Brett Fletcher Lauer’s debut collection, A Hotel in Belgium (Four Way Books, 2014), is one of those fabled first books that teem with such skill, confidence, and maturity that it doesn’t really seem like a first book at all. I sometimes imagine Lauer’s poems as some retired assassin’s meditations. Rarely does a poem’s pulse spike above its steady rhythm, yet this apparent sharpshooter’s placidity is what binds his work together. Without it, the poems might threaten to unravel completely. This gives Lauer’s work a fascinating complexity: the calm surface of each poem acts like a seal that keeps the steam of inventiveness from rupturing into scalding opacity. You could call his poems little generators, each producing its own fine light in the mind.

A Hotel in Belgium is focused on the dark and unfortunate truths we all know, but kind of wish we didn’t:

. . .What I mean to say is, God
created for every disease a remedy,
there is nothing death can’t efface,
nothing that moans and doesn’t recline.

But Lauer shouldn’t be praised merely for his ability to take on tough subjects. After all, poets often take them on with glee and abandon. The difference is, while many poets contend to know these subjects well, Lauer seems to understand them. And perhaps more importantly, he knows he doesn’t, and will never, understand them completely. It takes patience and experience to embrace this type of resignation, and it is these very qualities that make A Hotel in Belgium so impressive. Lauer’s poetry knows that the real work is just being out there, treading water for as long as you can: “I have taken the oath that I will hide / here until I run out of breath.”

I had the fortune of interviewing Lauer about A Hotel in Belgium via email during the early weeks of June. This is what he had to say.

—William Brewer

William Brewer: There is a tension that ties A Hotel in Belgium together—a tension between a kind of jadedness that dogs your speakers on the one hand and their unyielding interest, or hope, in the lyric on the other. At times this is treated satirically, as in “The Collected Poems,” whereas in “Seaside Suicide,” your speaker seems ready to give in to the lyric impulse completely, like he values whatever special sensitivity we might still associate with the lyric and wants to celebrate it. You write,

      . . .It is crucial
that we notice subtleties of raven against sable, love
against eagerness, hear murmurs and distinguish
whether they are whisperings or heavy palm leaves.
It takes commitment. . .

Would you agree that your speakers seem to reach for poetry as a more pronounced, fully-experienced mode of being, and also to bemoan it for falling short, or turning out to be just another form of escapism?

Brett Fletcher Lauer: I’m well aware of all the hubbub surrounding the idea of the lyric as the dominant mode in contemporary poetry, as well as the limitations and criticisms surrounding that concept of “special sensitivity,” the singular and solitary self, and I hope the book makes it clear that this is something I’m playing with, rather than signing on to wholesale. When writing these poems I was thinking a lot about their narrators in relation to the tradition of Romantic and Modern subjectivity in the writings of Goethe, Kafka, and Beckett. Or in relation to Eliot’s definition of the lyric in his 1953 essay “The Three Voices of Poetry” as “the poet talking to himself—or nobody.” And those might seem like pretty musty sources to some— but I feel a certain commitment to the lyric as private or overheard meditation. Meditation may attempt to achieve a serenity of being in the universe, but in my failed experience with meditation, the moment I attempt to still my thoughts results in even more pronounced disruptions, associations, and obsessive and intrusive thoughts, and I think the poems reflect that experience.

WB: Speaking of “Seaside Suicide,” the idea of suicide recurs throughout the book, sometimes literally but more often it’s a kind of spiritual suicide that is meditated on, as in the poem “Stockholm Syndrome.” Your phrase “captive to Earth” encapsulates something related to this that permeates the book, namely a sense that the speaker is trying to develop a love for Earth, its captor, in order to keep living. Can you comment on this?

BFL: I should note that “Seaside Suicide” takes its title from an unrecorded song by the teenage Kurt Cobain, as reported in the documentary Kurt & Courtney. And I liked the phrase, partly for its sonic appeal, but also because the phrase combines a sense of tranquility and tragedy. There might also be a moment of minor hubris in my pretending to retrieve the phrase from being an obscure footnote on Nirvana messages boards—that the lost song was the equivalent of a lost or burnt manuscript, or really, more like a crumpled up post-it note.

