By Sage Marshall
I sat in the very back of the Lighthouse Grotto, ritually grabbing round brownies from the table behind me. After days of working at Lit Fest as an intern (setting up in the morning, ushering nervous writers to their agent meetings, etc.), I was initially worried about staying awake for this afternoon craft seminar, but the start of Ben Lerner’s “Blurring Boundaries: Prose and Poetry Hybrids” immediately caught my attention. “Art is a language to strive for something we can never actualize or complete,” he said.
Lerner then ran through different combinations of prose and poetry from writers William Carlos Williams, Jean Toomer, and Claudia Rankine. Genres blurred together: poetry, prose, prose poetry, lyric poetry, fiction, nonfiction. It became apparent, as Lerner himself said, that “genres aren’t adequate to the complexity of experience.”
I tried my best to follow the nuances of Lerner’s argument while sipping the afternoon brew of coffee. Lerner explained how William Carlos Williams thought about writing as a space for having struggles; it’s not just a place to record resolved struggles. Later, Lerner talked about the craft techniques Claudia Rankine uses in her book, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric. Rankine used an excess of prose to shadow a poem about loneliness that she was incapable of writing herself.
I left the seminar weary but inspired to read Lerner’s 10:04, in a—perhaps hopeless—attempt to capture more of his intelligence. The week following Lit Fest, I retreated to the Wyoming backcountry, Lerner’s book in tow. Soon enough, I was immersed in his vast meta-fiction that ponders similar themes as his seminar did. What is the border between fiction and nonfiction, poetry and prose? How can one convey the complexity of experience? True to William Carlos Williams, Lerner explores these dilemmas through his book.
Lerner opens with an epigraph about a Hassidic prediction that in the future “Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.” The narrator, a mirror of Lerner that is distorted in ways unknown to anyone but Lerner, returns to his Brooklyn abode from an “outrageously expensive celebratory meal in Chelsea that included baby octopuses the chef had literally massaged to death.” He has just sold a book that he hasn’t yet written. His agent then asks him how he will expand the story. “’I’ll project myself into several futures simultaneously,’ I should have said,” Lerner writes. I’m left wondering: which future is this, and who is a part of it?
The plot thickens: The narrator has an “entirely asymptomatic and potentially aneurismal dilation of my aortic root.” His best friend, Alex, wants to become a mother and asks the narrator for sperm donation. A storm approaches New York City. The narrator and Alex head to the store to stock up on emergency supplies. Then the epigraph echoes again, “Everything will be as it now, just a little different—nothing in me or the store had changed, except maybe my aorta, but, as the eye drew near, what normally felt like the only possible world became one among many, its meaning everywhere up for grabs, however briefly—in the passing commons of a train, in a container of tasteless coffee.” Who is speaking, Lerner or his character? How should I analyze this work as my “eye draws near”?
The storm doesn’t hit. The narrator and Alex watch Back to the Future. After the movie ends, Alex “smoothed the dress she’d never taken off.” The narrator continues through life, pondering poetry, writing, and art in the midst of his “real” problems. But, of course, real life and literature fuse. As the narrator reads an email informing him that his literary mentor fell and is in the hospital, his “world was rearranging itself around me while I processed words from a liquid-crystal display.” I read 10:04 in its paperback form, but I got a similar feeling, a voyeur in Lerner’s fictional projections.
Lerner further explores the struggle between fiction and nonfiction, between prose and poetry. He switches the names of his characters and distorts their problems in a chapter that he shares as a short story that the narrator writes for the New Yorker. In real life, it was also a story that Ben Lerner wrote for the New Yorker, “The Golden Vanity.” Later, the narrator writes a poem during a residency in Texas and records the writing process. Then a book, this book—and within it, many alternate realities—takes form.
As I write this, weeks later, I reflect on my time as a Lit Fest intern at Lighthouse. Here, literature and life are intrinsically intertwined. I joined others to explore the borders between words, between us. I listened to Alexandra Fuller talk about writing her memoirs, Jericho Brown read poetry that seemed to rumble right out of his heart, Rebecca Makkai read an eerie and tantalizing chapter from her novel, Lerner attempt to sort out the world with his big brain, and of course, the stories of many other participants. These alternate realities (in which literature and life are explored) were indisputably worth it, despite the early mornings setting up bathroom supplies.
Lerner concludes 10:04 on an optimistic note. After another hurricane approaches, and this time hits, he switches from the past to future tense and finishes with a direct address to the reader: “I know it’s hard to understand/ I am with you, and I know how it is.” Ten-four. I hear you.
This post is part of our annual Lit Counts series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop—is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 6 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!
Sage Marshall was Lighthouse’s Lit Fest intern this summer.