“Our experiences shape us and mold us. There is so much learning and growth, and I believe these are then processed in and through our poems and reflections.”
Flight (Tupelo Press, 2018)
In “Dear Basketball: A Posthumous Letter From St. Louis,” you incorporate lines from Kobe Bryant’s retirement poem. What advice do you have for a young poet writing poems inspired by others? How do you choose poems to write a response for?
For me, whenever I read something, a word or phrase might jump out at me – and beg to be expanded upon. It’s not like I immediately plan on incorporating someone else’s words; but as I read something, or listen to something, there comes that tug in my mind or heart that demands a response to be written.
The poems I choose to respond to are the poems that call out to me. There’s something there that tells me, after reading, “You need to write about [insert subject].” This could be deep in the subconscious. The mind pulls from a line, an image, the rhythm or beat.
In fact, in “Dear Basketball: A Posthumous Letter from St. Louis,” you might notice that the rhythm actually connects to Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” and this was not purposeful. But because Plath’s poem is in my head from past readings, that rhythm is in my mind (whether I am aware of it or not), like a song, and so even this impacted my drafting.
When I first read Kobe Bryant’s retirement poem, I said to myself, “I want to write a basketball poem as well;” but, when I tried, the poem that came out actually had little to do with basketball. Rather, the poem focused on my childhood, where I played basketball with a crate instead of a rim and threw fish-sticks in a garbage can. What came out was a poem that maneuvered from Missouri to California, where basketball truly became my first love. I had no idea that the poem would move in this direction.
It is important for young poets to remember this: Allow the inspiration to influence your writing, but not dictate your writing. Take the inspiration, but do not force it to shape your words. Instead, allow the inspiration to work freely in a piece. Allow yourself to be surprised.
Keep in mind: You are not trying to write what someone else has already done; you are trying to write the poem that still needs to be written.
If we collectively look out a window and see a bird, all of us would write a different bird poem because of our unique perspectives—even though we were all inspired by the same encounter. Write your own piece.
You use several numbered lists in your book, from “Twelve Ways of Looking at Darkness” to “Using the Laws of Motion to Explain Ferguson,” as well as “Alternate Names for Black Boys.” Do you begin these poems as lists or do they develop into lists? What, in your opinion, is the most effective way to write a list poem?
Every poem is a bit different in its becoming. I tend to compose my poems, which means they come out in their own natural rhythm and build from that spoken aloud cadence.
When it comes to form (and whether to include lists or strophes), I think it is important to allow the subconscious to work first – to allow those words to come out – before trying to make sense of the direction or shape the poem should take.
Unless I am following a specific writing prompt, the poems that have lists typically become that way through revision. After completing a first draft, I go back and try to identify what the poem is about. This means I must chip away at lines and words that may not be helpful. I prune or sculpt, remove the rock that is not needed. After doing so, I have a better vision of what the poem wants to be. Here, I try not to guide the poem, but allow the poem to develop organically.
The next step in the process revolves around these questions: How do I make the content stand out from being solely words on a page? How do I make this content more than one dimensional?
I find that creating a list or dividing a poem into strophes can heighten the tension in a poem, much like a countdown before a rocket is launched. I notice that I often use these lists in that way – in an effort to build tension or enhance the tone of the piece.
The entire poem “Gazelles” seems to build to the last line, “They run when we run,” which stands alone. How do you write an effective ending of a poem?
There are many ways to end a poem, but of the many, there are a couple practices I find myself returning to again and again.
One way is to allow the poem to end itself. Trust that the poem will tell you when it is done. If you have that intuition, if you have read a lot of poems, if you compose aloud, the rhythm of the poem – like a song – will tell you when it is over. In this, the content and cadence are often connected.
The other way to end a poem comes with revision: when you go back and decide what the poem is about, and what you want it to be about and how to make it effective. That’s when you can polish your ending.
Regardless, I try not to end the poem by providing a tidy resolution (no “ta-daah!” moment), but rather, allow it to end naturally.
