Interview with Tia Ballantine
BCP: How is it you came to be a poet?
When I was a small child, my father took the lot of us – we were five children – to Austerlitz, NY to spend the weekend in small white clapboard farmhouse across the way from a larger house where his dear friend Norma Millay lived. Norma, of course, was the sister of Edna St Vincent Millay, and on that weekend, Norma had planned a reading of her sister’s poems at a location in town. It might have been the library or the Town Hall. I don’t know. I was a small kid; I just remember a large room and murmuring people. On the afternoon of the reading, all adults were sitting around the swimming pool, drinks in hand. As the pool had a healthy algae bloom, it didn’t invite swimmers – except us kids. We had a great time, leaping into the green slime and coming out looking (we thought) like the scariest of swamp monsters. We raced around the edges of the pool, trailing green flags of awesomeness and stink while the adults chatted, ignoring us as best they could. As the afternoon grew late and the sun slant, Norma decided to recite some of Edna St Vincent Millay’s poems, and when she did I slid to a screeching stop, abandoning all thought of swamp monsters. I dropped down in front of Norma, entranced by this strange music she was telling to the birds – and me. I just sat there, listening. She watched me and then smiled. Reaching down, she cupped her hands about my face and looked seriously into my eyes. Bringing her face close to mine, she said, “My dear, you, my dear, are a poet.” I begged my mother to let me come to the reading, and even though she knew it would be well past bedtime when we arrived home, she let me. I will never forget that night. I felt as if I had been granted entry to a world of magic and light, and perhaps I had. I stepped on that moonlit path of words and never looked back. After that night, whenever I could, I scribbled my poems into notebooks and onto tiny slips of paper; some survived, others (gratefully!) slipped away, but by the time I was in high school, I was editing the literary journal and sneaking poems onto every page of the yearbook. An odd story but true.
BCP: When did you first begin to feel the need to put down on paper, as poems, what you were feeling inside as opposed to just recording things out there?
Well, I suppose I was always acutely conscious that images, things as they are, existed as carriers of emotion and thought -- No Ideas but in Things. The two are inseparable, Ideas and Things, and Ideas can’t really exist without feelings – at least not in my world. One can’t grow up surrounded as I was by painters, sculptors, singers, writers and not know that. Feelings are everywhere; Ideas crowd the air, and Things get thrown about. The whole mishmash just gets ground into the brain. I still have two poems written when I was very young – maybe four or five. The are written in pencil on yellowed lined paper, the kind of paper that had lines one inch wide with each line bisected longitudinally by a dotted line so that the young student could practice writing perfectly formed letters. One is the poem that I solemnly recited to Norma Millay when she held my head in her hands and stared at my algae-streaked face.
you are the moonbeam
splitting my glue.
Objects, yes, but feelings more. The other is simpler yet but alive with Feeling, exploded feeling.
BCP: Do you have a writing philosophy that describes you or your method of writing?
I write every day, scribbling in small notebooks that I carry about. I then transfer anything worthwhile (sometimes nothing) onto the computer. Rarely, do I write anything fully-formed at first pass. I edit – and sometimes (thankfully, gratefully) I discard. I do not believe my every word to be precious and unassailable. Art is dialogue, a conversation between what is and what will be, between the human psyche and the mad mad world, and if I want what I write to step beyond solipsism and stay away from didacticism, I know I must listen to that conversation and find the heartbeat, record that.
“No ideas but in Things,” William Carlos Williams wrote, and like Williams, I too prefer to allow clear description of the real things of my world to carry the ideas (and feelings) that flow through me, but I also know that to simply rearrange physical objects of the physical world is inadequate. On the second go round, I consider why I am describing and why one object vibrates in juxtaposition to another and why it deflates if placed elsewhere, but I don’t question too strongly. Ego can get in the way, and sometimes the editor ego misses what the poet has to say.
