, I love when a writer has me a little on edge. We were talking about movies earlier. A movie is only worth watching if there’s suspense of some kind. You have to worry that something will happen to the hero. The worst thing, I think–or I don’t know if it’s the worst thing–is when every scene is really comfortable and it doesn’t feel like there’s much at stake. Why write the poem if you’re not venturing out into somewhere uncharted? Somewhere a little dark and dangerous?
Photo: Siddhartha Sinha