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Featured Poet #5
November 2006 - V1 I5
Jon Ballard found The Centrifugal Eye through SP Quill's Summer 2006 issue, where I was interviewed
by Carrieann Thunell on the arts of enjambment and punctuation in contemporary, free verse poetry. Luckily for me, Jon was
intrigued enough by the interview to seek me out and submit for TCE's current issue.
Jon, it turns out, is a representative model of the writer tuned in to creative process – not only does he like to think
and talk about method, strategy, technique and design, he also practices his philosophies concerning the frank
collaborations of construction and revision with self-examination. Offbeat as it may seem, there is no better way to win
this editor's literary heart.
~E. A. Hanninen
Editor of The Centrifugal Eye,
Eve Anthony Hanninen asks
Poet, Writer & Educator,
EAH: What steered you towards writing poetry?
JB: A neediness for the arts that was, unconsciously or not, a reaction to my factory town childhood and
rather banal, meandering early-adulthood. My fascination with the arts began with old black and white movies on television
– storytelling, images, depth of feeling, etc., and I think naturally led to the personal need to seek metaphor in a
literal world, to tell stories, create characters, and explore moods and themes.
|Since movie-making wasn't an option growing up, I turned to jotting things down in notebooks— poems
and stories. My insular, introverted life as a child and young adult proved ready-made for such creative endeavors. My first
audience was my mother, and her favorable reactions to those early pieces helped create the necessary reservoir of desire
within me to write even more. Our parents' sometimes disingenuous cheerleading can be the most essential blessing they offer.
EAH: You "seek metaphor" in the world, and you explore process in your poetry— process is a
fascination of mine. Yours, too?
JB: Yes, and it's because I see the poet's process of creation – in fact, any writer's – as
requiring equitable measures of confidence and doubt. Too much doubt and nothing gets done; too little, and possibly an unworthy
thing is brought into the world. But doubt, at least, can be winnowed away or mitigated through revision – this is
where real poetry writing occurs, I believe.
I don't have any faith in "found" poetry or first drafts, though I'm sure that happy accidents do arise. A worthy line might
be plucked, now and then, out of the thinnest air; sometimes, it "just happens." Similarly, we can say that the literal world
itself just happens— or, to use the dreaded, popular phrase, "it is what it is." But where does that leave us?
Certainly, most people aren't satisfied with the surface world or we wouldn't have needed, all along, artists and priests,
among others, supplying metaphor – all those levels of meaning. Growing up, looking at the world around me, I could
only think: Is this all there is? It's either delusion or hope that leads to the habit of trying to answer that question
through metaphor (and other poetic devices), but it seems to me that's a big part of poetry's purpose – if not for the
reader, then for the poet himself.
Surely, much of what the poet goes through to create the poem must be for himself, because the poetic process, whatever
its nuts and bolts, takes time and real physical, intellectual, and emotional energy. Clearly, I don't present this idea
as if it were a breakthrough in the history of human thought; rather, I only wish to confer due justice on the process of
working one's ass off. Writing poetry requires endurance— endurance to survive in a largely dismissive, disinterested
culture, not to mention surviving one's own occasionally wounded ego, doubt, moods, perfectionism, and sometimes even hunger
EAH: The storytelling aspect of your poems is what attracts me to your writing style, as well as its
organic self-awareness. What kinds of internal and external prompts are most likely to send you into exploration of a subject
JB: One external prompt is reading other poetry, accepting another poet's way with the world. Another,
though less reliable external prompt, is the world as it's happening now – current events. But it's the internalized
past that most often gets me going. For whatever reason, I need things to stew for a number of years before they're of any
use to me. For instance, it was only when my daughter turned five that I was able to write about her. Currently I'm living
in Mexico, and at times I've tried to write about an experience I've had here, but I've failed every time in transferring
it to the page. It remains too close to me now; I won't know, really, what any of it means until I'm back in Michigan a few
years from now. But I'm banking images, as it were. In time, I'm certain, these saved images will mix with other
necessary, creative ingredients and that alchemy will offer something of poetic value.
EAH: So, you didn't move to Mexico to write? Or, at least, not write about Mexico?
JB: My wife took a two-year overseas assignment with her company, and it seemed like a great opportunity
for the family to experience something completely different from what we had known. So, no, the impetus wasn't my writing,
but certainly I anticipated using the time wisely and well. It's a gift of time and place unlike any I may ever receive again,
so I'm ready each day in Mexico for what comes: local people – Mexicans and other expatriates – fields of wildflowers,
gimpy dogs in the streets, torrential rains, small towns, and on clear days, a not-so-distant view from our window of a volcano.
All of these things and more will materialize one way or another in my future writings.
EAH: Which poets and writers have influenced you, and in what ways?
