Benjamin Niespodziany, Amy Barnes
Interview with Ben Niespondziany for his new book: No Farther than the End of the Street
I had the pleasure of taking a Word West Zoom course with Ben Niespodziany in 2020. We were all stuck at home or in Ben's case, in a library. Every week, he wrote astonishing bite-sized stories that were full of Alice in Wonderland-like wonder, magical descriptions and whimsical lyricism. Things were upside down in his stories in a way I appreciated; his storytelling and character-driven words were all his own. The Zoom meetings became a neighborhood in an upside-down world too — we were all states apart but the same virtual neighborhood space each week. When Gone Lawn was sent Ben's poetry volume, No Farther than the End of the Street, I knew the book would have that same magic.
Amy Barnes: Gone Lawn published your prose poetry Dr. Sky Does Not Recall the Ordering of Things and Siblings (Brothers) in 2019. In those stories, Dr. Sky buys a loaf of not-burning bread and an already burning candle that "do a hiss and sizzle" before falling asleep. And in Siblings, readers are transported to the top of a skyscraper lightning rod to find the best phone signal. There are fruit bats, chicken eggs in a turkey jerky/moose drool tent, a whittled hickory whistle, raccoons in cages, a dove in a glovebox, a brother in a vent. A plethora of whimsical objects and people. What are the literature influences behind your stories? Fairy tales? Myths? Cultural storytellers?
Benjamin Niespodziany: So glad you're conducting this interview, Amy! Thanks for the lovely intro and making me nostalgic for those Word West sessions. My literary influences are expansive and seemingly endless. I certainly gravitate towards the more surreal and strange (as well as fairy tales and myths, as you've said) and also enjoy dense lyricism and hybrid works and nursery rhymes. I like to surprise myself as I write, or else I get a bit bored. Rarely do I know where the story/poem/flash is going. For Dr. Sky (part of another manuscript of woodland fables), I was influenced by Russian absurdist and playwright Daniil Kharms. I wanted to tell a story involving one central character with only a couple objects. For Siblings (Brothers), I don't think I was inspired by any writers, just inspired by Chicago's skyscrapers and the many differences between my brother-in-law and myself. I'm grateful to Gone Lawn for publishing both.
Amy: You end Siblings with a sentence that feels like it could be your epitaph.
"I think I can see him, spinning silent like a period at the end of some story."
Who would you like to eat dinner with, dead or alive? Who would be at your dinner table? In your neighborhood? What book setting would you like to step into?
Benjamin: Living? Alejandro Jodorowsky, Lemony Snicket, Sabrina Orah Mark, Mattias Adolfsson, Sophie Page. I'm forever inspired by their art. Dead? Leonora Carrington, Russell Edson, Edward Gorey, Denis Johnson.
I'm not sure of any books where I'd like to step inside. Almost all of the books I love offer up haunting and dark settings. I almost said Zachary Schomburg's Mammother, but the possibility of me dying in that world would be very high. I really love cartoons and comics and movies, so I'd love to step inside the world of Popeye or Scooby Doo or even The Mask.
Amy: There are similarities from the 2019 GL pieces to No Further Than The End of the Street. Quirkiness. Expert turns of phrases. Poetry within poetry. Slant rhymes and slant-y characters. All against a grounding of ordinary objects and people that give readers a footing. How do you choose objects to give permanence and grounding? Find resonance? Memory-making quality? Do you write on paper or a computer? Notes file or restaurant napkins?
Benjamin: Recurring characters/objects like whales, magicians, snakes, and clowns are because of my own fixations, while objects like eggs, birds, and flowers are often things I see during my daily routine. I'm not sure I look for things that resonate while I'm writing, but if something doesn't resonate, then it's quickly removed in the editing process. Almost all of my poems/stories begin with an email to myself, usually with line breaks to help with my pacing, and then (almost always) turned into prose blocks in the editing process. I also have journals and Post-Its with poems, but mainly I email myself since I know I'll have to transcribe if I want to edit.
Amy: How do you feel your writing has changed, evolved, stayed the same since 2019? Did the pandemic affect how and what you write? Did it bear weight on the book and its "neighborhood block" setting?
Benjamin: I think my style/voice has been relatively the same since 2019, but I've (hopefully) honed in on my skills in the last few years. I think in 2017/2018, when I first started submitting my writing, I really wanted to get EVERYTHING on the page. Twenty characters and twenty actions and twenty objects and more, more, more. Even Siblings (Brothers) is a bit too maximalist for my current tastes. I've learned to tone it down a bit, which I think allows for the weirdness to stick out when it does (inevitably) arrive. During the pandemic, I didn't write much, but I edited non-stop. I was able to look at all of my writing and see which pieces were talking to each other and which pieces connected. During this process, I found a neighborhood full of oddball characters and domestic instances. The pandemic allowed me to box it up and put a bow on it.
Amy: There is something familiar in your poems but with your own signature twist. A little Seuss, Sendak, Carroll, Dahl, Handler — perhaps? Who are your writing inspirations?
Benjamin: This is the second time I've had someone mention my writing alongside Lewis Carroll this week. High praise, thank you. My writing inspirations are Joanna Ruocco, Mathias Svalina, Michael Earl Craig, Jack Handey, CAConrad, Sebastian Castillo, Sabrina Orah Mark, Mary Ruefle, GennaRose Nethercott, Kiik Araki-Kawaguchi. The list goes on. I like to read work that is short and full of strange twists and vivid images. A little humor, a little surrealism. My bread and butter.
Amy: I love the Monster at the End of the Book level playfulness, that breaking of the wall between reader and author. Is that something you looked for? Where do you find connections between reader/writer? Is that a neighborhood in itself?
