Featured Selection: Angela Ball

 

 

 

Angela Ball directs the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. Her sixth book of poetry, Talking Pillow, was recently published by University of Pittsburgh Press. She currently lives in Hattiesburg with her two dogs, Miss Bishop and Scarlet.

Amy Beeder: The poems that appear in this issue of Plume often contain—and sometimes begin with—quoted material: reported speech or text. From “Hate’s Notebook, ” for example:

“Loving her was like shaking hands
with the devil,” like high-fiving

a spirit animal
or fist-bumping
the Buddha. On the
other hand,

hating her was like rubbing a mirror…

For me, this gesture provides some wonderful texture and also opens up a kind of rhetorical space, a platform that allows your poems to go in unexpected directions. Can you speak a little to your use of this device?

Angela Ball: Yes—what you say is great. I heard the first line of “Hate’s Notebook” as part of the promo for an old movie (on TCM) and I knew I had to use it somehow. What a terrifically odd thing to say! We are forced to imagine exchanging a polite greeting with the prince of darkness—a very concrete vehicle for a very abstract tenor (“loving her”). Everything about the assertion is unbalanced. I thought it had enough loose energy to produce some other similarly disorienting activities. I didn’t want that to go on too long, so leapt to the opposite, “hating,” and kept going in that direction. For me, writing is often about discovering language that prompts or even seems to demand invention. I like, when possible, to include the catalyst in the poem—though I often tell students not to, explaining that “the catalyst has done its job and can disappear” or “time to eject that stage of the rocket.”

Amy: I’m intrigued by your words writing is often about discovering language that prompts or often seems to demand invention. Regarding language—subject matter, sound, diction, etc.—what ways or methods do you tend to let guide this discovery, especially when you start a poem?

Angela: I’d say that I try to be receptive to all sources of language, especially from books. During dog walks I’ve been listening to A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, set in Britain during WWII, and so enjoying its tone, a kind of black-comedic accuracy of expression. Eschewing euphemism at every turn. Directness is something I value a lot. Directness needs a vehicle, and in starting a poem I search memory and imagination for something urgent needing to be said. If it is urgent enough, sound and diction will take care of themselves. I depend on energy, William Blake’s “eternal delight.” I think this must be true of many writers, if not all!

Amy: A very concrete vehicle for a very abstract tenor is another interesting phrase. Your poems are so full of startling images, sometimes employing lists that are both tangible and strange, as in “Internet of Advice Not Entirely Helpful”

Such as “put an end to the most common
beauty blunders,” such as
“When you meet your date
try not to lead
with your prosthesis,”
such as “Which of these
do you most resemble:
a giant white house
with screened in porch;
a ranch style home
in graduated chunks;
a house facing the Gulf,
shingles ripped away.”

It may be this kind of unexpected imagery, combined with associative logic, that has lead more than one reviewer to describe your poems as “surreal.” Do you find that description apt?

Angela: I love describing things. One thing I am happy to find in a subject is the opportunity to describe something, anything. We seem to be having a “self-help” boom—or maybe we have always had one. People in the old country don’t go for that so much—having seen it all, they are disinclined to believe in self-improvement. I think we have all seen the phrase “beauty blunders.” It is so odd—“beauty” floats prettily, like an idle swan; and “blunders” belly flops on top of it. I was idly reading some advice online about how to present yourself in a dating profile, and one question was, “What do you do if you have a disability?” The advice was not to hide it, but not to lead with it. This is good advice but strangely unanchored, like all internet advice. I wanted to try reproducing that unanchored quality, only more so. While writing, a sinister thing started brewing—the voice becoming sort of too knowing in a way—and I was happy to see that.

Amy: Something urgent that must be said. Yes, and what must speak. One of my very favorite poems in Talking Pillow is “Ancestral Dentures:”

A dentist filled a woman’s mouth
with teeth of a hanged man.
Again, her jaws furious
with bread.

