WILKES-BARRE —Ben Lerner is a poet who admits he dislikes poetry, a writer whose inspiration for the novel “10:04” apparently was sparked, at least in part, by an octopus served at a Japanese restaurant. He’s a museum fan too, and an advocate for social justice.
A professor of English at Brooklyn College, he has accepted fellowships from the Fulbright, Guggenheim and MacArthur foundations, and he’ll bring his wit and wisdom to Wilkes University’s Kirby Hall Salon at 7 p.m. on Wednesday as part of the school’s annual Allen Hamilton Dickson Spring Writers Series.
Those tidbits about Lerner eating octopus and enjoying museums come from a piece journalist Emily Witt wrote about Lerner. Her article, which mentions that, at the time, Lerner had one young daughter, was published by the prestigious British newspaper The Guardian in January 2015.
Three years later, Lerner has two small children, which he listed as a reason he — alas! — has no time for telephone interviews, let alone face-to-face interviews that involve exploring a museum with a reporter. Working parents everywhere will no doubt sympathize.
Despite being involved with his kids and traveling, Lerner graciously consented to answer questions the Times Leader emailed to him.
MTB: I like this line from one of your poems: ‘From the drop-down menu in a cluster of eight poems, I selected sleep, but could not.’ It inspires me to ask: Do you often have trouble sleeping?
BL: I have trouble sleeping with two young daughters — both because one or the other is always waking me up and because, even when they’re sleeping soundly, I’m worrying about the world into which I’ve brought them — with its rampant misogyny and bigotry and nuclear brinksmanship and ecological destruction and other forms of general insanity. But they also restore my sense of wonder before the world, which is essential to making art and to making days.
MTB: What will you read during your public reading at Wilkes?
BL: I’ll probably read a mixture of poetry and prose since one genre is always passing into the other for me. What I’m most excited about is not the reading but the opportunity to hear from students about their own concerns and interests, literary and otherwise.
MTB: What will your next project be?
BL: I’m finishing a collaboration with the great German filmmaker and theorist and writer Alexander Kluge — somebody should invite him to Wilkes! — and I’m working on a novel largely set in Topeka. It’s about — among many other things — coming to poetry among the language-scapes of the American midwest.
MTB: How do you like Brooklyn, which must be very, very different from your hometown in Kansas?
BL: I love Brooklyn in many ways and feel connected to it because my mom grew up here — very near where I teach — even though I grew up in Kansas. It’s the place where the cultural energies I care most about feel most alive. I live within yards of an amazing bookstore, for instance. But it’s way too expensive here and that’s a problem — if New York becomes only a playground for the rich, then the arts, among other things, will disappear.