JoAnn Balingit Interview, with Kaite Hillenbrand
On your website, there is a picture of the most amazing little creature walking on a person’s hand. What is that little creature, and why did you choose it for your website?
The delicate creature I’m holding is a two-lined salamander. I took the photograph one October morning after I scooped up the animal out of our pool. I thought it was a child's sillyband on the bottom and was amazed to find a squirming amber salamander in the net. I love amphibians and reptiles—salamanders especially fascinate me. They have a delicate beauty; sunlight shines through them. In central Florida where I grew up, I chased lizards, frogs, snakes, turtles: all these animals were magical to me. And physically stunning.
One of my happiest memories is of my late mother holding a tiny black turtle between her thumb and forefinger, gleefully, while its feet paddled the air. I had presented it to her—a turtle the size of a coat button. I had been pulling back the grass fringe at the base of the house, looking down into that crevice. This turtle was the most precious thing I had ever held. Come to think of it, that turtle was my first pet. I was six years old. My mother dropped everything to make a terrarium with dirt, plants, a miniature pond. The turtle ate bits of ground beef while she explained to me the difference between turtles and tortoises. She loved creatures, loved to study them. Biology and botany and all the sciences became a family value thanks to my mother.
Salamanders are an indicator species. The salamander’s presence in my yard means our pond, its springs, the streams and surrounding brambly woods are healthy. My husband turned our marshy back yard into a pond 20 years ago. It’s a wonderful ecosystem—we see three or four species of frogs, American toads, black snakes, garter snakes, northern water snakes, painted turtles, snapping turtles, dragonflies and insects of all kinds of course, and wading birds. Ducks visit and song birds nest in the shrubs. In summer bats feed over the water at dusk, raccoons and foxes hunt while we’re asleep. There’s one painted turtle with three legs—I think a raccoon got hold of her. We used to have a muskrat colony, but had to chase them away. The banks were caving in from their tunneling. I am happy when I can spend time just sitting, watching the pond.
I chose that photo for my new website because I enjoy that ethereal creature’s toes! And its face. Do we say face and toes for a salamander? I hope the photograph says, “Welcome, come in.” That salamander represents, for me, the mystery and incomprehensible beauty of the natural world. The fearful and fearless natural world. That beauty grounds my writing.
Your metaphors are rich and poignant, and I’m impressed that you can sustain your metaphors throughout these poems so that the poems can be understood both on their own and as a community, as if they have a common history and understanding. What is your process for creating these metaphors and this community of poems?
I love this phrase "community of poems." I want my work to have communities of images and metaphors, a personal vocabulary that allows the poems speak to each other, as well as to the reader. So that the poems make a choir, and the images create harmonies. Sometimes images and landscapes repeat like recurring dreams in my work, but I am not aware of this repetition necessarily while I am working on an individual poem. Last month, a woman asked me after a reading if I was a birder. No. Not officially. I don’t go out looking for birds. They come to me actually. I realized when she asked me that question, my work is filled with birds. They are messengers.
I consider the great blue heron one of my totem animals. A heron visits our pond regularly—I identify that bird with my father, who committed suicide. I don’t know why. Perhaps because the bird stands so still, hunched yet dignified, always alone. Seeing a blue heron or barred owl or red-shouldered hawk in the yard is a special moment for me. Watching birds at the pond is my church, as much as reading and writing poetry is my church.
I was at a friend’s house-warming ceremony once—an Indian woman shaman was smudging each room. So the whole afternoon felt strange and unpredictable. I met a park ranger there who works in western Maryland, who was telling me how to spot wild turkeys. When we were leaving, she timidly asked me if she could see my tattoo again. What? I asked her. She apologized, “I don’t mean to be fresh or rude or forward, honestly, but when you took off your raincoat in the foyer earlier, I thought I saw the most amazing tattoo of wings across your upper arm….” Ok, weird or flirtatious, but she was speaking so earnestly, I understood she was telling me the truth, her truth. I don’t know—maybe I was growing wings. Or I should get a tattoo. I understood some spirit was trying to communicate with me that night, or with her, that’s all.
