An Interview with JoAnn Balingit
JoAnn Balingit is Delaware's 16th poet laureate and state poetry ambassador. She was born in Columbus, Ohio and grew up in Lakeland, Florida. Balingit is the author of Words for House Story (WordTech, 2013) and Forage, awarded the 2011 Whitebird Chapbook Prize by Wings Press. Her poems and prose have appeared in Best New Poets, DIAGRAM, Salt Hill, Smartish Pace, and Verse Daily. She's an assistant editor with YesYes Books, and for young writers she coordinates the Delaware Writing Region of The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. She’s received fellowships from Delaware Division of the Arts, Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, and a 2010 Global Filipino Literary Award. Balingit will work on a collection of linked stories during her Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Foundation Fellowship residency this May. Her website is joannbalingit.org.
We met this fall at Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference in Sicily. This wasn’t your first time attending Bread Loaf. Can you speak to your experiences at writers’ retreats? How does attending conferences help you develop your craft?
Listening to writers talk about what we do, the how and why of writing, stretches my head and my heart. The 9:00 a.m. craft lecture at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference is by far my favorite event of the day. Well, breakfast, too. The readings and workshops are central to the Bread Loaf experience, but the craft talk feels to me like church - the church I always needed, what writers need, to be in the company of the fold witnessing belief in and reverence for the word. In the Little Theatre, where the talks take place, the shared hope that language will provide shelter, courage, and wisdom nourishes deeply. It’s not a rarified, effete occasion. It’s fun.
As for conferences and retreats in general, these experience give a writer assurance that our work is important—to world culture, to people understanding each other. A writer also develops her craft by finding colleagues to encourage her and keep her in touch with the work of writing, the business of being a writer. I have been to Bread Loaf three times; my three favorite craft talks were by Charles Baxter, Linda Gregerson and Sigrid Nunez. You can hear them at iTunes U.
What place do you see writers’ retreats having in contemporary American poetry?
The established poets teaching at Bread Loaf preview their new work in readings there. That’s exciting. I heard James Longenbach read his poem, “The Crocodile” and I can’t get it out of my head. Eavan Boland’s work excited me and she’s a poet I had not read much. These exchanges are many and they seed everyone’s new work. I was excited to hear new poets read: Natalie Diaz, Orlando White. Bread Loaf is doing a good (and important) job trying to make the conference inclusive across cultures and offering scholarships to writers who wouldn’t be able to afford to go. I worry that there are many young writers whose poverty of various kinds prevents them from thinking they could be writers…we need those voices.
At writers’ retreats and conferences, important exchanges occur between practitioners of genres. That’s what I have felt at Bread Loaf and other conferences. My favorite readings are from the fiction writers because I read poetry more so I miss what’s happening in fiction.
I am focused at the moment on what genre means and on genre-bending work. In my own work I am beginning to see my writing exists on a continuum, rather than as this being a poem idea and that being a story idea. I love David Shields’ work—he’s all about appropriation and genre “transgression.” Alice Elliott Dark says she just might have to write “storoirs.” Then I think, “No! That’s cheating.” But it’s not - it’s writing. It’s unpredictable. Yes, a poet writes poems and I identify as a poet, although now I am working on stories because some material won’t behave in my poems.
How has the subject of place influenced your writing? Especially having lived abroad?
My place is tropical woods. Central Florida tropical woods, lush and scent-filled. Not city. Not hip. I am most un-hip. I walk around with the woods in my head. But I also remember nursing my baby at four in the morning and hearing the muezzin singing in the mosque near my house in the Tangier medina. That place in my head is market colors, the smell of bread and kif smoke. I need to write more about my years abroad in Tangier and Portugal. While I was living abroad those seven years, except for the first year, I was a parent. I saw my adopted cities through that lens. I was pushed into trying to fit into my communities, rather than being a tourist or sojourner.
Before I arrived in Sicily last September, I went back to Lisbon and Évora, Portugal. I walked for miles just looking at the cityscapes. I realized that I had missed many wonderful tourist-in-the-usual-sense encounters. I explored nooks—I did not have kids to run home to, or work five days a week…What happens when one travels is that place becomes incredibly rich and complex – language, politics, food, the beauty of the faces, the colors of the houses’ shutters and doors, poverty compared to wealth, music, religion, history, colony, the expat characters, the different qualities of light and nation. I have a Paul Bowles notebook I read through recently. I am working on an essay about him. Maybe a story. Now there’s a character.
You have been the poet laureate of Delaware since 2008. What has been the most rewarding part about that position?
I am honored to be Delaware’s poet laureate. During the appointment ceremony, Governor Minner said (something like) “She’s going to be our poetry ambassador. She’s going to spread the word around the state of Delaware, just for our state, she’s ours...”
Whoa, I almost felt like I belonged! I’ve lived in Delaware a long time, but I’m an accidental transplant. And you know—I carry that you-don’t-belong-here complex of the immigrant, even though I am first generation American, born in Ohio. I have my immigrant father’s—perhaps mother-ancestors' too—sense of being other, the dark one, the orphan, the traveler, the poet. Then all of the sudden, a whole state wants to adopt me? But seriously, as to a sense of belonging—that’s why we are poets. We seek to understand home. Poetry the only place where I’ve ever felt completely at home.
I go into classrooms a lot and read poems aloud and orchestrate ways to get the students writing and sharing. It’s really about getting a conversation going about language. I want them to begin to see that language is power. What’s most rewarding is when a student reads his or her work from a prompt we’ve done together and the room gets silent. Because the piece was amazing. And everyone says, “Wow.” That’s rewarding. It happened again this week.
You also serve as the Coordinator for the Delaware Writing Region for the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Can you speak to that position and the importance of creative writing in middle and high schools?
Times are hard and getting harder. The world is a difficult place. Young people are acutely aware of statistics that seem crushing: 1% of the world’s families own 46% of its wealth. One in five young black men will go to prison. For most young people, the path to power is not going to be through owning material wealth. Power is going to be wrested through education and one’s ability to persuade with language, to follow an idea or feeling in your head all the way to its conclusion, to articulate thought. The power to talk about that journey is what students begin to realize they have when they write creatively. That’s why I spend hours and hours as a volunteer helping to run this contest. It’s not just a contest. It is the recognition and encouragement some future great writer gravely needs now.
What is your writing process? Are you a creature of routine or not - when and how do you feel most productive?
I am a creature of the cozy space with sunlight and plants. I like to burn incense or when my miniature orange tree is blossoming - that’s perfect. Perhaps a pretty totem on the desk to fidget with and spin. I like Koh-I-noor colored ink pens and my dream journal to be nearby. Books piled everywhere.
I am not a creature of the routine time of day. I am getting back to that morning routine. I have four children. The youngest,14, still lives at home part of the year. I have more time and space now to write undisturbed for a couple hours, but for decades I wrote in snatches out of the kitchen or in the car, and for longer sessions, in the dark. Five a.m. or midnight. More often midnight. I still like midnight. Thomas Lux says you can get great stuff when you are loopy from exhaustion.
Yes but now—I’m over fifty— I feel most productive when I’m healthy, not stressed, and have slept eight hours – especially after news about my work (yeah baby!), morning yoga, sex, a good book or documentary, before a deadline, a walk along the White Clay Creek where I notice something weird or beautiful, a ribbon of spoken language flutters by, hazelnut coffee with almond milk, an amazing poetry reading, and after laughing at a YouTube video of Dorothea Lasky doing “I Like Weird Ass Hippies.”