Virtual Salon #12 with Ned Balbo

...the landline's cut & no one's listening 
-Ned Balbo, from "Vortex"

The imaginary book party below is the twelfth in a spontaneously invented series–how did this milestone come so fast? In March, events I’d planned to launch The State She’s In fell apart, which in some ways felt like the very smallest loss in an enormous crisis and in other ways was hard. Through this blog feature, I hoped I could do a small good thing for other writers in my position. I’m having fun with it, but it’s a little crushing that we still need to conduct most of our lives virtually.

Reading Ned Balbo’s sixth collection is a powerful and eerie experience right now because of its mix of isolation and intimacy. The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots, winner of The New Criterion Poetry Prize and published in December 2019, takes its title from a poem about plants at the Cylburn Arboretum. A companion shows the speaker how leaves recoil at human touch. After they walk away, he wonders about “green fronds unfolding till/ the surface of their sea is calm again”–as if ease can be restored after an interval of shocked separation. Balbo’s title phrase recurs in a poem called “With Magdalene, near Daybreak,” when a resurrected god tells Magdalene, Touch me not. Balbo wonders why Jesus would return only to “order her away” and how she would have felt: “she who’d grieved already,/ shocked, stopped where she stood,/ the world strange, unsteady// though he was radiant…” This book, written well before the novel coronavirus, is about social distance.

Many of the poems in this (paradoxically?) touching collection come from the intimate-yet-distant process of reading other writers; Balbo is also a translator and some of these pieces, especially in the resonant opening sequence including “Vortex,” “began as translations but were transformed along the way,” as he writes in the notes. The book’s middle section focuses on Balbo’s tangled family and I found it, too, intensely moving. Balbo writes often about being raised by his birth mother’s sister, whose story he didn’t learn until his teens. Here he tells of a sister born fifteen months earlier who was raised by their grandmother as a daughter, then later worked in her father’s business–as his “sister.” “There’s just so much/ to carry and keep hidden,” Balbo writes in her voice, “…knowing he exists/ makes me feel more alone…”

I don’t mean to make it sound, though, as if The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots is all about ill-omen and the failure to connect. Loss often frames, and makes more meaningful, romantic closeness rescued from ruins, and Ned’s compassionate imagination illuminates the book. You’ll also see from his answers below that he loves cats, music, and a nice Montepulciano.

If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

It depends on the poem. For “In Baltimore, 2004,” which takes place in an apartment above Baltimore’s best-known Indian restaurant, I suggest something from their menu for your meal with a friend: Kashmiri naan, two entrées  (chicken korma, for carnivores; benghan bhartha for vegetarians), and rasmalai for dessert (sneak it in from a different Indian restaurant that serves it). And wine—definitely wine. Maybe a Montepulciano.

For “Social Drinking of a Solitary Couple,” one stanza of which is about a long-ago Long Island New Year’s Eve: tall whiskey sours with maraschino cherries (the cherries are a must).

For “Rondeau: ‘Meaningless Sex,’” gin and tonics (or gins and tonic, for you grammar buffs): sipping a few with the right person is what the poem’s about, after all.

Finally, “For the Garden’s Architect,” which takes place partly in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights and partly in its aftermath (i.e., Hell), anything and everything you can gobble or guzzle. You’ll be ending up in Hell anyway, so carpe diem, as the poets say.

If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

Fortunately, yes, I’m writing, though the ripple effects of our universal lockdown and general chaos are having their influence. My new poems are marked by plague masks, wild animals running around the spaces we’ve abandoned, corvids of bleak omen (“corvid” is only one letter away from you-know-what), and the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine’s 2019 exhibition, “The Value of Sanctuary”—a theme that was more prescient than anyone could have imagined.

As to how I am really, it depends on the day and the time of day. But I’m finding refuge in music, as usual: these days, Roger and Brian Eno’s collaborative ambient album Mixing Colours, Andrew Bird’s Echolocations: River, and Sufjan Stevens’ Planetarium, a collaboration with James McAlister, Nico Muhly, and The National’s Bryce Dessner.

How can your virtual audience find out more?

My website’s collection of on-line links is good for convenient one-stop browsing and is more inclusive than my inexcusably dormant Facebook author’s page. There are also two readings that might pass the time for friends sheltering in place: one that Jane and I gave just about a year ago at the Cross Cultural Center in Williamsburg, Brooklyn [poet and essayist Jane Satterfield is Balbo’s partner], and one from a month earlier at the Newburyport Literary Festival where I was paired with the always magnificent January Gill O’Neill.

And since The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots is partly a book about family, you can learn more about mine (and meet Wyatt, our trusty polydactyl guardian) at Eileen Tabios’ Poets on Adoption blog.

