Friday, May 5, 2023

TtD supplement #238 : seven questions for Micah Ballard

Micah Ballard is the author of over a dozen books of poetry including Waifs and Strays (City Lights Books), Afterlives (Bootstrap Press), The Michaux Notebook (FMSBW), Parish Krewes (Bootstrap Press), Selected Prose, 2008-19 (Blue Press), Evangeline Downs (Ugly Duckling Presse), Muddy Waters (State Champs), Daily Vigs (Bird & Beckett Books), Vesper Chimes (Gas Meter), and Negative Capability in the Verse of John Wieners (Bootstrap Press), with a new chapbook forthcoming this spring with above/ground press. He also recently co-edited G U E S T #21 : Castle Guestskull (above/ground press, 2022) with Garrett Caples. He lives in San Francisco with poet Sunnylyn Thibodeaux and their daughter Lorca.

His poems “CAJUN WANT ADS,” “IN THE MILEIU,” “ULTRA DAB,” “BALMY VAPORS” and “EXTRA USHERS” appear in the thirty-seventh issue of Touch the Donkey.


A: I'm not completely sure how to talk about my poems other than I attempt to be available to receive whatever it is they may want to tell. I try to keep out the way but also stay tuned into any frequencies they share. It’s my understanding that that’s what most of my favorite artists do (in whatever medium). At any rate, let me try to dive in without too much marginalia because I really don’t know. What I do know is how things feel, where I was, or what I was doing.

“CAJUN WANT ADS” is a place I used to work at in Lafayette, Louisiana, when I was 20. They printed classified ads for a handful of parishes. I’d sit at a Betamax/Atari-esque machine and type all the want-ads that came in via fax. Lots of odd stuff people sell, from bass trolling motors for boats, to dune buggies, alligator eggs, crawfish traps, whatever. The computers were new for that time, and it took a bunch of coding just to type a sentence. The main thing was proofreading, which seemed easy save for competing psilocybin tracers courtesy of the local mushroom field. It did make for a great experience (of having a job while not really being there!). People faxed what seemed to be like crazy little sonnets that described what they were trying to sell. Very personal faxes, written in various accented drawls. We are talking mostly Cajun slang and there was no editing allowed. Had to be how it came in via fax. Anyway, about the poem, I usually start in the middle and move around, collaging thru notebooks of various lines, etc. “I was raised supernatural” was a new one for me, starting a poem by first line. It had been a minute. I was raised Southern Baptist and all I heard three times a week, even into college, was people talking about an afterlife, eternal damnation, repenting...some spoke in tongues about it, there were tons of altar calls, and so on. I guess I was imagining myself sitting at Emmanuel Baptist church stuck with all those curious teenage crushes and thinking about life after death.

“IN THE MILIEU” is a totally random. I stayed up late as usual and Hotboxin with Mike Tyson popped up. I was a bit intrigued (for lack of a better operative) about him taking venom from these toads that hibernate in caves. It seemed like a massive hallucinogenic shift of awareness and he was so articulate about it. Hell no, toad venom?! I guess I pulled some dramatic monologue and imagined Iron Mike in a hotel tripping out and using it as a positive place to deal with a range of things in a variety of ways, etc. I have no idea.

“ULTRA DAB”...Trying to keep it quick here. I guess talking on the phone at work while typing is a good idea! I’m finally never Frank O’Hara. The first thing that comes to mind is that I was reading Because, Horror a fantastic essay collection by my old friend Johnny Ray Huston and Bradford Nordeen. I got it in the mail and was just slammed. So many good lines. I couldn’t help steal some, or act like I didn’t but did. This poem was more like a translation from their book, while texting my friend Sarah Cain about her show, and reading a found magazine on “the new cannabis culture.” Yeah, that’s pretty much it.

“BALMY VAPORS” is kinda similar to the title Ultra Dab, in the sense of achieving vapors! I keep typing vamps. I think this also comes out of some cribbed lines from the above book (promise to give credit!). Anyhoot, this one is from a dream. I woke up and just tracked lines in the dark. I tend to have a super vivid dream life, and Sunnylyn can attest. It often takes 2-3 hours to “snap out of it” what with all the different sleep-movies tracing thru the next day. She always says “write about it” but I’m like nah, no thanks, I’m still living them and can remember every detail. So this one is one of those. Plus “jungle mansion” comes from a painting by one of my favorite poets, Kevin Opstedal, that I had in my “embalming room” office at New College. Yes, it was a mortuary at one time.

