Another post in our occasional series talking to past Structo contributors. This time we feature an interview with the author and poet Rosebud Ben-Oni. You can read her story ‘Never My Story, My Name is Yours’ online in Structo 7.
Can you tell me a little about your latest collection, If This Is the Age We End Discovery?
At its core, this collection is about the collapsing of frameworks, how one can move forward, and rethinking how to approach the idea of “discovery.” Rather thinking in terms of conquest or formulating elegant, fundamental equations as a way to “solve” the universe, I’m more concerned with curiosity and unfolding the act of questioning itself. I’m also very much a sceptic, and don’t like being told what to think or what to do, so Everett Quantum Mechanics (also known as the Many Worlds Interpretation) is where this collection lives: in the multiverse, filled with multiple times. The speaker is a rogue against linear kinds of thinking, if you will. And she is not looking for an answer to The Theory of Everything, or discovering a single “guiding star,” whether in physics or poetic traditions, but rather what it means to express a journey itself. I began this collection in the middle of a health crisis back in 2012, after finding no clear answers in either my faith (traditional Judaism) or science. I felt as if I were being nullified. And so into nullification I dove, and found myself thinking about “Efes”— that is, “zero” in Modern Hebrew, but also can mean, “to nullify, to conceal,” in mystical Jewish texts. I took this idea a step further: that nullification and negation can be a means of transformation, one without end. You see, I believe that Efes is an equal but opposite force or presence parallel with what makes our life possible, that is, electrons and quarks, and if you grew up very observant the way I did, HaShem, which is one of the names for God in Hebrew. When I was younger, nothing could be more powerful than HaShem, but now I believe there is this equal but opposite force, Efes, which is responsible for many unexplained things in the multiverse such as Dark Energy. It is the enemy of those elegant equations which is holding theoretical physics back, the slayer of the Standard Model, which needs its own next evolution. That it would reveal Itself at the singularity of a black hole. That it does not abide by any law. And most importantly, as soon as we solve one problem or mystery, resulting in a discovery, Efes inevitably changes the riddle, and I believe it does so, to make life harder, so that life itself continues to evolve. My ideas about Efes actually brought me back to both the possibilities with theoretical physics and my lifelong belief in HaShem, two principles in my own life that were shaken when I became ill. They might be incongruous. They are not. If anything, my Jewish faith is where my act of questioning first began. It is the act of questioning that reminds me I’m still alive and here— and all things considered, thriving. To ask questions is to be alive and wildly unpredictable toward the ideas and people that would like to control one. This collection, as most of my poetry now, is an extension of my greater desire for an eternal defiance of death. For all its experimentation and ideas about transformation through nullification, it’s really a book that has no ending. It’s deeply personal and imagery-heavy, but there are multiple points of view. It defies the idea of centers & endings. The final words ask the reader to join in. It asks the reader not to give up.
Was it written as a collection or brought together as one?
It was brought together as one. It exists in multiple timelines as a collection although it did not start as such. It began in fear as one framework, as I spoke about earlier, fell, one after another. In 2012, coincidentally, they also “discovered” the Higgs, but we already knew about the Higgs field. The problem with real life applications of string theory is that it’s very hard to make testable predictions. But in poetry, you can explore these hypotheticals through the very lens of doubt. So I took my fascination of multiverses, simulations, and theoretical particles that continue to go unproven, and explored them through the themes of family, Judaism, borders, the loss of loved ones. Poetry allows me to explore these ideas through strange syntax and spacing on a page, for as the collection goes on, the seemingly erratic format reflects more of how I see the world, through the lens of my faulty wiring, my brain fog, this enduring music that I translate onto the page.
How have the last two years been for you, in terms of your writing?
I’ve been fortunate to engage in public readings for this book during the pandemic— albeit, most of them virtual. I’ve had quite a few readers say to me that the title alone is a strange fit for these times; the book itself was completed in 2018, and won the 2019 Alice James Award, and then was published by Alice James Books just this March 2021. One reader asked me if I had imagined the pandemic itself, if this was an “ending time.” Quite the opposite. I only believe in the future. As someone who personally experienced a rather violent start to 2020, and had her life turned upside down in the middle of Queens, one of the epicenters of the pandemic that year, there is something deep inside me that refused to give up. In a time of sheltering-in-place, with the help of friends, I got out of a very precarious situation and started a huge aspect of my life over. In 2020, I was still teaching (now online) and working and publishing; my chapbook 20 Atomic Sonnets, which is dedicated to the Periodic Table’s 150th birthday, was published in Black Warrior Review in 2020, online and free to the general public, because of the pandemic. I did not escape my situation unscathed, of course, but like most significant crossroads in my life, something inside of me refuses to let me give up. There is only forward. There is only tomorrow. And the older I get, the more I realize I’m a poet because I don’t like being told what to think or what to do, as I’ve said before, although my nature is easy-going, say like any good photon, I can pass through two doors at once, at the same time. Being resistant to control and also being easy-going, one seems contrary to the other, but it’s the former that has saved me many times, so that the latter carries on. Both attributes tend to attract people who seem thrilled at first, but fear can be a monstrous thing. It can make someone who loves you want to bottle you up, silence and control you. There is a choice to be made here. I’ve made it, for better or worse, several times. But in 2020, it was like the last framework had finally fallen apart: love. I did not predict that at all. I would have staked the rest of my life on that love. I was wrong. I can only move on. There is, as I said before, only forward. And I hold this as absolute because of poetry.
Poetry to me holds the future possibilities not only of language itself, but for how we will evolve. Poetry is the future speak, the difficult reading that saves one from their own short attention span and reliance on, say, algorithms. There is a future for discovery, and I say this knowing theoretical physics hasn’t led to the many new discoveries once promised, especially by string theory; that we might never understand all aspects of the multiverse in sum total. But as a poet I can imagine what it means for our lifespans to just seem long enough to skim surfaces, to ask questions, albeit often the wrong questions, in the hope that they might lead to less wrong questions. For me, “discovery” is not about possessing or taking over; it’s about curiosity itself. I’d like to be less wrong, sure. But damn it, I wouldn’t change a thing about the course my life has taken through multiple timelines, and while I imagine all the Rosebud Ben-Onis out there talking to all Euan Monaghan of all the Structos out there must be different, wildly different in the end: all have the same core. We are all very curious. We’re all moving forward, Euan.
Find out more about Rosebud and her writing at rosebudbenoni.com