Back to writing, I don’t have a process for creating metaphors that I can explain. I try to give up some control and interact with the words like personalities. Finding a personal language means re-locating secrets that have been locked in my head. Language is not only the means for finding that knowledge, but the source, the location of the knowledge. I write to figure out what my indelible images are, to recapture the sounds, shapes, animals and landscapes of childhood. I am looking for comfort and entertainment, too. And I write to process my world. My language is often lush and woodsy. I am not an urban poet, not a hip poet. I create poems to open myself. And I write for my loved ones. I enjoy word-alchemy. There’s beauty in language.
Do you have siblings? Did you all have a secret language? My father-in-law and his brothers created a language only they could understand—a working language, according to my husband. The three boys talked to each other and no one else could understand what they were saying. They played jokes, but more importantly, they were forging a bond of discovery to see what would happen if they created a world together. What if we made up our own language? What will the words be? What will the words do? That's exciting! Exploration, a new world. It's what poets do, what a poem does. A poem creates its own language to say what can’t be said otherwise. You imagine a language to see where it will lead you. The reader participates.
The woman at the reading who asked me if I was a birder understood I was using birds as language in my poems to get somewhere, a language habitat as a conveyance. In the poem, “Migration of the Birds,” bird migration helped me understand my foster mother’s death as a transformation and an end to her captivity. I had been looking at a book about migration when Bette’s daughters called with the news of her death, and asked me to write something for her memorial service I was unable to attend. As I tell my reluctant writing students, and my kids, it took me a long time to accept what teachers told me: the process of writing unearths what you have to say.
I heard you say in a Delaware State of the Arts Podcast that after you have written a draft, you sit down with your poems and look for places where you “feel the heat” as part of your craft process. I’ve never heard craft described this way, and I love the idea. Would you explain what it means to you?
The heat is the campfire that gathers us. Soothing warmth; dangerous burning.
I know I have stolen this idea from someone—no matter. Maybe “feeling the heat” was how Arthur Sze described a poem releasing its energy when I worked with him last summer, although I don’t find heat in those notes. I do find struggle, and a quote from Yeats: “My poems arise from a struggle with myself.” It’s the same idea as heat: when the poem is great, we feel its burn of emotion, its struggle, and we respond to that intense energy with emotion, perhaps the same emotions the poet intended to put into thoughts and words. Heat means the poem or that part of the poem works. Language’s power has been unlocked. When I “feel the heat” in a poem, it has communicated to me emotionally—even before, or beyond, understanding. I hurt or I delight or I cry out—the poem unleashes feelings in the reader that he or she cannot shake. That he or she recognizes, maybe with dread, maybe with joy.
I have heard poets describe this hotness as “when the poem pops.” It’s more than a surprise or an unexpected development, as in the turn. It’s the energy the turn is working for, as well as the sound, rhythms, meanings, line breaks, form or formless simplicity—the poem accrues or creates heat that makes you feel. The poem’s inner necessity exposes itself. You feel what the other has felt.
I read on your website that you love surfing. Where do you surf? Will you describe the experience of surfing and share a surfing story with us?
I grew up in Florida where I watched the boys surf. I didn't know any girls who surfed. It's different now. My favorite place to surf is at Herring Point, Cape Henlopen State Park in southern Delaware. That’s my home spot, about an hour and a half from where I live. The beach is pristine, protected, quiet. It changes after every storm or winter nor’easter. Our coastline has no reef, a short shelf, a deep drop off, and a very small window of shoreline to receive waves from the open sea (New Jersey gets in our way!), so the waves are usually lousy. But this beach is wild—a beautiful holy place. The first time I surfed at Herring Point, I had just written a poem. I was spending a long weekend with poets, and the waves happened to be great. So I associate this spot with writing and even when I don’t get a ride, the place energizes me.
I began the sport late—at thirty-seven. Since I don’t live at the beach, I don’t get out often enough. So I am a wonky surfer, not even competent one. I work hard to get my rides and if the waves are any higher than three feet I have to screw up my courage. I am a good swimmer but no dare devil. I ride a 9'2" longboard.
