Lauren Berlant

In 2019 Lauren Berlant, the George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor in English, won the Hubbell Medal for Lifetime Achievement from the Modern Language Association. (Photography by Nathan Keay)

Ordinary poetry

Lauren Berlant on the collaborative project The Hundreds.

In 2012, at a writing workshop in Austin, Texas, Lauren Berlant, Kathleen Stewart, and other academics tried out a 100-word poetics exercise.

Berlant, the George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor in English, and Stewart, professor of anthropology at the University of Texas, were so taken with the form, they decided to use it to explore what they call “the new ordinary.” The two began writing short prose poems—either exactly 100 words long or multiples of 100—inspired by moments both overwhelming and everyday.

In 2019 they published a book called simply The Hundreds (Duke University Press), a collection of 100 of these poems. Among the intriguing titles: “Friendhating,” “Office Hours,” and “A Month in Arrests and Other Things.” Most pieces have citations at the end, typically authors but occasionally objects: photos, cranberry bread mix, pansies.

The poems show clues of who originated them—some are based in Chicago, others in Austin—but all are unsigned. “What does ‘yours’ and ‘hers’ mean when she’s started to edit mine, and I’ve started to edit hers?” Berlant says. “Where you begin isn’t where you end up.”

The interview below has been edited and condensed.

I love how direct and condensed this book is. In the spirit of that, could you try to answer in around 10 words? Or maybe one or two sentences?

Oh ok. But the danger is it will sound like I’m making statements.

In psychoanalysis, therapists are trained not to make statements, because the statement itself translates into the listener’s mind as a truth, even if the statement was intended as a proposition. I’d always rather say more than less, because I’d rather have my interlocutor see that I’m walking around a problem. But I’m willing to go with it.

So let’s try it?

Let’s try it. I was just giving you a preamble.

How are the pieces organized in the book?

We went with resonance. We started with “First Things” [a piece about what people do first thing in the morning], and then we said, what picks up on something in that?

Is it like a journey? Even if it’s meandering?

I guess I would say, people will have to tell us if it feels like there’s a build, versus a series of separate encounters. Readers recognize patterns in such different ways.

One reviewer started at the back.

I have a friend who says they use it as a psalmistry—as a book that they open up to a different page every day and then try to think about their day in the light of that thing they opened up. I would have not have predicted that.

In the Kindle version, you can search for patterns. Other interviewers have been really interested in how many times we used the word “hundred,” for example. It turns out we use it 100 times. I haven’t really checked that.

Several reviews have called this book weird or strange, which it doesn’t seem to me at all.

It’s hard for people to understand the conceptual and art parts of The Hundreds.

I’m always surprised by how hard my work is anyway. When I’m in the middle of it, I’m just trying to make things clear. Later I’ll say, well that’s actually kind of intense to read. I thought I had made the object available in the world, but maybe I didn’t.

What I found so charming was it was like hearing professors talk when they’re off duty. It was like having coffee with you.

That’s interesting. You trusted that the voices of the book weren’t trying to do work on you.

You know when people go to films—melodramatic films or sentimental films—they frequently say, I felt manipulated, and I’m like, well, you went to that film
to get manipulated. That’s what the aesthetic experience is. So what you mean is, either you’re embarrassed because it worked, or you could see the strings on the puppets too much, and you wanted to be more unconscious about
its manipulations.

I think when people come to The Hundreds, they don’t know what the conventions of the desired effect would be.

What’s your writing practice like?

I try to write every day either about a scholarly problem, a situation—in a diaristic form or memoir form—or starting somewhere that will surprise me, like remembering something that happened, and then I try to make a world for it. A lot of these poems came from that daily writing.

In the introduction, you mention the word count variations in different word processing programs. Do you ever write by hand?

I’m much more likely to pull out my iPhone and thumb type something into the notes.

And then in the revision—sometimes I’ll print it up. I do revise by hand, then. I don’t assume my revisions are good. One thing about editing is that you can ruin your work. But you also have to edit.

Does publishing this make you vulnerable? You write about places you like to go, things that interest you that seem very particular to you.

But where you live has to be composed. I’m a historian of the present. One of the things I say to my students is, we’re alive at the same time, but it doesn’t mean we’re in the same present.

I definitely experience it as vulnerablizing, especially when I’m doing a reading, but I don’t think of The Hundreds as a memoir in any way.

To me, that just adds to the vulnerability—these are things important enough to put in a non-memoir. They’re chosen moments.

I don’t know if I thought they were important. That’s my point, in a way. I don’t think of the ordinary incidents or thought as self-evidently important. I think of them as something I built something around—an object, a scene, a problem, a form, a life.

With the citations, did you write a piece and then think, here are the influences that came out? Or were they more like writing prompts?

It depends. Sometimes the poems have quotations in them. But often it was the feeling that we were writing in a conversation that our brains were having with other minds. So at some point we said, why don’t we go through the poems and see what were we thinking with?

The citations at the bottom of the pages are what we read with, what we read under the influence of, as it were.

Why call it The Hundreds?

It was always called The Hundreds, I don’t know why. I wonder if we should have thought about other names. Anyway, we didn’t.

What did I miss that you feel like, why didn’t she ask me X?

I’m not like that. I wasn’t sitting here wishing for something. I was just trying to be game for you.

Read “Ten,” an excerpt from Berlant’s book The Hundreds.