An Interview with Angela Ball

Angela Ball’s most recent collection of poems, Night Clerk At the Hotel of Both Worlds(2007), won the Donald Hall Prize from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs and was awarded the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Poetry. She is the author of four other books of poems, Kneeling Between Parked Cars, Possession, Quartet, and The Museum of the Revolution, and two chapbooks. Her poems have appeared in such places as The New Yorker, The New Republic, Ploughshares, and Poetry, and she has been widely anthologized, including in Best American Poetry. She has received a grant from the NEA and held writer-in-residence positions in the U.S. and abroad. A Professor of English at The University of Southern Mississippi, she teaches both literature and creative writing. She shares her home with her cat Frank O’Hara and her dogs Scarlet and Miss Bishop. This conversation took place via email.

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How did the collection Quartet, which explores the perspectives of four women, Sylvia Beach, Nora Barnacle, Nancy Cunard, and Jean Rhys, who were roughly of the same generation and deeply or tangentially connected to James Joyce, come about? The nature of the dedications coupled with the photograph of each woman that precedes each poem makes the book feel particularly personal. Are these poems love poems for the women, their biographers, both?

Yes, and yes. First I “fell in love” with James Joyce. His fanaticism attracted me—his extreme devotion to the spirit and his not-so-secret acknowledgement of the body. His absolute glamour—notwithstanding his warped hat and weak eyes. To my mind, the one other writer who can match him in this regard is the splendid Anna Akhmatova. Through Joyce I encountered Nora. Saw the tiny house in Galway where Nora lived as a child—her grandmother’s—no room left at her parents’. Felt the odds against wider possibilities. Her courage on Joyce’s behalf—to follow him to Europe on the hint of a job—without the marriage bond—was completely captivating to me. My writing began, compelled by her bravery and kindness.

And from there it wasn’t hard to discover Sylvia Beach, another brave woman, whose unfailing devotion saw Ulysses into print. I began to think more and more about ‘20s and ‘30s Paris and its unconventional women—and of perhaps making a book of poem-biographies. Nancy Cunard appeared. Her Hours Press “discovered” Samuel Beckett when his “Whoroscope” appeared under its door at midnight. Cunard was an early champion of African-American rights—she helped bring the struggle to Europe. Born an aristocrat, she lived fiercely in opposition to imposed privilege and fiercely in favor of art. Then I discovered Jean Rhys’s stories and novels—her intense, hard-edged lyric voice and her ability to nail everyday hypocrisies. The smug disapprovers swinging the club of their imaginary rightness. I like to quote my colleague Steve Barthelme: “Next to Jean Rhys, everyone else is just kidding.” Quartet pays tribute to women who lived without fixed address and outside approved demarcations. My subjects announced themselves from the past—which they never could have done were it not for their fine biographers. I owe everything to them!

You mention the idea of living without a fixed address and outside approved demarcations: are there poets or poems you experience in that way? Poets or poems that transgress, that won’t stay put or insist on showing up when you don’t want them or least expect them to?

Dara Wier and Mary Ruefle are two poets who occur to me immediately. They follow Emily Dickinson in showing how “In madness is divinest sense.” I think that discontinuity is continuous, and that if there’s truth to be found, it not only has to be told “slant,” but in glancing blows of imagery, in provocation and suggestion. In her book of collected lectures, Madness, Rack, and Honey, Ruefle says, “The origins of poetry are closely rooted in obscurity, in secretiveness, in incantation, in spells that must at once invoke and protect, tell the secret and keep it.” My former colleague Julia Johnson’s book, The Falling Horse, shows this principle in action. So does the work of Lucie Brock-Broido.

The lines in Quartet also seem deliberately (but not very!) beautiful, for example:

                        Adrienne—I wouldn’t say 
                        I gave myself over—wasted. 
                        The gift was itself  
                        prize. The having given. 

And

                        The bay swerves and wheels on its pins, 
                        the grass lies in its lazy bed 
                        with kneaded clods and holes 
                        the badger makes. When people have talked 
                        all their talk, rain begins, 
                        dragged forward by branches. 

At one point, you have Cunard say, “Cunard, Nancy? / First of all, she’s not a Communist, / she’s an Anarchist, perhaps. With so much injustice / who has time for ideology?” This might seem like a familiar sentiment, yet the insistence on beauty, the beauty created in these poems, feels ideological in some sense. What were your thoughts then about beauty and poetry, and are they the same now?

I love the famous ambiguity at the end of Keats’s “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” in which the urn itself—“cold pastoral”—makes its declaration—a gigantic, invisible salt grain glistening along with it. I also love Henry James’s “Art makes life makes beauty makes importance.” I think that beauty always involves suggestion, a sense of the inexhaustible. I think that it also involves humor, mischief, malice, and destruction. I have always wanted beauty for my work, but I find myself drawn more and more to mischief and malice, to reproducing some of the destruction we perpetrate on each other.

I’m caught up in the tension here between reproduction/destruction: can you talk a little bit more about this? Is it the process that is in some sense reproductive, or do you mean that the poem is a reproduction of sorts?

I think of Kafka’s famous statement, “A book must be an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us.” In other words, literature reproduces lived tragedy—opens us to a world of hurt we would prefer to ignore. We are agents and clients of evil: its victims, its perpetrators. Were this not true, there would be no such thing as art, and morality would go begging.

