ARTS

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February 19, 2022

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12:34 p.m.

A Psalm Ate a Spell

Courtesy of Michael Salisbury

Ben Niespodziany’s The Northerners (above/ground press, 2021) is a collection of 37 short, numbered poems written while watching Alex van Warmerdam’s 1992 film De Noorderlingen on mute.

The Northerners is episodic, like watching a movie in a theater cast in violent strobe-lighting. The divisions between each poem are extreme, and yet, there are always two on a page and, save for the 37th poem, there’s always a degree of visual continuity. Threading the episodic bursts into, if not a narrative, then at least a form of textually-depicted progression, is The Northerners’s cast of characters. Most present are the saint, the boy, the forester, and the butcher. Appearing briefly are the two monks, the neighborhood, the postman, the glutton, the pond, the coat rack, and the forest. While the primary four actors in Niespodziany’s project provide a sense of stability in an otherwise fluid world, the ephemeral background players allow the book a sense of rapid motion through their whirlwind entrance and subsequent exit.

At the core of Niespodziany’s project is the recognition that the illogical exists but is always just beyond our reach. He writes in “[17]”, “The real challenge is not/ lassoing the moon/ but reeling it in once caught.” Each of Niespodziany’s characters encounters this dilemma at some point or another; each of them is able to feel the moon in their grasp but is able to bring it no closer than that. The saint, forester, and butcher have become either so disillusioned by its hardness (“They catch the butcher in bed with/ weaponry and a pint of ink./ Feet of feather, tethered time.”) or so hopelessly optimistic that such an awful thing isn’t true (“The saint/ waits up late/ for a sign./ The moon/ does the same.”) that they have been dissuaded from chasing this magic. Or, perhaps, they are too afraid to do so for fear that it’s just sand.

It is the boy who seems most able to hold at once in his head the fact of worldly limitations and the presence of otherworldly wonder, the boy who seems able to convey both in a single stroke (from “[30]”):    

The boy suspects

a world outside

the neighborhood.

He is a radio

reporting in the forest.

A simple lump in the throat.    

 

The mode in which Niespodziany has written The Northerners contributes to this sense of just-almost-magic, each poem offering its reader a glimpse of the moon, the illogical, the impossible, or the fantastic, only to leave us on the edge of wonder for the next poem. No poem exemplifies this impulse better than the book’s final numbered piece, “[36]”:

The director

refuses to discuss

the ending. He’s busy

in his pool, writing

something new.    

 

Niespodziany’s project is novel in method and tantalizing in message. It seems to implore its reader to listen for a radio signal in the forest, to really hear it in its nuance, then to cast a lasso 'round the moon, just to give it a go—maybe it’s ready to be reeled in at last.

* * *

Evan Williams: We met during the fall of 2020 because I cold-emailed you after finding your Twitter account, which was linked on your website, [neonpajamas], where all of your work is stored, including a slate of astounding poems and microfables, as well as a deep catalog of interviews with artists of all stripes. I want to talk about the site and your interview practice, especially with authors.

Ben Niespodziany: I’m grateful for that cold email, Evan.

I launched [neonpajamas] in late 2016 as a one-stop-shop for all of my interests and curiosities. Along with where to find my writing (and offer my services), I really wanted to focus on the multimedia art blog aspect, in particular speaking with creatives of all types of disciplines. From poets to collage artists to rappers to illustrators to translators to muralists and more. As the years have progressed, I find myself speaking with more and more literary folks, but hope to branch out (again) soon.

EW: You’ve spoken with folks like Mary Ruefle, Brian Barker, and Paige Lewis, among many, many others. What do you find most valuable (defined variously: inspirational for your own work; useful for a conversation about the medium, whether it’s poetry, prose, or visual art; plain interesting) about speaking to artists?

BN: It allows me to look under the hood, pull back the curtain, and other metaphors. I love seeing behind the scenes—how a poem works, how a song was made, what that process was like. Whenever I read a book I love or watch an inspiring movie, I’m always full of questions. This often leads to me (1) checking out more work from this individual, (2) reading all interviews available online, and (3) reaching out with my own questions.

For me, personally, I find it inspires me when I approach the page—their answers swirling through my head. Additionally (and more importantly), I hope it helps some artists I really admire get more attention and flowers. So many poets deserve flowers!

