“In a chapbook, every poem has great weight and responsibility”: A Conversation with Chaun Ballard & A Folio of New Poetry

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.

Chaun Ballard’s chapbook, Flight, is the winner of the 2018 Sunken Garden Poetry Prize and is published by Tupelo Press.

His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Columbia Poetry Review, Frontier Poetry, Lunch Ticket, Narrative, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Rattle, Tupelo Quarterly, and other literary magazines. His work has received nominations for both Best of the Net and a Pushcart Prize.

Kristina Marie Darling:  
Your chapbook, Flight, was the winner of Tupelo Press’s Sunken Garden Chapbook Award, selected by Major Jackson. What are some of the unique artistic opportunities inherent in the chapbook as a literary form?

Chaun Ballard:  A chapbook is focused, condensed, and unified in a way that allows a reader to devour it whole without losing momentum. A chapbook can deliver a succinct, powerful punch of poems.

In a chapbook, every poem has great weight and responsibility – there’s no space to have poems that might serve as “fillers” or “lulls.” Just as in an individual poem, where every line, every word, is purposeful and deliberate, so too with the chapbook: where every poem must have a reason for its existence in the collection.

The process of putting together a chapbook can be a great lesson in uniformity and organization for someone looking to eventually add a first full-length collection to their resume. It’s a steppingstone worth exploring.

Recently, I have been sending chapbooks as gifts to friends and family who are not avid poetry readers, and they read them, most times, in a sitting. When I give non-poetry readers a full-length collection, it seems to be more difficult for them to get through, and they tend to lose their drive to continue. In this, I believe chapbooks can be a wonderful way to introduce someone to the genre and (hopefully) win them over to verse. Chapbooks are great door-openers for those with not much exposure to poetry.

KMD:  We admire your work at Tupelo Press, and it’s a pleasure to feature this new folio of poems.  In this new work, the ghosts of an inherited literary tradition – like the sonnet – appear alongside experimental, gorgeously fractured, and found forms.  What advice do you have for writers who struggle to carve a space for innovation within the tradition they’re familiar with?

CB:  I feel that familiarity with the tradition is integral. A poet can’t find his or her own space, or break from tradition or dare to innovate, if they don’t know what it is they are pushing against, in conversation with, challenging, or speaking to.

Learn traditional forms first. Become comfortable with using them. Use them so regularly that they become natural in their structure and constraints. Respect them.

Then, allow yourself the freedom to break from the form when you feel that it is necessary. You will come to a point where you deviate, break, bend the forms because it feels natural to do so. I notice, in my own practice, that I never explicitly aim to break from my ghazal or pantoum drafts, but it seemed to happen organically. The significance for the break becomes clearer as I revise and edit.

If a poet struggles to find this space to innovate, or struggling to find inspiration in this regard, reading a poet who employs different techniques or devices can open up a new part of the drafting brain, and thus prompt exploration—of form, of diction, of content, and of syntax.

As I worked through my recent poems, I ended up turning to Louise Glück’s Meadowlandsand Tupelo poet Lee Sharkey’s Walking Backwards. Both of these poets write in a style far different than my own, and studying their work has been incredibly enlightening. In fact, many of my newer poems have been thus influenced by their structure and use of allusion.

On this note, it might be worthwhile to explore some literary journals, many of which compile anthologies revolving around form: new forms, hybrid forms, experimental forms, nonce forms, etc. These issues and collections can serve as an entire garden of delightful options to explore.

KMD:  While we’re on the subject stylistic experimentation, how do you balance formal variation – and the ensuing moments of surprise and wonder – with unity and cohesiveness in a manuscript?

CB:  I see form and content as being in a mutually beneficial relationship. In other words, they complement each other. They complete each other. If you employ a great variety of form, content can be the glue that holds it together, and vice versa.

I highly recommend reading poets who employ particular forms (and repeat those forms throughout a collection) in order to see the full relationship and interplay between content and structure. Agha Shahid Ali, in Call Me Ishmael Tonight, and Terrance Hayes, in American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, are wonderful examples of this.

