Mercies in the American Desert: Interview with Benjamin Landry

We live in a tumultuous time. Outside outliers have forced us, as a global species, to sit and really take stock of perspectives so ingrained in our daily lives. And when these perspectives become too all-embracing to vocalize into logical thoughts, the power of poetry simplifies what otherwise cannot be simplified.

Author Benjamin Landry attempts to reconcile the uncertain nature of contemporary issues with poetry. He looks to America’s past to understand our now, filled with inequity, violence and divide. He draws on his own personal experiences and historical bodies, to fully grasp the gravity of where we find ourselves as a nation. Landry’s commitment to realization as a non- person of color is made more significant due to the fact that he himself has not experienced the systematic disenfranchisement discussed in his collection. Yet, he makes the conscious decision to learn, and understand it.

Mercies in the American Desert (Louisiana State University Press, 2021) implores readers to do the same, to recognize this desert of our own making. For we are only doomed to repeat the same mistakes until we do.

Below is an even more in depth conversation about this poetic reflection:

Lauren Parker: In your book’s overview, you reference Puritanism as the inspiration for your discussion of our own “American Desert”. What other historical or cultural events have inspired your poetry?

Benjamin Landry: I suppose you would take the title satirically, critically. One of the epigraphs is from Cotton Mather, and that is sort of the original idea that I was talking about. The idea of threats of our own making, of demons of our own making. So, it is quoted satirically at the beginning:

"[...T]he Christians who were driven into the American Desart, which is now called New England, have to their sorrow seen Azazel dwelling and raging there in very Tragical Instances. —Cotton Mather, 'The History of New-England,' Magnalia Christi Americana"

Mather was responding to the Salem witch incident. He was also talking about the Puritans feeling as though they were threatened by forces they didn’t understand, whether it be demons, or Native Americans. So that was his original response in that sermon.

Some of the contemporary historical events that the collection addresses includes Gina Haspel, who was confirmed during the last administration to oversee immigration affairs. She has experience as a CIA operative. She oversaw black site operations, where suspected terrorists were tortured. So that’s part of the genesis of that. Just watching these awful instances of police brutality are behind things like, “How Many Will Be Too Many” Philando Castiel, in particular. There are some other, more light-hearted references like the satellite launches. “Meep Meep” is inspired by watching Looney Tunes as a kid. I got the idea for “Espalier” from reading Paradise Lost way back in 2004, in one of my graduate courses. I used those folk story influences for “Bunyan” and “Museum on Fire” came out of the destruction of the museum of Buenos Aires, the loss of that cultural history. So I suppose there are a fair number of poems that are instigated by different losses.

LP: You cite Mercies in the American Desert as an honest examination of America today. Why do you think that we as a nation continue to suffer the same moral quandaries, yet fail to learn from the origins of past mistakes?

BL: I suppose that America’s own sort of mythology about itself is hopelessly naive. It’s not about learning lessons necessarily. Our nation is sort of focused on this idea of the American dream that we all have access to, which is clearly a chimera. It has its positive aspects in terms of cultural production is this continual, looking forward optimism, but we have outgrown the use of optimism. We need to start thinking realistically as a nation and come to terms with all sorts of problems that we’ve failed to address; to recognize the disparities in inequalities racial and socioeconomic. We’re at a moment where, and I think COVID has been good for this, if not for very many other reasons, it has given us time to interrupt our normal progress and our normal capitalist accretions of wealth and disparity. It made us think for a moment: Is this really the direction that we want to, or can continue to go in? We’re facing a climate cliff, we're facing a moment where all sorts of people are standing up and saying, “We can’t continue on this current path” in any number of ways. It's an inflection point. And it's going to hurt, it's going to hurt to change. But it’s necessary and we’re going to be a stronger nation if we can do so. A more unified nation if we can do so.

LP: Racism and police brutality are just a few of the issues you note that are plaguing the nation. While these are, of course, pressing matters, they happen so often that they seem to be ingrained in America’s daily life. What brought you to this reckoning? What prompted you to take this stance and raise these questions at this point in time?

BL: I think these are ideas that have been percolating in my life. My father is a history teacher so I grew up acknowledging things like our country’s incredible racism. It takes a while living in that as an adult before you actually understand exactly what that means, what dimensions that takes. You know it's not until you live, and I was fortunate to live in a lot of different parts of the world, to have the sort of basis, comparison, or frame of reference to make that idea make sense, to see what it looks like. You know I worry about, and try to think about poems being too strident. I don't want to tell people how to believe. But I do want to write poems that reflect our current moment, and what our nation is. So I think a number of these poems do that. The poem about Parkland, about just being up here, in areas of the North Country where you can see Confederate flags and Blue Lives Matter flags that are premised on a racist notion that black lives don't matter. As a movement it only evolved as a response to BLM, so it's really troubling. I think poetry can hold a mirror up to who we are and what we are. And ask the question: Is this who we want to be?

I do think traveling to different places and also just raising a child, prompts thinking about these issues that affect multiple generations. And the idea of handing off a world and its concerns, is really weighty. It finds its way into your work.

LP: Many of the poems in Mercies in the American Desert are juxtaposed with parts of narrative prose. Can you speak on this decision? What do you hope to emphasize with this type of structure and sequencing?

