Tamir’s Story, Michael’s Story: an Interview with Chaun Ballard
Last year, we nominated one of Chaun Ballard’s poems for the pushcart—this year, his debut chapbook won the Sunken Garden Prize from Tupelo Press. Flight is a beautiful little book to hold in your hands, full of family and authenticity and the deep urge to find truth in a messy, violent world. We’re honored to get the chance to ask Chaun some questions about his poetry in the book.
FP: In “Using the Laws of Motion to Explain Ferguson,” the speaker really feels like they are trying to distance themselves from the poem’s subject—Michael Brown—through scientific language, found language, scientific notations even. Could you speak to this struggle to write about Michael Brown? Why the poem found itself in this form? (This sort of distance shows up in “Ghazal” as well)
Chaun Ballard: Ah, aesthetic distance.
When something is tragic and demands a high level of emotion, it is difficult for me to write about it. Sometimes I simply do not know what to say or how to say it. Sometimes my own words do not feel like they can carry the weight or be composed in a way that is worthy. This is where a found poem can have great power, and this is how “Using the Laws of Motion to Explain Ferguson” came to be. Reading the numerous articles, watching the video clips and live feeds…Michael Brown’s death and the subsequent upheaval in my birth city rocked me. But how could I put this feeling into words? To me, there was no other way but to find an alternative vehicle. In this case, someone else’s words.
In regard to “Ghazal,” form forces me to write within its rules and restraints and effectively gives my brain some other element on which to focus. To me, form creates some distance between myself and the subject matter, but not between the subject matter and the reader. If I take a step back, I will be able to let go of my initial reactions to an event and allow the poem to do the work of creating empathy and understanding.
FP: Many identities are strewn across this book: father, player, fan, scientist, citizen—particularly interesting is the mantle of historian you take on. What is your poetry’s responsibility to history? Could you elaborate on that relationship?
Chaun Ballard: It’s funny that you see fatherhood at work in these poems. As of right now, my wife and I do not have any children, but we have been educators for eight years. As teachers and instructors, there are great parallels to parenting present inside the classroom, no matter how old the students. The humility, compassion, patience, and understanding one must have to be an educator is certainly worthy of an honorary parenting badge that will (hopefully) serve us well when the time for true parenthood draws nigh.
Now that I think about it, the memories of my own youth were mostly at work here—triggered by the stories of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and a host of others who are visible in the collection, though unnamed. In a way, Flight became their story. Their story became my story, the story of an urban childhood, and the collection itself became a series of stories, or rather: songs, of survival.
Just the other day, my wife shared a piece with me by the poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht. The poem, titled “Motto,” reads: “In the dark times, will there also be singing? / Yes, there will be singing. / About the dark times.”
Of course, I am not saying that the events or losses present in Flight are equivalent to the darkest times in human history, but I do recognize that any collective grief or suffering of a people or community strikes a chord. Struggle is struggle is struggle. In this, then, I find resonance between Flight and Brecht’s words as Flight’s poems are too songs “about the dark times,” times of social conflict, inequality, and a hope to overcome.
Poetry has always been a chronicler of history, whether history is national or personal. Poetry can be a voice of the common man, and it’s a voice (today) separate from the rulers. Poetry can give a history separate from the conquerors, kings, and the courts. Poetry can communicate what a time period was, or is, like. We can look back to whenever there was a time of struggle or a time of peace and the poems would attest to it.
FP: Nostalgia is a big theme here—personal, political—what are you most nostalgic for right now?
Chaun Ballard: Nostalgia is certainly a theme in Flight. There is much of my past I left behind because of the grief I chose to close myself off from. However, in doing so, I also left much of the joy behind as well.
I am currently in the process of recovering what I once chose to forget and rediscovering myself through those blank years. Being married and having that constant companion (someone to talk to) has opened me up to memories I previously buried deep in my subconscious.
My wife has been like a counselor for me at times, and poetry has been the recorder that I have poured those lost years into. I suppose I am nostalgic mostly for the reclaiming of those years (time and opportunities), and writing has been a remedy for that.
FP: In “Dear Basketball: A Posthumous Letter from St. Louis”, you merge your own words with Kobe Bryant’s retirement poem. Basketball appears often throughout the book—how does the game intersect with poetry for you? What would be your ars poetica of basketball?
Before poetry, basketball took up the better part of my life. It was the outlet that saved me from “not being” or falling into a life of trouble. Players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were athletes I admired greatly for their meticulousness and astuteness; their dedication brought a level of mastery to the game that had too become my passion. To have Kobe write a retirement poem brought me full circle, bringing together one art with another.
Like poetry, my ars poetica of basketball is the marriage of discipline and innovation. There is a foundation and a history; there are a series of skills and techniques used to fine-tune one’s abilities. When a foundation has been established, creativity and innovation come into play. I believe that in basketball, and in poetry, this foundation is of great benefit to those who are developing. Kwame Dawes once said: “Form is a [necessary] product of routine, a reflection of rituals of existence, the hallmark of which is dependability, predictability, and the familiar.” So, whether it is through hours of practice perfecting lay-ups or in drafting different forms, I understand that—for each art—there is a foundation that demands mastery.
Raised in St. Louis, Missouri, and San Bernardino, California, Chaun Ballard is an affiliate editor for Alaska Quarterly Review, a Callaloo fellow, and a graduate of the MFA Program at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. For eight years now, he and his wife have been teaching in the Middle East and West Africa.
His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in ANMLY (FKA Drunken Boat), Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Chiron Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Frontier Poetry, International Poetry Review, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Rattle, and other literary magazines. His work has received nominations for both Best of the Net and a Pushcart Prize.