Ben Mirov in Conversation
The structure of both your poems and collections have an almost random, found quality to them. How do you go about editing your work and putting your manuscripts together?
There’s a similarity in the way I approach individual poems and the way I approach putting collections together. My impetus, in either case, is to try to create a unified object. With individual poems, I sit down to write a first line, and as I get deeper inside the poem, I let my attentiveness and my impulses lead me through. I consider the sentence the unit of construction in Ghost Machine, so it was about putting sentences side-by-side and then reading them over and over as they existed next to each other. I would do this until each poem sounded right and felt complete to me. They had to have some sonic cohesiveness to them.
I wrote the poems during one period and arranged them during a very different period, almost a year later. I composed a lot of the “Machine” poems [composed of a finite number of sentences, re-used over and over to build multiple poems] first. And then I composed the prose poems and the lineated poems that make up the other sections of the book. To add balance, I added “Ghost Drafts” and “Eye, Ghost,” which are long poems composed of ten sections with ten lines each per poem. As I started to work with the poems, I realized that I wanted the book to be a loop—that it had to sort of connect; the form of the book had to map onto or parallel or mirror my experience of time and reality at that point in my life when I wrote the poems. So it came out organically.
In other interviews, you’ve talked about treating individual sentences as bricks, units of construction. I’m curious what your physical desk space looks like while you’re editing, putting your poems together. Do you have notebooks spread all over the place, cut up scraps of paper everywhere?
One of the things I try to do with writing is not treat it too preciously. I don’t have a favorite pen, a favorite mode of writing. I do have a favorite time of day: I usually write between two and four in the morning. And if you go into my room, for example, you’ll see I have a computer I work with, and right next to it is an old Royal Deluxe typewriter. I don’t even use notebooks; I like loose sheets of paper. Usually when I have the impulse to write, I’ll float to one of those three things.
The only general rule I have for writing is to stay as flexible as possible, to stay open to whatever impulses I have. For Ghost Machine, I did have a fixed way of writing. At the time I wrote it, I was unemployed; my girlfriend had just left me; I was living in the Mission District in San Francisco, partying a lot. I would get up every morning, and I would go to a coffee shop. A lot of it was written on my couch, and I would fill pages with sentences. I was comfortable with sentences because you can get from beginning to end. There’s a sense of completion every time you’ve written a sentence; you’ve done something, you’ve taken another step. Ghost Machine was composed as pages and pages of sentences. Later, I went back and rearranged or collaged the sentences according to the rhythm I wanted or the effect I wanted.
You began putting the book together out here in New York?
The earliest poems of Ghost Machine were published in a web magazine called H_NGM_N—the first “Machine” poems. That gave me the idea that I could write more of these. Later on, I had this huge stack of drafts and incomplete poems. I moved to New York for grad school and brought them with me. It wasn’t until a year or two later that I decided they would make a good book. They had a similar tone and feel, and I could reconstruct the book out of these sentences.
So the sentences were written in San Francisco and then edited here. How did being in New York infiltrate or influence the final tone or form of the book, if at all?
It would be hard to say what the influence was. No matter what, there’d be an influence from the people I was surrounding myself with, going to grad school. Mostly though, it was an ambition to write the book. I was in grad school, I had all this material that I thought was good, and being around other writers for the first time—seeing that there was a culture in New York that I could be a part of—made me want to write the book.
Living in San Francisco, I wrote in a vacuum. I had moved there out of college with the distinct purpose of deciding if I could write poems that other people could appreciate. But I only knew a few poets at that time: I’d met Micah Ballard early on through my cousin who was taking classes at the New College. And through Micah I met great writers like Cedar Sigo, Joanne Kyger, Patrick Dunnagan, and Sunnylyn Thibodeaux. But I was writing alone, and I would make chapbooks in my apartment; I published little zines too. So when I came to New York I had this hunger and this knowledge, like I could do this now. That was the impulse that inspired me to make my first book.
There’s been a lot of debate over the value or relevancy of an MFA. Do you think the community aspect is the strongest argument in favor of it?
