Whether it is books of poetry, including his latest collection The Lights, or the celebrated novel, The Topeka School, or essays and collaborative works, Pulitzer Prize finalist and Distinguished Professor of English Ben Lerner hasn’t met a genre he doesn’t enjoy exploring.  

This past July, a conference was held in Paris titled, “Let Me Walk to the Edge of the Genre: Poetry, Fiction, Artistic Collaboration,” which celebrated the full scope of Lerner’s work. On October 26 Lerner will open up again about The Lights: Poems and other topics during a “New Books by BC Faculty” event.   

Lerner talked about juggling genres, the unique experience of being interviewed and dissected, as well as what he gets out of being a college English professor in Brooklyn College’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences 

You have written three novels, most recently The Topeka School, and now you’ve just published your fourth book of poetry, The Lights. You’ve also published a lot of essays and criticisms. What do you enjoy most about working in multiple genres? 
Maybe each genre is like a laboratory where you can test how an idea or sentence or event behaves under different pressures. I feel like I often discover something by transferring a concern from one genre to another; a motif might develop in a poem, become part of a work of fiction, spark an idea for an essay. Or something that started as a sentence in an essay might break up under the pressures of poetry into a new set of possibilities. In The Lights—which gathers poems from almost fifteen years—there are the seeds or traces of all the other writing I’ve done in that time, as if the ideas for the novels and essays were incubated in the poems.  

How did the Paris conference about your writing come about? And did it teach you anything about yourself and how your work is perceived broadly?
I was both honored and mortified that an international group of scholars thought it was worth convening to talk about my work. My role was just to give a couple of readings in Paris but I was fortunate to have some conversations with generous and insightful readers of my books. Maybe what it taught me (or reminded me) is how little I understand about my own influences, how little I understand my own “process”—that while I was happy to field questions and speculate about how my work has come about, the genealogy of my writing is actually just as mysterious to me (or more mysterious?) as it is to anyone else. An author constructs a story about the origin of her stories or poems, but it’s another fiction.  

You juggle a lot between teaching English at Brooklyn College and being an author. What do you get from the classroom experience and what might you learn from your students?
I siphon all sorts of energy and insight from my brilliant students at Brooklyn College. I think that—maybe paradoxically—part of what’s so exciting about teaching literature now is that there isn’t any settled consensus about what literature is, or what the study of literature is for, or what language we might have in common to talk about art. This means that every class is an experiment in developing a language in common to discuss the state of the language, it means that every semester involves co-constructing a new language of value. I think of the arts and teaching as similar in this regard—experiments in the development of new measures of value (beyond dollar value, beyond price), attempts at creating new vocabularies to test what part of consciousness is sharable.  

Watch Lerner discuss his advice to young writers in this interview here.