A Conversation with Devon Balwit

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How The Blessed Travel
(Maverick Duck Press, 2017)

MHR: In a few of the poems, we encounter the heart. There is a great tradition of writing about the heart. What does it signify to you poetically and what is your renewed vision of that metaphor, in a poem like, “squatter?” Also, why the male personification of “heart” in that specific poem?

DB: Let me start with addressing your question about male personification. When I was in my teens, twenties, and thirties, my poetry was relentlessly autobiographical and confessional. When I returned to writing in earnest in my fifties, I was bored with my personal narrative. Over the past year and a half, I’ve thrown myself into exploring alien poetic forms, personae, and source material. As a young adult, I would never have written poems that looked as these do on the page—so full of space and so spare. At that time as well, I would probably have chosen a narrator who was more of a mirror image. Now, in contrast, I am much more curious and much freer as a poet. I don’t want to be bound to my gender or to any other aspects of my identity when I write.

Too, Portland, Oregon has a large community of unhoused people. Most are men. Many are veterans. Every day on my walk to work, I watch their ingenuity in surviving in marginal spaces, admiring their scrappiness and savviness. To me, the heart is like that, a crusty survivor.

Finally, the heart figures prominently in my work because it is so damn insistent—it clenches, thunders, hungers, feigns indifference. As “systole/diastole” says, the heart is “membranous” and “cussed.” It wants what it wants and to hell with the rest.

MHR: Your poem, “how the blessed travel,” opens the chapbook. In it are the lines, “there they go/with a sound/like a piccolo” These lines fit wonderfully with the rhythm of the piece itself. How did this auditory image come to you?

DB: This chapbook contains many mobile and birdlike slight poems. They flit about with their hollow bones. The word piccolo is both visually playful on the page and fun to say.  It captured the image of a tiny little holiness hitching a ride on that perfect emblem of the spirit—the singing bird.

 

MHR: “Sitting on the wall,” is a poem of vibrancy and energy. It is as though a veil is lifted from our eyes to see into burgeoning reality. Do you identify as a prescient or visionary poet?

DB: Yes, I do. I feel compelled to write. I wake in the night urgent to begin and often have to fight to stay in bed. My head vibrates all day long with an electricity that’s only released at the keyboard. When I write ekphrastic poems, the story emerges as if whispered, as if the paintings possessed me until I got it right. In the same way that a medium gets caught up in a trance, I disappear into my creative process. I feel most at home there.

“Sitting on the wall” is one of many poems that I have written to deal with my disappointment at rejection. There are days when I receive 5-8 rejection notices. Even though I understand it’s an unavoidable part of the writer’s process, I still feel a welter of sadness, frustration, anger, confusion, isolation, envy, and so on. The way I deal with this is to write more. I imagine scenarios in which someone doesn’t get what they wanted—in love, at work, in the family, and so on. This poem, while ostensibly about a single woman embracing her aloneness at dusk, holds this other pain inside it like a seed.

MHR: In “with the insight of vast differences,” we are brought into a mythic space. The vehicle is not merely a plane, but the poem itself which carries us. In the third section, you make a breathless pronouncement. Can you decode that for us?

DB: My physical world is very small. I live within a couple miles of my work. I spend most days within a couple miles of my home. I walk each day in the same parks. I am largely a creature of habit living on limited means. That said, every day, I find something worth writing about. Every day within the familiar, I locate something new and strange: an encounter, a painting, a quotation in a book, a news story. My poem’s final pronouncement summarizes my life or stands like a legend on my family crest: “we are all of us being born //…into newness //even if the place we have arrived // is the very place from which we only recently departed //”

MHR: Who is the subject of the “Hungry” and how do you know her?

DB: The process of aging in a female body is fraught as, traditionally, women’s bodies have been predominantly sexualized. As a teacher, my physical presence, my sensuality as it were, has been one of many tools to be used in the classroom to attract and maintain attention. Now that I am in my 50s, however, my relationship with my body has changed as has the way others see me in my body. Now I tend to evoke the motherly or grandmotherly. I have entered the crone phase, becoming more like a witch-woman who lives in a shack in the woods and gathers herbs for simples. My identity as a poet superimposes itself on that of the witch, as I collect anything and anyone that I might weave into my craft. The birds and the plants don’t always welcome the crone’s attentions just as my poetic subjects don’t always warm to the analysis they receive at my hand.

MHR: “Luminescence” evokes a deep sensuality. This is repeated effectively in “wild(er)ness.” Does nature lend itself to you for sensual or sexual sensations?

DB: Without a doubt, nature evokes the sensual, and in all seasons: the almost indecent fecundity and horniness, the storms, the maturation, and ripeness. Seeds and blooms mimic genitalia. Nature is profligate and insistent. Too, the natural world can express heartlessness and indifference as do we when consumed by our own hungers.

MHR: You’ve drawn so much out of the natural world. What do you find to be key that prompts you to knit a poem out of dream and dark as in “To the Dark Boundary?”

DB: This poem came to me in the liminal moment between sleep and wakefulness. I was taken by the image of my feet having independent agency from the rest of me as they are, instead, always my servants. I found it charming to follow them for once and go where they wanted to go, to have the dusty, gnarled, stinky part of me in the lead. My feet seemed so much less self-conscious than I usually am—perhaps precisely because they were liberated from my overly-analytical brain.

MHR: “Dutiful” seems to speak of the poet’s curse and blessing to create from experience.   Can you explain your understanding of this poem? Am I off the mark?

DB: Off the mark would be too strong. I’m always delighted to see what people receive from my work. I much prefer being offered an interpretation that is slightly askew to my intentions than just the comment “I don’t get it”(or radio silence) and a pause in which I am expected to explain it.

I love that you saw the poet’s project in this poem. It is that and so much more. As a mother, I have an on-going sense of being pendant on others, a duty to watch out for and encourage. As a teacher, I also have a set of obligations to entertain yet instruct, to hold the large space of the class while making room for all the individual egos within it. As a wife, I have obligations to my spouse. As a daughter, I have yet others to my parents. As a poet, I have a duty to my craft and to my voice. All these roles with their attendant sacrifices are often underappreciated by their recipients. Thus, it falls to me to encourage myself. “What I’m doing seems to be working.” I could abandon my various posts, “I imagine letting go…I could follow as if by plan.” But I can’t. “Steeled by duty,” I carry on. For better or for worse, these are my identities. At the end of the day, it is up to me to garland my own head and say, “well done.”

MHR: Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions, Devon.

DB: My pleasure!

Devon Balwit

Devon Balwit is a teacher/poet living in Portland, OR. She has four chapbooks—How the Blessed Travel (Maverick Duck Press), Forms Most Marvelous (forthcoming with dancing girl press), In Front of the Elements, and Where You Were Going Never Was (both forthcoming with Grey Borders Books). Her recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Non-Binary Review, The Cincinnati Review, The Almagre Review, The Stillwater Review, The Tule Review, Red Earth Review, The Free State Review, Front Porch, Cease Cows, Concis, and Eunoia Review.

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