Monday, April 29, 2013

Q&A: Poet, Sally Ball

It's a bit of a thrill for me to provide this interview, and I hope readers will forgive me for not doing a simple Q&A. Sally and I were high school classmates and friends. She has gone on to academic and literary brilliance, while I languish as a journalist and dreamer. (Ok, perhaps I do better than "languish," and I'm not ashamed of being a dreamer.) She is an assistant professor of English at Arizona State University and her poetry, essays, and reviews have been widely published in a variety of journals, anthologies, and now two of her own poetry collections. She also is the assistant director of Four Way Books, an independent press in the TriBeCa area of New York City. Her latest, Wreck Me, is available from Barrow Street Press. Through the surprises of social media, she and I have reconnected after too many years, and I now have an opportunity to offer readers a glimpse of some wonderful poems and images.

Elephant’s Bookshelf (Matt Sinclair): It’s funny to me, but when we reconnected via Facebook, I could hear your physical voice in your words. Voice, of course, is vital to strong, compelling writing of any form. Do you still hear echoes of the girl from New Jersey in your writing, or does your work have a Western accent to its voice?

Sally Ball: Matt, you can take the girl out of New Jersey, but you can’t…

And really, I still spend a chunk of every summer in New Jersey, mostly at the shore, and I’m in Summit every May for a few days, other times too. I always think of myself as an Easterner. Also, I was surprised to see how strong the presence of the West turns out to be in this new book. I live in a town, Scottsdale, that supports two predominant stereotypes: cowboys-and-injuns vs. golf-and-botox. My poems tend to be a little bewildered by the West, and I think the way I’ve found to most fully register the strangeness and beauty of the desert, the appreciable difference between Here (AZ) and There (NJ), is immersion in the “landscape”: slowing down enough to really see the spindles of the baked-out cacti, as well as the Styrofoam insulation in the under-water houses…

MS: How would you characterize the nature and subject matter of your work?

SB: I’m always most interested in poems as a way to follow a mind in motion on the page. Often in my own poems this yields a kind of thinky narrative: there’s a story, but the real interest lies in figuring out the why and the how of that story, and then also its implications. My first book, Annus Mirabilis, alternates between two main threads: poems about Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Isaac Newton -- rival inventors of the Calculus -- and poems about a contemporary speaker and her own will toward knowledge (knowledge about marriage, art, sanity). I was initially interested in the nature of ambition in the scientist and in the artist: how these might be similar, how they diverge.

The new book, Wreck Me, began when my dad was waiting for a lung transplant. I got interested in the body, in resilience, because a transplant really is a violent surgery, hard to recover from, and you have to choose it. It struck me that the paradox of the operation recurs in regular life all the time: we have to choose to endure something profoundly difficult to get through to a new place, to stay alive at all—if we want to be alive in the most resonant, important ways. The world wants us to be numb, to just go along, and if you want to, say, go deeper into a marriage, or into your work, or into anything valuable: well, sometimes that requires a type of (emotionally) violent intervention.

MS: Your new collection, Wreck Me, has just come out. Your first collection, Annus Mirabilis, was published in 2005 and was well received. You have always written. I remember bumping into you and walking to school together and we’d sometimes talk about writing. Why did it take until the twenty-first century for a book to come out with your name on the spine?

SB: Ouch!

MS: Sorry. Of course, the same could be said of me.

SB: Yes… I’m …slow. And I have some other major commitments: three kids, a teaching job, my work with Four Way Books. Also, I’m just slow: I wait for things, which doesn’t mean I don’t pursue them, too.

MS: With your busy family life and academic career, do you write every day, do you squeeze writing in when time allows? How do you maintain the artistic element of your life in the midst of the demands of “real life”?

SB: It really helps me to go away. In December I spent just over two glorious weeks at the Merrill House in Stonington, Connecticut. When I have time like that—uninterrupted, no obligations—I have the best chance of starting new things, the best chance to get really lost in what I’m writing. In Connecticut, I worked for seven, eight, nine hours at a stretch most days. Summers, when school’s out and Four Way is quieter, I get a lot of that same kind of work done. During the semester, I don’t start much, though I do return to whatever’s in progress. And—is this age?—I’m waking up so early. I am hopeful that these new, alert 5 AMs are going to provide that same sense of solitude. When the house is quiet and the world is calm. (That’s a line from Stevens: the same poem says, “The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind.”)

MS: Do you write mostly poetry now, or do you still write reviews and essays on topics that interest you?

SB: Mostly poetry, also reviews and essays. A recent essay on contemporary poetry—in relation to William Carlos Williams’ “no ideas but in things”—is here, in The Volta.

MS: You deal with loss and doubt in Wreck Me. What is it about these subjects that calls to you and compels you to share?

SB: Robert Hass has this famous line, “All the new thinking is about loss./ In this, it resembles all the old thinking.”

