Poet and memoirist JoAnn Balingit will be at Write On September 15th through 22nd, offering the workshop Everybody Answered the Phone on Tuesday, September 17. I recently had the opportunity to talk with JoAnn about her craft and her career.
Jerod Santek (JS): You work in both poetry and memoir and said in an interview that you are interested on genre-bending work and stated, “my writing exists on a continuum rather than this being a poem idea and that being a story idea.” Could you talk a bit more about that and how you create a hybrid form?
JoAnn Balingit (JB): Yes, I write daily in prose whether I’m writing longhand or typing, and I enjoy revising the sentences to make them beautiful, and the language more striking. I don’t assign form to these thoughts and observations right away, especially if the entry reads as wild or absurd, but later, rereading the entries I might recognize the sounds of a poem, or realize that a paragraph is working out a thought problem related to a story or scene I am working on in my memoir.
Most writers who free-write suggest putting daily entries aside for a few days, or weeks. It takes time to understand what the unconscious is trying to work out, so I don’t assign my raw writing a certain “job.” That’s a lot of pressure; and I am trying to learn to give myself freedom to write without fearing the result. Good or boring, publishable or not, my goal is to understand my impulses and to figure out how to express an idea, once I get close to it.
Most of the poems I have published are formal, written in received forms or free verse, but a few, like “The Pitch” explore poetry-in-prose, and my current project “17” is an essay composed of poetic lines.
As far as creating a hybrid form, I love prose poems and lyric essays because I enjoy the surprise and prayer-like intensity of poetic language. I am working on short essays that employ repetition, sonics and metaphor as the unifying structures rather than primarily the story-arc or narrative time. My models are hybrid story poems, essay-poems and poetic essays by writers like Sandra Cisneros, Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine, Sarah Manguso, Annie Ernaux, David Shields and Randon Noble. Also, more recently, Monica Youn and Paisley Rekdal.
JS: You served for seven years (2008-2015) as Delaware’s Poet Laureate. Can you talk about the role of Poet Laureate and the importance of poetry in our culture today?
JB: The first thing I realized after my appointment in 2008 as state poet laureate is that people want permission to write their stories, to write poetry, and that they often write in secret, meaning in isolation. I was getting messages on my answering machine with requests from strangers to “comment on a group of poems my late mother left behind” or “please tell me the steps to becoming a published poet.” What I gleaned from these requests is that people want to feel connected, be seen, and be given permission to feel and share their feelings. I made it a mission to create opportunities—readings, retreats, workshops—to support working writers plus those who aspire to write.
Furthermore, in the classroom, where I concentrated most of my volunteer hours as poet laureate, I considered my presence as a living writer important—to allow students to see that writers are real people who love language and stories, also watch TV and send text messages and eat ice cream. That is, not all writers are historical figures in books. The message I wanted to get across is that they could be writers, too. Poetry teaches the culture empathy, to trust in and respect the power of language, and how to attach vocabulary to feelings. “The best words,” Adrienne Rich said. That last super power, how to talk about messy feelings, is important for teenagers. Sarah Manguso says, “The catalog of emotion” is only as complete as humans make it.
As poet laureate, I was interested in widening the reading list, placing poems into public places like the local paper, and sharing poems that speak out on racism and threats to the environment. I learned more about how I felt about my biracial identity. Feelings are thought, says Jorie Graham. “There is no knowing without feeling,” she writes. “One of the reasons I write poems is to make sure I go through life, instead of around it.” I agree, and those seven years of being a poet in public, which was terrifying sometimes, taught me how to focus my practice, and that I have a lot to learn.
JS: As a follow-up to that question, is there a poet or a poem with which you think every citizen should be familiar?
JB: I hold so many poets and poems dear. As a state coordinator of Poetry Out Loud (www.poetryoutloud.org) I tell people it’s a joy to have a poem by heart ready at a moment’s notice to recite to yourself or others. I wish my teachers in school had made me memorize poetry. I’ll suggest that every citizen should know a poem by heart, maybe start with “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus. My poems by heart currently are “November 3” by Kenji Miyazawa (translated by Hiroaki Sato), and “Medusa” by Louise Bogan. The small heart-breaking poem “Western Wind” plays in my head every time a small rain rains. I love reciting “Reunion” by Charles Wright. I am working on Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 43” by listening to Rufus Wainwright’s song version. To read a poem aloud into the air—it’s so much better than reading it silently, especially when the poem is new. At Poetry Out Loud you can watch videos of students and be blown away. One of my favorite performances last year was a student doing “Megan Married Herself” by poet Caroline Bird.
JS: You are offering the workshop “Everybody Answered the Phone” on Tuesday, September 17, discussing revision. What can participants who take your workshop expect?
JB: — I’ll share the stages of revision of my poem “Ghost Landing,” from notebook scribble to finished poem, from description (bird in winter), to attempt to understand my father’s isolation. Some notes on “finding” my poem “History Textbook, America.” I’ll also give a list of suggested readings, and some new and old places to submit work.
We’ll have a discussion of stages of development, from the recording eye & hand, to the creative mind allowing thought to grow out of language. Often creative writing is figuring out the images the mind chooses. Participants will leave with a poem or essay draft from a 30-minute writing and sharing exercise. Sharing your draft aloud will be welcomed–and optional of course!
JS: You have been involved in a variety of writers’ communities, residencies, and conferences. To you, what is the most important about having a community-based writing program like Write On?
JB: Oh my goodness—writing communities are so important. To all of us. Writing groups help determine who gets to tell their story. Everyone deserves a seat at the table where stories are told. (And history gets recorded.) Toni Morrison said our stories have the power to fight “ignorance in so many places, that must be undone.”
Our literature has that power to fight ignorance and the harm it causes. Most of all, creative writing programs in schools give students belief in their words. And that belief is necessary and important for the country’s future.
Meeting members of your tribe who inspire you and encourage you is the difference between giving up and writing with joy and a sense of belonging and mission, even when the going gets rough.
JS: What is the best advice you received as you started your writing career?
JB: I am a self-taught writer who did not pursue an MFA and has not had a mentor; however, I have been reading mentors all my life, and writing. In 1999 after my fourth child was born, I began to focus on my poems. I was 43. I’d had publications in the 15 years before, but I was writing in unpredictable bouts and didn’t dare claim to be a poet. I decided, no longer will I deny what’s so important to me. In 2002, I began taking community workshops and attending writers conferences like Bread Loaf Writers. Writing rewarded me.
These bits of writing advice came from friends and workshop instructors I have been privileged to work with:
- “Anything can happen.” –Paul Bowles
- “When the writing gets difficult, write about the difficulty of writing.”—David Mura
- “Just write what is. It’s not about good or bad. All writing is money in the bank” – Fleda Brown
- “Stop sending your poems to regional magazines. Send them to your A lists.” –Natasha Trethewey
- “Write your stories and don’t worry about calling it fiction or non-fiction. That’s the publisher’s problem.” –Sigrid Nuñez
Finally, when I was a young mother of toddlers, Virginia Sorensen said to me: “You think there won’t be time. But there will be time.”
Never give up. I went to Hedgebrook women’s writer retreat this past year and the most kick-ass writer I met there is 72 and working on her first book, a phenomenal memoir. Persistence is all.