every other day

14 MAY 06

How has your first book changed your life?

6. Jen Benka

a box of longing with 50 drawers

What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?

While I know you're asking about the collection of my poems that Soft Skull published, I am full of memories of my very first book, which was a collection of haikus about basketball and dead frogs that I hand-bound in seventh grade. I remember ironing the fabric that I used for the cover and adding a few small drawings of clouds and trees in colored pencil to some of the pages. It was made in a limited edition of one, and when it was done, I, a shy twelve-year-old girl with messy hair, fell in love with the idea of the book. Collecting those silly little poems between two covers, building a tree house for them, was the first time I felt the word "meaningful."

I guess I'm suggesting a question of my own: how do we define or let others define "finished" or "first" book? Which begs perhaps an even larger question: what is a "book"? I'm hopeful that value is not necessarily gained by surrendering production to another or by quantity, and that what makes a book a book is not a barcode or an ISBN, or perhaps even paper, though that makes me a little sad. Here's cheers to paper, thick pulpy paper.

The book that Soft Skull published is a trade version of a limited edition handmade artist book I collaborated on with the artist Mark Wagner of Booklyn. So the poems have had the chance to live in two places and on two scales. I am thrilled to have the poems in a form that is more readily available, and am grateful to Soft Skull for making that possible. And to answer your question as it relates to the Soft Skull book, when I saw it, I thought: it's so tiny.

Before that day you saw your book, did you imagine that your life would change because of it?

I don't think I thought my life would change, but I did look forward to the possibility that this book might lead to new opportunities--such as the chance to share it with other writers whose work I was interested in, as a way to start a conversation.

How has your life been different since your book came out?

The book has wonderfully led to my meeting other poets in other cities and invitations to read, which I hope to be able to return in kind at some point. It has also made its way into the hands of people I have lost touch with and facilitated reconnecting with them.

Were there things you thought would happen that didn't?

Because of the political nature of my project, I thought having the book out there more widely might lead to my phone being tapped. Just kidding. I'm sure my phone was already tapped.

What are you doing to promote sales?

In the U.S., poetry basically exists outside of the economy--with only a few exceptions, books of poetry do not make money, they lose it. Poetry is all about losing money. Poetry is antithetical to capitalism. The poem and the dollar share only that they are both printed on paper. Thankfully there are many visionary people running presses who believe deeply that poetry matters and find other ways to cover publishing and printing costs. They are my heroes.

While this can raise questions for some about why there is a lack of demand for poetry in this country or reinforce for others the marginalized status of the poet, it is also a demonstration of the democratic nature of the art form. Poetry is free.

Could you tell me a little about how the idea for the book came to you--the idea to use these words as your basis?

After George W. Bush was appointed President by the Supreme Court in 2000, I decided to re-read the Constitution. Disillusioned and outraged, I thought first about creating a visual piece with the text of the document, to comment on the situation. The more I read, the more I kept returning to the Preamble, which, by its nature, summarizes the intention and aspirations of the framers of the Constitution.

One night, on the verge of sleep, I took the legal pad I kept by my bed and wrote each word from the Preamble on a separate page. The next day I started writing the poems. I was informed by Jerome Rothenberg's idea of "writing through," to see the work as a kind of translation, however English to English, and a poetic investigation into the textual, personal, and political body--applying poetry as a means to find what is there (in slight contrast to W.C. Williams' "what is found there.") The structure of the piece was also derived in part from a Polish literary genre, the ABC book. Several of the poems describe the immigrant experience, and one is composed of lines I extracted and arranged from a number of poems written by a distant relative of mine, the contemporary Polish poet Urszula Benka, whom I have never met. Many of the poems are also written in different poetic forms, as a way to unmirror how the words in the Preamble introduce the language that became the law that formed our country.

I also wonder about the differences between working with words like "of," "to," "and," & "the" and (for example) "posterity," "liberty," "constitution," & "ordain"--anything to say about that?