My first surf was at Assateague Island—chilly water, early fall, a break that was so far from the beach. I paddled and paddled just to get to it and was exhausted and nervous. Before I could catch my breath a wave peaked behind me, caught my board and I was zooming toward the beach. I got on my knees and felt the speed increase as I leaned forward.
I love the tiny waves of east coast Florida in the summer, and the long uniform, beautiful swells I surfed one time only at San Clemente, California, at a week-long surf camp. Feeling a wave beneath me whether I catch it or not allows me to live in water for a moment, pretend I am a whale or dolphin or a fish. I am older than any of the other people in the line-up most of the time, but I am having the most fun. I love surfing because I am calm and alert and alive on the water. And I can’t stand sun bathing on the beach. What’s that for?
There was a time when the first thing I did each morning was check a surf cam. I am not that obsessed with surfing anymore, but I wish I were. In Joan Didion’s taut and beautiful The Year of Magical Thinking, I was amazed when she wrote, “According to my kitchen notebook we ate linguine Bolognese and a salad and cheese and a baguette…” –48 hours before her husband John died. Her kitchen notebook! I thought, Wow, the woman takes notes on everything! While I was answering this question I remembered I kept a surf notebook. I found it. From 1994 to 2002, for eight years: every session location, the wave height, the wind, how many waves I caught, how many times I stood up, what I learned or practiced that day, who I met, what the kids were doing—with an occasional dream logged. I like surfing because it’s obsessive like writing, like poetry.
You have lived and worked in both Morocco and Portugal. How were those experiences similar and different from each other? Will you share stories with us about your time in those countries? Also, what was your favorite food in each country?
This question deserves a book! Morocco and Portugal were similar to me in one respect: every day would bring some surprise, every day my mind woke up on full alert. I had to explore and search for necessities, desires, understanding. I spent a day searching for a spatula in the Tangier market stalls and instead learned about couscousieres and Moroccan cooking. I stumbled onto a cobbled street in Lisbon two arm-lengths wide, where every doorway opened on wooden casks of aging wine. These vibrant cities share Roman and Moorish influences. The music, smells, light, languages, foods, dress, people’s behavior—everything was new to me. I learned the colors of the sky and the dwellings crowning the hills, how Islam and Catholicism shaped lives and skylines and the progressions of the day.
I saw riveting landscapes in both countries. Like a cork oak grove just after the bark had been stripped, in the Alentejo, south-central Portugal. We were suddenly surrounded by hundreds of copper-red torsos twisting, reaching and writhing gorgeously. Another amazing sight is the Lisbon aqueduct striding across the Alcântara valley. As a teacher, I met several students from Mozambique and Angola, and learned about Portuguese colonialism there.
I was surprised and happy one evening in the Tangier medina when my neighbor, Fatima, came by to introduce herself and offer me a tagine of tripe stew. As a new mother and foreigner I was feeling doubly isolated. Fatima pulled down her scarf and spoke in fast fluent, mid-western accented English. I was shocked—I had become so accustomed to struggling to speak with the women and girls in my neighborhood with a pinch of Arabic sprinkled over poor French. Like most Tanjaouis, Fatima was quadrilingual. It turned out she had travelled the U.S. and Germany for years as an acrobat. She invited me to her daughter’s wedding party, the prenuptial party for the family women only. The youngest girls were lifted onto the taifors to dance, in sparkling dresses and rouge and kohl. Fatima’s daughters carried mint tea to her as if she were a queen. She reclined on a banquette. They bowed when they addressed her.
My favorite memory of Tangier is waking pre-dawn to nurse my baby daughter and listening in the darkness to the muezzin sing the call to prayer from the neighborhood mosque. It was not a recording then. The man’s voice floated down through the skylight, its beauty filled the room, it made me cry.
