Offbeat poet

Jonathan Ball catches heat for his unconventional views on poetry

Winnipeg writer Jonathan Ball’s work blurs “poetry, prose, fiction and essay” into a voice and form that’s only his. 

From a choose-your-own-adventure poetry book to a publication of plays that would be impossible to produce, no one is creating the kind of work he is. Ball is so unconventional that some would say (including Ball himself) he’s the black sheep of the local literary community.

That said, last year Ball was awarded the Aqua Books Lansdowne Prize for Poetry at the Manitoba Book Awards for his most recent work, The Politics of Knives, a book he admits isn’t absolute poetry.

“I don’t really see myself as a poet primarily, for the simple reason that I think my worst work is in poetry,” Ball says. “My best work is in experimental prose that sometimes blurs into poetry, which is how I view [all of my] books.”

Although it isn’t Ball’s chosen medium, he still feels poetry achieves a purpose other mediums don’t.

“Poetry makes language strange,” he says. “At a base level, it defamiliarizes language, so it allows you to focus on language play and to think about language itself.

“Poetry frees you from the burden of having to use language to communicate something. Bad poets don’t understand this, and focus all their efforts on trying to communicate through poetry, which seems paradoxical and senseless to me.”

Ball has taken some heavy criticism for such opinions, especially when it comes to poems written about emotions and feelings.

“I’ve taken a lot of heat for saying that, but all I meant is that most emotive poems are generic, both in what they express and how they express,” he says. “There remains a real irony in that fact, that poets who want to express their own unique, personal emotions will routinely select the same images and the same poetic form as every other poet that is trying to express that same emotion.”

Simply, Ball feels that today’s poets need to deliver more than “mediocre, publishable poems.”

“[Poets] have a duty to be great, to grasp for greatness,” Ball says. “Writers, myself included, need to be more ambitious. That, and following an idea to its end. I feel like a lot of the books I read go halfway. The writers don’t commit fully to their ideas and they compromise their vision at some point or they have no discernible vision.”

Poetry may have been Ball’s main focus as of late, but readers will be seeing something different from him in the near future.

“In Jan/Feb 2014, University of Toronto Press will publish my book John Paizs’s “Crime Wave”, an academic monograph about a postmodern cult film classic that was made in Winnipeg in the 1980s,” he says. “[The film] was released in 1985 and is an important example of early postmodern cinema and a significant precursor to subsequent postmodern blockbusters like Adaptation.

“Then I am co-editing an anthology of humorous experimental English-Canadian poetry called Why Poetry Sucks. Those two things are the focus now.”

Published in Volume 68, Number 17 of The Uniter (January 22, 2014)

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