I don't think I approached the prepositions, conjunctions, nouns, and verbs differently. I tried to be attentive to how each word resonated independent from and also within its context. This "of" is just "of." It is also the fourth word in the Preamble to the Constitution... I do think the prepositions and conjunctions provided space to introduce a wider range of  subjects. They were also more challenging. I wrote the poems in order, and when I arrived at the sixth "the," for example, I wondered what more I could possibly find behind it.

How did the limited edition book differ from the Soft Skull version? Are the covers similar? Was this cover also designed by Mark Wagner?

The handmade, limited edition artist book version of my manuscript produced by Booklyn [Booklyn Artists Alliance] and the version Soft Skull published are quite different and not connected. The Booklyn book, released in January 2003, was titled, A Revisioning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America, and was treated primarily as a visual object. The book cover is brown, thinly ridged paper that is reminiscent of the paper used to make book jackets for grade school textbooks. The title and cover art were letter pressed. The interior pages were photocopied, folded into three signatures, and hand sewn together. The title of each poem was presented on a tab along the side of the pages, making a kind of dictionary. The book has been warmly received by the visual art world, and included in group shows at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in D.C., Milwaukee Art Museum, and the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago. It has been exciting for me to see the poems have a life in the visual world, as I'm very interested in the interstice of text and image and inter-disciplinary work in general. It has also been sometimes strange--seeing the book displayed in a plexi-glass box, thinking, "Now how is anybody supposed to read that?"

the Booklyn Artists Alliance limited-edition version

Mark and I were not involved with the design of the Soft Skull version, which was designed by David Janik. Richard Nash, the publisher, kindly invited my input, but I gave very little, feeling confident in the designs they had produced for other books. I should note that the Soft Skull version also contains a number of new and revised poems, not included in the Booklyn book.

Another significant difference is cost and distribution. The Booklyn book was distributed literally out of a suitcase, one at a time, and sold to museums and collecting libraries for $200 or so. The Soft Skull version sells for $12.95 and has national distribution through Publishers Group West and is available for order online.

What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out?

Do not expect your name to be on the spine of your book.

What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?

I think more in terms of book-length projects than I did before.

How do you feel about the critical response to your book and has it had any effect on your writing?

As far as I know, people's response to the book and the poems has been positive. It has been affirming to have the work and what I was up to with the project understood.  

Do you want your life to change?

I like my life. I would like to spend more time in the woods. I would like to be more still. I would also like to learn to cook. That's a lie. I would like someone to like to cook for me.

Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?

No. I better get on that. Camping anyone?

Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?

Poetry and a relationship with language has changed my life; it is the way I understand my location in the world. As far as changing the world, I defer to Muriel Rukeyser, who wrote:

We have, in the opening of such a time, a sense of an age disclosing undefined possibilities, new meanings for multiplicity, and new meanings of unity. This age contains the promise of poetry among its great promises. But this is simply one of many needs.

Poetry will not answer these needs. It is art: it imagines and makes, and gives you the imaginings. Because you have imagined love, you have not loved...

Art is action, but it does not cause action: rather, it prepares us for thought.

Art is intellectual, but it does not cause thought: rather, it prepares us for thought.

Art is not a world, but a knowing of the world. Art prepares us.


From A Box of Longing with Fifty Drawers by Jen Benka:


an unsolved mathematical equation:
land plus people divided by people minus land
times ocean times forest times river.

escape and the delusion of discovery:
across the mad ocean to the rocky shore
step foot onto land call it yours.

promised land lemonade stand.
auction block stew pot.

the dreams:
of corn field wheat field tobacco field oil
of iron cage slave trade cotton plantation
of hog farm dairy farm cattle ranch range
of mississippi mason-dixon mountains
of territories salt lake lottery gold
of saw mill steel mill coal mine diamond.

topographic, economic
industry and war.

a box of longing
with fifty drawers.

. . .

next interview: Amy King

other first-book interviews

. . .