BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
Robert Balun's new chapbook "Self (Ceremony)" will be released from Finishing Line Press in 2016, which I am immensely looking forward to, as Balun crafts deeply intellectual yet personal poems that literally infiltrate my brain like a welcome disease. In general, I love poems that are like paintings and films--images fluttering like memories that aren't mine, but pretend to be mine in the landscape of the words.
I was lucky enough to talk to Balun about his forthcoming chapbook below:
JV: Who is the speaker actually speaking to? It reminds me of “The Wild Iris” by Louise Gluck.
RB: Years ago, the you was a specific person. But over time, as this style developed for me, the you became a stand-in, an absence, someone to talk to, a specific no one. The early poems with the early you's had more specific concerns. But as this poetics started to cohere for me, I realized that I was interested in writing experiential poems, though not exact experiences because it's always been difficult for me to demarcate where to begin and end a unit of story, it's all one big story, and the best stuff is always weird and hard to define, like a dream, dependent on a lot of different environments and inputs, like a weather system.
By the time I started writing this poem the you was definitely a void I was talking to. I started using the you for different functions, someone to talk to in the poem, someone to direct the poem at or around. But the I also does this. They are split from the same, and entwine again. The you and the I are rhizomatic, the individual at once a part of the multiplicity and apart from it. So I've been interested lately in this balance, living in it and the contemporary environment we find ourselves in.
There's also a sense of searching between the you and I, of being split between the past and future. When you're present you are complete. But then when you're not you're not, a feeling of having once been a part of some immense and indefinable state, something you had once and keep chasing after.
I like the Louise Gluck comparison. I'm definitely up to something similar; in that poem, it seems like she is using the pronouns to bifurcate the self, for one self, an ancient self to talk to another, more current self. A friend once said my poems are "me talking to myself," which I think is accurate; the you can be me talking to a self in the past, sometimes in the immediate past. And ultimately, this is all about the passage of time, the passage of self through it, constructing and deconstructing.
I suppose I'd like to ask a question; in a poem, do we afford the same space to a you as we do to an I? An I is a "speaker" but a you is definitely someone. Is this true?
What were you listening to and reading and watching while writing this?
I'm glad you included all of those stimuli in your question. I always wonder what people are up to beyond poetry and literature.
So these specific poems were influenced by Ryan Trecartin videos that I was watching while I was living in Washington Heights; in a basement apartment that kept flooding, where there were floodlights in the back courtyard that would stay on all night and filter through the metal mesh screens of the windows, casting warped patterns on everything, like it was always a full moon down there; where I was walking my dog in the area around High Bridge Park--a place that feels really isolated and like it's not part of Manhattan or the city, a place that feels wild and green, but with huge sci-fi housing projects across the Harlem River; where the subway station at 181st street (the one for the A) has this huge sense of space that really imposes its own environment and feels a bit timeless.
So those videos are really weird and manic and I had all this empty space and time to process them in. I would watch like ten or fifteen minutes at a time and then go for a walk, or ride the subway, or smoke cigarettes in the back. None of the poems are specifically about those videos or those environments, but they were the catalyst for the language/thought process to come through.
Two albums that have been on regular rotation, and I can say I was definitely listening to during this time were Jai Paul's bootleg LP and Summr Bummr by Graves (a record that doesn't really sound like its name or artist, but it's great!).
And I remember reading poems by Rane Arroyo. "My Heart" is a good one.
More generally and more recently I've been listening to "The Epic" by Kamasi Washington, "Black Messiah" by D'Angelo, "Music from Big Pink" by The Band, watching Kubrick films, "Adventure Time," looking at art by Chris Burden, Samara Golden, and reading poems by Safiya Sinclair, "Signs Preceding the End of the World" by Yuri Herrera, and "Between the World and Me" by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Punctuation & structure are clearly crucial parts of your poems—the visual aesthetic creates so much silence, it’s almost deafening. Why did you indent many of your lines?
I never intended to write such a spacial piece. I'd been playing with lines and space in the poems I wrote before this one, but for some reason space became really important in the composition of this one. I was experiencing fragmentation, taking fragmented dictation, and so when I wrote the poems I followed where the space should go. I wrote most of the notes for these poems on my phone, so the stanzas were generally in place.
Then I would type them up and offer the space, which followed a kind of idiosyncratic imperative; this should go there, to create a kind of hierarchy of occurrence and association within each poem. Things cascade together. Sometimes lines will talk to each other when they are in the same margin on the page, or something more to the right is farther away from something on the left, elsewhere. But there isn't an exact logic; lines occur where they do, which opens up their space on the page.
What part of you writes your poems? What are your obsessions?
Time and existence, hah. Being a writer is definitely a vocation, a way to live that makes sense in a crazy world, the irony being that my family thinks I'm crazy for not getting a job fixing computers or something. This may sound a bit corny, but I think of myself as an artist; the medium is language. I fill my head with stimulus and information, react to the world, and figure out how to shape it into poems. If I could afford to I would have a studio.
I'm interested in what works and what's engaging; I'm thinking about other media and drawing from them. I think this mindset influences my perception of ontology and aesthetics, they way I move through the world, what to pay attention to, what to absorb. I forget who said this, but they said that poets orbit all of the arts, and this was illuminating and affirming for me to hear. Maybe, though, I'm not exactly sure what this distinction means; I don't know what a poet or writer's "mentality" is or if it's any different. But being an artist is a lifelong pursuit, again, a way to make sense of the world, a lens. David Bohm talks about how art, science, and religion all evolved from the same impulse in humanity (and were once a unified entity), and I think there's something of this in the way that I approach my work and myself.
I'd be interested to know what other poets and writers think about this, so please get in touch.
Robert Balun received his MFA from The City College of New York, where he was a recipient of the Jerome Lowell DeJur Prize for Poetry and the Teacher-Writer Award. His debut chapbook, Self (Ceremony), is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. His poems have appeared in Bodega, Similar Peaks, Smoking Glue Gun, Heavy Feather Review, Word Riot, and others. Robert is one of the founders of the Bushwick Sweethearts reading series. He teaches creative writing and composition at The City College of New York.