This Is What I Would Say if My Own Experience Had Happened to Me – A Micro-Interview with Sally Ball – curated by Lisa Olstein

Sally Ball is the author of three poetry collections: Hold Sway (Barrow Street, 2019), Wreck Me (Barrow Street Press, 2013), and Annus Mirabilis (Barrow Street Press, 2005). The recipient of fellowships from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the James Merrill House, and the Ucross Foundation, among others, Ball is an associate professor of English at Arizona State University and an associate director at Four Way Books.


Lisa Olstein:  What questions or obsessions urged this particular work into being or revealed themselves in it?

Sally Ball:  So often, the poems are about love for (and in) a menacing world. In Hold Sway, peril is everywhere, in overlapping escalating layers, and I kept seeing threats-writ-large (climate hazards—migration crises, nuclear energy and accident, oceanic plastics—and state-sanctioned violence or violence aimed at annihilating the State) looping and connecting with threats-writ-close (aimed at my kids, or myself, or the drought year-to-year in our desert landscape...). Also, my marriage of almost twenty-five years was ending over the time I wrote these poems, and—I mostly wanted not to write about that, yet it’s steadily here, sometimes directly but often just the air the poems breathe: grief and freedom, both: love and also release from the painful circuits love sometimes transits. I suppose that sentence just equated grief and love, which seems apt for the book. 

LO:  “Form sets the thought free,” says Anne Carson, and I believe her. How did form and thought co-evolve in the unfolding of this work?

SB:  I spent a long time struggling with how to write and what to write about, wanting not to repeat myself in terms of strategy or subject matters, and (honestly) also struggling with the ways poems are—or are presumed to be—“about” people close to the poet. What belongs to whom? is one question, and then also, How much does it matter what readers presume? 

I wanted to keep an intense feeling of intimacy even as the poems looked further and further outward into the world. I was reading Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene when I wrote “Hold,” the long poem at the center of Hold Sway. It did feel like the formal arrival: here was a mind on the page, thinking tenderly and hard, about climate issues on a large scale and yet the poem is also zeroed-in; it even ends with an invitation. I am thinking of form as the means by which subject matters are engaged, and here the formal mechanisms of lyric intimacy, stretched over these rangier explorations: that must be the co-evolution you are asking about: which for me meant using strategies developed in lyric poems that told small stories and directly addressed beloveds to instead reckon with the ‘news,’ with the world that was not interested in me. 

Also, I tend to be a pretty discursive writer, recording calibrations of attention and the strange pivots, or simultaneities, that happen in the mind when attention zooms. That seems almost the opposite of “form setting thought free,” as formal choices qualify and hone and narrow, staking thought to the page. But also the hardest thing to overcome (the biggest unfreedom?!) is Contemporary American Autopilot, and attention truly awakened can shake you out of the inbox zone, and out of the grip of meandering consumerism: freedoms we need in order to understand anything at all. 

LO:  What’s the relationship between the speaker’s “I” and you, yourself? How is the book’s “I” informed by your I and/or eye?

SB:  I have a poem called “Arse (The One Road)” that was in Copper Nickel last spring. It’s about this exact question/problem/ouroboros: how to think of the relationship between the writer and the speaker, especially when the material seems plausibly or probably or certainly autobiographical?

The poem is long, but here are a few sections from the middle:

Still, we always

want the details.

The ones about the hedge-fund guy;

or what the addicts’ daughters

say in meetings; secret lovers’

ethical contortions;

the rhino’s horn.

Venge porn. Food porn.

Carl has that one

about his beloved taking a dump.

The Maud Gonne of plumbing.

Poems about coupons.

Poems about quails. (We’ve sinned and sinned.)


Gentle reader,

do you think all poems are true?

This is what I would say if my own experience had happened to me.

That line might be my best answer to this question. It suggests something about time (My experience then, which I interpret now); it also suggests something ephemeral (and/or unreliable) in experience itself and also (of course) in memory; and the idea is presented as if held in tongs: italicized, implicitly quoted, or scare-quoted, offered for scrutiny. If if if. The speaker and the poet can only be equated through two or twenty veils. 

I don’t mean this as a dodge: Sally Ball really has three kids, she reads the newspaper, she was in France during the 2015 attacks, she was once held hostage in her academic office by a guy with a mask and a knife, and she has one highly energetic dog. I’m thinking of what Louise Glück says in “Against Sincerity,” about Diane Wakoski (whose work can seem extremely personal and revealing), who bristled when someone presumed too much about her vulnerability as the speaker, and to whom she pointed out that she decides what to record. Glück says, “the ‘secret’ content of the poems, the extreme intimacy, was regularly transformed by acts of decision, which is to say, by assertions of power. The ‘I’ on the page, the all-revealing Diane, was her creation. The secrets we choose to betray lose power over us.” I love that, the all-revealing Diane, and I flinch a little: Glück’s phrasing both underscores her point about Wakoski’s artistic choices as liberating assertions of power, and it makes a power move itself. 