“EXTRA USHERS”...When I drop Lorca off at school in the Mission District every morning I always stop by my old favorite, Muddy Waters cafe (most poems since Feb. 2022 are from there; my friends Garrett Caples and Rod Roland just published some and used the name of the cafe as the book). At any rate...this poem was from Baton Rouge to New Orleans and back to San Francisco. Airplanes. Waiting rooms. Funerals. My grandmother had passed when I visited and then my other grandmother did when I visited again. My Aunt Caroline started calling me the Grim Reaper. “I’m not going to dinner to see him, when Micah comes to Baton Rouge he’s the Grim Reaper!”

Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: Well, I think we’re all making one poem/painting/song/film etc. our whole life? I mean, one hopes. Who said that? Probably everybody. I can’t recall at the moment but I believe and live by that. All the way thru. Sure, “the work” changes as it should, and we alongside it. It does what it pretty much wants. We’re lucky enough to have our dirty long painted nails in the bowl!

How do we remain present as vessels for “the work” is always a question that’s entertaining. I say entertaining because it entertains constantly. I’m not thinking about it, ya know, as predetermined, performance, or after-the-fact, etc. I’d rather be led by an undercurrent willingness to be variable, to take chances, to be led into the unknown, to make mistakes, to be uncomfortable and embarrassing, to be controlled by forces we don’t know about, and somehow trust it all by revealing what’s given.

What I mean to say is that I’m doing the same thing but totally different. I keep notebooks, always walking hills, riding the bus, skateboarding, reading, and picking up lines along the way. I’m going thru a lot of these City Lights handbags and use them as a suitcase of sorts. I still never have a damn pen, and if so, it’s dead. I’m writing with markers and different inks right now (I prefer black). I love a one subject wide-ruled 70 sheet notebook...I usually go with red or purple now, some color that can cast a different aura for the lines. Green is always too Keatsian “divine symmetry” which is cool but doesn’t work anymore. Now I prefer smaller sized notebooks that can help me write like I don’t but maybe wish to? I wear different rings, paint my nails gold, anything that’ll make my hand look different on the page. I should try gloves. Okay, non-sequitur time!

A very real change recently is that I tear pages out of found books (blank ones front/or end; hopefully a good title page!) and I’ll collect them as writing paper. These are usually found on the street or in our neighborhood free libraries (these little stand-alone birdhouse looking things in SF where people place used books in). We’ve got a sick one here in Alamo Square, which I also contribute to.
What I think about most is Muddy Waters around 8:15am and having an hour or so of writing before getting back on the 22 Fillmore bus to work (then later at 11pm catching up to what I was doing at Muddy’s)...Amazing tho, the mornings on 16th and Valencia feel like the same time period as the 90s. Pure energy, sketchy, almost vacant yet not, packed with something in the air that never leaves. A feistiness of random energies. Seems perfect to me. I wouldn’t wish to be anywhere else. It’s the home conjure zone.

Q: Your self-description of channeling and being a vessel etcetera is reminiscent of the Jack Spicer notion of simply being a radio of sorts for external signals. Do you see yourself merely as someone who presents poems from an external, ethereal source? How do you see the craft of putting words upon the page?

A: Yes and no via ethereal. I like to receive the radio static and be the antenna but it doesn’t happen as much as imagined. Probably half the time within a poem, things just come from some otherwhere and you’re fortunate they find you. However, it’s up to you to be available in order to be found, then figure out what to do with what’s given. How to translate noise into something tangible, or not.

As mentioned, I often begin in the middle of a poem combining noises (words) then hear how they sound and look together, how they communicate and live with each other. Like, what’s going on, maybe they need company, so I’ll invite more vibrations around them. Soon multiple conversations are happening; when they’re done hanging out, disturbing one another, usually there’s as Williams said, “a discharge of energy” (I’ve always dug that) and there’s this living organism looking back at you. Turns out it’s a poem, or something of the sort. I then read it for a first time to see what’s going on, what we’ve been doing, etc., which is always a surprise. Sometimes pleasurable, other times frightening. I enjoy both.

