Interview with Kathleen Balma
Kathleen Balma is an award-winning poet. Her first book, From Your Hostess at the T & A Museum, was published by Black Spring Press Group in 2022. Balma, who grew up in the Midwest, currently makes her home in New Orleans, where she also works as a librarian. She is the recipient of a Fulbright grant, a Pushcart Prize, and was awarded scholarships for Sewanee and Bread Loaf writing conferences. Her poetry appears in several anthologies, magazines, and journals.
Recently, I was fortunate to spend a couple hours via Zoom talking with Balma about her work, writing process, and general relationship to the arts. Since paraphrasing poetry is never the same as experiencing the poem, so too Balma’s speaking style, her syntax and word choice, her imaginative leaps, are more fun to hear as interview than essay. What follows, then, is an organized, lightly edited transcript of part of our conversation. (Full disclosure: I’ve removed the spoken appellations of “Katy” and “Aunt Debby” too, because in addition to our professional relationship, we’re also family.)
Did you want to be a writer when you were a kid?
I wanted to be a tree until I realized that was not a job. Then, I wanted to be a veterinarian, around ten or eleven, until I talked to our veterinarian. ‘Well, I hope you like poop!’ the vet said. You have to deal with a lot of poop!’ Actually, that was kind of perfect for the vet to do because then I decided I wanted to be a librarian.
You did your last two years of high school at Interlochen Arts Academy and started out as a visual arts major. Why and when did you switch to creative writing?
Two things happened that turned me away from art. I’d been one of the most talented artists in the little place I was from, and then I got to Interlochen and realized I was probably the least talented visual artist in the room. It humbled me. Even though I believed I could probably get a lot better if I put the time and effort into drawing and painting, it occurred to me that I didn’t want to do that. I had an art teacher at Interlochen who never explained how to make art or get better. She just gave us a basic intro to whatever we were supposed to be doing and then she was just like ‘do it’ and didn’t show up for class after that. I didn’t feel accepted in those classes. I didn’t feel welcomed or encouraged. When I went to my first poetry class, I did feel accepted, and that’s where I just relaxed. Writing began to feel necessary, like my right fit. Besides, if you’re a great visual artist you have to sell your best work and then you no longer have it and art supplies are really expensive. Writing poetry is free.
You’ve always been a big reader. Is there a fictional character you wish you could meet in real life?
A lot of the books that I like have characters that I would never want to meet. I sometimes like books about horrible people. I’m trying to think about books where I genuinely miss the people when I finish, where I wasn’t just sad to end the book, where the people had become part of my life. I know I’ve had that experience many times, most recently when I finished A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. That was a book where the main character was somebody I would like to meet and have dinner with. The premise of the book is that a Russian poet would have been a target during the Cultural Revolution and so he left Russia and moved elsewhere before they could get him. He was homesick so he took a chance and he went home any way. He gets put on house arrest in a hotel. He’s independently wealthy so he can afford to just live his life out in the hotel, and it’s one of those hotels that’s got everything—a really nice restaurant and it’s got a barber—it’s got a little clothing shop. He becomes part of the hotel and even begins working in the restaurant, and that’s as much as I want to say about it without giving it away. Of course, the book is ultimately about how he escapes. But the whole time he’s living in this hotel, he’s reading Montaigne’s essays, and he’s frustrated with Montaigne because Montaigne never draws any firm conclusions in his writing. There are lots of really endearing qualities about this character.
If I could truly meet any other fictional character, I would meet Peter Rabbit because he’s so cute. I wish there was some great, you know, intellectual reason, but I just want to talk to a talking rabbit. I don’t want to meet a creepy talking rabbit like in Alice in Wonderland. That rabbit is high maintenance, high anxiety, and it’s going to trick you. He’s not a trickster character but he’s kind of weirdly selfish, and you’re going to end up in Wonderland if you follow that guy. Peter Rabbit is just living in the everyday world though, right? He’s just an ordinary rabbit, just happens to be able to talk. Yeah, I don’t need any high anxiety rabbits in my life.
You work as a librarian but when you go to a library as a patron or go to a bookstore, do you head to the poetry section first?
I usually go to the children’s picture books first. I just love them because you can read several books in a couple of minutes. Picture books have a finger on the pulse of what’s trendy and children’s literature changes so fast. The publishing culture has changed what a picture book is and what it can do and what it can talk about, and I’m fascinated by that. I think the best way to get your finger on the pulse of what direction society is moving in is to read picture books. And then I’m just entertained by picture books. I delight in them in some ways for the same reason that I delight in poetry—there are these sorts of discrete units that demand your full attention while you’re reading them, and then they let you go pretty quickly.
