This is the transcript of a conversation we recorded in Amherst, Massachusetts, while reading Ben Kopel’s annihilating first collection of poems, Victory, aloud over the course of four days in October, 2012. We talk at length about every poem in the book and about werewolves and feelings; Black Flag and high school; suicide; God, duende; fucking and kissing and shit smashing; numerology; failure; death; Zen mysticism; Kafka; Looney Tunes; porn; Predator; Steve Albini and Lester Bangs and King Arthur; All the Real Girls and suburbia; blood blood blood blood; Punch Drunk Love; breaking down and breaking up; U2; The Smiths; The Stooges; The Clash; sigils and séances; ice cream and punk and raging against the dying of the light. – Mike Wall & Matthew Suss
Mike Wall (MW): This poem seems to be trivializing sex in a way. Like “outside your swimsuit” there’s so much more important shit going on, and “beneath your swimsuit” there’s just “an all-night diner” and “every waitress is a genius.” But outside there are “seatbelts and student riots,” and I just picture road trips and going to crazy campuses where students are raging for what they believe in.
Matthew Suss (MS): This poem is interesting because every word is creating the next word in this poem, and it builds, “to prove / to no / one waiting // for what / is not / gone to / go off // and on.” Every phrase is creating something new, a new phrase.
MW: And this poem actually has an interesting form. Every line is just two words.
MS: There are some formal restrictions here that give a formal tension to something that’s moving so fast because all these lines run together in strange ways.
The poems in this section—by the end—become decimated. By the time you get to “Hidden Track,” the lines are like so distant and oblique. There’s a sort of falling apart happening starting with “Because We Must” after the burning, the dying, and the prayer, and “Final Boy” and “Final Girl” are sort of sepulchral since they’re speaking from already being dead—the final boy’s been drowned three separate times in three separate rivers, and the final girl “came back now I’m a goner” and there’s that sort of cycle of the kids always going to burn down the Dairy Queen every time, so there’s a sort of timeless aspect to these poems, too, and they just sort of degrade in an interesting way. And with the poem “Untitled,” there is no there there—there’s no title.
MS: The things that happen in these poems that people are doing are sort of senseless. What was the sense of burning down the Dairy Queen? You’re smashing bottles against the levee for nothing. For nothing but feeling something or trying to feel something.
MW: But then there’s joy in smashing bottles. Like a “t-shirt wrapped / around a fist // is plunged through / the passenger-side // window” is this bestial breaking of glass.
MS: It’s like the end of “Because We Must,” where he says, “fill me with yr light.” The light the light of the burning down of the Dairy Queen and it’s also the light created from destroying something. That’s where the light comes from. It’s like that Leonard Cohen song, “Anthem” where he sings, “There is a crack, a crack in everything. / That’s how the light gets in.” You have to break something before you get something else. You have “to stay up late / smashing bottles // against the levee / for nothing // but feeling something.”
MW: I take this poem as kind of sad too. I picture a girl at a party mingling with everybody and her ex-boyfriend’s at the levee breaking bottles, and he’s imagining her stabbing an avocado with a spoon, like he locked his keys in his car and now he has to break the window to get in because he’s drunk and angry. I don’t know.
MS: I love that the poem has that potential for you to put a narrative over but then it’s also a total lyric as well: “& what’s the first / wish…” and “but to love / as one loves.” The specifics in the poem are getting at something bigger: you want to do something that makes you feel something when so much is flat suburbia, when so much of what you do is because you’re working or just because. And trying to find something that makes you feel something is one of the big things in this book. And if you do feeling something, you’re victorious, no matter what you feel. Because it’s hard to feel something real sometimes, which sounds super corny but super true.
MS: Even the title “Hidden Track” goes back to the idea of this book as being an album, too. It’s got “Hidden Track,” “Pop Song Aught Seven,” “Deep Cut,” “Untitled.” And so there’s this gesture towards maybe the important songs are the ones you don’t hear on the radio—the deep cuts, the hidden tracks, the untitled songs. This poem is hard to talk about because there’s so little here, too, the poem itself is hidden and hiding itself.