KMD:  In addition to the Sunken Garden Chapbook Prize, you’ve won the Third Wednesday Annual Poetry Contest, as well as other finalist honors and award nominations.  Since many of our readers are also writers, I’d love to hear more about your journey and the path that brought you to these success.  What advice do you wish you received as an emerging poet navigating the publishing world?

CB:  Growing up, I was not explicitly aware of poetry, but now, looking back, I can identify its interwoven strands within the context of language and music and culture. I didn’t have any formal exposure to the genre, however, until I took my first poetry course at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo.

Soon after I graduated from undergrad and completed my teaching program, my wife became an MFA candidate at the University of Alaska Anchorage. After attending the public readings, involuntarily taking the course alongside my wife’s enthusiasm, and visiting with welcoming professors, I felt the beginnings of what would soon become a full-fledged passion for reading and writing poetry. A year later, I was accepted into the MFA program, and, there, I was introduced to many poets, books, and anthologies that I never knew existed. Both the professors and the curriculum have impacted me tremendously, and I owe so much of my development to what they have taught me.

While working through the MFA program, I had the opportunity to participate in the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop in Barbados where I studied under poet Gregory Pardlo. This experience was also a gift, and I continue to revisit the techniques and prompts that he introduced to our cohort.

I can’t speak about the journey without mentioning my other half. My wife has been an integral piece of every success I have had. She is my second reader, my editor-in-chief, and my roll dog on this journey.

As for advice for emerging poets as they navigate the publishing world, well, I am still an emerging poet navigating the publishing world.

We are often told tidbits of wisdom that may not register until we have reached the next stage in our poetic development. The best advice—and I’m sure I was told this by my mentors—for emerging poets is to be patient.

Embrace the different stages of development. Take pauses, don’t rush. Don’t set fire to any of your drafts that you feel are not up to snuff. Instead keep them in a draft folder to revisit when you have a fresh pair of eyes. You can also seek them out when you have dry periods (which happen) and need a prompt of some kind. Take every opportunity to read various literary journals and anthologies, so that you will be exposed to a variety of styles and have more tools in your tool belt. Don’t stay discouraged when you receive rejections. Sometimes they are a blessing in disguise (A rejection can save you from saying, “I can’t believe I introduced that thing as a poem.”). Find a community of poets who will give constructive feedback.

Above all, be patient. Understand that you will experience many different developmental stages and growth spurts. These things take time.

Poetry becomes a second language, and, of course, in order to become fluent in any language, I believe it is important to be fully immersed.

KMD:  What poets are you currently reading?  Relatedly, what are some nonliterary texts – texts that would never appear on the syllabus of a poetry workshop – that poets can learn from?

CB:  Authors who should win an award for taking up the longest residence on my nightstand are Agha Shahid Ali, A. Van Jordan, Claudia Rankine, Danez Smith, Derick Burleson, Eavan Boland, Ilya Kaminsky, Kaveh Akbar, Louise Glück, Lucille Clifton, Mahmoud Darwish, Matthew Dickman, Ocean Vuong, Patricia Smith, Ross Gay, Tarfia Faizullah, Terrance Hayes, Tracy K. Smith, Yehoshua November, Yehuda Amichai, and Zeina Hashem Beck.

Currently, I am reading Homer, Matthew Dickman, Ross Gay, and Terrance Hayes, but I’ll read any poet who will distract me from the course work I should be planning for…Financially, however, that can present a problem.

I also recommend reading a few non-poetry books by poets. Charles Simic’s The Unemployed Fortune-Teller, Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, and Dana Gioia’s Can Poetry Matter?are three that have greatly impacted me—and I find myself returning to them often.

I would also suggest reading plays, essays, history books, books on plant life, mythology, religion, news articles, etc. Basically, read anything (and everything!) you can get your hands on. Poetic influence comes from all areas of life.

KMD:  What are you currently working on?  What can readers look forward to?

CB:  Currently, I am working on a full-length collection that incorporates aspects of, and builds upon, Flight.Therein, I explore the relationship between the Greek myth of Icarus and being African American in our current time. This collection continues its play with form, including traditional, nonce, and bent.



A Folio of New Poetry by Chaun Ballard


A Folio of Poetry by Chaun Ballard