USM welcomes writer Ben Lerner to campus

Ben Lerner presenting his poetry.

Poet and author Ben Lerner visited the Southern Miss campus this past weekend to read selections from his recent work and to share his writing process with students and the Hattiesburg community.

On Friday, Lerner held a book signing and reading in the Gonzales Auditorium. The next day, Lerner presented “A Conversation on Craft,” followed by a question and answer session in the Gallery of Art and Design. The Center for Writers sponsored these two events with support from the Partners for the Art as part of the ongoing Visiting Writers Series.

Lerner has written several works of poetry and two novels titled “Leaving the Atocha Station” and “10:04.” He received the MacArthur Genius Grant in 2015 for his “extraordinary originality and dedication in [his] creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Among his many accomplishment, Lerner has been a Fulbright Scholar, Guggenheim Fellow and was a finalist for the National Book Award for his second book of poetry, ”Angle of Yaw.”

Lerner graduated from Brown University Lerner and has taught at the California College of the Arts and the University of Pittsburgh. He currently teaches at Brooklyn College, where he was named a Distinguished Professor of English in 2016.

His first novel was self-described by Lerner as “accidental.” Prior to the publication of “Leaving the Atocha Station,” Lerner had already established himself as a successful poet with three published collections, a nomination for the National Book Award for poetry and a teaching job at Brooklyn College.

However, Lerner said he grew tired of academic criticism and writing in lines. He began to put together what he initially thought was a first-person essay that later developed into “Leaving the Atocha Station”. The novel was positively reviewed by critics, but Lerner’s sudden transition to prose fiction worried some of his fellow poets, especially because his first book was a satire of the poetry world.

“Poets really haven’t gotten the news that the novel is also dead,” Lerner said in an interview with the Guardian. “It’s like some weird homeopathic myth, that you avoid the novel but you are allowed to write one. You can write one novel in your life as a poet.”

However, Lerner broke that rule and wrote “10:04,” whose title references the moment the lightning strikes the clock tower in “Back to the Future.”

The narrator of “10:04” says in the novel, “I decided to write more fiction – something I’d promised my poet friends I wasn’t going to do.”

According to Lerner, one of the reasons why he enjoys writing novels is the possibility of being able to subjectively look at art. He said prose allowed a subjective view of art and “about all this other kind of contingent stuff, like how you feel and how you slept, and who you’re in love with or not in love with.”

Lerner’s work can be found on and at book retailers.