“Pay attention to the small wonders as well as the large: the cracks in the sidewalk, the tilt of a chickadees’ head, the fall-rust of mountains.”
House of the Night Watch (New Rivers Press, 2018)
Your book, House of the Night Watch, focuses on topics that affect the people in the turbulent areas of the Middle East. What drew you to that subject and that area, if I may ask?
I first visited the Middle East when my husband (fiancé at the time) was invited to play basketball for a local professional team in the region. Two years later, when we both finished undergrad and completed our teaching program, we moved there to teach English language and literature at local K-12 schools. And seven years went by – with us living in various countries throughout the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula. We learned a great deal during those years (much of which we are still unpacking), and our experience impacted our perspectives in powerful ways. Thankfully, we are able to keep in close contact with many dear ones we spent time with, but my heart misses the region terribly.
One of the blurbs on your website (the one by Tarfia Faizullah) mentions that the speakers of the book are “always watching, and listening too.” Part of being a writer is about noticing, and I was wondering if you have any advice for aspiring poets about cultivating the skill of awareness and attention to detail?
Humans are sponges. Observation is inextricably linked to the ways we write, the ways we think, and, for writers, that is a good thing. For aspiring poets, I would recommend what has been recommended to me: 1) put away the technology and 2) don’t be afraid to spend time looking, listening, smelling, touching, tasting. Pay attention to the small wonders as well as the large: the cracks in the sidewalk, the tilt of a chickadees’ head, the fall-rust of mountains. Use your senses. Write it down, and don’t try to tailor your jottings into stanzas. Just put what is around you onto the page. Spend time simply being in a place. Everything around you is material, is poetry. We just need to wake ourselves to it.
Your poems often deal with fairly heavy or grim subject matter. For example, “Variations on a Wildfire in November” is about an entire city burning down and “An Example” is about a class of boys killing a rabbit that wakes in the middle of a vivisection. Does writing these ever put you into a dark or melancholy headspace? If so, how do you climb out of it?
That’s a good question. I wouldn’t say that writing puts me somewhere dark or melancholy. If anything, writing helps get me out of such places. When I write on a heavy topic, it is because I am struggling with the knowledge of _________ being an actual event. When I don’t understand how something could happen (or why it happened) – with its tragedy, its unfairness or suffering – I write about it. I guess that’s how I wrestle with the world and grapple with the hurts. It is how I process. It is also how I document, so, in years to come, we can say “Yes, this happened” even if it has otherwise slipped from memory.
Living in the Middle East obviously provoked some poetry from you, but when you are at home, where does a poem typically start for you? What inspires or interests you, or sparks a poem?
You know, in all honesty, I felt (feel?) intimidated by “coming home” – and as I adjust back into American culture, I feel that my poetry too must adjust. Acclimation aside, a poem typically starts for me with an image or a phrase, often tied to a memory or experience, whether that is an every-day something (like an evening jog) or something extraordinary. Lately, however, I am noticing that processes are pushing themselves forward in my to-draft list (like harvesting rhubarb or making borscht). Our processes connect us to one another regardless of our backgrounds or locations or nationalities, and this connection in human experience interests me.
Do you get anything out of your work as an editor that you can use in your writing? In terms of mistakes to avoid, topics that grab your attention, tactics to try, or anything like that.
What I most enjoy about serving as an editor is that I get to learn. I get to read poetry and be surprised by the ideas, the images, and the techniques employed. I especially enjoy reading through poems that are written in fixed or nonce forms that knock my socks off. I love when poets experiment with form, and I find that to be really inspiring. Of course, being an editor is also convicting because I might see something a writer attempts that falls flat, and I can recognize that same attempt in my own work. Being an editor helps me with my own editing process because I get to look at poetry from another angle, that of the reader instead of the writer, calling little facets of composition to my attention, and this is grounding.
House of the Night Watch is your first book, though you’ve published a large body of work in several other journals. Are you writing or planning to write another book any time soon?
I hope so. I am currently working on a second book of poems. I’m not sure when it will near completion (…is writing ever “done”?), but I am now in the process of drafting new work, editing, and thinking about order. Organizing a manuscript is much like organizing an individual poem: you have to think about imagery and word choice, possible themes that emerge, areas of antithesis, areas that could use pruning, whether or not to use sections…I am trying to be patient with the work, the process. I’ll have to see what comes of it.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a poet and what did the path to now look like?