Nibbling on gigans and glosas

I’ve been sick in a not-clearly-diagnosed way, so I’ve been resting and trying to read the signs. What “resting” looks like for me almost always involves books (the big exception was during my second pregnancy, when concentrating on anything, even the radio, made me throw up–but you don’t want to hear about that circle of hell). I’ve been keeping on top of hard work deadlines, but otherwise just trying to nourish myself–and also, through reading verse, nourishing the poems I’m somehow drafting each day for National Poetry Writing Month. That may count as a kind of rest, too, in that I’m not worrying if my drafts are good or bad or building toward something. The judging part of my brain isn’t working well and I’m done with the teaching year, so even though the soft deadlines will eventually come round to face me, for the moment I may as well play.

I therefore have a few recent poetry collections to recommend, all of which inspired me to keep playing. The first of them I carried around Haverford on Accepted Students Day last weekend–did I mention my son decided to go to Haverford? Since the book is all about family, loss, and finding consolation in tiny moments amid the chaos of middle age’s mundane struggles–which for the author involves single motherhood in New York City, and a child with special needs–it felt like the perfect thing to tote in my purse next to the ibuprofen I shouldn’t have been mainlining. The Miracles by Amy Lemmon is big-hearted and sad and sweet and wry and lovely. Here’s “Another Day,” about shopping for grain-free crackers when you really, really want an almond croissant.

The Bones of Winter Birds by Ann Fisher-Wirth went into the purse a couple of days later, at a very low moment, when the strep seemed to be bouncing back, or was it something else–could it be mono, the nurse practitioner asked? A couple of needle stabs later, the verdict is probably not, but this snow-covered beauty of a book was great company in uncertainty. The first poem in Fisher-Wirth’s book is a gigan, a form invented by Ruth Ellen Kocher that I’d never tried before, so I had to experiment immediately, and you should go for it, too. (As soon as you start getting stuck you have to repeat a line, which is handy. My prompt to you: write a gigan about something BIG.) After I scratched that itch and jumped back in, I was moved again and again. There is a sequence mourning a sister Fisher-Wirth didn’t know well, and there are also a number of small gems, talismans of grief transformed into beauty, like “Vicksburg National Military Park”. Here’s a slightly longer one, funny-heartbreaking: “Love Minus Zero.”

Like Fisher-Wirth’s book, Martha Silano’s Gravity Assist is deeply ecopoetic: she’s trying to rocket out to the big picture, taking in species loss, disastrous pollution, and other terrors of the anthropocene. Silano is one of our best science poets, in my opinion, but she’s also a specialist in awe, exuberant about beauty and love and the good things that persist in this damaged world (for the moment!). Her gorgeous “Peach Glosa” reminds me I’ve never successfully attempted that form…hmm. Also, it’s not online, but if you’re a tired and overextended woman irritated by exhortations to tranquility, you need to get this book and read “Dear Mr. Wordsworth.”

And to come back to cosmic signs: my Saturday afternoon binge was 3 Nights of the Perseids by Ned Balbo. These poems aren’t quite as astronomically-sited as Silano’s, despite the title. They’re starriest in their concerns with power–often power misused–and persistence, particularly how poetry, art, music, and speech itself just keep shining on. Balbo’s iambic riffs on social media are funny-creepy (check out “deadbook”); the elegies for Prince, Bowie, and other artists are beautiful; and his testimonies from Adjunctlandia are incisive and priceless.

I read the latter while reclined on the sunroom sofa, window open; from there I can scent lemon balm and mint on the chilly breeze. The air makes me feel connected to a world I’ve felt quarantined from. The poems do, too. I’ve reviewed titles by three of these writers in fancier venues than this blog, and shared meals with all of them at conferences, coming to know them in that distant-intimate way you sometimes know poetry compatriots, whose brains you’re on good terms with even if you don’t hang with them in person very often. What a balm, a bright and breath-restoring rest their company is–definitely preferable to prednisone and gummy vitamins.

My main excuse to go outside: photographing books on the weed “lawn”

Amygdala, shut up

While I boiled myself in the bath Sunday morning, emerging so puce-colored and limp I had to start drafting a blog post because I was just too weak to go buy groceries for my hungry family, I thought about how I’d woken up at five a.m. in a panic about my Twitter handle (too long! full of inconvenient caps! wait, is Twitter even case sensitive? I’m so stupid!).

I suffer from post-talking insomnia. If I’ve said anything at all to a friend, coworker, sales clerk, etc., I fret later that I’ve been insensitive, dumb, or boring. After forty-something years, I can almost always let the worry go after one bad night: really, if it’s still on your mind after the first cup of caffeine you should apologize, and if not, life will probably struggle on.