MW: Yeah, and that second stanza is kind of creepy, “you blinked / her eyelids” because I’m just picturing someone inside this girl pulling her strings. It’s the joy of making her do something but also knowing that you’ve made her do something. It’s this creepy sense of mastery—“the ocean / a master.” To wield power of someone—especially a woman—feels horribly wrong. But then it’s also might not be a power where you’re trying to control someone but instead where you’re just marveling at what you’ve done to her.
MS: I also see this poem as his total haiku poem. It’s the Zen master poem.
MW: The opening line sticks with me: “to die” and then later “know me / never forget me” is a kind of mourning. It’s talking to the other poems earlier with this idea of “in spite of you / I salute you” going back to earlier moments of trying to do something to get out of this shitty place and not always doing the right thing because of it.
MS: The salute is really important, too, because a lot of the poems in the book are anthems. They’re big small poems, three-minute songs that take on the whole world. They’re flags. Black flags. Pink flags. All of it… Or maybe just black and pink actually.
“The Birthday Party”
MS: So this is the first of the longer, narrative poems in the book, like “The Day the Ambulance Came” and I guess, “Teenage Victory Poem” is sort of like this. Even though they’re narrative driven, they don’t become narrative poetry that’s anecdotal or even confessional. It doesn’t matter if this is a true story. It takes on more significance than just recounting a story that’s happened.
MW: For me—and maybe this is because I was reading him today–this poems sounds a lot like a James Tate poem where the narrative sets up a very straight path and then all of a sudden you’re at a completely different place, it ends at a place you wouldn’t expect.
MS: When people talk in a James Tate poem, they say things like they say in “The Birthday Party.” They talk in regular language but then someone will say, “In my dreams I’m always finding abandoned children in gas station parking lots and state border rest stops.” The poem is full of things—wedding cake, the freezer, the Holocaust, astronauts—and it’s a costume party, and yet it still comes back to youth—“the worst field day ever” and “space camp.” Because everyone wants to go to space camp when he or she is a kid, but who gets in? I never knew anyone who went to space camp.
MW: It’s also compounds the girl who has a fiancée who is an astronaut. It’s that love that you don’t have that you’re witnessing, that you want but you’re jealous of.
MS: Also, the poems that are longer like this one allow more space for some really funny moments like, “She got to the part about the Holocaust but I thought / she said hollyhocks.” There are a few moments in this book with some Jewish stuff but it’s not a joke but it’s not addressed head-on. It’s another thing that’s just there, existing. And I like that because everything in the book is like that even if it takes on a great significance.
MS: “In my dreams / there are seven hearts inside every boy.” One of the things I love about this book is how the number seven recurs both in the structure of the book but also the content of the poems themselves. I remember Ben mentioned in one interview he did Lorca’s “Song of the Seven Hearted Boy.” And you see the number later in “Frank Stanford Sonnet,” where he finds seven cicadas in his mailbox. These are images that feel directly out of Lorca that feel classically full of duende. It’s like when Robert Bly via Lorca talks about the “deep image,” which is an image that goes beyond the literal meaning but also beyond the metaphorical meaning and is just black and true.
But this idea of seven is everywhere: the seven sections of the book, seven is God’s number, the seven Stations of the Cross, the seven deadly sins—what else? 7-11—the holy land. And the Seven Wonders of the World…
MW: The Seven Wonders of Ben Kopel’s World.
MS: Isn’t there a Star Trek character named Seven?
But even thinking of the Seven Wonders of the World or 7-11, I mean this poem’s called “CVS Sonnet.” And what he does—especially later in the book—is make these places things and these places holy. I mean, The Dairy Queen for instance is a holy and sacred place because it’s like a gravesite—it’s a place you pray at, pray to, and pray for.
MW: The bus trip in the poem “The Day I Wrote You Off” feels like the holy trip to Mecca, where he removes the stone from his shoe and puts it in his mouth.
“The Day I Wrote You Off”
MW: The poem sets up an idea of penance—that the “I” buys “nothing // from anyone behind / bulletproof glass” is a religious idea—like Shabbat where you don’t operate in the mercantile world. And then “from behind bulletproof glass” brings this idea into a violent society, and then “I want to build / an altar out of small things” has religious connotations. And the altar begins with, “I remove the stone / from my shoe // and place it in my mouth.” This is such a hard and strange action. There’s an important journey happening in this poem. The bus is such a horrible thing but it’s what transports you to a different place. The bus—and the journey on the bus—transforms you in some way.
