Paul Hlava Ceballos is the author of banana [ ], winner of the AWP Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His collaborative chapbook, Banana [ ] / we pilot the blood, shares pages with Quenton Baker and Christina Sharpe. He has fellowships from CantoMundo, Artist Trust, and the Poets House. He has been featured on the Poetry Magazine Podcast, Seattle’s the Stranger, and his work has been translated to Ukrainian. He currently lives in Seattle, where he practices echocardiography.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book changed my life primarily in how I think about myself. Despite being a writer for decades, and having some accomplishments in fellowships, magazine publications, and organizing readings, I sometimes felt out of place in literary spaces. Silly, I know! These feelings of underachievement or not enough-ness are mostly in our heads, but they are real feelings. At some point, after the book and the awards that came with it, I realized that people were expecting me to engage with them about our craft—I simply had to. So having the book has been an opportunity to open up, have conversations about poetry, make new writer friends, and fanboy out to my favorite writers. I got a lot more books signed at AWP this year than before.
Well, I should say that our feelings of not enough-ness are in our heads but they do come from somewhere. For me, a lot of those feelings of not fitting in had to do with race and class, from actually being an outsider in professional or monied spaces. This book is different from my previous writing in that I wrote about those subjects for the first time. In that way, it’s the most personal and true writing I’ve done. So, it feels a bit disorienting and wonderful that people have responded to it so positively.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
My abuelo was a poet. He wrote occasional poems to his children, my abuela on their anniversary, and even about the World Cup. These typewritten pages are saved in plastic sheets and shared as near sacred objects by my tíos. When I was a child, walking around with a book tucked under my arm, every relative I saw would tell me I resembled him.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Oh my god, I am such a slow writer! banana [ ], as you can imagine came from years of research and note-taking. I have to remind myself that it’s ok to take months or even years to write a poem; art is a slow process.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
My thinking can be very webby—I can’t help but see connections between everything. So as soon as I write one poem, I’m imagining a book! You can probably see that in banana [ ]—this was a singular thought worked and re-worked.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I dread doing readings! Even now, after touring and having done dozens of them in the past few months—I want to run away and hide! I just want to read or write instead. While I dislike the process, afterward, I love having done readings. I love hearing other people’s writing and thought process. And the best part, of course, is getting drinks or ice-cream afterward.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
This book is driven by the ways global resource extractive policies affect individual people. While the title poem—the 40-page collage about the history of bananas—lies at its heart, it begins with elegies to migrants to illustrate how historical atrocities are directly connected to current ones, how the past and present are concurrent.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I think the cynical part of me would say “entertainer.” But I truly believe that the role of a writer—the real role of a writer as a thinker—is more profound than that. Writing should do more than re-form old tropes into new media. I believe that writing as an artform sees outside of structures of thought that we are raised in, and shows us different stories that exist outside a kind of hegemonic thought. In journalism, for example, this is the difference between media simply restating what the police or political authority says about an event, versus digging into history of the officers involved, background evidence, witness testimonies, etc.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential, of course! I truly believe all thought is communal. This means that what I write should be considered, re-considered, edited. My first editors are always my closest writing friends. But after a few rounds with them, I try to show my writing to someone I don’t know, and then, ideally, to the editor of a press.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I tend to write in many different styles, depending on the needs of the work, and my mood. One day, as a student, I went to Sharon Olds’s office, and she had my poems spread across her desk in a grid. She showed me how different styles I was practicing worked (or didn’t work) in relationship to one another. She told me where she thought my strengths were. I cherish that advice. It helps me remember the ways of writing that feel natural for me, so I can challenge myself by writing in other ways too.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I wish I had a routine! The sad fact is that with a full-time job, a newborn, and trying to keep my life in order, it’s tough to find time to write. Though I do consider writing my life and career, with my paying job secondary, unfortunately, my culture does not value art enough to help me survive on writing alone.
This means that a writing day for me might be scribbling something in my Notes app during my lunchbreak. Or it might start with preparing food for the next day. Then, if I’m not too exhausted after coming home from work, I can scarf some pre-made dinner, bring my computer down the hall to a quiet nook in my apartment complex, pop in some earphones, and get a good hour of editing done.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
You know, I think that sometimes the most rewarding and inspiring thing can be removing oneself from the page and getting involved in community work. Volunteer at a dayworkers center, march for Black lives, join your union’s picket. This has felt crucial for me to remember what and who is actually important in our work on the page.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The woody, spicy-sweet musk of a California pepper tree after it’s wetted in a hot summer rain.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Visual art has always been an inspiration. When I was in grad school in NY, I would take the subway to the Met and spend all day walking and observing, or sitting in front of a sculpture and free writing.
However, in the past decade, I’ve swung the other direction. My book banana [ ] was very research-based, and I loved coming home from work and reading history books, writing down any fact about the fruit that struck me. Right now, I’m writing poems that begin with cardiac studies that I perform at the hospital where I work. I’m very interested in what happens when we combine language that is supposedly “poetic” or “beautiful” with scientific or academic language that intends to serve a different purpose.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Poetry is important for my work, of course, but history and critical theory are, too. Some of my the books that were critical in the formation of my most recent book are: The Open Veins of Latin America, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, How to Read Donald Duck, and Bananas, Beaches and Bases.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would love to conduct interviews of people in my mother’s hometown in Ecuador and in my hometown in California, as a starting point for my next writing project, thinking about immigration and displacement.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I would love to be a researcher of some kind, so I could go deep into scientific rabbit holes but also travel to, like, the arctic to collect ice samples or something adventurous like that.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
There’s something special about language as a medium, in its accessibility. Anyone can do it, anywhere, without expensive supplies.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’m just finishing Jane Wong’s memoir Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City, which is stunning. I really recommend you check it out. For movies, I’m still thinking about what a weird and funny movie Triangle of Sadness is.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I work as an echocardiographer at the primary cardiology center for the Pacific Northwest. Currently, I’m writing poems using medical language and thinking about how larger, political and structural decisions affect personal health outcomes.