A highlight of my years in Tangier was getting to know Paul Bowles. What a lovely man. He died in Tangier in 1999. I met him in 1979. The last time I saw him was in 1995. We attended many of Paul’s birthday parties, with spectacular cakes baked by his friend Mohommed Mrabet. We sat up late in his smoky living room and listened to all kinds of music, and his stories, while he banked the fire. He always had a fire going. We talked about The States. “What is a Laundromat?” he asked one time. He was so entertaining and wily – I think he was pretending not to know a Laundromat, just for the fun of making me explain it. I don’t know. He told many stories about writers of course. In Lisbon, I was equally honored to hang out with the poet, Mario Cesariny, who taught me and my first husband how to drink Aguadente, Portuguese brandy, with a flourish. Mario was the founder of the Portuguese surrealist movement. He died in Lisbon in 2006.
Food? In June, fresh grilled sardines in the Alfama, Lisbon. In spring in Evora, Portugal, cabrito ao forno with roasted garlic. In Tangier, harira and saffron-roasted chicken with couscous—at sunset, during Ramadan, when the cannon has just sounded, seated with hungry families under a restaurant’s red canopy in the Grand Socco.
What are you most proud of doing as Delaware’s Poet Laureate, and what do you have planned? What does your position entail? In what ways should we encourage the reading and writing of poetry in our communities? What successes have you seen in this regard?
The Delaware poet laureateship is an honorary position—I don’t get paid to do it although The Division of the Arts, I am grateful to acknowledge, gives me travel expenses and offers a small honorarium when I teach and read for schools and non-profits. My job is to advocate for Delaware writers, bring poetry and poets to Delawareans any way I can, and offer people ways to participate in poetry, like hearing invited poets read their work, or encouraging people to write. I focus on K-12 students because writing poems and stories is important to them, and creative writing gets squeezed out of the language arts curriculum. I also want young people to know, as my predecessor Fleda Brown often emphasized, that poets are real people with lives and kids and jobs and fears—not odd unapproachable hermits with their heads in the clouds. Don’t be scared of poetry is my message.
I am proud of the poetry collections I have helped students publish at three elementary schools, at the Ferris School for Boys, a school for incarcerated teens, and at the Cleveland White School, a school for young men and women in transition, who have served sentences but can’t go home yet, or don’t have a safe home. I am proud of all the work written by the students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching, most recently in poetry summer camps at Cab Calloway School of the Arts in Wilmington, Delaware. I would like to get funding to make poetry summer camps more widely available, especially to students and families who can’t afford a weekly fee.
I work with the Delaware Division of the Arts to offer poetry residencies to schools. Getting young people hooked on words can change their lives for the better. It happened to me. I would like to see the state of Delaware support a Poets in the Schools program that long outlasts my tenure as poet laureate. The Delaware Humanities Forum wants to work with me on a PITS project. So we’ll see what happens.
I am happy that the Delaware Division of the Arts offers annual fellowships to poets and writers, a biennial four-day writers’ retreat for Delaware writers, and strong support for programs like Poetry Out Loud and the Delaware Scholastic Writing Awards. I work in the background to help plan and support these programs. My position as poet laureate entails advocating for the art in any way I see fit. When I help to organize an event, like I did the Delaware Regional Writer’s Conference last fall, I try to make sure there are offerings for experienced poets and writers as well as those who have come to write for the first time.
It has been my great honor to read at official state gatherings. I assembled poets to perform a collage poem in twelve languages for a “Celebration of the Arts” for Governor Jack Markell’s inauguration in 2009. In May 2010, I presented a poem at the annual Governor’s Prayer Breakfast in Dover. I wrote “Prayer for the Gulf” in response to the BP oil spill, which was barely two weeks old. At the time, there were murmurings of off-shore drilling rights being granted by the state of Delaware to companies with oil interests.
I was appointed as poet laureate during Delaware Governor Minner’s administration in 2008. In her office that day, I repeated an oath of loyalty. My tenure as poet laureate was ushered in with a statewide proclamation. That’s pretty cool, to make a promise of loyalty to serve the state with Poetry as my guide! I am fortunate to have met a lot of people via my post and my poetry I would not otherwise have met.