In Talking Pillow, so many objects (and individual body parts) come to life, act or speak: the pillow of the title poem, the woodblock “with its rude stick” in “Methods of Choice,” the Singer sewing machine in “Status,” that guards the spinster’s room, the hanged man’s teeth. Can you to speak a little to your penchant for the lives of objects?

Angela: I think that I always felt the presence of a secret life in things—I was steeped in Romanticism without knowing it. It was a lonely-person deal—if you don’t feel a connection with other people, you turn to nature and to objects. And Charles Simic’s poetry burst onto the scene in the late sixties—his first collection, published by Kayak Press; What the Grass Says, was full of secret voices, as was the next one, Somewhere Among Us a Stone Is Taking Notes. His poems astonished everyone with their freshness. He and Mark Strand assembled a wonderful anthology of poetry in translation that concentrated on South American surrealism, Another Country. They discovered a rich darkness that animated their poems and passed it along to young poets. I spent a marvelous evening monopolizing Charlie’s company at the party after his reading at Ohio U. He told me that living in New York City, he spent hours in the Public Library researching folk stories. In his poems, human and inanimate lore electrify each other. I was smitten and remain so.

Amy: Speaking again about Talking Pillow—clearly you take some risks with your titles: “Some Regrets that Will Attend You When You May Have Kicked the Seat of the Patron in Front of You at the Movie Theatre Too Often,” for example, which I personally find irresistible. Others, like the aforementioned “Ancestral Dentures” set the scene with more economy. I think many poets—students especially— struggle with titles. Can you give some thoughts on how you judge what kind of title a poem might bear?

Angela: I’ve come to think a title should be somewhat high handed. Oblique, and/or complicated, and/or aggressive—yoking two or more unlikes by violence together. Ideas, tones, objects. That’s an attention-getting thing, but also a way to pull the poem into focus, if it can be. I enjoy flirting with dissolution in my work—I’m sure sometimes I fail to avoid it.

Amy: This is a return to an earlier comment you made: I like, when possible, to include the catalyst in the poem—though I often tell students not to, explaining that “the catalyst has done its job and can disappear” or “time to eject that stage of the rocket. Teaching writing while being a writer: is it helpful for your own work? Draining? Invigorating? Necessary?

Angela: One of many pleasures of teaching graduate-student writers is being part of a venerable guild—passing along some of the ideas of my teachers, with a few of my own into the bargain. Seeing students prosper—seeing their work build on itself—is a great joy. Who knows how much of this comes from teachers? The point is that the environment—including the interesting mixed bag that is Hattiesburg, Mississippi—has been conducive. And the spirit of friendly competition, cooperation, and curiosity zinging back and forth between students.

Amy: I sometimes wonder if a poet’s choice of language and tone has something to do with their early language environment. In what ways, for example, were they influenced by family stories, early reading, multiple languages, or perhaps language in some stylized or religious context? Your poems employ a number of modes: your “high-handed,” titles, for example; the outside/found speech and texts, a superannuated capitalization that transforms ordinary language (“Sin of sins:/Following Too Closely”), wide rhetorical gestures. Could you talk about some of your first experiences with language and/or the writers and texts that might have shaped your orientation(s) toward language?

Angela: I started out being very interested in words and in picking them up. The books I read I re-read to savor the language. These were ordinary books for kids. Biographies by Guensey Van Riper, Jr. For girls, biographies of women, bound in green. For boys, biographies of sports figures, bound in orange. I loved Lou Gehrig, who started out in Norway going everywhere on skis, and ended in a triumphant thank-you in the center of an imaginary world. All the Van Riper biographies ended at a moment of triumph, but I let myself be surprised and thrilled every time. There was also at least one Disney-related book—a coming-of-age about a boy named Toby who runs away to the circus after overhearing his foster mother call him “a millstone around our necks.” I remember asking my mother what that meant. I knew it couldn’t be taken literally, so why say it? I think that I was trying to suss out the relationship between language and reality—how saying a thing transformed connections between objects. To her irritation, I sometimes asked my mother the names of towns and rivers that I already knew—it was a pleasure to hear the familiar names reiterated. There was a children’s encyclopedia that enchanted me. It was called, I think, The Book of Knowledge, and its illustrations, I seem to remember, had a ceremonious but sensuous Art Deco flavor. The frontispiece had an ornate gate being unlocked by a woman with flowing hair and robes.