I basically make collages. Words and phrases are like cut-out pieces of paper that are put together thru sound. I enjoy discovering what they make when beside one another. Let me be clear tho, not all poems are collages (some come straight outta the hand, almost like a trance) but if they are I am part of each clipping, in that my poems are autobiographical. There’s personal emotive counterparts weaving thruout the whole thing. I do have a tendency for encryption which I sometimes enjoy too much. To me, poems are primary continuums of experience and interests that find a way to exist together. We’re in their service and they act almost as a true mirror to show us what we’ve been feeling, what we are feeling, or will soon enough.

Q: Is utilizing the autobiographical a means to an end or an end unto itself? Are these moments you seek to examine, or are they offered as a way through to something else?

A: I would say it’s more of a way thru (portal) into something else. I use the term autobiographical in the loosest possible sense, in that anything I make there’s always a shadow of self, multiple selves, or a conversation with someone else. There’s a human pulse whether it’s mine or projected into, thru, or out of. The ole “objects in a field of objects” where everything is equally important still holds very true. Poems allow all things to speak, the seen and unseen, and they gather the communique for us. They have that magickal ability to reveal the unreal, show you what you don’t know or thot you did, and record your experiences (real or imagined). I love it when they blur these two. Naturally you feel delusional at times. Is this a trap door or an escape hatch? Guess it’s time to find out!

Q: With an accumulated dozen or so books and chapbooks over the past decade-plus, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: Well, I hope the work keeps changing and morphing into whatever it chooses. I don’t care to paint the same thing over and over. There’s bound to be corresponding trace elements from poem to poem, book to book, that sooner or later reveals itself to be “you.” I’d just like to keep doing what I’ve been doing since I moved to San Francisco when I was 23. Basically, just keep living within the poem on a daily basis in order to discover and be discovered.

Q: Your partner, Sunnylyn Thibodeaux, is also a published poet. Do either of you ask the other to look over poems while in-progress for potential commentary? Do you find elements of your work responding to her own? How does one compose differently, if at all, as part of a writerly household of two?

A: We’ve been sharing poems since we met in 1997, and honestly we really don’t share them during composition. It’s usually only after a poem is done with us that we become “first readers” of one another’s work. I’d say altho we have a lot of the same interests and community of like-thinkers and friends, our work’s totally different and our approach to writing, likewise. We appreciate and dig one another’s poetry but we definitely stay in our own lanes while holding each other accountable to what the poem wants. We definitely talk about process a lot, what we’re reading, what we’re up to, etc. I suppose we’ve gained a lucky advantage of living and growing up writing poems and reading beside one another.

I’ll say that there have been occasions when we’re in the middle of a long poem, maybe sequential, or book-length, and we’ll ask one another about ordering sections. Or, more so how the final arrangement of poems in a manuscript communicates. Unless we’re writing a collaboration or editing a magazine/book for our small presses, then we’re actually communicating in the act of...but that’s a different scene or scenario.

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: I go to my close friends’ books, and their recent or brand new work. I’m definitely fortunate to have a vast group of poets that I continually talk and/or hang with. Some still live in SF or Bay Area, others elsewhere...really all over the place.

John Wieners and Joanne Kyger, always. David Meltzer, Diane diPrima, Duncan McNaughton, Stephen Jonas, Eileen Myles, Renee Ricard. Lots of translations of other writers.... Whew, too many to name! Definitely John and Joanne tho.

Lately, over the past two years, I find myself going to those free libraries, particularly Alamo Square, a block from our place and a couple from 707 Scott Street (one of my all-time favorite books, John Wieners’ 707 Scott Street). I love picking up random books, bibliomancy style, where you just grab one or two and you can feel if you’re going to get something out of them (lines/poems/whatever). I’ll admit though, I always find myself in Egypt and Atlantis, most recently again thru Edgar Cayce’s trance archives. Stunning and otherworldly.

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