JB: William Stafford, first and foremost— his poetry resonates with me in ways I can't fully comprehend,
or compare to. He seems to have found the secret language I was always meant to hear, to learn from. People like Kundera,
Cheever, Hemingway, Graham Greene, and Paul Bowles all seem indispensable to my soul, and their works, unlike so much I've
been exposed to in life and art, seem to grow more lovely and mysterious as the years pass.
All of the people I've mentioned are men and most are prose writers. This is less an internal bias toward male heroes (in
my personal life, my heroes are almost exclusively women) than it is a sympathy for an expressly masculine language.
I find this, as well, in the poetry and fiction of Raymond Carver and Jim Harrison, their hard, melancholy voices. As far
as feminine influences, I have an allegiance to people as varied as the novelist Muriel Spark and poets such as Linda Gregg
and Linda Pastan. But I always return to the male voices. Maybe this is my unconscious attempt, through art, to seek out
the sort of knowing, meaning-conveying, masculine voice my own father lacked, or held back from me, though I'm not quite Freudian
enough to put much stock in such things. More likely, the lean, world-weary language of many of these male writers speaks
to something in my weird nature that adores tough-guy cynicism in all its glory.
EAH: Do you have any current reading to recommend?
JB: Jim Harrison's Saving Daylight— a collection of big, burly narrative poems that are also
impossibly beautiful. I'm in the middle of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, which I've waited
fifteen years to tackle. Now that I'm living in Mexico, reading one of Latin America's most important novelists – and
one of Mexico City's most important literary residents – seemed a timely endeavor. So far, I can only say it was well
worth the wait.
EAH: You mentioned living in a factory town as a child. Where did you grow up? How did the environment
JB: I was born and raised in Pontiac, Michigan – a General Motors town. I lived within earshot of
the GM foundry there; I went to school in its literal and figurative shadow. I breathed foundry air, and particularly, in
the heavy air of autumn and early winter, I can remember watching ash from those smoke stacks descend darkly on my neighborhood,
as if we were forever downwind from a burning building.
Not that Pontiac was a completely god-awful place to grow up, but it was an unsophisticated, working-class place. My best
friend's father worked on the assembly line at Ford during the day, while at night beat his wife and kids. In my own home,
my father drank immoderately and liked to sit in dark rooms, brooding, cultivating his many grievances with the world. My
environment was often one of fear and loathing.
As William Stafford says, "Poetry comes from a life, not a study," and so my poetry tends to reverberate with the darker moods
of that early existence. Not often exact replications of people or events, so much as slantwise takes on those feelings
I was burdened with.
While I've never felt my situation growing up was uniquely depressing, or even close to the worst it could have been, I've
seldom understood the value of relativism when it comes to such things; our awareness later in life of the world's essential
inequity does nothing to alter the hardened reality of the childhood we lived. We're just less likely to bitch about
it in public for fear of running into someone who had it worse.
EAH: I can relate to the ever-present, working-class climate pressing in around ambitions. What were
your previous jobs or professions before becoming a teacher? Have any of these influenced your writing?
JB: I've worked in warehouses most of my life, what's known as the distribution and logistics industry.
It's a world of grey walls, shelving units, loading-docks, trucks, and unforgiving customers. It's nearly as far from a life
of teaching and writing as you can get. But my provincial life in Pontiac anticipated such an end, or something comparable,
like working on an assembly line.
Much of our lives are predicated on zip codes and parental limitations. These influences – these realities –
have charged me with a sense of purpose: to get educated, to teach, and to write. Yet I understand, no matter my education
or forays into college teaching, I will always be a fairly provincial person and poet. And I can't deny that my working life
has acted in a kind of confluence with my childhood to produce a perspective that is distinctly (and sometimes disturbingly)
EAH: What is it about teaching poetry that first attracted you? Anything to share with readers
about process, technique or craft?
JB: I liked the idea of being immersed in poetry with groups of like-minded people. I'd tasted that briefly
in my university days, during those occasional creative writing classes, feeling that affinity with others.
A group of poets is a strange and mysterious thing, and it's the strangeness and mystery that I wanted to get close to again.
Yet I now understand that many writing students rarely browse the literature or poetry sections in their bookstore or library.
They seem to love the idea of being a poet more than the practice of poetry, itself. What's more, many students have
never had real criticism directed at their work, in the classroom or otherwise.
I think teaching poetry is about the art of eliminating easy self-satisfaction, of introducing doubt into the equation. This
may be the essential difference between parenting and teaching: levels of honesty. For instance, I taught my five-year-old
daughter to play chess, in part by allowing her to win every time. I've succeeded in my aims – she has learned the
game, and she likes it. But one day she will play someone else and she will inevitably taste defeat, at which point she will
either decide to play the game well or give it up. In this same way, poets in the formative stages need to lose once
in a while. The poet who accepts doubt into his or her process of creation will survive their glorious suffering and endure
far better than the poet of delusional self-regard.