Personally, that was the biggest benefit for me. I still have my doubts about workshops. Workshops are fun. It’s a good way to spend time with your friends if you don’t hurt their feelings, but I don’t know how I feel about group-writing a poem. That’s a pejorative way to put it. But what I love about poetry is that poems are these transmissions from one person to another. Even if you read in a group of people, or you’re at a reading and you read to a group of a hundred people, you’re still just talking to one person at a time: just the poet and the listener, always. I think there’s a sanctity to that relationship. I think there’s an essentialness about talking to one person at a time. The poem is this transmission constructed by one individual to another individual. That’s something that often gets lost in workshops.
One of the things I have difficulty with, post–grad school, is this residual workshop culture amongst many poets I know, where we send each other poems and critique them. It’s a way of being involved in people’s work and knowing what your friends are up to, which I like. But I don’t feel good at it, and I don’t feel that I want to get better at it. Those are my own hang-ups, but I’d much rather send a poem to a friend and have them just read it. And I would love for a friend to send me a poem and for me to just enjoy that poem and not turn on the analytical mind. I think poetry at its best is a small, unimportant pleasure. That’s what gives it its power.
In looking back, rereading and editing your own work, which often seems stamped in a very specific place and point in time, do you see these sentences as recognizable parts of your life? Do they feel familiar to you—those things you wrote a couple of years ago—as you’re editing, or even after the book’s been published, when you’re reading them again in front of people?
I feel like for all poets, maybe besides space, time is the most important element in any poem—time and space as aspects of the same phenomenon. Trying to talk about how I work with time is like trying to describe a huge machine you’re pressing your face against. It’s the most important thing, and it’s all you can see …
If you’re asking about Ghost Machine, if I recognize aspects of it, I definitely do. The most successful lines in Ghost Machine have a very personal aspect to them. I can remember who I was talking about, what I was referring to specifically regarding my life at the time. But I feel that those lines also have this element of ambiguity to them, so that another person can read them, and they won’t reflect any of the things I see in them. The names in the poems, I know all those people. But in the context of the book they just become names; they could be anyone.
I’m not a nostalgic person. I have a horrible memory; maybe the two interrelate. These little fragments of the past represented by the sentences make up the book, and part of the project of the book is to drag those fragments into the present so that these irretrievable, ephemeral moments can live on in an appreciable form. That’s another aspect, trying to make the past a constant present in some way.
Writing as a way to remember.
Definitely. The farther and farther you get from an event, the more obscure it becomes. By writing, you can recall those things, or at least preserve the memories and the ideas you have.
One of the most pleasurable things for me about writing is that I’ll have an impulse to use a word that I’ve never used in regular speech before, or that I haven’t even fully learned before. And it’s like my brain is willfully regurgitating these words so that I’ll have them and be able to use them in my life, so that the boundary of my reality won’t continually shrink.
What’s a recent example?
One that comes to mind right away is this poem I wrote called “In the Orchard with the Wrench.” I used the word “wack-a-doo,” which is not a word I’ve ever said in my life, but when I was writing the poem, it felt necessary, like I couldn’t replace that with anything else.
This might be a good time to talk about the draft you brought in.
This poem became one of the “Knife Forms” [a cycle of ten poems consisting of ten lines each]. Originally these poems started out as sonnets, and eventually became the ten-line poems they are now. But they started out as sonnets because I wanted them to relate to some kind of historical precedent. I wanted them to feel like they were tethered to a tradition of some sort. Later on, my ideas about the poems evolved. I realized the poems would be better if they were detached from the precedent intrinsic to the sonnet form, so I made them ten lines each and center justified them, which is how they appear now. The new form is catalytic to many of the goals of the poems, whereas the sonnet form was weighing them down.
One of my biggest insecurities in putting together Ghost Machine was that the poems sounded too much like Ted Berrigan’s poems from The Sonnets. Unless I’d read that book, I could never have written Ghost Machine, so that insecurity is still present in the “Knife Forms.”
Once I decided to leave the sonnet form behind, many of the lines that composed each “Knife Forms” were edited out if they sounded wrong, or if the content of the lines didn’t match the overall project. For example, one of the lines in the middle that I crossed out was, “I’ll see you at Bianca’s.” This is a reference to the poet, Bianca Stone, a friend of mine. I took that out because it seemed too specific and too personal, and I wanted the lines to resonate in a way that had very little to do with myself, unlike the poems in Ghost Machine, which were like pieces of myself. I took out lines that seemed too rooted in my subjective reality and left ones out that seemed less related to my life.
