Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.
My kids would say I have to fess up to playing a lot of Scrabble (which as far as I can tell is Facebook’s real raison d’être). I also keep trying to get my husband to start House of Cards, which I watched intensely and with some trepidation/dismay. Were those producers just as crassly manipulative as Frank Underwood? Is it ethical to use AA in the plot the way they did? I have about thirty-seven conversations I want to have about this show, which makes me respectful of it, even if also mad at it.
Also I'm reading a hilarious biography of the Dadaist poet Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven ("Her tireless work as a protean sex machine reflected the kaleidoscopic landscape of the city: she was the consummate priapic traveler..."—!) in preparation for teaching her compelling and wild and funny and moving (impossible) poems.... her invocation of "Masterbrainorb" in a curvaceous concrete line, and her conviction: "I still care to live on."
What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer?
Is your writer a protean sex machine?! Also, more so, are you willing to be written about? How well do you understand what "being written about" means, in a general way, and with your partner in particular? Have you guys talked about this? Really? There is this long and wonderful training we (used to?) receive, as students of literature, in which we learn not to conflate the "speaker" or character with the poet or the novelist. (Which is true! Art requires vision, not anecdote.) And in fiction, I think, the veils and transformations are presumed; we trust the imagination to be the crucial force. In poetry, readers are likely to presume autobiography anyway, and they are also unlikely to understand the way even directly engaged autobiographical material is estranged from us by the kind of attention we have to pay to thought and to language itself. To "suppress" a poem in order not to hurt someone risks a two-fold resentment (censorship, self-effacement). Vortex of horrors, this territory. I mean, how seriously can we take ourselves? Because also, to publish something that hurts, for whatever reason, someone you love—that's not to be brushed off with High Arguments about Art. And to be the quasher of a publication? Also a terrible position to find oneself floundering in.
Floundering, yes: are you both writers? I'm in an inter-genre marriage, myself. I think Mike (T.M. McNally!) and I both use what might be called "personal material" in similar ways, but in fact my poems probably seem much more "about" my marriage than Mike's fictions do. Which can be stressful. Much is tolerable from a position of strength. Who lives always in that position?
Falling in love with a writer: so romantic, and if you're a writer, too, this person really gets you, gets what you do, why you're alive, your ambition, your lostness. It's the sweetest thing. And then: writers are selfish, at least sometimes—mostly the world does not want us to do this work and we have to carve out enough space, we have to disappear into it, we have to blow off stuff the world actually wants us to do. My house gets messy and it lasts. I am not influential with the PTO. To live as a writer you have to say no, to insulate (and this may be true for long stretches of time). Living with an insulated person is hard, lonely. (Also sometimes: well, phew. Thank God!)
So: do you relish a life of intensity that is partly, yes, the intensity of your beloved's keen mind, deep feeling, extraordinary sensibility, but that is also the intensity of absence, retreat, abdication? In my house, we both suffer from this. Many joys! Some difficult abdications.
What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?
I was so lucky to be loved, and not (often) criticized. My parents were a little mystified: where did this studious creature come from? Why isn't she more like us? But they were also almost always massively supportive, and engaged. We did a lot of yard work together, a lot of chores, probably good training for a writer: you start those things and you don't want to be doing them, and then something changes, you're having fun, you're proud of those giant leaf bags. I know you (Julianna) are skeptical about romanticizing inspiration: and I share that. I think inspiration is elusive and wonderful and real, but also it's only one way in, and you can't go very far with it if you don't have other capacities—to wait things out, to dive into the unknown or unexpected or unbidden. My parents worked hard at what they did (running a plumbing and heating supply company, being a homemaker), and family was the center. Work and family: my life looks a lot like theirs, finally. My sister is now clearly my best friend. What kind of child was I? I want to say "watchful" and that would be true. Also: bossy. Maybe those are the roots of staying alive as a writer: you have to see, absolutely, and you have to be a little bossy, a little demanding, to make real time for your work.
What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?
My reading has been all over the place lately: Cleopatra Mathis's Book of Dog, Lisa Robertson's R's Boat, Anne Carson’s Antigonick (What’s the matter you have your thunder look). Also, I've been reading lots of French symbolists, guys I mostly read in college, in French, and then decided this year to teach as precursors to American modernism, in English, and spent this semester immersed in translations by Ashbery and Eliot and Revell and Mary Ann Caws. These poets explain so much! They explain Eliot, and O'Hara, and Zapruder... "Love-anguish clutches your throat / You must never again be loved.../ Your life is a painting in a dark museum / Sometimes you examine it closely." That's Donald Revell's Apollinaire, which is almost as wonderful as his Jules LaForgue. Aux armes, citoyens!