"If you notice any of the characters tiptoeing where they don't belong, please be sure to let the author know for this is a contained space for the author and his poems to play."
Benjamin: This was my first attempt at collecting together my writing and calling it a book. I knew I wanted to make it cohesive and connected with each piece still being able to stand on its own so I spent a lot of time trying to make it all feel like part of a singular world. Okay Donkey can confirm I sent them about 15 different versions of this manuscript, and even now, if given the chance, I'd be adding and arranging new pieces to further sculpt this world. I'm glad it's out so I don't have to keep doing that haha.
But I love project-length books like The Book of Frank by CAConrad or Vera & Linus by Jesse Ball, where anything can happen (and everything does happen) to the central characters and yet they start again fresh on the next page. This is also common in shows like Adventure Time or South Park. It makes for a great deal of fun while writing and compiling and ordering these poems.
Amy: I love the object and character list in your press release. The descriptions are poetic and memorable and draw the reader into this neighborhood you've created and filled. Your prose and poetry feel very intentional, even if we, the reader, don't know the why or who — we want to. Why these objects? Why these people? Why these quantities? Do you have experiences to share where you've encountered any of them?
THIS BOOK INCLUDES:
Candles and sweaters. Whales and horses.
Ghosts and eels. A parrot, a toucan, a stork.
A sloth and a loft of owls. A beast with one long arm and one normal arm.
A chainsaw and a snow blower. Clown shoes and magic carpets.
Fine churchgoing people. Rats. So many rats.
Clouds. So many clouds.
Benjamin: I love candles as well as the image of the candle: something that you set on fire until it is a puddle of wax. There's a scene in Borgman, one of my favorite movies, where the daughter cuts open a teddy bear, removes its stuffing, and fills it with sand. That kind of off-kilter transformation has always fascinated me. Eels and snakes scare the hell out of me (I had a nightmare about snakes last night), but I think they're super cool. Clowns and magic, as I mentioned before, will always fascinate me. Probably why I wrote a circus-based chapbook. Rats are everywhere in Chicago. That's probably why they're so common here, same with chainsaws and snow blowers. The sounds of the city if you sit near your window long enough.
Amy: Okay Donkey is a quirky, innovative journal and press. How did your book land there?
Benjamin: I sent them a faith-based manuscript when they had an open call for poetry full-lengths (back in 2019?), but it wasn't a right fit. Then I sent them an early version of No Farther (back when it was called The Flimsy Chimney) out of the blue and they loved it, but they already had a full schedule of books they were pushing (Dani Putney's poetry collection and Jennifer Fliss's book of stories). Months later, they emailed me to see if it was still available because they wanted it to be their next poetry book. So glad they worked with me on this. 20+ revisions later and here we are.
Amy: Lemony Snicket's author. I think that's the best blurb I've seen. What is your connection with Handler? Was it terrifying asking him for a blurb? While this feels like an "adult" book, there is also something decidingly child-like magical about it. Do you find your library connections were impactful in how and who you write for?
"This book, NO FURTHER THAN THE END OF THE STREET, is like that. I can't stop staring."—Daniel Handler, author of BOTTLE GROVE, and as Lemony Snicket, A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS.
Benjamin: It was a dream come true! I interviewed him for a streetwear blog back in like 2016 or 2017, so while I knew it was a long shot, I also knew he had replied to me all those years ago. I sent it to his assistant, who told me he was on vacation, and that she would print it and put it on his desk. I thought, "Yeah, right." A few weeks later, he emailed me personally with the blurb. Still baffled and amazed. A Series of Unfortunate Events are some of my favorite books, and I love the mixture of heavy sorrow with humor and slapstick. It's funny, it's heartbreaking, it's everything at once. Like a Pixar movie, Lemony Snicket can make kids laugh and adults cry.
Amy: What are you doing/writing next? Projects to share? Goals? New neighborhoods or anything else to share?
Benjamin: Always reading, always writing, always seeking new music and paintings and films. I'm working on a manuscript of poems that all take place inside a library. Another manuscript of fairytales/fables. Another manuscript of ekphrastic pieces inspired by cinema and screenplays. And some other exciting things in the works that I'll be able to announce sooner than later. I've said too much.
The wedding planner
proclaimed it a disaster. The minister was sick with liver failure. I, the groom, was in a tomb loose-lipped and blue. You, the bride, were lively from adrenaline injections. The wedding was broken, bleeding, sleeping on the altar. Even the flower girl, Myrtle — age eight — was so overcome with pain that she spit up clumps of petals she'd called her Eden. Even the deacon, who was not invited, described the wedding as the opposite of heaven. A stray cat passing through, pawing at the platters, not understanding the frantic nature of humans in dress.
A Mutual Duel
When you challenged the neighbor-hood mayor to a bake off in our front lawn, I was coughing wrongdoings in our backyard. The blood that hung from my lips was, from a distance, divine. I tried to paint the naked soil evergreen and failed. I tried to match the palette and lost. You won the gold, brought it into our home, beholden in your grip as if the apple medallion was you.
Gone Lawn published Benjamin Niespodziany's Dr. Sky Does Not Recall the Ordering of Things + Siblings (Brothers)
in Gone Lawn 32, 2019.
His debut full-length poetry collection, No Farther than the End of the Street
, is out now with Okay Donkey Press.
is the author of two chapbooks: 2021's The Northerners
, out through above/ground press, and 2022's Pickpocket the Big Top
, out through Dark Hour Books. His work has been featured in the Wigleaf Top 50, Fence, Maudlin House, Fairy Tale Review, Cheap Pop
and various others. His website is neonpajamas.com