The Colorado Poet, #27, Summer 2014

Interview with Martin Balgach

Joe Cone, of A Cabinet of Ordinary Ferocities, conducted a conversation with Martin on his chapbook, Too Much Breath, (Main Street Rag, 2014) and we’re able to post it here.

JC:  The title of your new book is the title of a poem which doesn’t explicitly refer to breath; yet breath and the act of breathing can be found throughout.  In ‘What Holds Us”, you write ‘I am so present my breaths feel like knives’; in “On Remembering”, you refer to ‘the music of breaths’ ; in “Exploding Days”, you describe the moment where breath leaves the body as ‘exhaling in the mirror/all I can see are the faces of loved ones/waiting in coffins’ and in “Warmth” you write ‘I can’t imagine/loving life more/for these breaths are going/to drive me to my death’; and in “The Deep Dark”, ‘Tonight, I’ll eat my breaths for supper.’ Reading these lines, I want to understand ‘breath’ in an existential way, a fact of existence lived in its most authentic, profound way. Clearly, a formal preoccupation such as Olson outlined famously in his short essay “Projective Verse” (1950) is not what is meant here (‘the breath, the breathing as distinguished from the hearing’).  What is it that I am to understand by ‘breath’ in the context of your poems, in the context of this book? How can we have ‘too much’ of what seems life sustaining? Is breath, finally and possibly, a form – perhaps, Olson is nearer than first thought – that is, is breath a form that poetry takes? 

Martin BalgachMB:  Jon, that is an incredibly close reading of the poems. I am thankful and flattered to know that the poems resonate enough for someone of your caliber to articulate this question. I’m not familiar with the Olson essay, but I can tell you this: the collection, Too Much Breath, considers breath from the perspective of hyperventilating, almost suffocation, a literal choking on experience and perception and physicality and existence. What a bummer.

JC:  Influence interests me. Perhaps it is an inevitable consequence of having spent a lifetime reading poetry. Certainly, in my case, the question of influence allows me to step back from a poem and understand my appreciation. Here, of course, you help us out: there are epigrams by Char, Zagajewski, Jackson, Gilbert, and Matthews. Can you tell us something about these poets, how they contribute to your work, how they direct its explorations?

Yes, there are many references mainly because I write a lot when I read, and many of the poems were sparked from the poets you mention.

MB:  “Inevitable consequence,” well stated, Jon. Yes, there are many references mainly because I write a lot when I read, and many of the poems were sparked from the poets you mention. The Char epigraph in the begging of the book, “No man, unless he be dead in living, can feel at anchor in this life.” represents Char’s relentless existentialism, and I felt that it set the right tone for the poems that follow. You don’t have to be a poet to feel displaced in this life.

Jackson is my mentor, from the Vermont College days, and I can’t help but constantly be floored by his associative magic and his many epic poems that expose humanity and heart and the very act of poetry. I suppose I hold Matthews in a camp of poets that lay it on the line—Jack Myers too. I just started reading Deborah Diggs, she seems to fit in here as well. There is a generation of poets who weren’t afraid of first person narrative, and meditative poems that inform in an almost inter-subjective way. This intentionality is very different from much of the writing we see on the contemporary scene these days. As a writer and reader of poetry, I like feeling exposed and vulnerable. Why else take part in poetry? It’s not a parlor trick.

JC: The poetry in this collection draws heavily on place, your personal space, where you live, the life you live now. The poetry is familiar, then, to all of us for whom family is a preoccupying focus for daily efforts. We get up because we have to get up, not really because we want to. Then our day begins, with a look in the mirror and a slight shudder. That sort of thing. Yet there’s something else here, too.  I’ll call it the European tradition of Surrealism: an emphasis on narrative directed by associative energies rather than logical ones, and an imagery that startles rather than confirms an ordinary understanding of the world.

Every poem I write starts from a moment of dissonance, usually a slight static interruption in everydayness. But I want to reconcile it, although I usually don’t know how to get there….

MB:  Exactly. Every poem I write starts from a moment of dissonance, usually a slight static interruption in everydayness. But I want to reconcile it, although I usually don’t know how to get there: enter in surrealism, and associative, automatic writing. But I have to go back in and tie the disparate pieces together. I mean, even the dream world requires a translation, once we wake.

I’m obsessed with French surrealists because their wildest ideas are tethered to a basic existentialist. And that existentialism almost becomes discernible in relation to the wild images. In that sense, startling imagery can provide a context, a background for basic, common human struggles. And I don’t think any device can consciously be concocted to create such an outcome, so again, there’s no trickery with the surrealist’s method; it’s raw unfiltered consciousness going through the process of distillation.