Amy: What are the first and last poems of Talking Pillow that you wrote? How did they open up the collection, shape it, and then complete it for you?

Angela: The frontispoem, “The Last Toast,” was written in 1997. Of course I had no idea then of the book that it would head. I wanted to pay homage to Anna Akhmatova’s courage in the face of absurdity, her insistence on responding via underground poetry (disseminated by memory) to the conditions created by Stalin’s police state. The poem did not fit into any of the collections written since, and I’m glad that it didn’t. I think that others’ bravery can help us go on with life. Akhmatova’s certainly helped me. Talking Pillow was written with her help, and that of others, like Emily Dickinson, that I would call poets of wild possibility. I am lucky enough to be a friend of Anatoly Naiman, the amazing Russian poet and translator who was Anna Akhmatova’s secretary and confidante at the end of her life. Mississippi Review was the first American Journal to publish Naiman’s poetry in English translations, done by the masterful Margo Shol. So “The Last Toast” is an important poem for me. I’m not sure what the last one was that I wrote. The end of October, 2015, was a cut-off point for submitting the manuscript to my editor, Ed Ochester. I did not have a sense of exactly what shape the book should take until I gathered the poems and begin to experiment with an order. The latest poem chronologically could have been “You Say It’s Hard to Join the Hours,” that enacts an absurd struggle toward coherence. I trusted in grief to provide the collection’s coherence—my sense is that all the poems partake in it, even the ones that seem superficially unrelated, like “Ancestral Dentures.” I just got an email from Margo Shol about the last poem in the book, “Bicycle Story,” that illuminates it, I think. She says that “the speaker’s name, in your case, ‘Angela,’ tints the turkey vulture with a celestial light,” and she recalls that “in the Iliad, a couple of gods take the form of turkey vultures to watch and enjoy the battle.”

Amy: What are you reading now, in poetry, fiction, non-fiction? What have you read in the last year that really impressed you? I’d love to hear about this in as much detail as you care to give—do you read several (or many) books at once? Do you keep them stacked on your bedside table?

Angela: I keep books all over the house—stacked beside the bed and on the ottoman beside the couch where I do most of my reading and writing. I like to read more than one book at once. Right now I’m reading (listening to, actually) Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life; and reading Compendium (a record of my great teacher Donald Justice’s Poetic Forms class, edited by David Koehn and Alan Soldofsky; The Tornado is the World, by Catherine Pierce, The English Boat, by Donald Revell, Book of Hours, by Kevin Young, Sometimes We’re All Living in a Foreign Country, by Rebecca Morgan Frank, Great Bear, by Cathryn Hankla, and Philip Levine’s My Lost Poets: A Life in Poetry. I have been very much impressed by Olivia Clare’s book of stories, Disasters in the First World, and by Commotion of the Birds, by John Ashbery. Clare’s work is penetratingly odd—takes hold of seldom articulated perception. I think Ashbery’s work also does that—of course much differently. Ashbery’s great thing is to reveal clichés as truly interesting language—words that serve as masks, sometimes, but also as little blocks of kitsch or time capsules returned to life. And his lyric ear is surpassingly fine, so that a poem can move from sardonic chat to vaulting beauty in a blink. I think that the New York School is one of the best influences operating—in its lack of the sacred, its free-wheeling enjoyment of the available. “Do some drive-bys,” says my former colleague Frederick Barthelme in his now- cult-classic advice list for writers, The 39 Steps.