MS: When I think about the stone, it has that religious meaning but it’s also nonsensical in a way. It’s just an empty action. In Beckett’s Molloy, Molloy puts stones in his pockets and sucks the stones, and goes on about his method of distributing the stones in his pockets and he’s trying to figure all this out until finally he says, “And the solution to which I rallied in the end was to throw away all the stones but one, which I kept now in one pocket, now in another, and which of course I soon lost, or threw away, or gave away, or swallowed…” There’s a kind of obsessive and compulsive behavior here that’s kind of religious but also absurd. It’s not like an action of kissing a cross or washing someone’s feet. It has the flavor of a religious experience without being a religious experience. And that’s what I love about this poem. It’s grounded in the world but it has its head in the sky, in the religious and metaphysical. But it’s always really grounded.
MW: I love how he puts the stone back in his shoe and out of his mouth. Why wouldn’t you just take the stone out of your mouth and throw it away? It’s something you need as a reminder. Returning the stone to the shoe is always a reminder to forget the “you” in the poem—“I will always forget you.” That reminder to forget feels really necessary.
MS: The stone also feels like language when it’s in his mouth. This is one of the poems where he mentions God, too. “I slip my hand inside my shirt. / God is not an organ.” It’s really pointing out the difference between body and spirit—physical and not physical.
MW: I like that disconnect because most people want to associate God with as an internalization and a lot of people will hold themselves when they’re praying and act like they have the spirit in them, and they indicate that by touching their body. And in the poem he slips his hand inside his shirt and instead says, “God is not an organ.”
MS: God is not then part of the human experience. God cannot be conjured out of brain. If you think you can comprehend God, you’re an idiot because God is unknowable. God is beyond human comprehension. It’s really interesting, too, the relationship that these poems have with God. If I was going to interview Ben that’s one of the questions I would ask him, “How does God figure in here? What are your thoughts on God?” because he’s doing interesting things with God, which is one of the things I’m really interested in, too. God just keeps showing up in my poems constantly and I don’t understand it.
MW: The power of Christ compels you.
MS: These poems also have a lot of Catholicism in them. The language of Catholicism is all over this book, which gives the book a really interesting dimension when paired with the language that isn’t religious. The writers I love take different lexicons and fuck with them and push them together in strange and unexpected ways. It charges language new.
“John Berryman Drunk Dial”
MW: This poem just makes me think of Berryman—the ampersands, “No, // this is not that dream” is The Dream Songs, “the author he laughs”—Berryman seems to be constantly laughing at his readers, that’s just how I picture him. And then the ending: the “I” is not Berryman, he’s not jumping off a bridge.
MS: It’s a very funny poem because it’s playing with that difference between The Dream Songs as being something that’s sort of monumental and trying to tap into whatever energy is working in the those poems and failing at reaching it because it’s unreachable. By trying to channel that energy, and I love the title because of this, it’s not a séance, it’s a drunk dial. You call your ex when you’re desperate and want to get back with them or you want to say something that you haven’t said before. You’re trying to make some kind of connection or create some kind of closure to a relationship, and it never goes well. So trying to channel Berryman isn’t going where he wants it to—“my smile gets smashed.”
But the end of this poem is so freeing because it’s about realizing you’re never going to be Rimbaud or Stevens or Keats. You’re not going to reach that level of genius. Those writers—and other writers like this—seem so high. “No, // I’m not / falling / I’m not / nearly high enough.” And it’s about being okay with failing to reach your idols.
MW: But it’s hopeful, too, because there’s a level where you’ll never be at this height but that’s a totally good thing because I can always aim for that and always work towards it.
MS: And when you’re at that height, it’s really dangerous, it’s getting dangerous.
MW: Where do you go after that? You jump off a bridge and wave at your student.
(End of Part Three)
Matthew Suss lives in Chicago.
Mike Wall’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Jellyfish, Interrupture a Journal of Poetry and Art, iO: A Journal for New American Poetry, Ghost Proposal, TENDERLOIN, and The New Megaphone. He is the promotions editor at Slope Editions and lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.