Also, Glück does not shy away from the word “betray”: which returns the question I asked earlier: What belongs to whom? 

There may only be imperfect answers to that question. It’s good to remember (as writers and as readers) the two or twenty veils that sometimes flutter and sometimes are so sheer—

LO:  Did you have in mind any identifiable recipients for the utterance of this work? Did your sense of how or to whom the work was speaking evolve?

SB:  This question reminds me of Berryman, saying he wrote for the dead—the poets whose work had inspired him—and also of Dylan Thomas’s not writing for “the towering dead / With their nightingales and psalms / But for the lovers, their arms / Round the griefs of the ages,/ Who pay no praise or wages / Nor heed my craft or art.” It strikes me that both of those answers suggest that one writes for someone who is not actually listening. Are we a little less like that today? Since we no longer believe in posterity (will anyone read, will humans exist?)—

The act of writing for me is almost always a search, so in some ways I myself am its ‘audience’: I am seeking understanding through whatever thinking the poem undertakes. I recently criticized a poet whose work seemed to me not to be searching enough, in front of the eminent critic Christopher Ricks, who dismissed the notion that searchingness was a necessity. I don’t know quite what to make of that, but—I am thinking about it, because maybe I am going to learn something from this idea, something about mystery? About delivery? Or confidence? 

LO:  What felt riskiest to you about this work?

SB:  Some of the outward-reaching: who am I to think about sieverts and joules (nuclear units of measure), or to write about Syrian med students, or Rakeyia Scott, or the guy deciding where outside the Stade de France to detonate his explosive vest. There’s always, if you let yourself think about it, some audacity in writing. Here: the risks were overstepping my own place in the world, engaging with grandeurs—there is overlap in these categories, but the first risk is self-importance, and the second is how hard it is to write about huge things without (one hopes!) cliché—or other failures in the face of scale. 

LO:  What kept you company during the writing of this work? Did any books, songs, art works, philosophical treatises, snacks, walks, or oddball devotions contribute to a book-specific creative realm?

SB:  Music by Yael Naim, Camélia Jordana, Nolwenn Leroy, and Natalie Dessay, all of whom sang at the French ceremony after the 2015 attacks; whole albums by Jason Isbell (Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit), Cold Specks (I Predict a Graceful Expulsion), and Camera Obscura (Desire Lines); 

Jackson Browne’s “Never Stop” and the Goo Goo Dolls “Come to Me” (and Sara Watkins’ “You and Me”)—

Long walks wherever I was (Phoenix streets and mountains; Jersey shore; French countryside—)

Books: I especially remember reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, and Fred Moten’s The Feel Trio (and The Undercommons), and Susan Wheeler’s Meme, and Ellen Voigt’s Headwaters. 

Oddball devotions: I baked a lot of lemon cakes. 

LO:  How has it been to shift out of the creative space of this book? What are you working on now?

I held on to these poems for a long time, and also there was a lot of material that did not stay in, a messy cutting room floor. It’s interesting to think very purposefully about the ‘creative space’ of this mournful book. Because: of course it was a creative act, even as it was infused with loss, and fearful of losses-in-progress. And to be a maker (as Bidart would say) inside of that feeling was grueling and also a purge, a release. And of course—of course!—the driving force was a life force. I felt so viscerally that I had to be   O P E N,  just utterly wide open and raw and attentive, to find what I needed in order to change my work, and to trust those changes. I hope never to lose that capacity, or... capaciousness. Okay: I just looked up capaciousness, wondering if it was quite the right word. It led (etymologically) to capable: “mid 16th century (in the sense ‘able to take in,’ physically or mentally): from French, from late Latin capabilis, from Latin capere, ‘take or hold.’”

The last line of Hold Sway is “Let’s look hard at something else.” My new poems—well, some of them are looking about as far away as anyone can, via the giant space telescopes that I was lucky enough to visit in the Atacama Desert in Paranal, Chile. Galaxy NGC4945! I’m also working on some visual text collaborations with a photographer. Hold Sway gave me what I was asking of my poems in fall of 2015: a new language, and a new lens. The book has left me with a feeling of wanting to live up to what it taught me, that drastic openness.