EW: If you could only use one icebreaker question to start conversations for the rest of your creative and personal life, what would it be?

BN: The tough questions!

Part of me wants to be vague and mysterious, and say that if I could only have one opener ever again, I think I would just use, “Why?”

Another part of me loves this icebreaker and the answers it generates: “What’s the longest you’ve stayed awake and what was that particular time in your life like?”

EW: If you could only ask one question of an artist’s work, what would you ask?

BN: Since I like the behind the scenes and I could only ask one question (regardless of art form), I’d have to keep it generic and expansive/broad, so something like, “What was the process like, start to finish, in creating this particular piece of art?”

EW: Your work is enchanting in every sense of that word. Equal parts surreal, evocative, and expansive, your poems read like a psalm ate a spell while sitting at a table with nursery rhymes. The result is like a fairy tale ripped apart and grafted back together. How do you approach the magical/absurd/logically blurred in your work, and what is it about fables, folklore, and fairy tales that grips you?

BN: Thank you for these kind words! “A psalm ate a spell while sitting at a table with nursery rhymes” is a future blurb for sure.

When writing, I really like to be surprised and bewildered. With the first draft, I’ll throw myself curveballs or sharp turns in order to make the landscape feel a bit funky, wonky, off-kilter, tipping towards a cliff. With the second draft, I’ll hone in on that strange and really lean into it. I don’t like normal. I never want that.

It’s the same with my reading choices. If it’s a modern day story set in New York featuring a love interest and a corporate gig, I’m not interested. The closer to reality, the more likely I am to not read it. I like stories that feature magic, pure imagination, deep escape. Where a forest is full of witches and if you saw a tree in half, you might find a door within.

There’s a scene in the movie Borgman where the daughter cuts open her teddy bear, empties it of its cotton, and proceeds to fill it with sand. I think this is my exact writing process.

EW: I want to come back to a word I used, expansive. For me, your work earns this descriptor in its structure, in its sound, its rhythm, its illogical linguistic pulsations and punchy sentences. You seem to have the ability to create a world through a given poem’s narrative, then segment that world into smaller worlds orbiting the poem as a whole, each growing its own little ecosystem. I think of a poem like “The Twins”, which was chosen by Sabrina Orah Mark for publication in *Phoebe* last May. Each line is self-contained and stacked one atop the next to construct this larger thing. What influences your wordplay, your soundplay? How do you put yourself in the mindset to communicate in this manner, or are you always thinking in this spellbinding syntax?

BN: I wish I knew! I will tell you a bit about my process and maybe some truths will bubble up that way.

Almost all of my writing begins with these 14-minute free writes I do. While I might not do them every day, I try to and am successful maybe five days a week (sometimes multiple times a day). I play this Jon Hopkins YouTube video where two of his ambient tracks are connected for this really dreamy soundscape. Two of my very favorite songs, and 14 minutes seems to be as much steam as I have when really going at it.

So once I hit play on the instrumental track(s), I open an email to myself and write and write and write. Oftentimes with my eyes closed, full of typos, full of nonsense, full of trash. I often write around 800 words during these 14 minutes, and sometimes only a sentence or two is worth sticking with, sometimes more, but there are often these nuggets of gold I find myself pulling and plucking during the revision process and really building or, as you say, expanding.

The original syntax often comes with the freewrite, where the words follow each other linguistically, with internal rhymes galore. Long before poetry was a thing for me, I was listening to hip-hop. I still listen to music more than I write. Music is my life, and while my freewriting doesn’t feel like freestyling, it feels like how many rappers have described it: out of body, not my own, as if someone else is forming these words, channeling something larger, deeper than myself.

EW: What’s your favorite art form to consume?

BN: Phew! Another toughie. I adore movies and books at an almost unfathomable level, but music will always take the cake. I listen whenever I’m doing anything. Reading, writing, driving, working out, emptying the dishwasher, sleeping on a plane. Without movies, I’d survive and without books, I’d probably just write more, but without music, I’d lose my mind.

EW: Getting to your fabulous chapbook, The Northerners, you note in the acknowledgments that the project is “an ekphrastic sequence written whale watching the Dutch film De Noorderlingen.” What was that process like? Set the scene for a writing session/viewing of De Noorderlingen.