“The subject matter of poetry,” Wallace Stevens reminds us, “is not ‘a collection of static objects extended in space’ but the life that is lived . . . Reality is things as they are.” Things as they are. Be here now. Ordinary objects cease to be static when they are juxtaposed in extraordinary ways that might trigger the reader to think in unexpected directions. Cultural metaphors can be disrupted in ways that permit the observed present to embrace the past while building on a future that might access the magnificent unknown. I agree somewhat with Charles Olson’s suggestion that the job of a poet is “not to describe but to enact.” To enact, not react. Useful action requires both clear description of the physical, an awareness of feeling, and also consideration of ideas, past and present, things as they are beyond the poet’s personal sphere. I want my poems to be honest observations, thoughtful enactments of ideas and feelings, but never pronouncements. I want my words to bring forth a vivid world, visible and audible, where images – and music – carry my vision, with meaning piggy-backed aboard, into the world. I want the dialogue of art.
For dialogue to succeed, it needs silence, the space-between. I know when I write, when I paint, if I step into the luminous space between the confusion of the surrounding world and my perhaps messier internal world of heart/mind, something happens. Alone in the in-between, I hear what those two blustering whirlwinds have to say to each other. I feel the pressure of reality push against the fragile walls of my imagination, and the contrast between the inner and outer awakens me. The extraneous evaporates, and words begin to flow. Emily Dickinson says it better than me: “The Outer- from the Inner / Derives its Magnitude – ”
BCP: Is there someone who might be considered a literary mentor?
As a child, I knew only the open yet complex spider-web worlds of art and circus; I was a young teenager when I realized that not everyone lived either as a writer, performer, painter, or sculptor. What a shock! I value that reality and the memory of those times. My first literary mentors were those adults who slashed away at the encroaching wilderness of the late capitalist civilized world, obsessed with consumerism. I watched their determination, felt their dedication, as they worked hard to create open space about themselves, breathing space that might be filled with art. My friend’s father stayed up all night painting; my own father donned bulky sweaters and sat for hours, hunched over his drawing board or pounding away on his typewriter, teeth chattering in an unheated attic room. My mother spent more time at the piano or lying in bed translating Brecht than in front of a stove. The young artist renting a barn-like house down the road, crushed cars into cubes and displayed them in NY galleries; the older artist up the road spent hours carving sandstone, despite his shaking hands, and his neighbor dedicated his days to writing plays. The young woman who lived in the sprawling house where the road turned wrote passionately about non-violent resistance against war, protested, got herself arrested again and again. I breathed in what they had to teach. Stay true. Stay real.
Today, I am sustained by the strength of those who live for art, who know that it is the “work,” the art, that matters. Not fame, not fortune. I cherish my friends – teachers who come and go – poets living in out of the way places, painters living in inner city ghettos, those still making art who once loved me, those who still love me, still make art, travellers, seekers, wanderers. My dear friend, a poet, has been writing luminous and honest poems since childhood and has published seven books of poems that “stain the reader’s psyche the way lightning or heartbreak do,” as Joseph Brodsky once said. She lives alone in a small walk-up apartment, surrounded by the grating ambitious babble that has swamped the contemporary art world but is sustained by the clarity of her heart. My godfather, an essayist and occasional novelist, now in his 80s, still travels every summer from his Massachusetts home to a small and rustic cabin in the far north to write every day on a typewriter, never a computer. Are these my mentors, my friends, both?
What is a mentor? Such an interesting word. I love that this word, now a common noun, was once the given name of Telemachus’ trusted friend and advisor who became a fixture on the literary landscape after Fenelon published Les Aventures des Télémaque in 1699, a fable written to convince his young pupil (in line for the throne) of the value of an enlightened egalitarian society that rejects war and honors human kindness and compassion. I especially love that this original Mentor, a kindly old man, is revealed finally to be none other than the well-disguised beautiful and imperfect Athena, goddess of wisdom. Let’s hear it for blurred boundaries and unguarded borders.
BCP: Is there a writer or poet whose work inspires you?