I really love Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie books, but so many picture book writers are pretty genius at showing how to cope with your feelings when you’ve actually done something wrong and you know it and you have to live with the results. That’s a really hard thing. Most people never learn how to live with the result of their own bad actions, and a picture book like I Just Ate My Friend [Heidi Mckinnon] does it in a way that’s humorous and entertaining and kind of universally relatable, even though nobody has ever eaten their friend and that—well that’s not true—but we’re going to pretend like I didn’t say that. Yeah, that’s one of the reasons why I can’t be a school librarian in a small town because I would be reading those books to children, and I would be getting fired for it.
Your poetry has been described as “orginal,” “startling,” “mythic”, “provocative,” and “full of coruscating wit.” How do you describe your aesthetic?
I asked Rodney [poet Rodney Jones] how to describe it and he said ‘inventive.’ I think there is a sensuality to the way I use language and there is a bluntness to my delivery that is a little surprising to readers. Any music that is going on with the language is something that I intuit and not that I think about overtly, but it’s always there too. I think that no matter what your aesthetic is, the most important thing is that you approach creating as a high form of play. The heart of creating for me is a form of play.
Many reviews talk about how funny your poems often are, and that surprises readers sometimes. You also write in a variety of forms, including prose poetry and others that are quite experimental. What connects all the different styles beyond that call to be playful?
If you manage to say something profound or that has a political message or that resonates with someone, that’s great, but you still have to enjoy what you’re doing. If it’s not fun or if it stops being fun, then you’re doing it wrong. I think my natural mode is to be silly and playful, at least when anxiety doesn’t have a hold on my brain. No matter the form the poem takes, I do think of the poems as telling stories, most of them. There is always a story at the heart of every good piece of writing, even if it’s highly experimental. After I write, I’m not thinking about anyone reading it. Hopefully, the right people will find it, and I don’t know who those right people will be.
When you look at a body of work you see your tics or modes and you see there are certain things you do, over and over again, in your writing. Some of my poems are like lists and some are sections where each section is giving a different perspective on the same topic, or a repeating line or frame. Sometimes, when I don’t know how to approach a topic, making lists is my way, but I also can slip into a true storyteller’s mode. I think I did that with “Poem on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” Storytelling is a mode that is rarer for me, but it comes when I’m in a calm state. That might be what affects my methods, you know? Like if I’m agitated when I’m writing I might be making lists, and if I’m in a calm, meditative, serene state I might be slipping into a more narrative, fireside storyteller mode. In fact, that makes a lot of sense.
Some of your more recent poetry seems more autobiographical. How risky does that feel for you?
I have some life experiences that are marketable. But to write the more sensational chapters of your life? There is something kind of icky about that. That’s a way of thinking about money, putting the cart before the horse. You’re not thinking about the creative process. You’re thinking about basking in the glory of your readership, right? It’s not what you should be thinking about, not for me. It’s not conducive to good art. So, I couldn’t write autobiographical poems until I wanted to write those poems, and to write them, I have to trick myself into saying I’m not writing a poem I’m just telling a story. I’m just trying to express something that’s important to me. I just say okay, look it—just act like you’re writing to Sarah or Halley or act like you’re writing to just anybody that I feel really super comfortable with. I might not be writing to them or thinking about them after the second or the third line, right? But imagining that I’m just there in the room with my friend who already knows these things about me, then I’m just kind of telling them a story or working through a thing that gives me an entry point. Once I have an entry point I kind of can go from there.
The monkey poem [“Snubbed: A Motion-Picture Ekphrasis” ] is probably the weirdest and riskiest poem I’ve ever written. I am never moved to take notes but for some reason while I was watching this documentary on the monkeys, I felt like I needed to take notes, like I was watching it for a class. I was overwhelmed with emotion watching this documentary and with love for these monkeys. So, I’m watching, and I feel all this love about the world and the universe and the wonderment of being alive, and I also notice there are all these little things that the camera is showing. I wanted to describe it. But the second I realized I was writing a poem, I got scared. I’d never written, I’d never been creative in quite that way before. I was in a new territory, and I didn’t know what I was doing or where I was going.
I was asking myself a lot of tough ethical questions along the way like, ‘okay, if I’m just taking notes then I’m free, but if this is me making art out of somebody else’s art. . . ‘ The documentary had voice-over narration so I turned down the narration to make sure it didn’t influence what I wrote. I also realized I would have to pay proper attribution to the film makers. So the poem is like if you went to the museum and you describe a painting. I’m describing this film with its own narrative, so I’m not even inventing the narrative, I’m rendering, and I wasn’t sure that was ethical. I also wondered how they would feel about the way I’m using their work. How will readers feel about the way I’m using it?