There’s no trickery with the surrealist’s method; it’s raw unfiltered consciousness going through the process of distillation.

JC:  I must say the ending to your poem “Too Much Breath” is very powerful, very unexpected. “I have never really loved anyone” is a bleak discovery for the poet to make. I’m reminded of James Wright’s brilliant poem “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” with its last line: “I have wasted my life.” Did you have that in mind when you wrote your final line, or is it simply a fortunate occurrence, an instance of poetic grace?

MB:  Yes, yes, mostly lucky grace. I was reading Ralph Angel at the time, and I wanted to capture his sense, or maybe style, of what I like to call a “gentle sledgehammer.” I wrote that last line and I didn’t know what it meant for the longest time. And as the collection came together, I realized that family and friends would read it and think, “Wow, he’s a sad, calloused jerk.” But as I’ve been reading the poems aloud at events, the “really” has become italicized in my intonation. “Really” meaning that I have never loved enough, with my full self, without selfishness, rather than never-having-really-loved. It’s an interesting, dualistic line. Shocking with any read. I had very little part in writing it, and I continue to try and reconcile it.

JC: Could you walk us through a poem from the book? How about “The Real Lonely Swirls”, a favorite of mine, and another poem which has an astonishingly surprising last line.


The Real Lonely Swirls

so stop listening

and you’ll hear the horse-drawn silence

of time and money blend with the buzz

of every person you’ve ever loved

fitting into one single midnight

their voices no less invisible

than the hum of city lights

as seen from planes or mountaintops—

I know you’ve been straddling these ghosts

like they are lovers wanting to be touched

wait, no, not like lovers

like one night stands

muffled with the diesel sweat of sleepless nights

etched across the dirty paned windows

of red-gray apartment buildings

where the real lonely

is conceived in pleasure

and born of agony

and soon you realize

we’re put forth to learn

how long the longest minute is

while the real lonely move like spiders

flip-flopping through the 24-hour noontime

and I never asked to be tall and bathed

and full of a dangerous blood

that wants to find its way out of me like a dog shaking off rain

today is just another as-seen-by-men-day

and I too feel like a broken lawn chair rusting in the overgrown grass

but we must keep thumbing through these sand dune thoughts

cutting the strings off our kites

setting sail to our dove-tailed ideals

because someday all the love we’ve each forgotten

will get injected back into our veins

then hope will be a weeping willow

whispering to a spring breeze

but for now my coyote heart

has its pink nostrils outturned

to the westward smell of rain 

I’m giggling like a schoolgirl

and yes the world and I and you

are all fighting to hold onto our heat

and all this talking

wails like a baton breaking

the wet-furred curves

of these dog-eared brains

no matter—I’m stuck here listening

to yesterdays float past years

while the aches of leaves and the real lonely

keep drowning into rivers and sewers and seas

swish swirl swoosh

MB: I’m glad to hear that you can take something from that poem. I was apprehensive to include it in the collection. I had written it in a wildly associate, automatic romp, and refined it during a Vermont College one-on-one session with David Ferry. It had gained his approval with edits, and I thought well, that was some expert advice, so I shouldn’t scrap it. The poem tests clichés a bit, and I like that playfulness. It also pushes some boundaries with its images, that are familiar and then at times, unique and a little offbeat. It’s a musical poem too, I and was certainly following a lyric impulse when I wrote it. None of it was pre-conceived, but I edited the shit out of it until is held together and made a little sense. I have no agenda when I write poems. It’s all exploration, and that approach feels genuine. I’m just not a calculated person. I think you can smell calculated poems a mile away, and that’s fine, but it’s not my agenda. Everyone, including me, should be surprised, within reason.

JC: Brilliant, that ‘swish swirl swoosh.’

MB:  Poof. Have you seen my rabbit?

JC: I know you play guitar, write songs. Tell me what music you’re listening to these days, which songwriters you enjoy for their lyrics?

MB:  Yep, music is my meditation; it’s fun, satisfying. I don’t impose much pressure on my music, unlike poetry—where I seem to be trying to accomplish something. My song lyrics differ from my poetry because the lyrics are somewhat connected to the music, so it’s more confined. I also don’t necessarily seek out poetic songwriters, but I’m more drawn to music with an overall emotive impact. I think the new Beck album is wonderfully ethereal. I’ve been into Wye Oak for the jarring noise component mixed with the sweeping vocals. I’ve also been listening to Dead Meadow for their murky, distorted psychedelia. And I’m on a Wilco bing—I dig Tweedy’s real life lyricism mixed with those ferocious guitar licks and contagious rhythms. But I do kinda keep poetry and music separate.