All poets who write honest poems inspire me. I begin each day by reading a poem. I have thousands of poems stored neatly in my computer and add more daily. If I start listing poets whom I admire, the list would be years long, and I am sure to forget many, but here are a few across centuries and continents, in no particular order: Issa, Marina Tsvetaeva, Ishikawa Takuboku, Samuel Beckett, WS Merwin, Linda Gregg, Joseph Brodsky, Whitman, John Clare, Wislawa Szymborksa, Wordsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, Nazim Hikmet, Hart Crane, Pablo Neruda, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, H.D., Langston Hughes, Ahkmatova, Basho, Franz Wright, Edna St Vincent Millay, George Herbert, Robert Bly, Grace Paley, Czeslaw Milosz. See? I told you, too many and there are many many more.
BCP: Do you have a particular method or approach to writing your poetry?
I don’t have particular method or approach. I don’t like being constrained. I write free verse, formal poems, exploded form, unformed, trapped or free, but if my words are moving easily, I allow the writing to find its own path. I can come back later and edit. Some years ago, after years of writing free verse, I found myself writing sonnets -- numerous sonnets. Then, of course, I asked myself why.
Many nights I paced anxious circles looking for an acceptable answer to those questions. I’m not, by nature, a traditionalist. I’ve been around the block more than once, and as I have said, I grew up in a most untraditional manner. I’ve written stories and a novel that disrupt traditional narrative structure. As a sculptor, I combined rope, steel, raw fibers and words into abstract pieces that hung from ceilings and lay on floors. As a painter, I used rollers to paint huge murals on highway surfaces and brooms to paint over-sized canvases in my studio. As a performer, I devised street performances that included crowds, face down in crowded intersections with boom-boxes blaring multi-tracked recordings of sirens. Convention, I might suggest, alarms me somewhat.
So, why was I, of all people, suddenly writing sonnets?
I love storytelling, and especially telling stories that matter to women, and there is a tension within the sonnet that belongs to women, but I never consciously “chose” an extended sonnet sequence as a desired format just to tell a story about women in the world. I just started writing sonnets and kept on. I had stepped into a rickety boat being pushed over roaring rapids. Maybe it was the River Styx.
Of course, as I wrote, I did think (every now and again) about the sonnet’s long history of entanglement with society’s attitudes toward women, originally conceived as a container for Woman as an object of desire and then later used to comment on other confining societal structures. Recognizing that, I cringed a bit, knowing that those poets who used the form thusly are light-years ahead of me, but on I went, blithely writing sonnets.
I was then and am now a contemporary artist; I knew clearly that poetic form had been exploded in recent years, but I also knew that while contemporary sonneteers may have abandoned traditional forms, we are obviously not through with sonnets. I thought of Lowell’s blank verse sonnets, Robert Frost’s seven-couplet sonnets, Rilke’s varying line lengths in his Sonnets to Orpheus, John Hollander’s 13 syllable unrhymed sonnets, Mona van Duyn’s minimalist sonnets, Elizabeth Bishop’s equally minimalist two-accent sonnets, and Rita Dove’s disrupted sonnets. Why keep writing sonnets? The sonnet can comment on social structures through its neatly packaged form. Linking present to past, the sonnet unmasks hegemony, specifically the hegemonic structures governing love. Looking to all the great poets who have written exploded and traditional sonnets, it is clear that the sonnet is not merely a vessel of containment; it has long served as a site for opening the world-heart to the confusions and the beauties create and control our society. Not a bad reason to write sonnets.
BCP: “She Falls to Wander III. ‘Love stripped Bare & the Bones of War.’” is an epic poem, in a sense. There is a beautiful underlying story to that piece. You indicated that the piece was your poem, and that each stanza is a poem of itself. Can you explain how that poem came to being?