I don’t feel like I am the owner of the poem itself. I feel like the poem uses me as its vessel. It knows where it wants to go or how it wants to close.
What are some of the most prevalent ingredients that made you the poet you are?
I love this question. Imagine each of us as a recipe. Five cloves garlic. A pinch of salt.
To answer this, I would say that there are four main ingredients that make me the poet I am at this particular moment. The four largest influences in my work revolve around the following: 1) the concept of form and fixed form, 2) musicality, 3) the work of those I have read and studied and learned from, and 4) my experiences.
My introduction to poetry (as a discipline) was an undergraduate class that focused on fixed form and trying to write within those restraints. It opened my eyes to structure, and experimenting with fixed, nonce, or bent forms is something I always enjoy dabbling with.
And then there’s music. Growing up, there was always music in the home. I was raised with The Temptations, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Prince. Then came the early years of rap music and beat-boxing. Songs we used to sing and dance to influence my poetry ear now, and I realize that – back then – I was discovering the rhythm of words and literary devices before I knew they were literary devices.
My mom sang in the church choir, and my sister was always singing around the house. My brothers listened to their music, and since I was the youngest child, I was impacted by the various musical styles and genres that I was immersed in.
Without a doubt, the reading of poetry has a great impact. Finding those poems or those books of poems that I feel speak to me, that I can relate to, and inspire me to write continuously encourages, pushes, and challenges me. I love learning from contemporary and past poets. Right now, Louise Glück is a poet I’ve been spending a lot of time with. Her book Meadowlands is one of my favorites.
The final ingredient is that of life experience and story: growing up in a particular location and time: living in the neighborhood surrounded by other neighborhoods in St. Louis, living in an apartment surrounded by other apartments in southern California. My transition from childhood innocence to young adulthood came in a community where gangs were prevalent. It was a big adjustment coming from St. Louis and moving to San Bernardino, where people would do hard drugs right next to our basketball courts, where someone would take out their handgun and leave it on the side of the court next to us while they shot hoops.
Our experiences shape us and mold us. There is so much learning and growth, and I believe these are then processed in and through our poems and reflections.
How do you go about titling your poems? Do you begin poems with a title in mind or choose them later on?
It depends, but usually the titles come after – unless, again, I’m writing in response to a particular prompt.
Sometimes I have a line that I want to start a poem with and see where the poem goes from there. After I finish, the title would then come after I see what has been created.
I think titles are important because they can do so much for a poem. Sometimes a poem can be written that simply seems “okay,” until the title is changed; and that title change can impact how a reader processes the content.
If it is a poem included in a manuscript, I have to ask how the title fits into the entire world of poems, how it works with or against the titles around it.
If it is simply a title for an individual piece, then how does the title converse with the piece itself? What work is it doing for the content?
A title, to me, needs to pull weight. It needs to have a purpose. If every word in a poem is deliberate, then the title too should be.
I’m curious about the role of allusion in “(More) Alternate Names for Black Boys.” Some of the names are used elsewhere (like abracadaver, abrakaboom, and Rorschach). Could you elaborate?
Poems are not isolated islands. Everything we read, see, and listen to gets filtered through our minds and the poems become a conversation between the self and the world around us.
When a poet alludes to something or somewhere or someone else (whether it’s a real-life event, a term from an academic discipline, or a line used from a movie), and the reader recognizes it, immediately another layer is added to a poem. In doing so, the reader gets to encounter discovery.
To me, incorporating references, words, and images that hold sociocultural or political or academic connotations further the conversation created by the poem, and that, I feel, is significant – for both the reader and the writer.
In “Golden Shovel,” your form alludes to “The Red Wheelbarrow,” but you change the last line to read one duck rather than chickens; I think this change to the original poem is interesting. Why did you choose this?
I love William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.” It is one of those poems I have memorized, and I enjoy the poem because I remember those very wheelbarrows being in the backyards of the neighborhood I grew up in; and so, simply in its imagery, this poem resonates with me.
It triggers a sense of nostalgia, which set the tone while I was drafting the piece. Here, I am back in my birthplace, my hometown, sitting on the porch with my older brothers, waiting for my father to come home – because it is Wednesday, and we get an allowance on Wednesday.
