Q&A with Kathleen Balma: ‘From Your Hostess at the T&A Museum’ and the Urgent Need to Describe

Danielle Shi

Kathleen Balma demonstrates a prodigious fluency with language in her intelligent and entertaining first poetry collection, From Your Hostess at the T&A Museum (96 pages; Eyewear Publishing), in which monkeys battle for social cachet, time grounds to a startling weather-bending halt, and voices become vehicles of desire when arriving at the right destination.

Cleverly imagining the ordinary into shapes exceptional and witty, Balma uses an affectionate yet sardonic tongue to interrogate images as familiar to us as Abe Lincoln’s cabin to the ruins of Pompeii to the moon landing. For aficionados of art history, visual splendor abounds: Olympia and Aphrodites and Dalí all make cameos, presenting readers with what the titular poem refers to as a spectacular “eye feast,” in accompaniment to a parade of insights that evince deep thought on the Spanish fire brigade, long lost girlfriends, and handwritten thank-you cards.

Balma, a librarian and founder of the Virtual Creative Writing Workshop at the New Orleans Public Library, has been published in Best New Poets, the Pushcart Prize Anthology, the Montreal International Poetry Prize Anthology, and more. She discussed her thoughts on poetry and her writing process with ZYZZYVA via email. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

ZYZZYVA: Tell us about the poem the first section of your collection is named after, “Harlequinade.” The interplay between prank, crime, and legend here is re-envisioned: “Low pranks make fine legends […] / More crime than lark,/ they meant to teach her.” What is the purpose of the bawdy humor you employ in this poem? Specifically, the images of vulgar and cheap thrills you construct—coalminers shaving one of their own against his will, sailors making a real mess of a mate’s bunk while he is away.

KATHLEEN BALMA: Bawdy humor is the purpose of bawdy humor. I don’t mean to be a smart aleck, but humor is both a means to an end and an end, and for me it is mostly an end. In the poem “Harlequinade,” bawdy humor is also something that links the various communities that make an appearance in the poem, and the prank in particular links them. The prank is fascinating because it holds so much cultural importance for each of these unique subcultures: what do sailors, strippers, and coal miners have in common? Pranks! There are other commonalities, too, but pranks are a big one.

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The prank also serves a multitude of purposes. It can be used, oddly, for community-building and camaraderie, as a rite of passage, as a coping tool, as a pedagogical tool, as simple entertainment, as an art form, or as a weapon. Pranks serve a folkloric purpose, too. They become part of the oral history of the subculture in which they occur, a sort of fireside story to be recounted when morale is low or group bonding is needed, so if you want to be legendary in the folklore of a particular group, you have to get creative, and competitive, about playing an unforgettable prank that people will want to talk about for years. And as bawdy as this poem is, the examples within are tame compared to my lived experiences of being in the Navy and then being a sex worker. (I’ve never been a coal miner, but I’m sure the pranks my grandfather shared with me are also relatively tame.) You might say that the poem demanded to be bawdy. It was the only way to do justice to my subject.

Z: In the titular poem “From Your Hostess at the T&A Museum,” you investigate the relationships between “painters and nudes,” “artists and restauranteurs.” Could you describe your decision to augment your presentation of the female form with this repeated imposition?

KB: I wrote this poem in anger, and then I went into that semi-hypnotic trance state where the poem just writes itself and you feel like it’s not even you behind the wheel after a few lines. I can’t explain all of my decisions in that poem because they happened too fast, but I can tell you what inspired me. I had worked in small town strip-bars for years, and the rule in most of these places was that you danced to two or three songs on stage, then you walked around the bar asking for tips. Customers are not obliged to tip, and if they choose not to, then you had just done your job for free because there is no wage for sex workers. You had to really know how to persuade people to pay you for the service you’d already provided. In a small town, this is especially difficult. Most of your customers are working class. They’re on a tight budget, and they think all strippers have big incomes, so they don’t believe you really need their money. And of course, you can’t afford to make people angry in that context. You can’t argue with them or reason with them, either. That doesn’t work. You have to make them want to give you something, but you have to do it in a way that also obligates them to honor your boundaries. You know, some people want to barter, they want a little more for their money. You have to convince them that the service they’ve already enjoyed is more than enough and that you really do deserve to be paid for your work.

It’s an art form, that kind of persuasion. I got good at it, but I never stopped being angry about having to ask, over and over, and having to counter every asinine excuse with some clever and funny retort that wouldn’t ruffle anyone. Every interaction in that bar was improvisational theater. John Donne would have been really good at constructing the kinds of witty, off the cuff rhetorical strategies I had to employ in order to get my due. A lot of customers said, “I didn’t see you,” even though they’d been staring directly at me the whole time I was on stage. Or they’d say, “No thank you,” as though I were offering something extra rather than handing them the metaphorical bill for services rendered. So that was the impetus for the poem, the impetus and the occasion. I was surprised, really surprised, when the poem took a turn toward art and my favorite paintings were suddenly in there, and I started to make the connection, in my own mind, between my work in the bars and my work on the page and the unusual bargains that all artists strike, both with their subjects and their consumers, and I thought, yes! The consumer of poetry is every bit as guilty as those customers in the bar who wouldn’t pay up. Because am I going to get paid for that poem? Not likely. It won a Pushcart Prize and I still didn’t get paid for it, though it certainly cost me something to write it. As a matter of fact, if you’re reading this interview in published form, you owe me twenty dollars. (That’s a joke, but I am on Venmo.) And don’t forget about the interviewer, Danielle Shi. She’s working for free right now, too. And all of the good people at ZYZZYVA. Subscribe, donate, put them in your will.