“She Falls to Wander” is the third chapter of Eve and the Archangel in Paradise, a narrative and the first of the two extended sonnet sequences mentioned above. It followed Drawing Breath, which was also a narrative but a more disrupted and visually dimensional narrative. Ideas that surfaced in Drawing Breath found further voice in Eve. The one flowed easily into the other – a river spreading into a bay. Ideas of hierarchy and religion and the scars left by those institutions of control provide the basic architecture for a text floated on feeling. Not all of what is contained in these two narratives is intellectual query. As with most stories, some of what emerged in Drawing Breath and in Eve bloomed from events in my own life, and those elements of the real are absorbed by the fictional narrative. There were things I needed to know, things as they are. Maybe “Escape from God” triggered the river of sonnets that became my poem Eve and the Archangel in Paradise. Maybe it was the final question on the last page of Drawing Breath:
“Is this her finger is this her ground is this her way is she airborne is she this”
Maybe I needed to find that out. So I started listening. When I initially “finished” Eve, the poem was 140 sequential sonnets, which I then cut to 125 by cutting out the fat, leaving the bone. The poem divided neatly into 12 chapters plus approximately 160 pages of notes meant to provide inquiring minds with a map, if you will, of my mind (and sometimes my heart) as I wrote this epic. The notes reference other poets, other thinkers, other writers of essay and dream who might have popped into view as I wrote, very few of which are quoted. Most burble in the background, but it’s all there. The notes are interesting; rarely are readers invited into the backrooms of a writers mind, but those notes do not exist in the current version of the poem. Nor does a 20+ page index of words, created out of curiosity simply because I was interested in discovering my personal obsessions with certain words or concepts in my own work. The poem, after all, was a poem of inquiry; any inquiry once answered needs further inquiry. Meditative work demands much of the meditator. Later in time, I realized that the initial version of the poem perhaps demanded a tad too much of the reader, and so I spent much time reading and re-reading, thinking and thunking, cutting cutting and cutting. The poem as it is now is a sequence of 72 sonnets, broken into 8 chapters. No notes. No index. The first version still exists and is archived, buried amongst other equally challenging dissertations. I was awarded a Ph.D. for the initial Eve and the Archangel in Paradise.
BCP: You have a poem in your first book of poetry “The Tender Hour”, entitled “Listening”. When you write poetry, it is a cognitive process with a pre-conceived thesis and ending, or as stream of conscious writing?
Let me first clarify something in this question. You refer to The Tender Hour as my first book. It is actually a later book, falling between ‘Alewa Drive and The Street, my book of Oakland poems. I wrote poems for years before I decided to start compiling them into manuscripts and then into limited edition books. Some very early poems remain blissfully locked away, and there are more than a dozen early chapbooks that I only bring out in odd unguarded moments. The first book of poems that I plunked down in front of the world followed my experimental novel Spring Loaded. That ‘first’ (but not really first) book of poems was Drawing Breath, a book that may continue to exist ‘as written’ only in the few printings possible before everything went digital. Why? Because the graphics used in that book are not easily supported in current technological platforms that require a certain consistency so that pages might move easily between various computer systems. As currently formatted, the pages of Drawing Breath tend to leap about when transported electronically, and as the formatting matters, well, what can I say. . . Nonetheless, I am fond of Drawing Breath – because of the story it tells, the point of view from which that story is told, and mostly because the narrative succeeds not just with a surprising juxtaposition of emotionally loaded words but also through actual image, negative space, and color bleed-through from page to page. Drawing Breath is unique, but like all my work, including The Tender Hour, it is not thesis driven. Nor do I find the last line of a poem and build from there. When I write, I am listening, seeking, searching. It’s not a process regulated by the muse, by any means, but it is a process of trust and natural development, one that permits both the collective unconscious and my intellectual subconscious to engage in dialogue. For example, when creating Drawing Breath, I first started writing, then the images appeared, and the format took hold; the ‘book’ came into being as the story emerged. I used a similar process when writing Eve, which is an extended poetic narrative that uses structure (sequential sonnets) to constrain the poetic voice, creating a palpable tension, that focuses questions about societal structures – religion, war, hierarchy -- that I feel are damaging both our present and our future. I hope that doesn’t sound too ethereal or intellectual because Eve can be laugh-out-loud funny at times. After all, laughter matters if querying hegemony . . .