BN: The 1992 Dutch film by Alex van Warmerdam is one of my favorites. I was introduced to his work through the film Borgman (mentioned earlier) and went back through his filmography, being particularly intrigued with De Noorderlingen, as it tells the story of a 'town’ that is the length of one city block. There’s a school, a butcher, a hunter, a lake, a mailman, and not much else. It’s sparse and full of constraints, much like fairytales/fables, and (I hope) my own writing. Evan, I know you’re familiar with Schomburg’s novel Mammother, and it gives serious Mammother1 vibes.    

After having seen this movie twice, I watched it a third time, but this time on mute while at the Regenstein Library. As I said earlier, I work well in short writing spurts, so I played the movie and wrote for 20-minute segments. Writing to what I saw on the screen, little digressions my brain created, and lines I saw appearing as subtitles. After six sessions of writing like that, I had a few thousand words in dense paragraph form. I then took a chisel (see also: chainsaw) and split them into sparse snapshots full of open space, as if staring at a screen capture or a still of the film.

Writing to De Noorderlingen was my first time trying something like this, and I’ve done it with about 30 films since, creating yet another manuscript-in-progress.

EW: I thought a lot while reading the book about what it might be like to adapt your poems back into a movie. What do you think?

BN: That would be next level! Like I said above, I could totally picture these little snapshots or fast vignettes, almost like showing a moving painting before moving onto the next one. The Swedish director Roy Andersson actually does this really well. You, the Living is one of my favorite movies.

EW: On that last question, I’m imagining now a cinematic adaptation of your poems, then re-adapted into an ekphrastic sequence, and so on. Does it ever come back to the original film? There’s something rather charming about the answer, whether it’s yes or no. How do you see “after” art as being collaborative, how do you see it as its own entity?

BN: God, how I want it to return to the original film. A pristine loop, cosmic circle. Unfortunately, I form too many lines and images and digressions with my writing while watching a movie that I’l include items that were never in there to begin with. I mention a flamingo a few times in The Northerners. That movie has no flamingos. I don’t know why flamingos arrived. One image that does haunt me and taunt me forever, though, is a silent character in the movie who rides his moto around a single tree, over and over. That image sits with me, so maybe the final ekphrastic expression is just that singular track, dusty Dutch countryside, looping into infinity.

Additionally, I find myself writing so many “after” poems inspired by other poets/authors/songs/movies. If I ingest media and write shortly after, I’m almost always going to include an “ after”,even if I look back months later and scratch my head, wondering, “What does this poem have to do with Robin Williams?” Sometimes it’s just the energy that allowed me to approach the page. In the end, it feels like being part of a community while still being introverted and isolated and alone in my writing.

EW: In each of your interviews with other writers, you ask for a writing prompt that can be as abstract or concrete as the interviewee may choose. It’s my favorite question you ask, so I’m going to borrow it. What’s a writing prompt you’d like to give, as abstract or concrete as you wish?

BN: Fill your mouth with a beverage of your choice and spit it out onto the sidewalk or road or kitchen rug or windshield. As the liquids settle and form, sparse or bold (it’s up to you) spot the shapes taking place. What do you see? Describe these characters and forms in single sentences. Do this until you have five descriptions. Can be people or things. If you need more, spit more. Once you have five, include them all in a single story. Never clean up your mess.

EW: One final question: as someone who works in the UChicago library system, what’s one book that should be checked out more often?

BN: One book that should definitely be checked out more often is CA Conrad’s The Book of Frank. It’s my favorite collection of poems, and, as poet Mikko Harvey once described it to me, it’s the “weirdest character study you’ll ever read.”

EW: Any ideas/thoughts/stanzas you’d like to add?

BN: If you write anything based on the prompt above, let me know! Neonpajamas is my handle for everything. If you’re on campus or in the area, I will have some copies of The Northerners at my desk at the Regenstein Library. Just come to the Circulation Department and ask for Ben. I work most nights and it’s pay-what-you-want. I hope this interview introduced you to some new artists!

1 Mammother (Featherproof Books, 2017) is a novel by surrealist poet Zachary Schomburg telling the story of Pie Time, a town ravaged by the plague known as God’s Finger. The library does not have a copy, unfortunately, but I can’t recommend the book enough and would gladly loan my copy to any interested party.