The title poem of your collection The Museum of the Revolution begins, “The visitor learns to see / two ways.” The title of your most recent collection, Night Clerk at the Hotel of Both Worlds, is taken from “Philosopher,” a poem in the museum collection, which ends, “In the Hotel of Both Worlds / guests sleep through this world / and the next.” What is the relationship between these two collections? Did your perception of the kinds of spaces that museums and hotels are change at all in the course of writing these works?

In the course of writing any book, I think, the writer’s conceptions of everything change in ways often hard to identify. Then they probably return to what they were, but differently inflected, the way English grew anapests in the Caribbean. I think both of the books you mention engage the gap between what lives and what has entered memory: between the real and the imaginary, the crude and the ideal—qualities that continually divorce and re-engage. Cuba’s past is stocky, its present printed on thin, ephemeral pages. A museum of a country, preserving a dream of social equity that real people fought and died for but never achieved—an abstraction never made flesh, but hovering always, held behind glass with “Granma,” the motorboat of freedom. The hotel in Night Clerk is a place where literature trysts with life. Both places are full of the hunger for the ideal that drives both art and revolution.

“The way English grew anapests in the Caribbean” is a lovely description: are you thinking of particular writers?

I think that the (written) poetic tradition in the Caribbean has been very much nurtured by two poets, Edward Kamau Braithwaite and Derek Walcott—Braithwaite‘s brilliant preservation and fostering of “Nation Language” and Walcott’s virtuosity in the entire gamut of articulation he finds available, from Patois to the Queen’s English. To simplify everything: Africa gave syncopation to English. An undeserved gift, but a lasting one.

From “Proverbs” in The Museum of the Revolution: “If you’re between two candles / you’re dead.” Is this also about the act of writing, or not at all?

The candles can be thought of as the ideal and the real, which speak nonsense to each other while we try to overhear, since hearing is the last sense left.

It’s hard not to hear echoes of Dickinson in your reply; has she been a poet of particular influence? Someone who embodies those characteristics of humor, mischief, malice and destruction that you mentioned?

I would love to see Dickinson as an influence. I think her conviction that “wild nights” can happen entirely in the imagination is part of how I see things—that the inner life is as eventful as the outer one—and maybe more so. Her subversion of conventional ideas about death—her ability not to be confined by the pious notions that were her time’s currency—is astonishing. As is her re-naming of God as “Burglar, Banker, Father.”

The ghost of Chekhov seems to pleasurably haunt the poems of Possession. Do you consider these poems an act of collaboration? Why did Chekhov resonate with you so deeply during this particular time?

I was coming to terms with not having children—I lived with someone dead set against it—and Chekhov answered my need to think about the universality of longing. There’s always a Moscow that we reach toward—a place or condition that—we are quite sure—would make us fully ourselves. I think Chekhov the best teacher and student of human nature we have, because in his stories and plays he dramatizes emotions that until him had been considered un-dramatic or even anti-dramatic: enervation, boredom, bewilderment. My favorite Chekhov anecdote is told by Louis Simpson, a wonderful poet sorely missed, in his poem “Chocolates.” A bunch of visitors are too frightened to say anything to the great man, until finally he asks them, “Do you like chocolates?” An animated conversation follows: “They spoke of cherry centers, /of almonds and Brazil nuts. Losing their inhibitions / they interrupted one another.” The discussion grows ecstatic: “Finally someone spoke of chocolates filled with liqueur, / and everyone, even the author of Uncle Vanya / was at a loss for words.”

The poems in Night Clerk at the Hotel of Both Worlds seem to be having a lot of fun, even though some poems explicitly address divorce. Many literary bad boys make appearances in these poems; was this a way of sowing oats or kicking up your heels?

I enjoyed letting THEM kick up their heels—also enjoy playing with the contrast between the art, in which we are angels of ourselves, and the life. The heroic and the anti-heroic. It’s partly an impulse inherited from the Marx Brothers, whose humor I love. The heroic coexists with the ridiculous. The father of our country wore troublesome wooden teeth. In those movies, Margaret Dumont stands for our rigid, decorous selves who want everything to be graceful and proper. Hooray for the moments that cause her to drop her lorgnette!

I recently came across this quote from Frank O’Hara: “As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you.” How do you take the measure of a poem? Do you ever work in traditional forms?

That’s another quotation I love! I first studied with Stanley Plumly, who is without doubt one of the best teachers we have. He didn’t teach traditional forms, but a sense of shapeliness and necessity. For him, I think, all strong poetry contains within it the ghost of traditional form—gained from long and deep reading. I am interested in a dialogue with that ghost, which I think I have carried on most consistently in Quartet. The poems have lots of sonic links within them, and a jigging, as when someone walking breaks into a skip. Another thing I like is following instructions. Sometimes the Best American Poetry website mounts a challenge to write a certain kind of poem. My favorite one involved solving an anagram and using the resulting poet’s name to write an acrostic. I set myself an additional task of including titles of the poet’s books in the poem. Maybe solving the anagram and finding the poet—the wonderful Louise Glück—helped provide the confidence needed to complete the task. Confidence makes for fun—it also somehow tightens everyone’s pants, enhancing what they have to offer, making them too sexy for their shirts as well, too sexy for their skin.

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