Welcoming the second title in our inaugural digital chapbook series, we invite you to download, experience, and enjoy The George Oppen Memorial BBQ by Eric Tyler Benick! Below, you’ll find a conversation between Benick and OS founder Elæ [Lynne DeSilva-Johnson], about this book and the creative process behind it.
Greetings comrade! Thank you for talking to us about your process today! Can you introduce yourself, in a way that you would choose?
My name is Eric Benick. Son of Chris and Carolyn. Brother of Alex. Husband to Tawni. Native of Nashville, TN. Current resident of Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.
Why are you a poet/writer/artist?
I am not sure I know or have a creative answer to this question. All I know is, at a certain age (13–14 maybe), something clicked and I no longer had a choice.
When did you decide you were a poet/writer/artist (and/or: do you feel comfortable calling yourself a poet/writer/artist, what other titles or affiliations do you prefer/feel are more accurate)?
I don’t think I ever “decided” anything. I think I found myself pulled more and more into art and then at a point nothing else made much sense or seemed a better way to spend my time. It was just a matter of survival after that. I have never felt comfortable calling myself a poet/writer/artist as those words seem to carry too much meaning for most people (myself included) and consequentially occlude or escape the labor of the art itself. I am comfortable saying that I “write poetry” or “study poetry” because the action is more present. Clarity is important to me and calling myself a poet would seem to kind of leverage or mythologize myself in way I don’t think is accurate or helpful.
What’s a “poet” (or “writer” or “artist”) anyway? What do you see as your cultural and social role (in the literary / artistic / creative community and beyond)?
This is a pretty big ontological question that I don’t feel entirely equipped to answer. I guess, in a kind of paradoxical move from the previous question, I see poets as ordinary folks gifted in some sort of elocution, abstraction, or movability. Ezra Pound is not a poet to me; he was a demagogue. Andre 3000 is a poet to me. Pieter Bruegel the Elder is a poet to me.
As far as my cultural and/or social role in the literary/artistic/creative community, I’m not sure. I think art allows possibility unlike anything else we have or have ever had access to. I think about that question a little bit more as a publisher as I am actively putting other people’s work out in the world much more than my own. I think, often in long conversations with my press partner, about what work is doing, what it makes possible, who it makes more visible, how it functions as a kind of limitless object. I find that asking myself those questions about art tend to make me a more engaged individual overall and I can only hope it does the same for others.
Talk about the process or instinct to move these poems (or your work in general) as independent entities into a body of work. How and why did this happen? Have you had this intention for a while? What encouraged and/or confounded this (or a book, in general) coming together? Was it a struggle?
The George Oppen Memorial BBQ is a poem that was moved significantly by living in New York, by Oppen’s own poem “Of Being Numerous,” by listening to Neu! on the Metro North, by Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, by interviews with Fred Hampton, by working on a farm in Italy, by Dada, by Aram Saroyan’s minimalism. I have no idea why it happened. I simply found a structure that seemed to keep generating more material. Humor was also (is also) a guiding force in this poem (my poems) which made the surprise and strangeness more fun to engage in. It was surprisingly, unlike everything else, not a struggle, but that is not to also say that it was easy.
Did you envision this collection as a collection or understand your process as writing or making specifically around a theme while the poems themselves were being written / the work was being made? How or how not?
I cannot say it is a collection as it is one poem. Still, I think many of the themes alive in this poem/book are present in my other work. I don’t understand anything I do while I’m doing it. I move with impulse and texture. I understand it later… if I’m lucky.
What formal structures or other constrictive practices (if any) do you use in the creation of your work? Have certain teachers or instructive environments, or readings/writings/work of other creative people informed the way you work/write?
I have no formal structures or constrictions as I am a highly anxious person and slow at generating material anyway. I sing to myself almost constantly when I am alone or with my wife impromptu jingles that I make up on the spot which I think is a cathartic, joyful way of getting a lot of shit out of my system. As far as teachers go, Aracelis Girmay is, without a doubt, the single most giving, intoxicating, ineffable, and caring poet I have ever had the privilege of working with. I strive for all of my poems to be as curious and transmutative as Aracelis.
Speaking of monikers, what does your title represent? How was it generated? Talk about the way you titled the book, and how your process of naming (individual pieces, sections, etc) influences you and/or colors your work specifically.
The title is The George Oppen Memorial BBQ which is an overt nod to George Oppen, poet and organizer associated with Objectivism, and the Frank Zappa composition “The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue.” It goes without saying I am fan of both of these artists and felt the combination of the book’s humor, surrealism, direct treatment of the object, politics, and hooliganism warranted me stealing their identities/ideas for the sake of a not very clever title. Titles are profoundly important to me. Most of my work begins as a title and the title helps to guide and color the tone and shape of the poem. I have a deep love for poets who create brilliant titles. Lucie Brock-Broido, Roger Reeves, David Berman are all champions of titling.
What does this particular work represent to you as indicative of your method/creative practice? your history? your mission/intentions/hopes/plans?
The George Oppen Memorial BBQ represents to me a mission to stay alive, spirited, listening, amenable, yet spunky. As a creative practice it is very much in line with my attempts to find a parallax view to the world, to uncover objects, to maybe glimpse truth, or to make up the truth and say I glimpsed it.
What does this book DO (as much as what it says or contains)?
I think this book tries its best to be buoyant and antitotalitarian.
What would be the best possible outcome for this book? What might it do in the world, and how will its presence as an object facilitate your creative role in your community and beyond? What are your hopes for this book, and for your practice?
I think the best possible outcome for this book is that someone reads it, enjoys it, and thinks differently about something in their life. I don’t spend much time thinking about best outcomes. I write what surprises and teaches me. I publish what surprises and teaches me. I can only hope my work and my practice will do the same to those who encounter it.
Let’s talk a little bit about the role of poetics and creative community in social activism. I’d be curious to hear some thoughts on the challenges we face in speaking and publishing across lines of race, age, privilege, social/cultural background, and sexuality within the community, vs. the dangers of remaining and producing in isolated “silos.”
This is a smart and challenging prompt that I have nothing smart or challenging to engage it with. I think art is a communal practice. I think it requires support, empathy, friendship, patience, and love and in that way is no different than personhood. Social capital is bullshit. Singular genius isn’t actually valuable. We need to make space for art just as we do people, which is no different than why we need to value labor because labor is people. Isolationism is how we effectively destroy ourselves.
Is there anything else we should have asked, or that you want to share?
No. These were all very thoughtful questions and my brain is now a mashed potato.
ERIC TYLER BENICK is co-founder and editor at Ursus Americanus Press, a publisher of chapbooks. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Vassar Review, Reality Beach, Bad Nudes, Graviton, decomP, Souvenir, Fruita Pulp, Fog Machine, and elsewhere. He is a current MFA candidate for Poetry at Sarah Lawrence College. He lives in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.