EAH: Should writers go about cultivating doubt, as well as learn to accept it? How have you accomplished
this, for example?
JB: For a person like me, who has known the rough-edged companionship of doubt my entire life, feeling insecure
about my writing talent is as natural as breathing; my doubt is almost self-cultivating! Most of my life I've gone
about wishing I was supremely confident, and I feel lucky to say that this particular wish, though granted in certain arenas
of my life, has never come true regarding my writing. The joy I've felt at working toward publication – achieving
that end – is tempered by the insistent thought that I might never write another good poem again. That feeling takes
me beyond the rocky terrain of doubt and into the badlands of fear. So, as I see it, the gamut of human emotions –
doubt, fear, melancholy, joy – need to be present in varying degrees and combinations, and at different points in the
For a new writer (and I believe the problem of excessive self-regard is primarily a beginner's impediment), I think a good
maxim might be: when in doubt, write. Of course, as I've said, it's a delicate balance, and you must be willing to
acknowledge your failures as well as your forward progress, successes. Slitting your wrists over a bad metaphor, though tempting
as it may seem at the time, is not the way to go, just as proclaiming yourself a poet of depth, after only one draft, is a
wrong and damaging choice to make. The way out of this dilemma of extremes – if it's not through a healthy, naturally
occurring, inner conflict – is to seek out objective sources in the external world: teachers, classmates, truth-loving
friends. These people will, if you solicit them, open the gates of their ant-farm at your picnic; the initial evaluation
can sometimes seem that deliberately mean-spirited. More likely, the negative reaction is the poet's own defense system responding
to an unknown quantity: criticism. Yet, over time, by cultivating a group of intelligent people who seek evidence of competence
and value in the poet's work – and who aren't afraid to tell him when it's there or not – he, as a writer, invites
doubt and, possibly, even a touch of genuine confidence.
The beginning poet whose self-regard is so profound as to eliminate internal doubt and prohibit the gathering of external,
objective voices, should probably consider another line of work.
EAH: Amen. And besides availing doubt to provoke stimulus, do you agree that pursuing varied
personal interests also creates fodder for creative material?
JB: I think varied personal interests create opportunities for experience in the world, which can only
benefit a creative mind. And I also believe such a mind can locate value and depth in the most facile of settings.
For instance: finding oneself at a party or get-together, hating every minute of the banal festivities, and yet being observant
enough to come away with bits of talk, moments of human folly or genuineness – like someone who's searched out small
treasures in a junk yard. You eventually put these treasures to use, meanwhile forgetting the names of nearly everyone you
met. This sounds a bit predatory or even misanthropic, yet beside the safe, surface-skimming chit-chat that passes for human
contact at such gatherings, I submit that a bit of predation in such affairs is a more soulful, decent, and fruitful behavior.
EAH: What are some of the less-than-common areas of interest you're attracted to (of either a personal
nature or pertaining to literary and artistic subject matter)?
JB: Risking excessive irony here, poetry itself, comes to mind. To write or even read poetry, particularly
outside of the college or university setting, is to be engaged in an endeavor that bestows the word fringe with a new
and desperate meaning. I've read where some estimates place the number of people who read and/or write poetry at forty million.
Of course, that number is fool's math, some anthology editor's wet dream.
My experience in the world suggests the average American soul has little appetite for verse, for being made to feel stupid
or shown-up or victimized by one's own language. This observation is made without bitterness. Like so many office workers
and dinner-party chatters in love with the tidiness of surface realities, I merely repeat, "It is what it is." Despite this,
I know I'm kept company by thousands of poets, readers, teachers, and magazines such as The Centrifugal Eye, all of
whom make the fringe a vital place to be.
EAH: Thank you for that last. I understand your chapbook, Lonesome, will be published by Pudding
House Publications late this year, or early next— the title suggests an introspective theme. Is there an overall focus
for the book?
JB: The title, Lonesome, seemed almost organic. So many of the poems, I realized, had this narrative
thread running through them – people alone, lonely, aspects of what it is to live in quiet desperation. For instance:
a man buying a wool scarf in July just to be in the company of a pretty sales clerk; a man breaking down in a grocery store
checkout line, as occurs in my poem Spillage; a woman traveling to a big city hotel and then never leaving the room.
It is, I hope, a collection of poems that creates a singular mood of isolation and dislocation, though not of an entirely
intractable nature – there are moments of light and levity. And since most of the poems are in the narrative style
and deal with characters, I hope it reads something like a short story collection – but with the urgency and images
that only poetry can bring.
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