Monday, June 03, 2024

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Hamish Ballantyne

Hamish Ballantyne is a poet and translator based on the unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and səl̓ílwətaʔɬ peoples (Vancouver, Canada). He works in the Downtown Eastside and as a commercial mushroom picker. He has published two chapbooks, Imitation Crab (Knife/Fork/Book, 2020) and Blue Knight (Auric Press, 2022) and published his first full-length Tomorrow is a Holiday (New Star) in 2024.

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?
The first chapbook came out in early 2020 and flew under the radar. My most recent work is more deliberate, for better or for worse.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I came to fiction and non-fiction before poetry—I wrote a lot of stories growing up. I also wrote non-fiction after a fashion—I used to write small books about animals, the weather, natural history that were 100% made-up. I only came to poetry in my teens, through my friends.
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?
It takes a long time to get going, a lot of attempts circling around the same idea, sound, word. Once I crack something, develop an unexpected phrase, then I can get to cruising where a lot of writing happens very quickly. Then the editing again is a slow process, trimming things and developing threads between different poems.

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?
I think more and more I find myself working on a book from the very beginning. I have a lot of ideas for books, execution is harder.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
No I'm not, but it's getting easier. I do spend a lot of time thinking about how the poem sounds out loud, it's just that I don't think I'm the best reader. I'm working on that too.

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?
Yeah I think I do but I don't know if I can phrase them adequately outside of my writing. For one thing, I'm invested in the unscalability of poetry—the impossibility of extracting meanings from the full density of the text as it's written or read aloud. Poetry has an inbuilt resistance to the frictionless translatability demanded by late capital, and as such has huge potential to safeguard threatened histories, lifeways, idioms, sounds.

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?
There's clearly a lot of anxiety in Western liberal democracies right now about the role of the writer in culture, and I think it has a lot to do with the hunch that no one reads anymore, with a liberal insistence that the crises of late capitalism are actually a result of people failing to communicate properly and we need to bridge dialogue in our polarized societies etc. I've seen a few too many thinkpieces about empathy—I'm suspicious of those.  

I don't see any sort of privileged role for writers in the larger culture, but I think literary writing is important. Documenting histories, imagining futures and alternative presents, transgressing the boundaries of language etc. I am less concerned about the role of the writer and more about the role of writing in the culture—because as worried as people are about the crumbling institutions of literature, about changing modes of reception, about shrinking readership, writing—the inscription of language—remains dynamic and participatory.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I like it! I haven't been to a writing workshop or class since high school, so working with Rob Manery on my most recent book was a nice/new experience.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
One time we were driving down a logging road and a big rig came flying around the corner and my friend went halfway off a cliff trying to avoid getting hit. His van was kind of teetering there for a minute but the trucker hopped out, got some chains, and dragged it back on the road. The trucker (Walter) thought the whole thing was pretty funny and just said "keep 'er between the ditches" before he blasted off again. Good advice. But maybe the chestnut there is that if you almost kill someone you should at least drag them out of the ditch with chains.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to translation)? What do you see as the appeal?
The two have a very close relationship for me. Translation is generative, it allows me to play and experiment more freely, because there's material there to work with, there are some parameters. The nothing of the white page can be pretty restrictive, I get stuck with what's easy for me. So in times where I'm not writing much or I don't have much going on in my head I'll turn to translation for a while to get the wheels turning.

11 - 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 try to read before work every day, to make sure that I do something on a workday that isn't just work. Then I try to carry my notebook with me everywhere I go so I can write on the bus or when I'm walking around. Essentially I try to absorb as much as I can, from as many sources as possible—and eventually something in the confluence of film-music-poetry-natural history-history-philosophy-novels-newspapers will congeal into a thought, and once I have about four or five thoughts that have been sitting in my notebook for a while the writing will start to take shape in my head as I walk around.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Writing that's familiar, people like Peter Culley, Philip Whalen, Hoa Nguyen, Roberto Bolaño. But also I turn to a less exacting form of reading, skimming big books I have lying around. And music, and movies: Pedro Almodovar, Lucrecia Martel, Mike Leigh. Recently I had a long day of no writing and watched a ten-minute documentary about a family in Louisiana that poaches rabbits as they get flushed out of the corn by the big agribusiness threshers. That opened the floodgates.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Creosote! Docks! Low tide!

14 - 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?
I think David W. McFadden is drawing a distinction between literature and life which we must strive to destroy at every instant!

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The writing of Michael Cavuto, Fan Wu, Tessa Bolsover, Tara Bigdeli, Cecily Nicholson, Dale Smith, Aime Cesaire, Cesar Vallejo, Fred Wah. Michael Taussig, Clarice Lispector, Gogol, Sergio Pitol.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Go to the Brooks Peninsula.

17 - 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 work on an oyster farm.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I always just liked the idea of stacking a bunch of papers I wrote on.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The Secret Ladder by Wilson Harris. Cave of Forgotten Dreams by Werner Herzog.

20 - What are you currently working on?

A book of poems about the speed of sound and gambling.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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