Secondarily, here’s a story from our New Jersey days: between junior high and senior high, I went away for the summer, and when I came back, I didn’t have any friends. Or, the group of friends I’d assumed I would return to had closed the door, and I started that year very much alone. Mostly now I remember the kindness of Elizabeth Andersen, who solved this problem by becoming my lifelong friend. But I knew pretty quickly even back then that part of what made me thoughtful about the way the world does whatever the world does was having been hurt by the ongoing tramp of everything. We don’t question what makes us happy; what we interrogate, what we crave to solve, to understand (in order to purge ourselves of it? and prevent its recurrence!—) is pain.

If I wrote an autobiography of my mind, I’d say the formative event, for which now I have to be grateful, was the surprise of that loss--the obsessive, yes, but also multifaceted and productive attention I paid to what had happened and why: self-examination, compassion for others, wariness, gratitude, the panicky hopeful circling Why—

MS: There was a time in Celtic and other cultures when the poet or bard was one of the most important, most powerful people in society. Today, many folks are amazed when a person reads a book much less a poem. What has society lost by our disconnection to the poetic of life?

SB: Well, I think this question is larger: we’re disconnected from nature also, right? And we regularly lament the ways our text messages and our “connectedness” dampen—or permit us to avoid—real intimacy. (Not much is more intimate than poetry can be.)

In general, we all eat in the same restaurants, buy our clothes in the same stores; everything’s a chain, a copy. Disconnection from particulars makes the mass economy chug along. But we have to turn off certain parts of ourselves to endure this; capitalism works best when everyone (or everyone downstream) is a little numbed out. When I’m teaching poetry workshops, I return and return to two charges: you have to write what only you can write, and poetry is, in Heather McHugh’s phrase, a discipline of attention. The cultivation of our attention, learning how to engage it and then to record its findings—that’s where creative force comes from. You can’t be numb; you have to be on. (The poet Anne Carson said recently in a New York Times interview, “Every accuracy must be invented.” Zoom.)

Poetry—for those who seek it out and have figured out where to find it—is actually a great force for good in the world, in terms of enlivening our attention, reminding us what it’s like to look and to really see. I’m not that worried about poetry being marginalized (it’s not going anywhere). Here’s a little list of books to try, for someone who’s thinking, Hmmm… if that’s what poetry has to offer, I’m in: Underdog by Katrina Roberts, National Anthem or In a Beautiful Country by Kevin Prufer, Space, In Chains by Laura Kasischke, The Beds by Martha Rhodes, Granted by Mary Szybist, Hemming the Water by Yona Harvey….

MS: How do you respond to people who say they don’t “get” poetry or who say it is irrelevant to them?

SB: Well, when I’m feeling a little ornery, I ask what poetry they’ve read and wonder aloud if any of it was written recently. A fair number of students start out by saying, “There’s no good poetry after X” (“The Raven” or Shakespeare). Then it turns out they haven’t read much after “The Raven” or Shakespeare…. Maybe they’ve had a bad poetry class where the teacher presumes that students can’t (maybe even shouldn’t) understand until the teacher decodes everything for them. They have no idea where to look for whatever sort of poem they would actually enjoy.

—And that’s the rub. I think there are so many kinds of poetry you can’t put one umbrella up to protect them all, and you can’t yank one rug out from under them all. I can probably surprise any (reasonable) skeptic either by finding them a poem they turn out to like, or by talking about why I like a poem in a way that makes them at least interested in what a poem can do, and how.

John Berryman is a poet I love, and the first poem in his best-known book The Dream Songs is a favorite of mine. The ending tells us something we all already know: you can paraphrase it like this: “Life is difficult and everybody dies.”

But when I say that to you: who cares? The language has no power to cause anything but a shrug, or maybe a little disdain for such a dour outlook.

Here’s how Berryman says it:

Hard on the land wears the strong sea
and empty grows every bed.

I can talk about those two lines for a pretty long time: the way the poem ends not with “empty,” which is how we’d usually assemble that sentence (“every bed grows empty,” subject-verb-adverb) but with “bed”: the thing we all go home to, where we expect to be safe and cozy and fine.

That little bit of disorder leaves us in a singular and frightening sad place.

Is poetry relevant to you? Well, are you alive? Are you sometimes lonesome? Just as “every accuracy must be invented” reveals a paradox about creativity, poetry’s ability to describe even the most alienating circumstances lets us feel connected, alert, alive to our hopes for the world, and for ourselves.

MS: Thanks so much, Sally!

SB: And hey: if you or your readers want to come out in support of Four Way Books, the independent press in TriBeCa of which I’m associate director (publishing poetry AND fiction)—it’s our 20th anniversary! And there’s a benefit party and I’ll be in New York for it, Tuesday, May 7 (from 7-9 on Lafayette between Houston and Prince).
MS: Readers, if you're interested, we can share the details! You can leave a comment here, or email me at

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Submissions closed

Thank you to everyone who submitted a story for consideration in our next anthology, Summer's Edge. Submissions are now closed, but we've received more than ever. It means so much to all of us at Elephant's Bookshelf Press. We hope you're pleased with the results in the anthology.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Contest Update

While you can always call an elephant whatever you want, our contest to name the new mascot of Elephant's Bookshelf Press has closed its doors to submissions. In the next few days, we'll post the options (up to ten) and allow you to vote for your favorite. We'll announce the winning entry -- and the winner of the prize! -- before we release Summer's Edge, our next anthology.