Dunes Review Interview Series: Kathleen Balma
Kathleen Balma is a teacher, librarian, and translator. Her poetry has appeared in Hotel Amerika, The Journal, Prelude, Rattle, Sugar House Review, and elsewhere. Her awards include a Fulbright year in Spain, a Pushcart Prize, and a fellowship from Rivendell Writers' Colony. In 2015 she was a finalist for the Montreal International Poetry Prize, and in 2016 she was a Tennessee Williams scholar at Sewanee Writers' Conference. She lives in New Orleans.
What first drew you to writing?
I've lived for books for as long as I can remember, so writing seemed like the ultimate pursuit to me, always. I also had more than a few good teachers who nurtured this dream of being a writer, including one or two who didn't warm to me personally but were kind and professional enough to encourage my passion for writing in general and poetry in particular.
What's your writing routine like?
I'm a Spanish teacher in a large, urban high school and that can be an all-consuming job. If I get enough work done during the school week I can spend Saturday writing. I can also use my school breaks, particularly summer, but oddly enough I have written some of my best poems during standardized testing weeks, because I don't have as much lesson planning, grading, or instruction to do then, but I do have a lot of test monitoring, which is mindless work for which I have to pace around a room with a clipboard all day. I also tend to write more formal poems at testing time. Since I rarely write formal poetry the rest of the year, I find this funny.
What's your least favorite thing about writing?
It feels like an addiction. I've never been chemically addicted to anything, so that may be a melodramatic attitude, but when I don't write, or when I'm not pleased with anything I'm producing over a significant period of time, I can get anxious and despondent. I have to remind myself that this is what I do for fun, that there's nothing riding on it, including my self-worth.
Do you let other people read your works in progress? If so, whom?
I'm extremely lucky to be able to share my drafts with poet Rodney Jones, who is not only my partner and living companion but also the best reader I could hope for. Not all great poets are astute readers, either, which is something that continues to surprise me, but Rodney is the real deal. And this is something that we do for each other, too. I spent a lot of time responding to drafts of his newest book, Village Prodigies, and I was pretty tough on it, especially in the beginning. He told me that I missed my calling as an editor, but I'm not so sure about that. It's an amazing book, by the way. I feel privileged to have played even a small role in its progression from draft to book.
How do you know when a piece is finished?
I just know. I realize that's not helpful, but it's true. I have a sense of my own work now that I didn't always have. It came to me slowly and gradually over the course of 28 years, but at some point I knew I could trust my instincts about my own work most of the time. I think it has as much to do with self-knowledge and self-confidence as it does with writing experience. As a younger person, I didn't have those things.
How do you feel about sharing your writing with readers?
I've published quite a few poems, but I've never published a book, so I haven't gotten much response from the reading public, nor do I expect I ever will. Poets are lucky to have a handful of readers who aren't related to them by blood or marriage. That means most of my readers are people I've met in writing workshops. Workshop is a necessary evil for most of us, and I benefited from every workshop I ever took, but I dread them. I dread them like I dread dentist appointments, and I've been involved in enough of them now that I can usually predict how a workshop is going to respond to a given piece of writing--mine or someone else's. I have been tickled to find that a few people have promoted my poetry on literary websites and blogs. That's happened three or four times now and I found it amazing each time. Those people all get free copies of my first book, if I ever have one.
Can you tell us about a piece you are particularly proud of?
I'm proud of the poem "Stopping Time Is Not as Useful as We Thought," which is available to read online in an e-issue of Fugue. That poem is special to me for a couple of reasons. First: because it's a poem that I knew was finished, and so I refused to give up on it even though it was rejected by more than eighty magazines over a three year period. Second, because the same poem later got a very encouraging, personalized rejection from Paul Muldoon at The New Yorker, and not long after that it was accepted by three magazines on the same day, which bowled me over. (And even though the three magazines in question allowed simultaneous submissions, I felt awful having to turn two of them down. On the other hand, having such a positive response from so many editors is a really good feeling, especially after so many rejections.)
Whose writing inspires you?
Wislawa Szymborska, Adam Foulds, Etheridge Knight, Yusef Komunyakaa, Stephen Dobyns, James Dickey, Margaret Atwood, Rumi, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Lucille Clifton, Brenda Shaughnessy, Tracy K. Smith, Albert Goldbarth, J.M. Barrie, James Baldwin, Xiaolu Guo, Primo Levi, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Tobias Wolff, Ann Patchett, Richard Hughes, E. Nesbitt, Maurice Sendak, Cormac McCarthy, Tennessee Williams, Shakespeare, Homer, Dr. Suess, Miguel de Cervantes, Denis Johnson, George Saunders, Flannery O'Connor, Cesar Vallejo, and Mo Willems, to name a few.
If someone were to write a book--either fiction or nonfiction--about your life, who would you want that author to be?
Truman Capote, but he's dead, so I'm out of luck. He had deep insight into human psychology and a natural ability to get almost anyone to let down their guard during an interview. He was also delightfully wicked.