The best way to encourage reading and writing in our communities is to read and write oneself, and share your talent and enthusiasm. A weekly free-write at the library, geared toward all ages, is a great way to get people interested in poetry. I started a poetry group at a cancer support center that has become a weekly workshop and they have published an anthology. I do occasional columns on poetry in my local newspaper, to give a general audience the opportunity to enjoy a poem that is hot and accessible.
A blue cloud followed its shadow
onto the ice.
Every face turned, heads
twisted back as if leashed
to wind, or to sadness.
shook his greatcoat. He tucked
his feathers in like dreams: set,
Then stood there
eyeing the cold. Like a father told
“Please go away.”
Migration of the Birds
The morning you died I watched a hawk wag
its tail feathers then dive at the pond. I am amazed
at the precision of this bird
whose eye can see a mile, how it swoops and rises
with a newly thawed frog in its claws. What about
the digestion of this bird
how it swallows the bones—the death and the life?
In the empress tree sits the red-shouldered hawk, aloof
commandant of a nation of birds:
kingfisher, cardinal, faithful green heron, mallards and
eager house finches peeking like roses from the hedge.
The migration of the birds
is a mystery, a shore we seek whether sunnier, windier,
rockier or endlessly remote, where bounty is the promise
if your designation is a bird.
One time in the shoreless sky that drowns our old
family home, my sister watched two bald eagles
rise in an undulation part bird
part spirit. You know the two I mean? Einstein explained,
neither matter nor energy is lost. Thus the waves of your voice
fled the station like birds
and escaped the glass roof of your body. Warily you flew at first,
the world is too beautiful not to love. But it’s an aviary—
not the destination of the bird.
My mother’s vines grew heavy with fruit
all summer in Florida’s rain and sandy soil.
Pea-sized melons swallowed heat and light
to balloon with honey like her, dripping sweat
as she rose, one hand on her belly,
the other on a hoe, all day planting seeds.
My mother’s body has shrunken to seed
and so has my father’s, packed like fruit
in boxes. At the funeral my belly
ached. Now I watch my brother stab the soil
with his knife to find their markers. We sweat,
buffeted by truck wind in the morning light.
Ghosts do not come in pools of light
but in things that ooze energy, like seeds.
Or in telling a story hard enough to sweat
your mother’s love like milk. Or in fruits
like mangos and bananas that echo the soil,
volcanic loam from an island’s belly.
My father is not a ghost, he is ash in my belly,
he is fallout, a bird shot in flight,
slow buffalo or pigs’ hooves that poke the soil
full of holes. Pampanga was a seed
he sowed in us. Say horse, we begged, say fruit.
But he gave up Tagalog for English, sweat-
of-the-brow, whiteface, the cold sweat
behind his ruined mask. Up my belly
a faint line runs pubis to navel: Fruit
has passed from my body. My children alight
on a perch in my head and sing for seed
I can’t give them. So I till the soil
at our roots to let in air, to loosen the soil
for stories. My mom nods her sweaty
grin at the rattlesnake head, monstrous seed
writhing by the blade of her hoe. His belly
warm to the child he holds, my father in floodlight
swings under green moons ripening fruit.
“Look. To grow good fruit we need soil, water
and light,” I tell my sweaty five-year-old. I pat
his belly. “Here, you hold onto these seeds.”
A new place will always have a window
where you stand
Over the kitchen sink is good
overlooking a field
of stubble end of winter
waiting for water to boil, gazing at fog
the trees about to unfurl
will fill this view with fierce green light.
I used to think
I was immune
I could shed dead leaves each fall.
when my children are happy
to see me, I will tell them they are the wind
carving the grass
its low pulse, a light inside
to where I have brought myself.
I will show them
my new window.
bundle of ice
riddle of desire
body in body
as you, love, cradle
my corona of fears
and I, love, bud
in your palms
as I, love, lift
each petal you speak
you float like wrack
in my arms—
we have been falling
through each other
ever since sleep
had a dream
for Priscilla Goldsmith