Nobody seems to have had a problem with it. In fact, I’m almost sorry that I’m raising this because if I didn’t say it out loud maybe nobody else would think of it! The poem got good reader response from all kinds of people, but then I was kind of scared because it seemed risky artistically and also ethically. From a personal standpoint, it wasn’t risky at all because it has nothing to do with me. It’s the least autobiographical thing I’ve ever written.
The monkey poem is essentially the second half of the book. I would get reviews of my book every day for a while and I would always get either two stars or four stars, but the two star reviews were hilarious because they were always saying the same thing: ‘Well, I really liked the first half of the book and then all of a sudden there’s monkeys! It was just page after page about monkeys! I felt like I was reading a completely different book, and I was confused and there were just way too many monkeys!’ Or some of them really liked the monkeys but said, ‘I just didn’t understand why they were in this book because it just seemed to come out of the blue!’ I’m like so what you’re upset about is that you were surprised, right? Or you wanted more continuity in the collection? Every poem needs to be about Abraham Lincoln? Yeah, I got a big kick out of that.
Will you talk more about your creative entry point and your writing processes?
Lately, well right now, I’m a little stuck. But I know what the cure is. I just need to entertain myself. I need to stop telling myself what I’m supposed to be writing and just write whatever is on my mind. The problem now is that I have this project in mind—an entire book of poems that are essentially memoir. That means in some way I’m not free, I have a limitation, I have a goal. I’ve never been able to write when I think that way.
You know when I wrote my first book, I didn’t know I was writing a book. I was just writing individual poems. Then I realized I had enough that it could be a book, and then I started going through what I had and selecting them and arranging them. I don’t think this is going to work if I tell myself, ‘You’re writing a book, Katy.’ I think that’s why I’m blocked, right? I have to go back to thinking about just the one poem that I’m writing today.
I do really well with assignments, when I want to impress the person who’s giving me the assignment! Like if I have a teacher that I’m wild about, but I haven’t been in that environment for a long time.
When I was first writing seriously in my twenties, when I was new to writing poetry I’d write one good line, and I’d be like, ‘Oh my God! I did something good!’ Then I’d be too scared to continue. I would get almost an anxiety attack after I did anything well and wouldn’t know how to keep doing it. That hasn’t happened to me for a long time. I did get over that. I just kind of pushed through it. I gave myself a little time and space to panic and then I made myself push through it.
I like to have music on when I write because silence –unless I’m bursting at the seams—silence makes me feel stuck. If I have music on, I put on Pandora jazz station or Joel’s music [Joel Styzens, who is her cousin]. Usually, I’m chewing on an idea in the back of my head. I start working through it. Sometimes it starts with a question that I have, whimsical or serious, but something that becomes a minor obsession.
I either realize I need to write some things down, or I start voicing my thoughts out loud. If someone followed me around with a notebook all day writing down everything I say I’d probably have twelve books. Some of my friends say, ‘Write that down—it’s a poem,’ when we talk. Sometimes I don’t recognize it until they point it out. But all I need is a start, something to push me out there. I just have to get in the water and then I can swim.
Sometimes when I write I feel like I’m solving—I feel like a lot of my poems are where I’m trying to figure something out—and I’m saying ‘let’s figure it out together.’ I don’t know where it’s going but I have a thing I’m trying to work through. Like the Abraham Lincoln Poem [“Abraham, Honestly”]. It started because of that quote right? ‘With his own two hands, Abraham Lincoln built the log cabin he was born in.’ I chewed on that student quote for years thinking, is there a way for this to literally be true? Is there any plausible scenario that this could be true? I wanted it to be true, so I made it true.
Another mode or process is I want to be able to explain my thoughts to other people on a certain topic. So I use the poem as a way to figure out how to do that. Those end up being some of my weirder things.
And while I am working on some anecdotes at the moment, I don’t want to write an essay. I don’t ever have enough to say to fill up an essay. I have one little thing I want to say. I get it out there and it’s done. I get in the room and then I get out.
When you’re finished with a poem, do you go back and make changes, or do you want to?
Once a poem is finished and published, I’m done with it. I will say that there were a few poems I revised after publication, and so if you look at the version of the poem in the magazine and the version that ended up in my book, they will be slightly different because I realized that there was something wrong with them. But that didn’t happen very often, and I really am content with the way they are in the book. I kind of feel like Louise Gluck. Her editor was collecting her first four books into one collection and asked, ‘Do you want to revise any of these?’ She said something like ‘I’m a different person now. I would literally be rewriting. I can’t revise these poems because they belong to a version of me that doesn’t exist anymore, and I would be completely changing them if I revised them.’ So it’s better to just not touch them and that’s how I feel about my most of my published work.
Visit the poet at kathleenbalma.com.
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Deborah Brothers holds a Ph.D. in English Studies and currently works as a professor of writing and literature. She has published fiction, non-fiction, and scholarly work in a variety of newspapers, magazines, and journals.