Each new way of talking, though, dials me back to middle-school-level fits. Facebook almost killed me. I had to sign up. First, I was researching poetry networks in the late aughts, and it seemed pathetic that I hadn’t participated in any virtual ones except for an email listserv. Second, I was planning on half a year in New Zealand, and for all Facebook’s faults, it really is one of the best ways to keep up with friends and family internationally. Finally, over a meal at the West Chester Poetry Conference, Ned Balbo told me to suck it up. Actually, he was very polite, but he did tell me that once you figure it out, you only need to spend ten minutes a few times a week to be a decent FB citizen, which turned out to be true, although when you’re really procrastinating that flickering feed can be dangerously mesmerizing. What destroyed me about the medium, though, was that standard writer’s dilemma of sussing out your audience. How could I post to modernism scholars, my local go-out-for-a-beer friends, my cousin the truck driver, poetry journal editors, college administrators, stray Republicans I’m on uneasily-friendly terms with, and, yikes, former students all at the same time? Starting a blog presented the same problem: for whom was I writing? Last summer I signed up for Twitter to follow my department’s new feed, although I didn’t really mess with it until last week, as a new year’s resolution to just try it, urged on by a few friends and that NYT article people keep sending me. I asked my daughter for advice on tweeting and she said “always be funny,” which of course completely paralyzed me, and not only because I’m rarely funny on purpose. It’s the same who’s-listening-question: funny to whom? Who really gets my lame jokes anyway except Chris and my college friend Scott Nicolay (@methysticin) and certain other poetry nerds, especially repeat-students whom I’ve forced to read everything I love and who have spent shocking amounts of time listening to me chatter?

Besides audience anxiety, or linked to it, there’s the identity question. Each medium invites you to present some facet of yourself, perhaps strategically. It might behoove me to talk like a poet-scholar-endowed-chair in all publishing arenas, which FB and Twitter certainly are, but when I hear other people doing that, it sounds bloodless at best. The funniest things I could tweet are mostly weird comments from my kids, but I don’t want to be a professional mom either—too many people are ready to define middle-aged women that way and I think about lots of things besides my fascinating children, thanks. I have strong feelings about politics and contemporary culture but rarely have an insight or cause to trumpet that someone else hasn’t already blogged about more eloquently; my head’s in the poetry-clouds so I’m just not fast enough. And while Neil Gaiman can tweet about his exercise regimen and still be interesting to people, well…let me know when you really want to hear what brand of mass-marketed tea I’m sipping while I’m watching some TV show six months later than everyone else.

For the blog, I decided I’ll be a poet/ poetry-reader who argues that everything is relevant to poetry and poetry is relevant to everything. Which isn’t much of a decision, really. In Facebook, too, I settled on ignoring the “groups” function and just posting occasionally about any random experience that seems at least slightly interesting, funny, or noteworthy, and not worrying about who’s listening. Basically, I’m just being the same me everywhere.

What works for me is to approach posting the way I approach drafting a poem. That is, I don’t know whom I’m writing for—some ideal geeky tender-hearted reader maybe who likes Emily Dickinson, David Bowie, Dorothy Sayers, Farscape, Langston Hughes, Ursula K. Le Guin, H.D., Thomas Sayers Ellis, Cake, Kim Stanley Robinson, Billie Holiday, Homeland, The Decembrists, Philip Pullman, Rickie Lee Jones, Gwyneth Jones, Rafael Campo, Octavia Butler, cussing in a pirate voice, dark chocolate, red wine, good bread, that handmade French ewe’s milk Roquefort the cheese lady downtown sells (can you tell my other resolution is to eat and drink less?). Anyway, if I’m imagining any reader at all, it’s that dactyl-obsessed slant-rhyme-loving totally anonymous unsexed calorie-padded soul mate. I’m not afraid to tell hir everything, and even better, if s/he doesn’t respond, my feelings can’t be hurt. After all, even if we never speak, I know s/he totally gets me. (I do think about specific readers, including editors, when I revise poems, but while I fiddle with poems for years, a blog might ferment for a day before publication.)

I don’t know if adopting that attitude is genius or an exceptionally bad career move, but this will be my mantra next time a hashtag experiment leaves me sleepless: it’s just like every other kind of writing. Be interesting. Be truthful. Be generous. All at once, in a 140 characters or fewer, several times per week @LesleyMWheeler. While simultaneously producing books, articles, and poems in a constant fever pitch of inspiration as agents, publishers, reviewers, and fans cry up to the office window in faint but passionate voices: “I’m hir!” Okay, not likely.