I read a lot in the morning, especially journalism. A favorite piece was one in the NY Times: Karl Ove Knaussgard talking about his travels in the States, very openly lamenting his blundering disorientation—right down the the dilemma of a clogged toilet. I loved all the volumes of My Struggle: amazing works of maximal minimalism—tremendous detail that should bore but that fascinates, no large meanings. I feel as if I’ve had an alternate life as a Norwegian boy/teenager/young man. So great.

I love reading recipes, have far too many cookbooks, and love baking for its patient slowness—especially making bread from homemade culture that so easily wakes from its refrigerator hibernation. When your ingredients respond to you, cooking is fun. Like most of us, I suspect, I have lots of hibernating enthusiasms, and a great pleasure of reading eclectically is that one of them might be knocked against and woken up.

Amy: Finally— if you were interviewing another poet you admired (dead or alive), what are some questions you’d ask?

Angela: I’d like to ask Blake or Simic, “What is your favorite food? And how/where/with whom do you like eating it?” Actually, I know from Charlie’s memoirs that he loves fresh tomatoes (his mother put him in the tub to eat them) and from the start considered potato chips a miraculous American invention. And I’d like to ask Blake how to be an unsentimental visionary. But that’s like asking Rembrandt how to paint. I’d like to ask Mark Twain and Edgar Alan Poe, “What would you write if you didn’t have to worry about money?” Not that the need for money necessarily distorted what they wrote. It’s hard to ask a simple question without oversimplification, I realize. I think a good all-purpose question might be, “What are you thinking?” even if the answer were, “I’m wishing I were somewhere else—in bed with someone beautiful or sitting at table expecting a roast suckling pig. Or both.”

Amy Beeder‘s third book, And So Wax Was Made & Also Honey, is forthcoming from Tupelo Press. A recipient of an NEA Fellowship, a “Discovery”/The Nation Award and a James Merrill Fellowship, she has worked as a creative writing instructor, freelance writer, political asylum specialist, high-school teacher in West Africa, and a human rights observer in Haiti and Suriname. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, AGNI, The Southern Review and other journals. She lives in Albuquerque.

 

What is This Anyway

From birth
bad advice surrounds us

Meanings
added
post-factory

Wonderful
terrible
wonderful

The beauty of forms
may reside
in their travesty

for instance
see bowling ball
trying to decorate
hat

If you want pure
go elsewhere

If you want pure
get a life

 

Hate’s Notebook

“Loving her was like shaking hands
with the devil,” like high-fiving

a spirit animal
or fist-bumping
the Buddha. On the
other hand,

hating her was like rubbing a mirror
with smoke, like cutting a wedding
into confetti, like a highway

violating borders and good taste
with an intensity easily mistaken
for courage, like courage mistaking itself

for bluster, and there’s hate’s notebook,
splayed on the roadside, waiting
to be written off.

 

Compensation

A newly-famous
writer went overboard—
asked for a phone
by the pool
in case Hollywood
called—this
at a time when phones
didn’t go places. Showed off
a Gatsby pile of shirts, said,
“My wife gets her underwear
from J.C. Penney,” then asked,
“When you speak of this
someday, be kind.”

Success seldom makes men
august—but often
makes them trade
a September wife
for April. The old marriage
exposed, eons of strata
brought to light
by blasting.

You don’t have to be an old master
to know: reality slaps imagination
silly. Each time it does
someone secretly shares
the sting, makes of it
a vase of daffodils, a planet
on a table, a photogram
of crescent suns.

 

Alstroemerias

The cemetery a brief
alphabet of avenues, longitudes
smoothing a flat, hot map.

To “decorate” his grave, outline
of grass I step on by mistake,

I carry grocery-store posies, purple
for your Saints, I say,

adding that they are Alstroemerias
or Parrot Lilies. As if he cares—

flowers—along with cats—
a bête noir.

I share them between
urns. Bursts of purple
begin and end
the incised
standing
nomenclature.

Alstroemerias, from
the Andes’ cool peaks,
wear their leaves
upside down.
The leaf twists
as it parts from
the stem, so that
the underside
faces up.

