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Micah Ballard Interview

 

Micah Ballard was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and lives in San Francisco. He co-edits Auguste Press and Lew Gallery Editions and is on the editorial board for the Contemporary Poetry Series at UNO Press. From 2000-07 he directed the Humanities Program at New College of California and currently co-directs the MFA in Writing Program at the USF. Recent books of his include Evangeline Downs (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2006), Parish Krewes (Bootstrap Press, 2009), Poems from the New Winter Palace (Arrow as Aarow, 2010) and Waifs and Strays (City Lights Books, 2011).  

 


Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson Library at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of There are people who think painters shouldn’t talk: A GUSTONBOOK (Post-Apollo, 2011). Recent writings of his have appeared or are expected in: Amerarcana, Antigonish Review, Barzakh, Big Bell, Colorado Review, The Critical Flame, Fulcrum, Galatea Resurrects, Greetings, House Organ, New Pages, ON, Oyster Boy Review, The Poetry Project Newsletter, Polis, Rain Taxi, Sous les Pavés, Switchback, and Wild Orchids. He’s currently working with Persian poet Ava Koohbor co-translating her work from Farsi.

 

 

   

 

PD: Hi Micah, we totally know each other well, having the writing of poems as just as much of a bond as skateboarding. We also both live in San Francisco and work up here at the University of San Francisco. In short, there's a bunch of circumstantial incidentals we happen to share that enrich our general well being as individuals with a hand in the practice of writing towards The Poem.

 

That all being said: Is there a purely combustible form of writing? In other words, do you ever conceive of writing as something that vanishes as soon as it comes to be?

 

MB: The closest I’ve come to pure combustibility was actually writing the word “flame” in what was to soon be the last line of a poem. I smelled smoke, looked out the hallway window, and the whole fence alongside our apartment was on fire. It was 2 am and before I knew it the windows were cracking and I was on my hands and knees throwing my books out the door. This was to be the first, among several occurrences, where the poem actually came alive and set out to find me before I found it. But that’s another story.
 
Not all writing vanishes as soon as it materializes. We’ve all happened upon the most resplendent lines, sometimes whole poems, either in dreams or perhaps stepping onto the train, and boom, all of a sudden they’ve disappeared. If only we had the typewriter, or that pen we let someone borrow! I used to spend hours trying to find out where they’re hiding; trying anything I could to conjure them back. Now I just appreciate having been in their presence It’s like the muse saying tag, you’re it. It’s such a curious courtship.
 
The invitation to the actual writing of a poem is always there, the question is how do we know it’s there and how do we gain entrance before it departs. Very rarely do they appear then decide to vanish. Not that I lord over them, that’s quite the contrary, but once I’m allowed in I have a hard time leaving. The poem wants to write itself and we have to be open to what it wants to say and how long it takes to communicate such. I’ve never been able to begin a new poem without finishing the one at hand. So, when it finally reveals itself as being this completed thing, I seldom return. Maybe I'm worn out by then. Mostly it's because I’m ready for the next trip. I mean, we create a world that we want to inhabit and at the same time this world recreates us. I don’t want to hang out in the same room with the same conversation, I want to move forward and vanish into the uncharted.


And it’s not like poems leave one behind. I mean, yeah, hopefully they’re in front of you leading the way, but once you complete one and move onto another, it doesn’t mean it’s gone. We see this when putting a book together, or a suite of poems for a reading. All of a sudden there’s this string of pearls holding these completely different poems together. Turns of phrases, exact words, syllabic counts, various forms, etc., and the poems start to communicate with themselves in this extraordinary, otherworldly manner. There’s a hidden narrative going on and they’re all wearing different masks, talking with one another, and then one of them says, hey, remember us?

 

PD: Like the infinite ordering ways within which a collection of poems may come together. There is no end. As so it goes with individual lines or stanzas of a poem. There’s always the interchangeable what ifs and unexpected sneaks. Poems are to be had where you least expect to find them as often as not, the regular occasion—that is to say, the irregular may be as habitual as any other, given time and adequate practice.

How often poems pursue a poet as much as not, especially once you've opened a few doors up. It's amazing that nobody's written Poltergeist into a book of poems yet. Trade Spicer's radio for the static off the television. Cocteau's influence, after all, is clear in that film.


The further you go with writing poems (as probably is also true any so whatever activity pursued with equal consistency of focus and dedication) there's that sudden joy/dread of having realized the writing of the poem in the living of the life. The lines looked back on months or years later yield a revelation laid clear...whether personal or not. However, this isn't any self-help voodoo or otherwise incantation of crystal balls and palm readers. 

 

Indeed, all such Myth/Theory (the two arts of the intellective imagination so often seemingly best left inseparable) is nothing but the gruel-makings of personae. It's those chunks of stuff the poems pick up when you aren't looking and toss around to get your attention, huh? Amazing to realize Olson's "saturation job (it might take 14 years). And you're in forever." Is really no joke?

 

MB: Yes, that all certainly rings true and is undeniable, particularly, “you’re in forever.” Circumstantial or otherwise, it really has to do with one’s wiring, regardless the medium given to work in. And it’s all very narcotic, in the sense that you can be turned on right away, or it might take years of dabbling. I’ve never been able to do that with anything, save maybe drawing, making collages, or printing small books. Even though those seem secondary to me, they’re actually primary, because they’re habitual and in one way or another related to the act of writing. They come from the same place and produce a similar feeling. "Baffling combustions” really are “everywhere” and are you ready to give yourself over to them regardless the outcome. It's no different than being blindfolded and walking out onto the plank. How many times are you willing to go out?

 

PD: What's the cost for that sailor? Has many different rings to it, depending who says what to whom, etc. Like if you're the sailor talking to yourself, for instance.


Well, the words are in the books. So yeah, fuel for expanding the conversation. Growing The Company, in Creeley's sense, which you write to and from which the writing arrives. What's the act of publication, as in editing and publishing, but an extension of the greatest of collaborative exercises...arising, as it does, from a shared community of interest.


As Barrett Watten says in The Grand Piano, Part 5:

 

The steady state of friendship. Friendship as an art, a necessary entailment of the arts. I remember, in the period of minimal employment and low cost of living that was the late 1970s, how much time I spent attending to the details of friendship. It was not simply seeing oneself in an other but a constant contact with the exteriority of being: "Walls break off / where I am met." The much-vaunted ethics of the other would be tested at the limits of the creative act, in the construction of aesthetic community.

 

Aside from "minimal employment and low cost of living" much of what Watten says here rings true from my own experiences in San Francisco. Much of which time involved being with you and others, especially Cedar [Sigo], sitting around our rooms with the typewriter out, browsing through the always evolving personal library alongside whatever books or papers each other happened to be toting about or bringing as gifts to the meeting. And this wasn't "literary" or anything like that. It was drinks and smokes and talk, lots of talk, "attending to the details of friendship." 


Sometimes these poems have arrived to the world in print. As with your collabs with Cedar and Will [Yackulic]: Death Race VSOP. Or others have appeared in a small zine here or there. And our own collab Easy Eden found its way into print—although those poems involve a somewhat different process. But always the endeavor is a social one that the printing of a book only later becomes a part of; the publisher entering into an exchange with the writing as much as the poet(s). And the publishing so often is an act of friendship as much as faith in art. As Death Race is published by our dear friend Jeffrey Butler up in Portland, OR and Easy Eden was put out by our pal Jason Morris here in SF. We've also all shared in the pleasure of Kevin Opstedal's support as friend and publisher of numerous zines and chapbooks under the Blue Press imprint. In addition, you've taken your own turn publishing many friends and others under Auguste Press and Lew Gallery Editions, as well editing the one-shot zines The Night Palace and Morning Train.

A Company that travels with you. Even if you never leave town…

 

MB: “The Authors are in eternity. / Our eyes reflect / prospects of the whole radiance / between you and me.”

 

PD: Is this the end of the interview? O boy… uh oh.

 

MB: Of course not, I'm just trying to swim back to the ship, and between waves that lovely Robert Duncan line via Blake came to me. Seems to sum up what you're talking about. The camaraderie of a shared bloodstream.

 

PD: Yeah, as far as what are the things which draw one to poetry. Where'd ya get the itch? That sort of thing. Who's in your hall tonight?

 

MB: There are so many halls in this little palace that I oftentimes forget which one I’m in. Well, on the wall directly in front of me is this postcard of Bob Creeley that Jim Dunn recently sent. He’s with his dog on a beach in 1967. Then there’s a picture of Frank O’Hara right next to him, the one in Southampton, circa ’62. I have a beautiful chandelier from the Palais de Schoenbrunn, Vienna, rising out of his forehead, then there’s half-torn book cover from this random anthology, Poison & Vision, that I found on the street. There’s Baudelaire with Rimbaud to his left and Mallarme to his right and their heads are coming out of this very ornate mantle. To the right of that is a collage from Will circa ’02 then a gold framed picture of John Wieners with his back to the countryside. He’s got a marvelous homemade headband on, complete with stripped white pants, scarf, and mustache. Right next him is a bust of Jean Genet that Cedar drew for my birthday.

 

PD: Informants or co-racketeers? How easy is it for those who come later to dig in and not just rehearse the rehashing of what's come before?  

 

MB: Let me get back to your previous question. Poetry presented itself as the predominant medium to work in when I was around 19. Before that, I had aspirations to be some type of visual artist. It started in kindergarten when I was sent home from going to the restroom and painting my face like Gene Simmons from the band KISS. Lucky enough, the next day my instructor let me design all of the costumes for our school play!

 

I took art classes all through school. In 10th grade I began writing these long sentences that would wrap around all of my drawings. I’d also write on the bottom of my skateboard. Usually song lyrics interspersed with my own interpretations, and so forth. I didn’t know it then, but it was a terrific way to gain control of the line, having such a limited space. This manifested into a later obsession with quatrains, tercets, and couplets. I was astonished that you could use these forms as little boxes and illustrate them with language.

 

The first poem I wrote kind of hit me over the head when I was selling clothes in a department store. There was this mannequin surrounded by these old editions of English anthologies. They were so alluring that I swiped a few and within a week was hooked on the Elizabethan poets. But it was the Metaphysical and Cavalier poets that really got my ear. Next thing you know I’m folding clothes then I run to the cash register, print out some receipt paper, and out comes this poem in couplets! I believe it had something to do with the movie Ben-Hur and some unfortunate grief-stricken lines about lost love. Afterwards I was literally shaking. I was quite petrified because it was such a rush and so preternatural. 

 

On another note, I don’t find it particularly daunting for one to come in and “make it new.” There are trace elements of others in all of us because we’re part of this enduring, remarkable lineage. The central thing is maintaining a willingness to take chances and to remain curious. 

 

And of course it helps to trust others when they’ve been generous with their time and ear. I had a real awakening once, when Bob Creeley wrote to me and said, “The dilemma is that one gets to that point where the dilemmas of one's so-called life seem the necessity for being able to writing, having become its actual sponsor. That I'd try to change, like they say—viz, a la Blake. You don't have to get sheep or anything, but like Olson (Rimbaud) said, "Can you afford not to make the magical study that happiness is?"

 

PD: So, as far as any such "art" of it goes, poetry has presented itself as a challenge to you? Always informing as it further unfolds? That further reaching towards a heading? Where after you find yourself located? Is it then such a spot you might never otherwise have gone? 

 

MB: I’d say the only distraction, rather than challenge, doesn’t lie necessarily in composition but in the seldom, yet amusingly predacious nature of others. But even that can be entertaining. We’re all trying to amuse the muses in whichever way we know how, and we’re all trading seats at the same table, living lives within the lines of what’s being written, spoken, and read. 

 

I’ve found that I have an incessantly inherent trust in wherever a poem wants to take me, and sometimes, due to an almost self-destructive aptness, am ready to do whatever’s required to take part in the voyage. And we know the voyage isn’t just per poem, it’s continuous, in that there’s always the lure and the luring. I mean, there are sigils and signs everywhere, disappearing constellations that we follow because everything we come to know derives from what they reveal.

 

For instance, Sunnylyn and I had just gotten back from New Orleans (she was pregnant and I believe you were also on that trip with us), and I decided to randomly pick a book from the shelf. I flipped to “Poem XIV: Upon his seeing a baby holding the four of hearts for him and another card concealed” in Duncan’s Letters and there’s a small, red, four of hearts printed on the page. Shortly thereafter I took a walk to the post office on Geary (where Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple was) and upon leaving I stepped on this little piece of cardstock. I turned it over and it was a four of hearts, exactly the same size as the one in the book. It was like Duncan was saying, “welcome back to San Francisco, the poem’s been waiting.” 

 

A similar occasion occurred years before when we moved into that apartment on Fillmore. I’d just had this little book out, Absinthian Journal, where Will did these illustrations of a bottle of Absinthe getting emptier and emptier and on the last page there was a little skull inside of it. Of course, the day we move in, the liquor store below had a bottle painted on the wall with a skull in it. Then carved into the cement by the streetlight were my first and second names. And one wonders where superstitiousness and paranoia comes from.

 

At any rate, when one’s sensitivities are heightened, in the service of the poem or otherwise, these types of occurrences seem to frequent on the regular. They’re invitations, maps, and handshakes, there to further lead one on her way, when and whatever that way may be. And we needn't be frightened by them, in fact, we should be thankful, because it gives one a sense of solace, in that the poem is our agency where things can move close to us and inhabit our psychic world. 

 

PD: I recently read an interview with Daniel Kane (a critic/scholar of the so-called New York School) by Jeffrey Side and he asks him: "Do you see poststructuralist influenced writing practices (and other types of procedural poetic composition practices) as being generally less preferable than approaches that are more “organic” or spontaneous?" I'm curious how you'd describe your own writing practices and any preferences you hold to?

 

MB: When it comes to methodology, I’m not partial to anything so long as what needs to be said gets said. Sure, certain techniques, along with aesthetic preferences, might align one with a particular community, but that’s all temporary and after the fact. I’m interested in movement, how one gets from place to place, or portal to portal, because there’s an endless happening there that’s never the same. It’s fascinating to see drafts of poems, it’s like you get a free pass, or a trap door into the labyrinth. It’s similar to reading an autobiography, or listening to outtakes, B-sides of the poem. And it can be very forensic, watching this thing alchemically discover its own architecture.

 

I go through periods where I’ll try different procedures, but these are mostly to challenge myself so I won’t keep painting the same thing on the same canvas. I usually find myself in this horrible but necessary place after I’ve finished a number of poems and peeked at them, or after giving a reading. All of a sudden you see where you’ve been traveling and it’s time to hitchhike somewhere else. The last time I caught a ride I wound up writing in notebooks for four months, two pages a day, without looking at what was written. It was awful because it was such a foreign process (and I’m so damn impatient) but I managed to get a few longer sequential and serial poems out of it.

 

For the most part, I just like to keep it random. Scraps of paper, napkins, flyers, whatever’s available, sooner or later get deposited into a notebook. When a poem begins, it’s usually a group of lines that appear and start a conversation with one another. Once they’ve worn themselves out, I’ll flip thru the notebook, grab a few strays, and throw em’ into the mix. This has been going on for the past three years, taking all the waifs and strays and making collages held by sound and ulterior narratives that are dictated as the lines start to communicate.

 

When it comes to putting a book together, or editing someone else’s, I’m invariably visual. You’ve seen the halls in our apartment lined with pages, or that massive, secret sliding door that goes back into the wall. I tend to think of a book as a suitcase of singular poems that make one long poem, regardless of their disparities. Will the last line of this poem read into the first line of this one? Does the form of this poem flow into the form of the next one? When you tape a manuscript to the wall, you get a birds-eye view of the maze you’ve been in. All the encryptions and codes that lie beneath the lines start to pop out. I might gain a bit of tunnel vision, like they say, and have fun playing around, but in the end it’s what the poems want. Maybe they don’t want to read into one another you know? Well, let me step back from the wall and observe the frequencies.

 

PD: Is that to say, then, that "the frequencies" between poems in a book—as those between books—are constantly flickering for you... is there a strong sense of return then you feel for some of your own work and that of others? Does this attachment ever extend geographically for you?

 

MB: There’s always a magnetic pull to my peers. I say that speaking of Baudelaire to H. D. to John Wieners to you and an ever-evolving host of others—anyone who writes towards cosmology. I’ve always had a strong sense of return with John’s poems, be it 707 Scott Street (the B-sides to The Hotel Wentley Poems) and even more so, Behind the State Capital or Cincinnati Pike. That book is like his Cantos. Every time I return to it something is completely different. Poems that I thought I knew I don’t, then all of a sudden there’s some that I’ve never seen. It’s like the codes keep changing and there’s a new orchestration each time the book is opened.

 

I rarely return to my own work, once it’s suitcased, other than to stare at the cover and try to re-imagine what’s going on inside. I have somewhat of a photographic memory, so I can see all the poems in there, each page, as well as the drafts. It’s like I can feel and hear them all at once, and form them into one ball of discharged energy. I can be all the way across the room, and that’s close enough for me. I’d rather be running to the bookshelf and picking up someone else’s. I do enjoy the company of others, and that’s far more interesting than talking to myself in the mirror.

 

As far as geographic sense of return, I’ve only noticed that in retrospect. I have to be away from a place to fully inhabit it. That can take seconds or years. I was quite surprised when I put the poems in Parish Krewes together, all this Louisiana folklore laced with Egyptian magic and funerary rites.

 

PD: And readers also find your work full of resonance with San Francisco as well. For instance, according to a recent review in Publisher's Weekly your poems demonstrate "the prophetic concentration of Robert Duncan and the extroversion of the beats."


Duncan, I think, is easily notable. We both have been extremely motivated, as well as agitated, by his presence in our work and lives, as you previously mentioned, we're still receiving signs from him and a general ghostlike quality of his could be felt round the halls of New College, listening in on classes and readings, as well as round many parts of city as a whole it seems at times there's a certain very Duncan-esque charm or vibe afoot. And of course there's also the "OZ" view of downtown glimpsed from the heights of Marin or as you drive south down 101 North of Golden Gate Bridge (a view that is recently championed at the end of Rise of The Planet of the Apes, by the way, HA!)


Also, Robert Duncan's work and person remains a guiding presence for so many of the poets whom we attend to in person whether in the past by way of classes, or currently at readings or other private occasions, such wonderful creatures as: David Meltzer, Duncan McNaughton, Joanne Kyger, Diane di Prima, and Norma Cole, to name just a few. Robert Duncan remains the full shaman poet master figure to all. 

However, when it comes to "the beats" I can't think of literary types further from you! I admit I take a bit of glee in how strongly, in the instance of this review, anyway, your work is being associated to theirs. The review goes on to give you a "beat heritage" placing you in a "lineage" via study and associating with David Meltzer, "of beat writing in general." What do you think? It really may after all prove more beneficial to them, than you, but of course who "they" actually are is an interesting conversation in itself.


Why San Francisco, anyway? Why Poetics at New College?

 

MB: In regard to categorizing, we’ll what can we do about that? It doesn’t mean much and it’s not in your hands anyway.  At the most, it’s associative, and rarely about what’s on the page. It’s generally a way to historicize something by means of cataloging, or summarizing the subject(s) at hand. Like, okay, you’re over here, and you’re here, let’s put you right there, and so forth. When what’s really going on is wait, we’re all right ‘here’. It’s like that everywhere, we’re surrounded by it. I suppose it has its uses, regardless of its limiting factors. Berkeley Renaissance, SF Renaissance, Black Mountain, whatever generation of the New York school and so forth. There’s all these shared lives and friendships intermingled with different yet appreciated approaches to the poem but due to time, geography, aesthetic s, or whatever, everyone gets their “place.” It’s great though how it’s interchangeable and never really lasts, I mean look at Joanne, she exists in ALL.

 

I wanted to move to San Francisco since I first visited with my parents in sixth grade. It was so enchanting and I felt right at home, and I still do. As you know, SF was the skateboarding mecca for quite some time so I grew up with all these pictures in my room with people skating in SF. When I finally moved here I knew (mostly) the whole landscape simply by hanging out in my room 2,000 miles away. And to stumble upon these underground, legendary spots, still enthralls me. I was just walking under the “China Banks” on Kearny yesterday morning and got chills of excitement.

 

New College primarily was a means to get me to SF, although I was contemplating moving to NYC. I guess SF had that alchemical pull that at the time I was unaware of. Of course it helped too, as you mentioned, the history of other poets living here.  I mean, what can I say? Being isolated in Louisiana and reading all these books just wasn’t enough. I wanted to breathe the same air, walk the same streets, and be in like company. Pretty much the same reason as everyone else.  I will say this, it was extremely  intimidating!! Having the company of maybe two people, then all of a sudden there’s 200! I feel very lucky though, when I moved here everyone I met was extremely generous. I was pretty oblivious to the factions and choose still to remain so. Not to sound overly cliché, but I try not to forget where I’m from. I can’t believe I still get to meet others who share similar interests, on and off the page. It’s incredible.

 

PD: Weren't you at Dalva in the Mission last night? That's a s-t-r-e-t-c-h to get over to China Banks! Awesome. You got your walk on.


Skateboarding is a key element in each of our lives. It's interesting how group dynamics play a role in both it and poetryworld. It's not a huge leap from growing up and having been hitting up some curbs or stairs and then having somebody new roll up and wondering what they might have to offer, to then when older be attending readings and other such gatherings, meeting people and being likewise curious. Often, you're able to determine as much by having seen how somebody hits up the page: word choice, along with the company being kept; as you can by how somebody rolls on a board—it's really not about pop it's about pop, etc.


Then, also, I feel like skateboarding allows for one's maturation when it comes to having an eye for detail: I remember as a teenager—growing up in Orange County: skate-central—telling my step-dad how stoked I was that a curb around the corner at a nearby (everything in SoCal is "nearby") Safeway (was it? There was also an Islands restaurant and a Subway sandwich shop, corner of Brookhurst and Ellis) supermarket was the same one being sessioned in a video I was watching and how firm his refusal was to believing I was recognizing the curb, which I knew well from hours of slappied feeble grinds and boardslides!, from just seconds of video.


There's a happy correspondence of appreciation somewhere here.

 

MB: Certainly. You learn to find pleasure in inanimate objects, simple architecture that society doesn’t really notice. And you project yourself onto these objects by way of the imagination, and instantly form this mental/physical relationship with them. Similar to poetry, it’s all on your own, in that there’s no relying on someone else for you to actually “be there.”

 

Handrails, stairs, curbs, banks, hills, etc., perpetually stand out as almost, divine objects, because we have such a fervid and interminable imaginary relationship with them. However, what really stands out is that most of them are now “skate stopped” with all these iron knobs (and sometimes sea-shells for décor). It’s interesting to see this continuous anti-skateboarding element in society while at the same time it’s gone completely mainstream with corporate sponsorship. The same huge conglomerates that now promote skateboarding “skate-stop” the ledges around their buildings.

 

PD:  Everybody knows there's no money in poetry, yet similar controversial hypocrisies are always popping up... every ten years or so, somebody has "gone over," giving up keeping it real, whether for a job or some other financial security or sometimes just getting published within a certain crowd even... No longer "on the level" as Berrigan might say.


Like where's the balance, man? How do you know you're doing anything right: between managing your own life (the personal, i.e. 'social,' and financial bullshit) while yet keeping it real with the poems, skating, and being, as a creature should, alive to life? 

 

MB: I think you never know if you’re doing anything “right.” If you are then you’re probably following some type of agenda used to qualify your existence, and that’s just too bad. Sure, you can be aware of the mechanics of it all, how to get from point a to point b and so on, but that should be held as far away as possible. Things happen on their own accord and it’s worthwhile to trust the pacing. I think it’s okay to be aware of what’s going on, say, having just a fingernail in the know, but not your whole arm.


Hell, I still feel as if I’m faking life, like really, I’m still alive and I have this magic that courts me and I get to court it! The sooner you realize there’s no money in writing poems, the better off you are. I’m just stoked to have this thing to be able to go to, that’s there regardless. There’s too many other things that try to pull one away from the page, why would I want to throw some type of strategy or motive onto it? It doesn’t want that and doesn’t need it. I want what the poem wants, and I don’t know what it wants save for me to be available.

It’d be fantastic if that’s all we had to do, hang out and wait for the next poem to come. But then we’d be sitting there, compulsively waiting for the muse to float in and just hand it to us. The juggle, or shall I say the struggle, of balancing the personal, social, and whatever one does to make money, can be gruesome. Somehow we all do it though, and it’s marvelous to have the poem there waiting. It’s Negative Capability on all fronts.

 

   

 

 

copyright © Micah Ballard & Patrick James Dunagan