BL: I think it's just a sense of being flexible. Of maintaining the idea of surprise and delight. We’re delighted when we come across something new. So to try to continually do that and to trust that your reader is going to go along with you on that ride, will take a poem that's more narrative and has a story arc. And then to go to another poem that does something different, is something I think is refreshing. As short as poetry collections tend to be, it's also quite possible, because it requires a lot from a reader. It requires an awareness of form, a willingness to engage with form and line breaks, to think about why a line break happens when it does, or why a word gets dispersed across a page in a particular way. It does require a lot from a reader so it's easier for a reader to burn out on a poetry collection even though they are so short. If it gets a lot of the same poem, you lose that enthusiasm. I like to think about these new poems as being sort of characters, you're encountering a new character, you're entering a new storyline. And every one of them has a different speaking voice and different concerns and a different personal history. So I guess counterpoint is really the primary thought. Although I do think about the sections as having their own characteristics as well. Some of them being more objective and then more personal, with some funny moments than a lot of the more contemporary poems towards the end. It invites the reader to carry those poems into their experiences in the world.

LP: Can you talk about finding comfort in movement and sound? Why do you feel the need to highlight the significance of this in your poetry?

BL: I think the sound quality is part of being a poet. We’re interested in how words sound, and their residences and what they make us do. Even when we’re reading, we're sounding things out in our heads. We always have that music going on in ourselves. That part is inescapable. The movement is interesting because I do think that poetry and dance are interestingly connected. They both are something quite kinetic, if we think about the body’s movement as being synonymous with the eyes movement when encountering a poem. Or moving from line to line across the page or back and recursively. That’s all connected for me. I wouldn't call myself an accomplished dancer at all but writing poetry allows me to feel a kinetic sense of rhythm, movement and stretching in a poem.

LP: Geography seems to be a recurring theme in the poems. Generally speaking, how has this sort of stay in location forced by COVID-19, influenced your writing style or practices?

BL: This is funny, I’m pretty hard on myself about my writing lately. It’s hard to feel free when life is physically so circumscribed. I get outside, I do a lot of hiking, skiing, etc. to be physically active, but there is something closed about the world or our experience of the world anyway. Since we can’t travel as freely as we like. I have family in Canada that we can't see, and who knows when we’ll be able to see them because of the border situation. So that's part of the closed feeling that makes it difficult to write poetry. But I will still, after a few weeks, look back and say to myself, “Oh yeah that's working, this poem is working, I can salvage this part and I can build on it. So all is not lost. It’s funny and kind of depressing to think about how much your own experiences of the world were tied to these bureaucratic restrictions. Some of them are quite necessary, but that is the case. We’re social creatures and that's part of our social compact. But things are starting to grow. I like cooking and there's always some new ingredient that we can incorporate, or a new recipe that we can try. I do some work around the house so that's starting to sort of feed my creative work. I’m doing what I can.

LP: So being a guest poetry editor for the Saranac Review, how would you say fulfilling this position, informs your choices as a writer.

BL: I wouldn't say very much. Honestly as a teacher of poetry, I come across so many different types of poems all the time, whether written by professional poets or students submitting work. So I'm used to processing work quite a bit. And I’m certainly delighted when I come across something that stretches my experience of poetry. Those are the sorts of things that I like to include in the Saranac Review. But I wouldn't say that the work I’m coming across is itself changing my poetry. My poetry is quite personal and quite specific to my own interests, so they're not dependent on each other.

LP: What do you hope readers will gain from your Mercies in the American Desert? What do you hope that they see differently about the world and themselves?

BL: I would hope that they would gain a sense of resolve. I really do hope that this book speaks to resolve and bolsters our sense of the necessary component of change. Bolstering our sense of resolve is important and it's a test case for my own experience, growing up in a fairly bucolic, rural setting. I felt fairly privileged and secure, and a lot of people in the United States do not feel that way. So this is a personal journey, it's a personal point of realization and my own growth. I hope it can speak to or be in conversation with lots of people having their own personal sense of growth or resolve as we try to make a new country. We really need to do that.

LP: Are you reading any books at the moment?

BL: I teach an introductory creative writing class that has a poetry unit and a creative nonfiction unit, so I like to cycle in new material at the end. I’m hoping to look at Mark Bibbins’ new book, 13th Balloon (Copper Canyon Press, 2020). Eula Biss has a new collection of creative nonfiction that I’m hoping to get my hands on as well. I’m reviewing those to see if it might replace some that I have on my syllabi.

LP: Any other new developments that you want us to highlight?

BL: I am in the process of working on a manuscript about white nose syndrome. It's a fungal infection that has decimated the population of North American bats. So that's had a huge impact on our ecosystem, certainly in terms of insect life and the position bats fill in our ecology. So that's one thing that I've been working on, that I hope will see the light of day in the next few years. Not every poem is devoted to the disease itself, but that idea of growing up with bats flying over your head at night. I've always been sort of taken by that feeling. My family used to go out in the evenings and lie down on the grass and just watch the bats. They'd come out of the treelines over the yard, and in the fields. I miss that. It's very hard to find that now because I think 90% have disappeared from the New England/ Northeast region. So it's quite a loss. That loss is sort of the backdrop of the collection. Sometimes it is simply the environment of these poems.