Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Jonathan Ball Gets Political

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Jonathan Ball

The period following an acclaimed publication is probably the most dangerous in any writer’s career. The accolades following a major success are exactly what a writer wants. They are an affirmation that the years of effort that it takes to get to that point were not a waste of time, that the author is not destined to be some talentless scribbler — a “poet” or a “writer” with the quotation marks tattooed into their skin. But the accolades are also a trap.

Even after a minor success, the pressure to simply do what has been done before is enormous. The first major success brings an utterly new feeling, a sense that you have actually done something good, and the natural result is that the author will want to do the same thing so they can have those feelings again. This rarely works. Most often the repeat performance is just a disappointment. Often, writers get stuck in a perpetual holding pattern where they constantly circle around the same themes and techniques and so never get beyond where they were when they made that first successful piece. Trapped, they struggle against the diminishing returns of each new piece — constantly trying to woo a readership that, by then, no longer has time for them.

Thankfully for the Winnipeg-based poet Jonathan Ball — author the well-received Ex Machina (BookThug 2009) and the highly (and deservedly) praised Clockfire (Coach House Books 2010) — that danger has been avoided. These two books are already very different from each other. Ex Machina is designed like a machine, with each line referring to another elsewhere in the book forcing you to jump from page to page, mechanistically reconstructing the poem. When read, Ex Machina feels as though the poem is a bookshelf that you’re assembling with just the back half of the instructions. Reading Clockfire, on the other hand, is like being given a completed bookshelf and then being told to reverse-engineer the manual. The book is a collection of prose poems forming, to quote the back cover, “a suite of poetic blueprints for imaginary plays that would be impossible to produce.” See, for example, a poem called “The Future”:

The actors reveal, for a small audience, the significant world events of the next fifty years. The audience listens, absorbs everything. When the play ends, all return home, silent. Now it is their turn to act.

Ball has written a new book, called The Politics of Knives, which will be published in mid-September of this year by Coach House Books. Some of the prose poems are superficially similar to the ones in Clockfire, but reading The Politics of Knives gives a very different feeling than either of Ball’s other books. Past the cover and the table of contents, the first thing you see is a lengthy epigraph from Plutarch describing the assassination of Julius Caesar. The soon-to-be late emperor “found himself being attacked from every side,” sees “Brutus closing upon him with his dagger drawn” and “yield[s] up his body to his murderers’ blows.” The attack is violent and messy, and ends with both victim and assailants “drenched in blood.” This is what reading The Politics of Knives is like.

“I’m interested in themes like politics and double-identity insofar as I’m interested in violence,” said Ball in our interview. “With most art, we’re talking about concepts, about destroying or shaping ways of thinking, rather than punching people in the face. I’m interested in this transformative power of violence, which I see as inherent and necessary to art, if art wants to affect reality.”

This violence is latent in much of Ball’s previous work. The shock of reading Clockfire comes not only from the inherent incompleteness of each play, but the destructiveness of what they describe. The plays are almost all violent in the conventional sense, with many of them ending with the death of the cast or the audience (in fact, while the book claims that the plays are impossible to perform, many of them would be better described as impossible to perform more than once). But even the tamer ones still do a more subtle violence — describing a world that resembles the one we live in, but is ever so slightly off, invoking something like a textual version of the uncanny valley.

“Everybody calls me an experimental poet,” Ball said, “but I consider myself a horror writer.”

“The horror of a play like ‘The Doppelgängers’ in Clockfire is that horror of the double, which produces a conceptual violence, since coming face to face with your double . . . invalidates your concept of identity, does violence to that sense of individuality, of self.”

The violence in The Politics of Knives is often directed at the text itself. Many passages exploit a syntactical ambiguity to set up one meaning while at the same time subverting another, so the reader never knows which word might turn traitor. But while most of the poems try to play Brutus, the title poem is the book’s Caesar. It is full of redactions, some of them quite large, which create long, black and perfectly rectangular wounds all over the page.

From the first poem you get a sense of how different The Politics of Knives is from the rest of Ball’s work. “The Process Proposed” takes the unusual (for Ball) turn of being written in line-lengths rather than paragraphs — which Ball says was intended to indicate that he has not chosen to simply repeat himself (“I’m not interested in writing the same book again and again, which is one of the many reasons I’m not rich”). The second poem, “In Vitro City,” returns to prose poetry, which remains the book’s dominant form. This unpredictability keeps close to the book’s theme, but it also indicates the book’s composition history. Unlike Clockfire and Ex Machina, which were conceived of and written as book-length projects, The Politics of Knives began as a collection of Ball’s previously published works — one of several similar projects that Ball has attempted and then abandoned over his career, each abandoned because the poems could not be made to cohere.