What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?
I came from a pretty comfortable background; my parents had a place at the Jersey shore (still standing! though many of the houses I've known well all my life are gone gone gone—). In the last summers of high school and the first summer of college, I worked as a waitress in a diner where the only other staff were the owners and their kids, a place that served a few tourists and summer homeowners but mostly—as the cheapest and earliest-opening restaurant on the barrier island—tradesmen, many of whom ate two meals a day with us six days a week. (August mornings, when it got cold and stayed dark, we'd all huddle over the griddle to keep warm.) Two things were true: A) I was really anonymous—no one knew anything about me or where I came from, and most people assumed I was ... not a girl of many privileges about to attend a prestigious liberal arts college in New England, and B) the worse off our customers were financially, the better they tipped. It was incredibly valuable as a writer to feel that kind of blankness: no one knows anything about me. Partly because it propels the imagination (I could say anything!), and partly because it sort of thrusts you into your interest in other people: it's hard to be self-absorbed when you don't have much of a self, and (more seriously) when you realize the presumptions behind people's questions don't matter, or that they are confiding in you not because of any context other than this moment—their filters are down, or different—boom: you can ask anything, you can just pay attention to them. It's thrilling. We can't help but have an inner life, I love poems of self-exploration and discovery, I'm not at all diminishing those pursuits. But they are one kind, and that anonymous and intimate other place is precious and instructive too. And the tipping: a lesson in generosity, empathy, surprise: writerly keystones, all.
If you teach the craft of writing, why do you do it -- other than cash?
Honestly, I think I do it to fight for reading, and to urge the cultivation of attention (to the work, to the world). We live in such numbed-out times, and even English departments don't seem to foreground literature as an Art anymore—we study culture, ephemera, video games, etc. English departments are rushing to denounce their identities as places where students read literature (musty and fusty!), and, whereas scholars used to be wary of writers teaching literature (no PhD! Glurg!), now they welcome it (or could care less) because so often it's no longer their turf. I think there's real value in some of the new directions English departments are taking (I do!); also, though, as “English” casts its net wider and wider, writers really are responsible for teaching lit in ways we didn't used to be.
So if I can be of any use to anyone, as a teacher—it's not in 'making writers.' (They make themselves.) But I can try to loosen the grip of this contemporary American and utterly pervasive rhetorical laziness which has settled over us (as in Kevin Prufer's "The Enormous Parachute"!), and I can also show people that there's more to be gleaned from reading a book than their initial gut feeling of I know what I like when I see it.... There are strategies at work! Tussles with our expectations, etc. My workshops are always roughly half workshop and half reading: books of poems, books of poetics. And there's useful humility implied in a workshop that isn't all about the voices in the room. Those voices depend on prior ones, and—oh, I do worry about sounding 'conservative' here, which is funny, because it's the other way around. The obsession with practicality that drives this rejection of the art of literature wants, I think, to stamp out the light of the mind. It's not interested in a creative, curious, critically intelligent citizenry, but a docile one.
To write well, you have to shake off the fox dust, the mall, the received received received and pay attention. Teaching helps me do that; I hope my teaching helps others do it too.
What's your worst writerly habit?
Maybe it's waiting for The Window: I just heard George Saunders talking about how if he has twenty minutes, he can make some progress on his fiction. This is a claim I'd otherwise be likely to dismiss, but listening to him, I remembered a lesson from both my beloved teacher Louise Glück and my novelist husband, who’ve said to me at different times that if you think the writer knows what he or she is doing, then you have to trust them. It’s on you: figure it out. I think Saunders knows what he's doing. So how can it be true: twenty minutes of real work? Maybe it's because he refuses to let everything else squeeze out the work; he has it so present, so much with him, every day, that it's easier to go in and out. I know there is value in bouts of time Away; I need to trust more that I can stay In. Away will eat your life, your mind. But when I let that be true, I am so much smaller, so much less happy. So I'm trying to give my work More Room, not just windows—har har—but rooms and rooms.
Sally Ball is the author of two books of poems, Wreck Me (Barrow Street, 2013) and Annus Mirabilis (Barrow Street, 2005). She is the associate director of Four Way Books and an assistant professor of English at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ. Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, Yale Review, and other journals, as well as online at The Awl, Narrative.com, and Slate.