During these years, if my father got home a little later than normal, we’d ask him, “Where was you at?” And rather than answering us directly, he would respond with his always-used return phrase: “To see a man about a duck.” Thus, the shift in the last line from “chicken” to “duck:” to connect directly to a phrase my father used to say in my personal history, a phrase that feels very comfortable and close to me.
You know, one of the things I love about the golden shovel form is the connection it creates between the new poem and the poem included within its lines. It sparks some kind of exchange or an exploration of possible parallels or antitheses or commonalities—even when the two pieces might have very different reasons for existing.
Some of your poems include African American Vernacular English. How do you decide when to switch voices in your poems, and what affect do you desire to accomplish by doing so?
Some poems are set in a time and place in my life where a very particular dialect was used. Because I use more than one dialect, I know that language shifts from context to context. The vernacular tells the reader where the poem is situated.
Through employing my different dialects in a poem, I hope to create more of a setting: to situate the reader in an environment with depth and to make that place feel true to what it is. In staying true to the language, I can be true to the poem’s purpose.
I believe that language creates a real connection. Diction matters. The dialect should reflect the specific situation and experience.
Of course, even if I am using certain language reflective of the AAVE (or of standard English), that does not mean I am writing only to (or for) a particular audience, but rather, that the poem was simply created with a particular event, time, place, and exchange in mind.
“Midway” opens with, “So now when the ghost asks me / my age, I say,” then offers a list of metaphors about who the speaker is. Why did you take the poem in this direction?
Poetry asks of the writer, or speaker, to deliver its message in a way that is unique, unexpected, lyrical, beautiful. It, at times, asks the speaker to show and not tell.
In “Midway,” it would have been easier for me to simply write, “Now that I am this age, I realize how young you were and how much of life you missed. Now that you are gone, I can look back and say you were very young when you were taken away.” It would have been easier to write, “How naïve and innocent we were when we were young. And how many decisions we made based on being naïve and innocent.”
But, had I written that, I don’t know if I would have ended up with a poem. It would have sounded more like a letter or rumination on the past – very prosy. Instead, I wanted to stay true to what poetry asks of any poet and that is to make “it” both new and real, relatable, imaginable.
In the poem, the list of metaphors are all different ways to show that years have passed – in particular, that years have passed since we have lost loved ones. The metaphors aim to show this passing of time and all the ways in which our lives change as we age: with our jobs, with our bodies, with our responsibilities.
“Running in My Sleep” mixes images of war, sex, marriage, and religious exaltation—could you elaborate on what the poem means to you and how long you spent in the writing process to develop it?
When I think about “Running in My Sleep,” it has a literal and a metaphorical meaning. Literally, there are times when I breathe or sweat or move like I’m running while I’m knocked out in bed.
Sometimes I wake up and my wife tells me, “You were running in your sleep again” or she asks, “Were you playing basketball?”
I don’t know why I do this when I’m supposed to be resting (no wonder I’m tired in the morning…), but I decided to spend some time thinking about all the things that could be going on in my mind when I have these episodes.
My point in using the images was to contemplate the many experiences that make us breathe differently: how they are similar, how they are dissimilar.
Our breathing correlates to our feelings, how we process the environment around us. There are times when we try to suck in all the air. There are times when we let out long sighs.
All of these I try to explain through metaphors revolving around breathing and how one breathes when running – whether awake or asleep.
The poem itself connects with the idea of survival, and the idea of running to survive. Flight. The concept of this.
I don’t recall exactly how long this poem took to draft, but it wasn’t a one-and-done. I remember spending a lot of time debating the order of the lines. The sounds of the descriptions and playing with rhythm—deciding how that too correlates to the subject matter.
Chaun Ballard’s chapbook Flight (Tupelo Press) is the winner of the 2018 Sunken Garden Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared in Lunch Ticket, Narrative Magazine, The New York Times, Tupelo Quarterly, and other literary magazines. He has received nominations for both Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize.