I would say that having a subject, or at least an idea that sparks my interest, or that I’ve been chewing on for a while, is important to me. I usually have an idea, or the seed of an idea, or a memory, or a word that’s nagging at me. The poem around the idea nags at me until I sit down to write it. And I write the poem mainly to get it to stop pestering me and leave me in peace. I do not consciously impose limitations, but I probably do limit myself in ways I am not aware of. We all do this, I think. We impose writing rules on ourselves that we don’t even know we have. I think when you discover what rules you’re imposing on yourself without meaning to, that’s when you have a breakthrough. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately: what are the rules I’m following that I don’t know I’m following? Of these rules, which ones are serving me well and which ones are holding me back?
~ Kathleen Balma via email
I came across Balma’s work several years ago, via Pushcart 2013, when her prose poem “Your Hostess at the T&A Museum” captivated me. We had a conversation about Juggalos, of all things, and the reaction of her hometown neighbors to a nonfiction article in the same Pushcart volume about the time the Insane Clown Posse came to town. Let’s just say they weren’t thrilled with how the were, and weren’t, represented.
Then, last year, I came across Black Spring Press Group’s Lockdown Series #4, videos of poets reading their work, on Youtube. Balma was featured, reading her poem “The Forgiveness Project.” I was captivated: at first, by the dog that kept interrupting her for the first minute, then by the poem itself.
I’ve said many times I’m not a poetry person. I stopped blogging most Pushcart poetry a couple of years ago, because I got tired of typing “I have no idea what to say about this poem” over and over; now I only blog poems that strike me in some way, either content or form or both. I also stopped buying poetry books, hoping they would show me what I was missing, but none of them did, they just repeated the same poems and talked about feelings that I didn’t feel.
But when a poet comes up with two – two – poems that really strike me, I have to check that out. I saw Balma had published a chapbook, Gallimaufry and Farrago.
My first thought was, “I wonder who Gallimaufry and Farrago are.”
Yes, I really am that stupid.
Turns out those two words are centuries-old references to food mixtures – a stew, and grains – that have come to mean a hodgepodge, a jumble of things.
The twenty-six poems in the chapbook fit that description. Some are humorous, some somber, and a few start out one way and end up another. Subjects range from Job to Abraham Lincoln to Sid Vicious. Many of the poems are about travel, particularly around Italy; some are rooted firmly in Balma’s Midwest. The book begins and ends with oysters (I’ll let that ring in the air a bit; I’m still thinking about it).
I’m (still) not a poetry person, but several of these worked for me. I’ll chose a few, culminating in the two – still my favorites – that originally brought me to this book.
A Tour of Pompeii’s Red-Light District
Along the top
edge of hall
(where a wall-
might go) is porn so old
we feel safe
Most of us have, at some point, in some way, encountered the remains of Pompeii, frozen in time by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. We may have heard of the plaster casts showing the last moments of those caught in the downpour of ash: a dog on its back, a pregnant woman prone, a man reaching for something, maybe a way out he never found.
But while we thought of homes and farms and markets, did any of us think of the brothels?
Yet, the brothels are there. Hey, even The Economist did an article on them. Penises are engraved on walls and floors. Menus of services, graffiti, all the things you’d expect. All from 1700 years ago. It’s… well, it sounds irreverent to say “funny” in this city of tragedy made concrete, but, come on, it is. Balma’s poem leads us there. Then it takes us back:
No poems here,
it seems –
this blunt graffiti
all that’s left.
No bodies either, now,
just ghastly casts
in vast museums, or
for those who hear
through time and ash:
This is one of the few poems where the sounds feel crucial to me: sounds that repeat across stanzas (“safe/saying”, “edge of hall/(where a wall”,) and, at then end, almost parenthesize the sharp stab to the heart we feel having just giggled at the idea of raunchy graffiti now immortalized: “ghastly casts….ghostly gasps.”
I associate two-line poetry with several things: conversations between two people, indecisiveness, and walking. Yes, I know, Dante cornered the market on walking meters with terza rima, but for the simpletons among us, two feet, two beats per step, it fits. That this poem is titled as a tour makes that a fairly good bet. But there is also that conversation with those who, so long ago, lived so much like we do. What would the ash catch us doing, what graffiti would we leave behind, if it fell right now?
“With his own two hands, Abe Lincoln built the log cabin he was born in.”
— from an American college student’s history paper
Theory 1: Out-of-Body Abe
The ghostly glob of fetal Abraham sneaks out of his mother’s womb at night with architecture on his budding mind….
Theory 3: Authorial Abe
Like many Abrahams before him, Lincoln enjoys limited omniscience whenever he writes speeches, treaties, bills, or commandments, and this has begun to affect his mind in arboreal ways. He often imagines what it must have been like for his Pa to construct their homestead. How many times has the teenage Lincoln built that same boxy lodge in his mind, amputating trees and sanding them to naked plainness, putting, perhaps, more care into it than his own father had? …Since the war began, he’s been adding rooms that were never there in his youth, and the walls are getting higher, so high the house is now a tower he must climb and climb.
This is just pure fun, but it’s also an interesting exercise in metaphor. How many ways can you figure out to have Abe accomplish the task credited to him by a student overtired from an all-nighter? And that last theory sends me right back to Richard Osgood’s “Millennium House”.
What the Traveler Knows
Every country is a cure for something;
…If you are irksome and rude
in your own land, there is another
where you are witty and direct; your voice,
once a pastel whine, now an atonal woodwind
I left home when I was eighteen because I knew I had to find my cure. The problem is, after that, I tended to get stuck. I stayed in places I hated because I was sure I’d never find anything halfway as good, that they were the best I deserved, that to look elsewhere would be arrogance, or pride. I wish I’d known this poem. This idea, that there is a place where even I might fit.
From the highly – maybe overly – florid phrases, we suddenly get real, almost Beckettian:
Look there, that palace, this tower,
yonder mountain peak – it’s the view
you were born to see, the perfect
finish to the shelf song of your life
so far. The end. Keep looking.
The end. Maybe tomorrow. The end.
Almost there. The end.
And yet, the end keeps getting put off, because there will always be another chapter to your life, every place will become a place to escape from. For some, at least. I think for me, I’ve found the place I want to die from. But who knows what may happen that changes my mind. The end? Keep looking. The end? Maybe tomorrow. The end? Almost there…
The Forgiveness Project
— after Szymborska
Who runs the project and for how long?
Are reservations and appointments a must,
or is it first come first serve?
Is there a suggestion box? A gift registry?
Will I need a witness?
Forgiveness is a core issue of mine, and this poem, by asking questions, raised more thoughts than even I had. It’s interesting that it’s the wrongdoer who is the focus here, not the wronged party. Forgiveness is a change in the wronged party. Nowhere do I see a guarantee that if one asks for forgiveness – presumably in all sincerity – it will be granted. Just like real life.
Maybe the confession booth has given us the impression that forgiveness is a transaction, as routine as buying a box of cereal or an indulgence. The poem underlines that by treating it lightly, but there’s a seriousness underlying that levity. I can’t define it, but I feel it. And here I am, sounding like one of those teachers I get so irritated with, declaring feeling with no evidence. But by making light of the subject, the rock-hard truth – that forgiveness implies a wrong, the infliction of pain, that “I’m sorry” doesn’t always heal even when it’s sincere – becomes more visible. Maybe it’s our irritation with playfulness on such a serious subject that stresses the reality.
But what if I take a different approach: what if apologies were offered by appointment, en masse? This is something like my (admittedly flawed) understanding of Yom Kippur. What if our errors were catalogued? Isn’t this what we imagine God doing – or even Santa Claus, keeping track of who’s naught and who’s nice? In Christian theology, sins are erased by grace, but does Santa keep track, we were not as naughty at age 8 than we were at age 7?
“Do poems count as admissions of guilt?” asks the poem. I remember (I hope; sometimes I worry that I just make these things up when I can’t document them later) that someone important in media said that America apologizes through its movies: for Vietnam, for Korematsu, and, someday maybe, for Guantanamo. But it isn’t America, the nation, that’s making these films.
I had to look up Wisława Szymborska, and discovered a Nobel laureate from Poland. There is a certain similarity to some of Balma’s work, but I’ve never been sure what “after” means; sometimes it’s a clear copy of a story, sometimes it’s a reply. So I asked Balma, with whom I had a wonderful email conversation. Her explanation:
Szymborska is and always will be my favorite poet. I understand the “after” to mean, “written as a conscious imitation of …”
“The Forgiveness Project” was written as a conscious imitation of a Szymborska poem that consists of a series of questions. I liked the form, so I wrote my own series of questions.
~ Kathleen Balma via email
I found a Szymborska poem titled “Questions you Ask Yourself” which could be a likely origin, but that requires confirmation.
From Your Hostess at the T & A Museum
If you will not tip me for my dance, tip me for daring to ask…. Tip me for staring back so hard it puts even Olympia to shame and makes her chat noire slink ever closer to her overlooked and under-rendered black maid…. Tip me for what you don’t see: the abstract; the invisible; the squiggly outline of the model’s brain matter in silhouette; the negative space plastered between fleshy objects like some happy vacuum, giving form to the nothingness between us.
I loved the return of the Male Gaze in this poem, the dare, the refusal of any shame; the redirection of embarrassment to the customer. Women have since Eve borne the burden of shame for men crying “Look what you made me do” like any five-year-old. No, says this character. Look what you are doing. I love the reference to Olympia, Manet’s painting showing a courtesan staring back at the viewer in a then-unexpected pose likewise free from shame. I love the use of anaphora (ha, see what I’m doing here) in the repetition of “Tip me.” And I love the closing line, though I’ll admit it’s a curious admiration, more of a desire to parse it, to get it right than an understanding of it.
When writers are kind enough to respond to my questions, seeing as I’m not exactly the New York Times Review of Books here, I like to give them a chance to add anything they wish. Sometimes they’ll mention an upcoming project, sometimes it’s more explanation of the work under discussion. And once in a while it’s something completely unexpected, like when I asked Robert Foreman what he wished someone would ask him, and he replied, “I wish people would ask me why I’m the way I am all the time. Like, what’s it like to wake up in the morning and be like that? My answer is that it’s really terrible, I hate being like this.” I didn’t know if I should pursue that line of thought, or call in a counsellor.
Balma’s reply was a little less off-the-wall, though unique enough to be intriguing: she got an outside opinion.
I just asked my partner, “Is there anything people never ask me that you think they should be asking?” He said, “I would ask you about your sentences,” and I laughed. I asked him to clarify. He said, “I’d have to research it to really articulate what I’m after, but I guess, not why you write but how you write, the particularities of your style. Your syntax. Your registers. Those are things I’m interested in.” I said, “You’d have to research your girlfriend’s poetry before you could ask her a question about her sentences?!” And he said yes. Then he said, “You write with subjects, sometimes themes. How important is having a subject that you’re interested in, and do you impose any limitations that relate to the subject? These are not very sexy questions. I’m sorry. I’m about to go get some fish. Is there anything you’d like?” So that’s what conversations are like at our house.~ Kathleen Balma via email
Then she turned that around into the opening quote above, a thoughtful consideration of process, what it is, and what it could be.
I enjoyed the chapbook, and I enjoyed the conversation. One of the most fun parts of writing these posts is that occasion, not a frequent one but often enough, of meeting a writer on, and off, the page.
Balma has a new collection, What the Traveler Knows, coming out soon; it includes most of the poems from this chapbook, plus a longer poem.
* * *
- Kathleen Balma, Website and forthcoming collection
- “Abraham, Honestly” – Poem by Kathleen Balma, via Cutbank, 1.75
- “From Your Hostess at the T & A Museum” – Poem by Kathleen Balma at The Café Review, Winter 2011
- “The Forgiveness Project” – Poem by Kathleen Balma, poet reading for Black Springs Press Group on Youtube
- “Imprisoned in Ash: The Plaster Citizens of Pompeii” – Atlas Obscura on Slate
- “The Grim Reality of the Brothels of Pompeii” – Marguerite Johnson, Professor of Classics, University of Newcastle, for The Conversation
- “Millennium House” – flash fiction by Richard Osgood (Tin House)
- Wisława Szymborska at Poetry Foundation
- “The Questions You Ask Yourself” – Poem by Wisława Szymborska, Library of Congress listing
- Megan Whitmarsh – cover art