On Writing, with Jonathan Ball
The Politics of Knives (Coach House Books) is Jonathan Ball's third collection of poetry. Jonathan has been called one of Canada's "most exciting young poets" and praised for his genre-bending work.
Today Jonathan speaks with Open Book about violence and language, movies and novels and the possibility of a perfect day.
Tell us about your book, The Politics of Knives.
The Politics of Knives contains nine long poems that stand alone yet bleed into one another. They share common touchstones (including film/video, violence and narrative), and touch on issues ranging from Hitchcock to Kafka to political assassination to fable to myth to war.
What does "the violence of language" mean to you?
In his book Violence, Žižek wonders “What if, however, humans exceed animals in their capacity for violence precisely because they speak?” and notes that “there is something violent in the very symbolization of a thing, which equals its mortification.” Of course, this symbolization occurs through language: “When we name gold “gold,” we violently extract a metal from its natural texture, investing into it our dreams of wealth, power, spiritual purity, and so on, which have nothing whatsoever to do with the immediate reality of gold.”
I think a further violence, a more personal and political violence, occurs when we use language to develop narrative. Even the simple story of our day invalidates other viewpoints on the external events, which are meaningless in themselves, and forces them into a sensible order. We use language, and narrative, to impose upon the world an order that suits us, and we use violence for this same purpose.
This is your third collection. How has the experience and writing process varied between your three books?
My first book, Ex Machina, has an unusual structure that effectively short-circuited the editing process, so that the book was published almost as I submitted it. The editing process for my second book, Clockfire, was more involved but not especially extensive, since again I had a core concept that played out and a particular structure. With The Politics of Knives, the book effectively came together in editing. I threw away and rewrote half of the book in that editing process, and really would not have produced anything close to the same book without the intervention of Kevin Connolly.
Since there is less of a core structural concept, the challenge became how best to introduce a sense of cohesion to a collection of long poems written separately, over many years. In the end, I gave up trying to collect poems, which seems more and more like a waste of everyone’s time, and used the older material as a jumping-off point to produce a new book. I rewrote those poems and then wrote enough new material that I ended up not with a collection at all, but with a single work in nine parts (nine long poems), with resonances and allusions within and across the book.
How do you find your teaching work and writing co-exist? Are the two roles ever in conflict or have you found them complementary at times?
They are currently in conflict because I work as contract faculty, and thus “research” is not part of my job description. Nevertheless, for personal and professional reasons, I need to keep up a research profile. The problem is that I cannot use university funds or get grants to help me conduct my research (for both academic and creative projects). Effectively, then, I have to take time away from teaching (e.g., by turning down courses) to focus on my writing, and rely on arts grants rather than being eligible for other funds.
I am trying to fold the two roles into one another more fully. For example, when I teach writing classes now, I pick a specific project and develop it over the course of the class, and share my development with the class as a model for one way to approach the process and problems of producing essays or creative work.
Who or what are some of your influences, both literary and otherwise? Was there anything you were reading or otherwise consuming during the writing of this book that you feel turned up in the pages?
The obvious answer in this case is Kafka’s novel The Castle and Hitchcock’s film Psycho, since there are poems about each work (a poem in which K. enters the Castle by becoming a camera, and a poem in which a maddened narrator watches Psycho). As well, David Lynch’s films and Tarkovsky’s films influenced me when writing this book, and I try to poetically emulate certain of their effects. Lisa Robertson’s approach to prose poetry is generally influential in my work and certainly here.
What would a perfect day consist of for Jonathan Ball, the writer?
A perfect day, writing-wise, would simply be a day without other obligations, that would allow me to focus on my writing work. A day when nothing else loomed in a menacing way.
What are you working on now?
I am revising an academic monograph called John Paizs’ Crime Wave, which is about the 1980s films of John Paizs, focusing on his 1985 feature Crime Wave, one of the funniest and most innovative and accomplished films made in this country — a film that, sadly, is almost completely unavailable and unwatched.
Once I am done that, my main focus will be on a book of somewhat-linked short stories called The Lightning of Possible Storms. I say “somewhat-linked” because the stories are not linked but in fact framed in a particular, strange way. Almost like a cross between Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler and Paul Glennon’s The Dodecahedron.