Short Conversations with Poets: Ben Estes

Ben Estes, trained as a painter, is not a surrealist poet. Not exactly. And he’s not a poet of careless or relentless parataxis—one of the dominant modes of our age—but he manages to harness the movements and the energies of the surrealist non sequitur, living in his work just on the edge of such a technique, and it’s the nearness to it, without quite going down that path, that gives his work such radiance, such electricity, such a thrilling sense of freedom. ABC moonlit is his second collection, both of which were published by The Song Cave, which he co-edits with Alan Felsenthal. Though his birth as a poet is concomitant with the vibrant western Massachusetts poetry scene—hotbed of American poetic activity for a couple of centuries now—his actual birth was in Normal, Illinois, and he grew up in small towns just north of San Francisco, like Jenner and Bodega Bay, the latter last seen by the world in Alfred Hitchcock’s Birds. So, part of the radiance, part of the electricity—and the slippages that bring us some of the energy of surrealism without its incoherence—comes from the poet’s experience living all over the country. (I did a painting MFA in Iowa and lived in Brooklyn until he couldn’t stand it anymore.) Listen to the elegant music of his description of a corpse flower, seen, we can imagine, in a botanical garden, but lifted here almost into the ethereal realms of Federico García Lorca or Jorge Carrera Andrade’s micrograms:

The rotting man’s the first to sing

well-tuned,
well-sung,
well-spoken.

And since this comes in a string of poems that the poet calls “Folded Poems,” with each piece called either “1” or, if you turn the page, “2”—a sequence that, at least numerically, never advances, only recurs—there is, just after the rotting man’s song, this second look at the flower:

The powdery flower sings of what it’s seen:

the shortening of these nights,
the lengthening of these days,

la-lu, la-la, lu-lu

“Folded Poems” are followed by a punctuationless and high-velocity rush of language called “Sixteen Pickup Pocket Quarry” that narrates, if that’s the word, the disintegration of a relationship. Takes its name from the last word of each of the first four lines in the poem, a solution that renders the title a kind of incantation, as much as it is shorthand, metonymic listing, series of symbols constituting a particular moment in a life. But you can feel the poet’s closeness—and firm resistance—to what might be called the surreal most especially in the book’s magisterial and whirling third section, “A Shadow Theater.” Here the poet gives us a series of dreams born these two years we’ve just lived through, years of chaos and change and isolation. Appropriate, I think, that in a time when traveling all but ceased, the poet, by way of his dream life of him, visits Tokyo, New York, Martha’s Vineyard, Spain, and a dozen other places. In some of these poems, the speaker, like any caught in a nightmare, wants most of all to get the hell out, as in the vision of a butcher shop with a terrifying cache of bodies on the back roof. Above all, these poems are embedded in reality—described—in such a way that they feel more real than dream, until they don’t. And then we shudder, and the vision shimmers, and the lyric electricity of being on that edge raises the hair on the back of my neck. Weird how easy it is to forget that this is a dream report, as you read it:

I have a job selling fabric
at a fabric store and as a drug dealer
outside of an ice cream parlor
in my neighborhood. Everyone has to have
at least two jobs these days.
I sell a little white pill,
like, half a tick-tock, and it
makes people laugh for about 20 minutes.
I have friends that work
at the ice cream parlor, it’s why
I hang out there. we all
have really crazy cartoon cars
that we drive around town, with every
window a different color of glass …

This makes real life look like a cartoon or casually terrifying dream. Makes dream life indecipherable from the figments of the sleeping mind. It’s the sort of vivid confusion that feels familiar, just now, and there’s something soothing and disturbingly marvelous about Estes’s steady recording of it.

– – –

JESSE NATHAN: Can you say a little bit about your working methods? Is “compose” the right word for what you do?

BEN YOU ARE: I think so much of my usual writing process has to do with a really basic search for meaning. reflection. I’m constantly making lists. Lists of things I have to do today, lines from books I’m reading, things I come across out in the woods, and it all becomes one long mix of text. The fulfilling part for me is to try to make some kind of sense out of it all. Sense-making out of seeming nonsense. I think it’s one of the healthiest things that I regularly do for myself. Slow down, look into a list, and set up a search for a type of meaning. The hope is that someone reads something written with this kind of intention and also finds meaning. I want to find the logic. Writing poetry, for me, is not just about trying to figure out a clever, smart, or “poetic” way to say something, or really about virtuosity at all. In that sense, I think “compose” is a really interesting word to describe what I do. It suggests that something else is happening alongside the writing, another creative act is involved.

In ABC moonlit there are three different sections, each with a different kind of poetic intention or idea about narrative and voice. The first feels closest to the kind of poem I feel most drawn to writing, and follows the kind of writing process I just described. The second section was basically an exercise for myself, to write in a way that I’ve never been comfortable with, that in the past has never been very successful for me, which is to just sit down and write a poem about a specific thing or situation that exists in real life. “Write a poem about a rose.” I can’t do it! When I’ve tried to follow a prompt in the past, I start to feel paralyzed. I freeze, and feel like I’m stuck on a ladder and can’t go forward or back. “Roses, roses … roses …” It feels like a task, and I have a tough time generating ideas, or bouncing around any ideas. All my results end up feeling forced and lifeless. When I begin writing, I don’t like to have an idea about what’s going to happen. I want to be surprised. If, after I get some work done and get a good group of lines written down and then realize that there seems to be a “rose” thing going on, then that’s really exciting and I have something to follow around and carry forward and guide into to poem. But I approached this particular poem in exactly the way that I usually avoid, because I wanted an element of failure to be very present in the poem, which is about a failed friendship. It seemed appropriate somehow. The language is short and direct and maybe has a “midwestern” feel to it, I hope.

The last section of the book was literally written while I was asleep. Again, so much of how I write is about intuitive interpretation and reflection, and during the pandemic I was having a tough time finding the headspace for any kind of reflective brainpace. I just couldn’t do it. But that didn’t mean my brain wasn’t still trying to process things and rationalize what was happening—I began having really vivid dreams, which I would try to write down every morning. Those notes became these poems.

Reflection is an important part of my process, and I have at least two ideas in mind when I use that word: To somehow throw back light, or to think quietly and calmly. Either way, the term feels sacred. Reflection is pretty much the basis for the Quaker belief system. And there is something mirage-like in a reflection on your bedroom wall, bouncing off your car parked outside. It’s almost supernatural, maybe. When writing, reflection—in terms of sitting quietly and calmly with intention—is how I begin making connections between things, begin layering ideas and images and themes, and get the ball rolling. These ideas might also be bouncing off the car outside, or the other items that I have next to them on my lists. Also, I can’t think of a more classic symbol of reflection and contemplation than the moon. And what is moonlight but the ultimate reflection?

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