Of course, I’m also allowing myself that pathetic fallacy and identification with the poetic image of the sea. The sea and the idea of the sea never fail to draw me in with a sense of meditative awe, any bodies of water really, which accounts for many of the narrators in the book being placed at the edge of the sea. And I think before I talk too much about suicide as an idea, or metaphor, it would be irresponsible to not acknowledge the seriousness of people struggling with suicidal thoughts and to note a resource for assistance.

Obviously, suicide is the ultimate, determined, and irretrievable action to feeling captive to the earth, or feeling, or disorder. I do appreciate your phrase “spiritual suicide,” which I think helps differentiate between a purely Romantic notion of killing oneself as in The Sorrows of Young Werther, another big influence, and what I see as a more existential crisis or a death on the inside.

One of the struggles in these poems is an attempt at expressing the genuine, or truth, while participating in the crisis.

WB: Something else that haunts the book is the word “name” and the act of naming. You write “To name this ‘barren’ // rather than an example of a style known for its lack- / luster is to miss the point completely” and “A world is heaven / until it inherits a name.” One of the most interesting moments related to naming comes in “The Gentle Sleep”: “Empty I slept . . . through a darkness that favors a future / with a limited preview, an alias for everything // in every form, position, and time . . .” This “great alias” sent my brain straight to another subject that pops up throughout the book: an involvement with Hare Krishnas, who are perhaps best known for their calling card, i.e. their chant, which is of course a list of names; the names of gods. Do you feel like these two entities share an orbit? How does name/naming function for you? And finally, is spiritualism, or a lack thereof, a driving force in this writing?

BFL: The act of naming anything can be limiting, and the crisis of the narrators of many of these poems is a sort of traditional crisis at this point in literature—the notion that any descriptive or representational language has its limits or can be problematic and perhaps even disingenuous. And I think one of the struggles in these poems is an attempt at expressing the genuine, or truth, while participating in the crisis.

In regards to spiritualism, Krishna Consciousness was a religion I was involved in for a period of two years in my early teens and at this point in my life seems like an establishing shot from a movie I half-watched on an airplane. However, I grew up in a household of atheists, and my sole experience of participating in religion and religious teaching are those two years. And now, the majority of the time when I think of the concept of god that mental image is Krishna. The act of naming god has a sacred power, from chants to prayers, to how the word is written or when and how it should be written.

And I think it’s accurate to say both the ideas you mentioned above dovetail a little, though I hadn’t thought about it until now. In both instances—naming and spirituality—a commitment or faith is required, and this is approached with a skeptical sense in the poems, resulting in paralyzing gray area, a feeling of being already dead.

WB: Almost the whole book feels outside of time. Sure, the majority of the poems are meditative lyrics unfolding in the mind, and while the voice certainly feels twenty-first century, the poems feel free of place or age. Maybe it’s that they sometimes feel like they’re in all ages all at once? Regardless, I kept encountering this “The Prelude” type feeling, like those moments when Wordsworth finally rises outside of time as a way to understand it completely, something close to death. Is time, in all its forms, a pressure on your writing, or was it while you compiled this collection? Is it something you try to address and deal with directly?

BFL: I think we are definitely captive to time, to our place in time, our limited time, our own memory of time, and our vantage point in reference to it. There is a well-known section of “The Prelude,” in Book 2, where Wordsworth is writing about his school days that I often think about:

A tranquillizing spirit presses now
On my corporeal frame: so wide appears
The vacancy between me and those days,
Which yet have such self-presence in my mind
That, sometimes, when I think of them, I seem
Two consciousnesses, conscious of myself
And of some other Being.

Wordsworth is describing the processes of reflection and distance, of the passage of time and memory, particularly on the accuracy of narration and autobiography. There is a new small volume of criticism that takes its title from the above quoted passage: Daniel Robinson’s Myself and Some Other Being: Wordsworth and the Life Writing. In it he describes “The Prelude” as “a narrative about the adaptation of memories of one’s past for the purposes of the writing moment in process, which is itself an activity of self-engendering and a fiction of authority that is meant to appear to the reader as if it is happening in concert with the reading of it.” And I am particularly drawn to his phrase of “fiction of authority.”

WB: Speaking of time, one of the most striking poems in the book happens to deal with it directly, the poem “After Reading This Poem.” It has one of my favorite sentences in the book: “The catalog defines a poem / as a monopoly of power.” The poem reads like a grand attempt to control time. What’s most interesting is that it’s this poem in which you most explicitly disclose biographical content, more than any other place in the book. It’s as if you’re trying use the poem, the “monopoly of power,” to dictate the future in order to reveal your past.