’Alewa Drive, a quasi-narrative written as my sister was struggling with breast cancer and I was struggling with abandonment, was a bit more personal. The Tender Hour more personal yet. Not a narrative, The Tender Hour offers a collection of individual poems . . . written for my mother, my father, my sons, for friends who lost and who were lost, and also quite a few poems for and about our planet earth. I was then and I remain deeply concerned about the continued human destruction of the planet. If humans cannot alter current behaviors, if we cannot shake off the chains of late capitalism and stop our mad consuming of energy and resources, we will upset the fragile balance that supports life on earth. We are seeing it now, and ignoring what we see. Storms are more ferocious and more frequent. Glaciers are disappearing and northern seas are freeing themselves of ice. Ocean levels are rising while southern seas swallow land. Winds gather speed, lands dry, and still humans demand more and more luxury, rejecting the simple, wanting more and more and more, draining the earth of energy, stealing from the future to decorate the present. “Listening” was written for the earth I so love. It is a poem that I hope is neither didactic nor impossibly bleak but one that asks the reader to recall beauty, small children dancing with “mouse ears pressed to crescent moons” and to listen. If we listen now, stop our drilling, slow our driving, stop consuming, if we act now, we may never have to hear that final explosion “greater than stars”.
BCP: Why does poetry matter in our troubled world?
Okay, poetry rarely unseats dictators, reverses discrimination, rebuilds destroyed neighborhoods, or feeds the hungry, but nonetheless, poetry provides. Poems can change the human, open the heart, encourage dialogue, celebrate feeling (and ideas) in the world. In Robert Motherwell’s 1946 essay “Beyond the Aesthetic,” he suggests that “if all his [Cezanne’s] pictorial structures were to disappear from the world, so would a certain feeling.” If the poetic voice were to be stilled or broken, a certain gentleness, a willingness to question, to listen, would disappear from our world. We need the eyes and the ears of the poet; we need the questions a poet asks and dreams. We need a poet’s clear recording of the world.
Poets are strange creatures who listen with their skin, translating images felt by the heart into words. They record conversations between the known and the unknown, between stones and lips, machines and flesh, past and future times. To write poems that matter, poets need to remain open and vulnerable; to be vulnerable in a world increasingly violent and cruel may be dangerous and difficult, but it matters. One who is open and vulnerable hears the world, sees things as they are. Open hearts and open minds matter in these difficult destructive times. Poetry provides.
BCP: Is there anything you recall from your life that keeps you writing?
I am most fortunate to have been surrounded by artists and writers for most of my life, and I learned from them the importance of technique, the necessity of voice, and most especially alternative ways of living in the world. I learned to trust that art matters more than carpets or cars or countertops. The non-conformist free-thinkers of my youth were, I suppose, my first mentors. The lessons they taught me sustain me to this day, making it possible for me continue to live as an artist in a world obsessed with luxury and terrorism.
Make art as if your life depended on it (it does). Write for life. Seek connection, not division. Make love as if your life depended on it (it does). Sing. Be kind. Do no harm. Be Here Now. Plant trees. Accumulate nothing (or very little). Discover (and remember) beauty. And when you are mired in mud, remember nothing is ever lost. Everything gone can be found. Think of Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days, half-buried in earth, trying to find words still deep in her bones but gone from her head. What, she asks, is that line, “of fleeting joys . . . of something something lasting woe. . .” What indeed. Ah, it’s in Book X of Milton’s Paradise Lost when Adam considers the “miserable of happie,” what it is to be alive: “O fleeting joyes / Of paradise, dearly bought with lasting woes!” The Miserable of Happy, paradise dearly bought. Mold difficulty into happiness. Stay alive. Find Joy. Make art not war. Do research
BCP: Is there any advice you would offer young poets?
Listen to the world. Stay real.