According to Ball, many of the pieces in the manuscript he initially sent to Coach House had been written prior to 2006. They did not cohere enough for Ball, however, so he continued to edit it after the submission went in, creating pieces that are noticeably different from their initial publications. See, for example, Ball’s chapbook WOLVES (lone.ly), a long poem published by BookThug in 2007. It eventually became the poem “Then Wolves” in The Politics of Knives, and is transcribed in full below the article. The 2007 version opens thusly:

when will you come. returning.
all the world breathes. your passing.
such silence. still.

Now compare with the corresponding lines of the current version:

when will you come when
all the world breathes out when
your passing such silence
the leaves gossip when

“The BookThug chapbook,” said Ball, “is a self-contained work, but in the Coach House Books collection the poem has to exist alongside others, and its erratic punctuation marked it as too different in style and tone . . . I wanted poems that worked together and, in some instances, even allude or directly refer to one another across the book. So many of my edits were in the service of that.”

Perhaps inevitably, the next turn in Ball’s career will likely be away from poetry and towards fiction. The jump to prose from prose poetry will probably be an easy one (“I would argue that in many ways I have been publishing fiction that’s being received as poetry”), but getting to it has been a long struggle. Ball gave up on his fiction writing years ago after finding it too difficult to produce good plots and good sentences. The switch to poetry was in part a way to fix the latter problem — the economy of the poetic line being a perfect training ground for writing crisp descriptive language.

“I decided I would do that for a decade or so, and then return to fiction,” Ball said. “This is why, if you look at the individual poems I publish in journals . . . a lot of them are technical exercises or narrow, focused experiments.”

But regardless of what form he uses, or what topic his work covers, Ball already knows what reaction he wants his work to provoke.

“One student,” he said, “took Ex Machina and put in into a paint can and filled that with cement and dropped it into the ocean with a plaque reading, ‘This book will go on without you’ — a paraphrase of the text. That’s my ideal reader. Ultimately, I want people to do things with the books, not just read them.”

Then Wolves

by Jonathan Ball

when will you come when
all the world breathes out when
your passing such silence
the leaves gossip when

shattered songs with no chorus
children of delusion
of thorns brambles tangle
grey chattering things

WOLVES

counsel blindness
how sweetly die sparrows

let the angel of no lord
lost in the woods guide you

in a red hood with red hands
into these red halls

*

the berries are few now
rabbits and deer thin
every lover’s axe murderers
a child with no playthings

that straddles shadows
under trees that hang men
brittle forgotten stories
in books mouldering

WOLVES

seek skin supine
among sins swallow cake wine

let this bread be mould daily
let this hunger loose

songs howling break branches
through fur through torn chords

*

my love let them take me
to pasture to black burn
swords through my eyes letters
stillborn to ploughshares

knelt down on spun gold
riches in the next room
lacks lustre uncentred
webs encircling

WOLVES

tired unwind tears in
new skins buttress thorns

let me down where no safety
let the lord leave me in terror

carry a false heart to
cover my footprints

*

when you sing you hold vowels
vow love though fear owns you
shape letters as flowers
take me elsewhere to horror

where shapeless things sharpen
lies loll on tongues dripping
tales unheard still written
in bones rotting marrow

WOLVES

wonder where they fit
their best teeth flash forward

let them not smell my passing
the forest floor over

leaves red fallen cover
the house of what lord

*

eaves running under
be careful of waiting
what lies at the end
of the forest this road

at the end of the sentence
no chorus repeating
what in the bed snaked
into skin to be shred

WOLVES

sent to the slaughter
how dark in this bedroom

let lamplight repeat me
mercy at my heels

repenting repeating
at this dessert drowned

*

where these letters tear
in wind the words whisper
this world whimpers reading
this are you what are you

lord what are you grant me
hells at my heels granted
eyes slit through what are you
why do you not run

WOLVES

dropping pretences
worn masks dot thin trails

let this forest end let
moonlight pen the ending

then tell me a story please
end it soon when

Jeremy Colangelo is an author and journalist living in St. Catharines, Ontario. His work has been published, or is upcoming, in several magazines, including The Dalhousie Review, Steel Bananas, and The Incongruous Quarterly. Jeremy has an degree in English and History from Brock University. He is currently working on a novel. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter, @JRColangelo.

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