I don’t know if there was an exact moment where I realized I wanted to be a poet. I grew up writing short stories and poems, and writing has always been a part of my life. I do remember, however, the precise time when I fell in love with what poetry can do, and that was in ninth grade. My English teacher had us read and seminar T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” and I was hooked. From there, I think, I took a pretty standard route: My undergraduate degree is in English, and it was during college that I started taking creative writing courses in poetry. Taking poetry seriously, and taking myself seriously, however, did not come until I began the MFA program at the University of Alaska Anchorage. There comes a time when we have to give ourselves permission to say (out loud), “I write poetry,” and this came for me during that first year in grad school.
What does your writing and revision process usually look like?
I keep a journal. I keep a couch and a favorite blanket and open windows. And I keep a husband who also serves as my in-house editor. Ha! No, in truth, I try to either read or write in the mornings and in the evenings. When I feel unable to write, I read a book of poems or respond to a prompt that forces me to pay attention to form rather than subject matter. And I listen to music—not always, but often—music that puts me in the place I am remembering. When it comes to revision, I try to focus on diction, line breaks (and the images or statements that come from these decisions), and form. Going for a run has now become a part of this polishing process: running allows my brain to revise, to think of words and space differently. It gives me a needed distance from the page.
Who is one of your favorite authors and why?
Ah, there are so many! One of my favorite authors is Pablo Neruda. I love what Neruda does with language. He creates this world full of images and sonic surprise; his poems are just as enjoyable to read aloud as they are to see on the page. I greatly admire how Neruda can take something incredibly normal and, through a poem (like his many odes), make the reader realize how that normal object is worth celebrating. One of my favorite books is his Stones of the Sky, a collection full of love songs to the Earth. I can read it again and again.
Many of the poems in House of the Night Watch have a narrative feel to them, such as in “Maqloobah.” Would you ever consider writing a novel or memoir? If so, would it be fiction or nonfiction?
Oh, goodness. Paragraphs are intimidating. No, really – I think, if I were to explore another genre, I would first toe into essays, perhaps essays that explore the intersections of place and identity. To me, they feel the closest cousins of my poetry.
In “There Are Days When You Don’t Know What to Say,” there is a line that says, “and there is more of God in his face / than in your own.” Spirituality informs this book, so how would you say it plays a part in your writing?
I do not believe my faith can be separated from my writing, just as I don’t believe my faith can be separated from any other aspect of my life. When it comes to struggle, questioning, prayer, and gratitude – all of this is in conversation with my beliefs. There is much in poetry that parallels to faith, and I think this can be seen throughout the centuries of poems and songs and ponderings. If you are curious, there’s an anthology on this idea titled Before the Door of God: An Anthology of Devotional Poetry (Yale University Press). It is worth exploring.
Would you consider this book to be a call to action?
Is there a book of poetry that is not somehow a call to action? What book of poetry does not require us to examine and reexamine the self, the alliances we make and unmake, the decisions we walk toward today and the next?
How did you come to the decision that “A Post-Election Aubade” would be the final poem in the book? What made you want to end such a raw and bitter-sweet story on a note of “grace,” as you say in the final line?
In my early manuscript drafts, “A Post-Election Aubade” was not the final poem in the book. The decision came after the book was accepted by New Rivers Press and after we were working together on a final order. That’s when I realized that I wanted to clarify that I was not declaring a side as being “right” or a side as being “wrong.” I wanted the book to serve as observer, witness, preserver. I wanted the book to reflect simply what it is to be human (to be a woman) in a particular place at a particular time. And I hope that ending with a note of grace affirms this.
Tara Ballard is from Alaska. For eight years, she and her husband lived in the Middle East and West Africa. She is the author of House of the Night Watch (New Rivers Press), winner of the 2016 Many Voices Project, and she holds an MFA from the University of Alaska Anchorage. Her work has been published or recently accepted by CONSEQUENCE, North American Review, Poetry Northwest, Spillway, Tupelo Quarterly, and other literary magazines. She recently won a 2019 Nazim Hikmet Poetry Prize.