 

Rule Against Perpetuities

Someone told me to “take a hike”
and I did. An hour’s drive
to the trail head, then a rough
path through trees, several tied

with pink plastic bows I thought
were someone’s jeu de’esprit
till I saw the logging truck.
But still it was lovely

to be quasi civilized, at home
with a creek made of stumbling;
river a decoction of ex-leaves;
a sky sawing at tree crowns.

When the directive expired
I returned to hiking
work’s desolate stairs
to the mezzanine

of my incompetence
and the title Chair
till a spontaneous ejection
back to professing freed me

from famous red tape,
fulsome reasoning,
and unclean cuts.
But what is teaching

If not presuming to make
that which must make itself.
Once I was told officially,
“watch yourself,” and did—I am

a logical fiction—a fertile
octogenarian, an unborn
widow. “I”
belongs to “me”

through adverse
possession.
Incoherent Emotional Lives of the Kind We Are Warned Against

Some women tell strangers of misfortunes—a dog
that has died, a relative with end-stage

carcinoma–presenting bona fides
for sympathy that can’t quite reach.

Change has made them
transparent, clingfilm.

In interpersonal movies, they fly past
the Bechdel test. Their job as household

purse-strings hasn’t scored the predicted
respect, but no matter—they have messages,

fluffed-up invitations to unlimited
meaningful fragrances. A famous case

bought hundreds,
sequestered herself in the distortion
of their curved and plinthed vials.

 

City of Smoke

You were a one-occupant train,
departing ahead of schedule.
Through fog
I watched your last puff.

The railway
Is departing, its platforms,
even its benches–
once seedlings,
twigs unfurling a leaf–
will join the big city
of smoke.

Still, I ask after you.
A fallen branch, frosted
with verdigris, has no
voice. Neither does
the lawn mower
that kept its wheels on
only for you.

The pantry you found too crowded
breathes, cleared
to start again.

Morning is a station
with curved vaults.
Alone in the whispering gallery,
I press an ear to the wall.

 

Confession

The sky went “right through me”
as my mother said of cold wind.

So did things I was supposed to be part of—ball games,
imitation games, handicap games, supremacy games.

I lurched from place to place
at the last minute.

Mysterious things happened. Every swimming class
crystallized into a line for the high board, queue
I would never join. A milk man jumped
when I saw him enter our basement.
He left without glancing back.

So many things happened to groups
of similar beings. Uniformity checkers
in a factory. Jerseys in a milking shed, tied
to tubing and suction. Cars streaming new chrome or stalled
by a crippling accident. Great flows
of ingenuity began in bedrooms:
grade school kids building fabulous inventions
for men, performing conclusive experiments
with seeds. All the while not seeing anything
but what was in front of them. The birds
seemed best, following one other
in and out of the air.

 

Internet of Advice Not Entirely Helpful

Such as, “Put an end to the most common
beauty blunders,” such as
“When you meet your date,
try not to lead
with your prosthesis,”
such as, “Which of these
do you most resemble:
a giant white house
with screened-in porch;
a ranch-style home
In graduated chunks;
a house facing the Gulf,
shingles ripped away.”
If the latter, you need not
read further. Or if you do,
avoid the article on eye-twitching,
most often afflicting women,
and usually resulting from
stress, alcohol, or caffeine;
in rare cases continuing
unchecked, making reading
impossible and frankly removing
the sufferer from most of life’s
enchanting romantic scenarios.

 

Check to See if Your Redundancy is Genuine

You may be considering renewal
of passport/driver’s license/insurance/
waltz/bicycle/dog
Evidence the letter crowing
identity enhancement
the calls suggesting reboot
the implanted conundrum
collusion of independent clauses
daisies misdated
berserk conveyor belt
the want of wanting
thirst of the strangled
starvation of drowning
database of leas and dregs
fate’s blurred barcode
brittle templates
of the actual the scent
of dried rain curvet
of the whale calf
rapture of raptors
What have you done
with yourself look
someone has lowered
car window to talk to you
listen in their direction

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