Are you reading these out loud over and over?
Yeah, it’s sort of embarrassing. I live in this apartment with really thin walls, and I work late, so I end up reading aloud a lot at night. People may or may not be listening, but I always feel like I’m reading to an audience, even though I’m alone. It’s the same when I read in my head. I’m not reading to anyone, but the audience is there, in my head, listening. But I always read my poems out loud once it gets to a certain point. That’s one of the final stages, when you can read the whole poem through, and it sounds right.
With the “Knife Forms” poems, when I read them to an audience, I try to read all ten in a row. That’s they way I intended for them to be read, not one part at a time, but as a series or one discontinuous poem. So I had to read them over and over, all ten, to get it right. I’m still working on them, so I end up reading them aloud in my room a lot.
You mentioned the musicality in your poems earlier. How do you approach that musicality, that rhythm? Do you listen to music while you’re editing or writing?
I don’t purposely listen to music when I read or write. When I do, it’s incidental. I’ve definitely gotten inspiration for poems or the feeling to write from music.
Musicality is important for all my poems. When I’m building poems—and I really feel like when I’m working on a poem, I’m building it; I’m constructing it out of materials that aren’t mine, that I got from somewhere else—musicality is a way to add integrity to the poem.
I like to use the word integrity a lot when I talk about anybody’s poems. What gives that poem integrity? Not just in the sense of being “honorable and upstanding” but in the sense of structural integrity, or hull integrity. When you think about a stealth plane or something like that, the hull has this incredible integrity. So I think: How can I make this poem a cohesive unit in time?
One of the best ways to do that is to think about how the sound of the poem or the sound of each line interrelates to the sound of the lines around it. If you can make a nice rhyme or internal rhyme within a line, it gives those lines a cohesiveness that wouldn’t have been there before. The same goes for enjambment. If you can enjamb a line where it creates dynamicism or some kind of unexpected movement, you add this structural, formal integrity to the poem so that when the poem leaves you, hopefully it will withstand the attacks of time that will naturally happen to anything existing in the world. I think of writing poems as building structures that will withstand time.
PEN recently added to its suite of literary awards the Emerging Writers Awards, given to young writers who have been published in literary magazines but who have not yet published a book. What advice would you give to someone at that stage, maybe trying to get to where you are now?
I think if you’re a writer, and if you’re in New York or Brooklyn right now, you’re starting off on the right foot. If you’re immersing yourself in a culture of writing and meeting new writers everyday, that’s a really good start. In terms of the work, which is the more important thing—more important than participating in the culture—the most important thing you can do is think about things like following your impulses, following your instincts, looking internally for guidance as opposed to externally, or balancing the two, and just thinking about the quality of the poem you write.
Every poem you write should be a masterpiece. I took a class with David Lehman at The New School. His thing was that every poem should be better than the last; every poem should be a masterpiece. If you’re producing good work, if you’re being attentive to every poem, that’s going to come through when other people read your work. The integrity of the work is going to be there.
One of the things I love about the scene in New York is that there are so many readings, so many magazines, that it encourages you to produce a lot. But as a young writer, it’s easy to get lost in the production. It’s easy to get lost in the persona-creating that happens on the Internet, get lost in the wave of being a “hot” writer. You can end up filling space as opposed to writing poetry, which is a danger.
You’re an alumnus of our whiskey Fridays. What are you drinking these days?
I really like beer. Recently I’ve been into pilsners. I’m also a fan of gin. I love a good Gibson. Something else David Lehman taught me, to drink Gibsons, which I’d never heard of until he introduced me to them. It’s just a gin martini with an onion instead of an olive. They’re dangerous and great.
But I also want to say that drinking and drug use don’t play a big role in my writing. I never drink and write. The parts of my brain that I need to work for me when I write don’t work when I’ve imbibed something.
A lot of the culture of writing in Brooklyn happens in bars, so in that sense, it makes it more bearable to hang out with other poets. I’m kidding. But other than that, it doesn’t enter the scene that much. I know there are successful writers—Dylan Thomas, who wrote while he was blasted out of his mind all the time—but that’s not me. I can’t do that, nor do I want to.
More advice to the young writers out there: “Don’t drink and write.”
I mean, if you’re Dylan Thomas, go for it.