BFL: That poem was generated as a loving comment and criticism on the poetry workshop, which I understand is an awful topic for a poem, but alas, it happened. I noticed in workshops this ongoing habit of starting discussions with the phrases “It reminds me of” or “I’m interested in…” and what followed was often very specific to that reader’s personal history, interest, aesthetics—a reader response theory of engaging with the poem, which is fine, though sometimes a little less fine when the setting is a workshop and the author is in the room. The poem travels from the mundane items of life, to literary theory, to the duck-rabbit sketch of Wittgenstein, to the possibility of rating a poem on a scale of 1 to 5. And for me the poem ends in exhaustion, a throwing of hands in the air and saying here are autobiographical details, here is my story of sadness in three lines, are we happy with this bullet point summarization of my average middle-class experience of the world, wondering wouldn’t it be more productive to engage with the other aspects of the poem. And I think the idea of a monopoly is related to the idea of a monopoly of understanding, or where we place ourselves in time, and reading is subject to time both personal and emotional (we are in a moment experiencing a poem) but also historical time and revisions of time regarding to how we understand a text.

WB: Is personal biography and experience something you grapple with in your writing? Does the prospect of infusing that information stand as a challenge; is it something you’re skeptical of in both your writing and in poetry in general? Or have you simply generated strategies to address it without indulging in it?

BFL: I definitely think of these poems as personal, but I think of them more as having a sensibility or mood, rather than being purely autobiographical. There have been a few responses to the book from peers and colleagues that had a slight tone of “I hope you are okay”—and I know exactly what they mean. The book is sad, so that response isn’t something which bothers me—particularly because the stakes are low—a reaction to my wallowing in sadness isn’t as problematic as the response that other poets’ work in “persona” often receives, and which was discussed in a Roundtable of Persona in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

I wouldn’t say I’m skeptical of poetry that utilizes an author’s personal experience—I’m hoping that I’m open enough to respond to a variety of poems. It doesn’t tend to be work that I immediately gravitate to in poetry per se. At the same time, right now I am working on a memoir, about many things, but mainly my divorce and online dating. What interested me most in writing a memoir was form and not necessarily the story (which doesn’t involve cutting off my arm to extricate myself from a boulder) and the idea of memory, and how one presents oneself in the digital age. Even there in an autobiographical genre, weirdly the biographical details take a back seat to the how and why of storytelling.

WB: Do you care to talk about influences? I’ve already mentioned Wordsworth, who may not be an influence, but some other poets feel present: there is a metro station, a jar gets placed, some Romantic sea-gazing goes down. Is there a clan of poets that make up this collection’s DNA? If so, are they still active as influences, or have you in a sense exorcised them and moved on?

BFL: I would definitely name Wordsworth, T.S. Eliot, and especially Wallace Stevens as influences both that I am engaging with directly and that manifest in the work of contemporary poets I admire. There are a host of contemporary poets who I admire and I think I am responding to in some sense. I had a workshop with Marjorie Welish forever ago which introduced me to her work and the work of Ann Lauterbach and Barbara Guest. I love the work of Peter Gizzi and Jennifer Moxley in their contemporary engagements with lyric poetry, and I love all three of the poets who graciously wrote blurbs for the book, Timothy Donnelly, Matthea Harvey, and Matthew Zapruder. I’m a pretty loyal guy and such a slow writer, that I try not to spend too much time worried about exorcising influences.

WB: Elements of “performance” are scattered across this book. Even some titles alone point to it, such as “Staged Darkness” and “The Revised Script.” The poems often feel like alternative performances to the performance of daily life. Is this a concern in your poems? Does your approach to writing carry something of the theatrical?

BFL: It felt important for me to include poems that dealt with performance in order to acknowledge my awareness of the artifice and constructedness of the poems and the history of the lyric in general. There is a large part of me that worries some readers might dismiss the book as old-fashioned because I didn’t know any better. And I wanted to counter that a little. This is important to me, because though individual poems may have a feeling of a speaker and that speaker might seem to be the expression of the author’s moods and feelings, a great deal of these poems were constructed, and consist of found and manipulated language, so these speakers and the poems themselves are performing a character. I wanted to collapse that distance between character and what “Brett” lived through or said aloud at meeting or in my therapist’s office. Often when language is appropriated for poems the very appropriation is the idea, and the mechanism or methodology that created the poem overpowers the content. I’m much more interested in the content.

