An Interview with Ben Schroeder
Andrea Nelson FaceTimed with poet and copyeditor extraordinaire Ben Schroeder to talk about Spanish food, language in poetry, and The Haunting of Hill House.
Andrea Nelson: What are you doing in Spain? How long do you plan to stay there?
Benjamin Schroeder: I am in Spain as an assistant English teacher through the Auxiliares de Conversación program run by the Spanish government. The program runs from October 1 to May 31, so I'm here until at least June! Right now I'm back and forth between applying for grad school or applying for another year in Spain, so stay tuned to find out if I'm here beyond June 2019.
AN: What kind of teaching/tutoring are you doing? What surprised you about the Auxiliares de Conversación program, or about the students you work with?
BS: It really depends on the teacher. I am technically at one school, but in reality there are four schools in four towns that share a name. Some teachers want me to make presentations that take up the entire class time while others prefer that I follow their lead and facilitate activities that they prepare. Essentially the teaching is in a relatively large group setting and covers a broad range of ESL topics. Most of the students are younger than twelve, so the vocabulary is also pretty simple at the moment.
I honestly went in with very few—or no—expectations, so I can't say anything has really surprised me about the program or the students. That being said, the teachers have made me feel extremely welcomed, most of the kids are super eager to learn, and although I've read that sometimes this program is bad at paying people on time, I got my first paycheck right on schedule. If anything, I'm surprised by how smoothly I've made the transition into this job and, if I'm being honest, how much I am enjoying working with kids.
AN: What has been the best part of moving to and living in Spain? The worst?
BS: The best part about moving has been just the plethora of new experiences available to me, not least of which is the opportunity to live my life in another language. It's a challenge, but it's so incredible to be able to look at language in a new light in general. Since English is my native language, it's taken on this kind of quotidian quality that makes exciting phrasing harder to come by, but because I don't have native-level fluency in Spanish, it retains some of its mystery and magic and even everyday tasks like ordering coffee vibrate with the sounds of the words involved.
The worst part by far has been leaving all my family and friends.
AN: How does speaking and thinking in a second language inform your understanding of English, and how does it affect your writing?
BS: Basically what I said before: Spanish is magical and mysterious to me, but I am at a level where I sometimes write in Spanish, so sometimes a phrase really piques my interest in Spanish and I might write from there. What I write in Spanish might also end up in something I write in English if I translate it, which ends up adding even more to this sense of mystery with all that's lost and gained in the transition between two languages.
Living in a language that still retains its mystery allows me to turn back to English and experience its own mystery and magic anew.
AN: When we spoke earlier you mentioned you're revising your thesis. Could you speak a little to that—what the collection is about, and where you see it going in the future?
BS: Wow, I'd love to. I think I've reached a more cohesive version of the manuscript, but even before I began cutting and revising, the collection focused on troubling and expanding prevailing notions of the shape of love and the search for the self. Whatever shape the search for meaning takes from poem to poem, it is the movement of the search that I hope opens up a space where readers can question received knowledge about the self, love, and our relationship to one another.
I hope to see it going on people's bookshelves in the future! Seriously, though, I think that I'm far from finished writing about love, the self, the other, and the relationship, which have been the most interesting topics to me for a while now, and I see this thesis/manuscript/collection bleeding over into the next.
AN: Do you ever see a poem as "finished," or do you find that there's always more you can revise?
BS: I have definitely seen poems as "finished" before, but the problem is that on some future reread I'll find that the poem has morphed into something else and needs to be revised again so that its outline becomes a little clearer, its details a little more crisp. Eventually the poem is saying what it wants to with a logic all its own, and I have to give up looking for things to change; most often, I think a poem is really finished when all of its parts seem to fit the internal logic of the poem, when they all come together and make a structure that would crumble if any one piece were removed.
AN: What brought you to Trouble Child?
BS: Our beautiful, fearless, smart, and talented friend Aubrey Asleson told me she wanted to make a magazine and asked me to be a part of it. How could I say no? She had an incredible vision, and I wanted to help make it a reality.
AN: Could you describe your editing style?
BS: I would say my editing style is a lot like my method of revising and collecting my own work. For the broad strokes of editing, like compiling a cohesive whole, I look at the moving parts and ask what they want collectively: an arc, sections, an amorphous cloud of fluctuating subjects? What is the best frame for these works? How do they work together or trouble one another? In terms of detail work, like the editing that goes into individual pieces, I really want to help bring out that tight internal structure and logic of the piece. Whether that means moving a line, deleting a word, or adding a stanza, I look for ways the arc of the narrative or the shape of the poem can be brought out. Sometimes you get lucky and the piece is already relatively self-aware and self-actualized. Other times, you can see something underneath the dust of maybe some extraneous phrases or the outline of what could be there—like looking at an Ancient Greek sculpture with its arms missing and imagining how they might have looked. That's when the real detail work happens, and it's tough because you have to help the writer figure out which pieces need to be cut, added, or polished without imposing anything like a will on the whole.
AN: Who is a poet you admire and why?
BS: I really admire the poetry of Pablo Neruda because it contains such wonder at the pure and simple magic of being; I'm thinking particularly of his odes and love sonnets. His was the first poetry I fell head-over-heels in love with.
A poet I really admire, though, is Claudia Rankine. She has such a discerning eye and ear for the frame of events and moments; I really love the way she stitches moments together like pieces of fabric for a large and intricate quilt. I attended a talk between her and Marilynne Robinson at the University of Minnesota once, and she was, unsurprisingly, an extremely smart and thoughtful speaker.
AN: What are you reading right now?
BS: Right now I'm reading a book of poems called La Ciudad by Jorge Galán. It's absolutely haunting. One of the first things I did when I got here was get a library card. Hopefully I'm going to be reading a lot of literature in Spanish during my time abroad.
AN: What are your go-to tapas? Remind me, what are they called there?
BS: Here they're called pinchos. People in La Rioja will understand you if you say tapas, but I've been told by the Riojanos that it does not work in reverse—very few people in the south of Spain will know what a pincho is.
My go-to pinchos are definitely the zapatillas, which means little shoes but are actually big slices of bread slathered in a tomato sauce and covered in jamón iberico; patatas bravas, simply fried potatoes in a spicy and savory sauce; and tortilla de patatas, classic Spanish fare. If you like spicy food, ask for the picante to go along with it; there isn't much heat in the typical Spanish dish.
AN: I'm assuming you finished Hill House by now...which of the Crain siblings are you most like?
BS: Yes! So good. If I'm being honest, I'm probably like one of the twins: deeply affected by past events and sensitive. I think the twins are also the characters who lived most in the moment during their time at Hill House. Others were in denial or kept what they knew a secret, but Nell and Luke were in contact with ghosts and always confronted what they saw (even if it was with screams and tears). There's also something about Nell's delusion that returning to the place where it all started could help her that speaks to me because I have to stop myself from doing something similar in terms of memory. If anything, I think that the end of Nell's arc is about what can happen to someone when they return to the past through memory and let that memory envelope them until they are no longer capable of escaping. The fact that she continues on as a ghost who espouses the nonlinearity of time could be a kink in that interpretation, but to smooth it out I'd say she does succumb to memory, and her memory consumes her so that she is continuous with it—so that she no longer really exists in the world.
But of course I've lost myself and the thread of the question in my interpretation. To answer more simply: Nell or Luke. Maybe Luke because he is so similar to Nell, but he—spoiler— survives.