A former New York Times Fellow at NYU, Ben Purkert is a poet and brand writer in Hell's Kitchen. His poems and book reviews appear in AGNI, Boston Review, Fence, Field, Kenyon Review, Narrative, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. He's also the founder of CityShelf, an easy way to source books locally and support NYC indie bookstores. We met while he was a year above me at NYU, and I can attest that in addition to being an incredible poet, he's also an all-around great person.
Who are you?
I kinda feel like Dick Whitman in the scenes when he's awkward and selling cars. Somedays I write poems. When I try hardest, nothing good comes. Lately I've been devoting a lot of time to CityShelf.
Where can you be found online? Do you have a blog or other online receptacle for your work? If so, how would you describe it to a stranger you've just met while on vacation? Remember, you're in a hot tub with them on a clear cold night, stars twinkling above you. They want all the details. If not, tell the hot-tub-stranger about your writing in such a way that makes them urge you to get an online receptacle for it.
Thanks for asking! Links to my work are found at benpurkert.com. I'm also on Twitter at @BenPurkert. If I met a stranger on vacation, I'd probably not mention the poems. Maybe I'd pretend to be someone else entirely? That's one of the best parts of vacation. I was born into a family of proud alpaca ranchers.
What inspired you to start writing? When did it happen?
When I was young I loved writing stories. I remember handing them in to my 3rd grade teacher and she'd mark them up with red pen, correcting all the verb tenses. I've never been great about deciphering exactly what happens when. Poetry was appealing (is appealing?) because the sequence of events is secondary. Actions take place on the heels of other actions. Shadows come before objects. Things blur and bleed together. And I was blessed to have wonderful teachers. They brought poetry to me and I ate it up.
Why do you write?
I've always been moved by this quote from Christian Wiman: "...We go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.” I was also moved by a recent piece from Danez Smith, imploring poets of all races to cry out against the injustices of our time. There are a lot of pressures placed on poems. We need them to say certain things. And yet the best poems often resist our intentions. They stun us. (Jericho Brown: "I’m not done with a poem until I’m 'surprised by where it goes and how it ends.'") I try to remind myself: the poem is way smarter than I am. So, among other things, I write to learn. To chase something.
Your writing inspires me. Who inspires you?
That's very kind. In no particular order, here are some writers (an insane range!) who've been ringing in my ears of late: Inger Christensen, Ben Lerner, George Saunders, Hafizah Geter, Lizzie Harris, Claudia Rankine, Natalie Diaz, Jorie Graham, Shane McCrae, Mark Strand, AR Ammons, Tomas Transtromer.
In keeping with the admittedly loose travel theme of Not Intent On Arriving, if you could have an all-expenses paid trip anywhere in the world, where would you go?
Maybe this is related to my struggles with tenses... I'm ultimately more interested in time travel than globe-hopping. I mean, it's incredible to visit other cultures but I always feel like an intruder.
What is your favorite place on earth?
I spend a lot of time thinking about our relationship to the Earth generally. (My poetry manuscript is titled Dark Planets We Could Realistically Flee To.) My favorite place? Probably whatever is next to go. The New York Times recently reported that, due to climate change, nearly 20% of Bangladesh will be underwater by 2050. 17 million people displaced. I'm horrified to think about the who and the what being lost. Inger Christen's Alphabet is an incredible book simply because it documents the existence of Earth and the lifeforms that comprise it. Timothy Donnelly's poem "Hymn to Life" does a similar thing.
Anything else you'd like us to know?
Maybe a quick plug for CityShelf, if that's cool? Go local for books! Support indie bookstores! CityShelf is a convenient way to search what's in stock near you. Liz Oh, Eric Weinstein, Javier Lopez and I have been working on CityShelf for the past eight months... The response thus far has been awesome.