And so I was in an office, I had Word, I had clip art, and I had poetry.

WB: Does other media influence your work? I know you’re a fan of clip art, specifically pairing image and text, and I know you dig music. Do you think other arts exert a significant influence your work? Are there albums that spun while the writing got done, or any paintings or films you could point to as being of particular importance to the book?

BFL: I started making “poet cards” after reading David Ree’s online comic Get Your War On, at a time when I was also learning about the mail art of Ray Johnson and the Fluxus. Each card consists of a clipart image and a line from a poem as a caption. And the truth is, if you were asking me one of those questions like, “If you weren’t a poet what would you like to be?” the answer would be a visual artist. And so making these cards was a very small opportunity to engage with that fantasy—without possessing the talents of painting, drawing, etc. I wanted to make things that were easy, technologically speaking, like fanzines—which were very important to me growing up listening to hardcore music. And so I was in an office, I had Word, I had clip art, and I had poetry. I worked with the poet Matthew Rohrer at the time, and so I could swivel my office chair around and say, write a line for this image, and he would, and they would be terrific and so I kept making them. Mostly I created them for occasions, like a friends’ reading, a book launch, or for an issue of a magazine. I think of them not quite as part of a gift economy but more like a gift bag at a birthday party—a person walks away with something physical to acknowledge and thank them for being where they just were. And the process is pretty similar to how I might make a poem, equal parts appropriation, juxtaposition, and a hope that what results is something that seems weirdly like it was always meant to be together.

It’s very difficult in some ways to think of the records or art that might linger over the book since some of these poems are a decade old. There are lines that are more or less taken from Nas and the Wu-Tang Clan but I wasn’t bumping them exclusively while composing a poem or thinking of the poems in dialogue with those songs. Glancing over at my bookshelves right now I could say there was a stretch of time in writing this book where I was obsessively reading biographies, the biographies of Poe, Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Desnos, Man Ray, Raymond Roussel, and there might be something to be said about Symbolist and Surrealist poets and that historical era that lingers over the book. I will also say that I spend a good deal of time looking at art and, like a lot of 13 year old girls, I have a Tumblr. And that does function as a visual scrapbook, predominantly of visual art works I’m thinking about or have come across in reading, in person, or in digital archives.

WB: Who are you reading right now? What are you working on?

BFL: I just finished The Memoirs of Giorgio De Chirico, the catalog from Camille Henrot “The Restless Earth” show at the New Museum, Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl, and Danielle Dutton’s Attempts at a Life.

WB: Lastly, what’s up with Belgium, anyway? Belgian hotels, monks, rooms—it’s the one distinct location mentioned in the book besides Union Street, which I assume is the one in Brooklyn.

BFL: Unlike Union Street, which is the one in Brooklyn and is a street I once lived on, the location of Belgium just appeared, and I felt that once it did, it needed to be nurtured throughout the collection—or rather until I was happy with it. I’ve never spent time in Belgium so the location seemed unburdened of any personal reference while at the same time it wasn’t a place that could be immediately interpreted as romanticizing, exoticizing, or politicizing. I wanted “A Hotel in Belgium,” which is one of the oldest poems in the book and was published here in Boston Review in 2003, and subsequently the title of the book, to suggest a neutral time and place where you could almost locate these speakers. Subsequently, I think it must have arisen from Enid Starkie’s biography Arthur Rimbaud. It was in a hotel in Brussels that the poet Paul Verlaine was in a manic, depressive, and mad state over his relationship with his wife and the young Arthur Rimbaud. He sent heart-wrenching missives to his friends “I’m going to kill myself! Only I don’t want anyone to know that until the thing is done…” and to his wife and own mother, as well as to Rimbaud’s mother, and to Rimbaud himself. And it was a hotel in Belgium, where ultimately, after a night of heavy drinking Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the wrist. And even in this whole affair Belgium is a sort of in-between place between their stay in London and their homes in France. Rimbaud would spend time in the hospital, and be treated by nurses before he was escorted out of the country and Verlaine would be arrested and his marriage would dissolve.