Z: I have to ask you about “Highlights of an Interview with the Author,” as I found it so fascinating that you predicted an interview coming your way! You write about bisexual longing, back pain as Shakespearean tragedy, and an Alice-in-Wonderland topsy-turvy homeownership movement, to name but a few topics. Where do you get your inspiration for these curvaceous one-to-two-liners, and how close would you say is the imagined speaker to the actual author of this collection?

KB: Ah, but I didn’t predict an interview! That poem is a collage of good lines from bad poems. I wanted to make a crazy quilt out of them because I couldn’t bear to throw them away. I realized they all sounded like answers to questions no one would ever ask, so I made a game of asking myself, “What topic would the question have possibly been about in order for me to respond with this line?” I feel like that method of constructing a poem was a form of cheating, really. If poetry were anything like chess, I’d get kicked out of the poetry tournament for sending it out. But the poem is good fun, and the imagined speaker is always me. I can be inventive in a lot of ways, but I can’t stray far from my own mind. I can’t invent characters and personas. My imagination doesn’t work that way.

Z: Please tell us about Sid Vicious in “What Do Ghosts Need?” What real-life stories contribute to the inspiration behind his defining characteristics (“He was a ghost when alive,/ and a very bad one. He had no talent for it./ He was all circumstance and no pomp,/ but he pulled it off. Probably lesser ghosts hated him”)?

KB: Sid Vicious is the stage name of the bass player for the famous 1970s punk band The Sex Pistols. Like all punk bands, they were known both for how poorly they played their instruments and how much they didn’t care. Sid was a particularly bad musician, but that didn’t stop him from being a star. I learned most of what I know of his life from watching the movie Sid & Nancy as a teenager, which means that I know almost nothing but the mythos, and in truth, I was drawn more to the actor who played him (Gary Oldman). In writing a poem about ghosts, their psychology and raison d’etre, Sid Vicious just seemed like someone who would make the perfect ghost because in his life he continually failed upward. He was like the Donald Trump of the music world. The more he did wrong, the more his fans idolized him. He then died young of his own self-destruction [EDITOR’s NOTE: Vicious died of a heroin overdose while facing charges of second-degree murder in the death of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen] and became an icon for disaffected youth in Britain and elsewhere. I don’t believe in ghosts, but if I did, Sid would be one, because I don’t imagine Sid would be any better at dying than he was at living, and what is a ghost if not someone who has utterly failed to die?

Z: “Your inside is out, your outside is in. Your outside is in, your inside is out.” The line from the Beatles’ “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me And My Monkey” that you transpose onto the second section of your collection, “Snubbed,” probes at the root of externalizing and on the relationship between exposure and visibility. “Everybody’s got something to hide but the dead and the monkeys,” you write, splicing the original lyrics with a deadpan twist. How do the monkeys (along with the dead) in your poem circumvent this typical “hiding” we engage in?

KB: Monkeys do not hide their true natures. I do not know that any animal practices this kind of deception except for humans. This may be a species-centric point of view, but I think having and hiding secrets, or deceiving the world about one’s true nature, is a particularly human behavior. If it isn’t, I would be fascinated to know what other species do this kind of thing. And of course, the dead don’t need to hide anymore. They are dead. We can pilfer through their private belongings and correspondences and expose all manner of things they may have kept hidden in life. James Joyce is not going to rise from the grave and snatch back those fantastically kinky and lascivious letters to his wife, Nora. The dead no longer exist, so the hiding and the secrecy is over.

Z: In “Snubbed,” which you describe as an ekphrasis, the poem starts off with “Monkeys or movie stars or wingless tree seraphs.” What did you want the reader to take away from the cinematic references employed in this section??

KB: Ekphrastic poetry is poetry that attempts to describe a piece of visual art. Usually it is a poem about a sculpture or a painting. My ekphrastic poem happens to be about a visually spectacular nature documentary, which is a choice I still worry over, because it is more ethically complex than simply rendering a still photo or painting. It helped a lot that I had no intention of writing a poem and did not realize that’s what I was doing. I thought I was “taking notes” on the documentary. It took someone else pointing out that my “notes” were poetry.

My intention was to render what I was seeing in a way that might evoke a similar emotional response in a reader that I was experiencing as a viewer. The monkeys are so stunning and otherworldly that I felt compelled to describe them. At first, I felt moved to simply describe their appearance, but then I fell under the cinematographer’s spell and became fascinated by their behavior and their relationships, by the environments in which they lived, so I attempted to describe those, too. Writing was my way of processing my own profound fascination with what I was seeing and learning. The poem was born of that fascination. I believe that is what all ekphrastic poetry is at its core: some poet falling in love with a piece of art so much that they are overtaken by an urgent need to describe it.

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