This is what happens when Jonathan Ball aims for “a very normal poetry book”

Unconventional collection appeals to readers who both love and tire of poetry

Winnipeg-based writer Jonathan Ball calls himself the Poet Laureate of Hell, which is Ball in a nutshell: fun, inventive, and kind of dark.

For Ball, it signals to readers that he doesn’t write conventional poems.

“The weird Venn diagram I’m after is the audience that loves poetry but is sick to death of poetry,” Ball says.

This fall, Ball launches The National Gallery, which he says was influenced by Gary Barwin, Aaron Giovannone, Jenny Boully, Natalee Caple, and Rainer Maria Rilke.

He has the following message for his unconventional audience:

“I want them to know that this was my best attempt to write a very normal poetry book for them,” Ball says. “And I am sorry that it ended up as a bunch of poems about Leatherface and school shootings and my dead iPhone and how poetry has failed the world and how the universe is a nightmare. I tried to write about flowers and cute puppies, but this is what happened.”

But make no mistake, Ball wrote this book as a way of pushing his craft.

“My goal for this book was to engage with things I have avoided, like confessional lyrics and expressing my feelings in a direct fashion, and yet not sacrifice my experimentation, humour, and conceptual complexity,” Ball says. “I tried to write versions of the poems I hate writing that I would love.”

After four books of poetry, Ball has realized what he needs to do to keep producing.

“The most important part of the writing process, for me, is to treat it like a job, like digging ditches, and not let yourself get precious about it, to have regular scheduled times to write and then force yourself to write whether you like it or not, and so on,” Ball says.

“I also think time spent planning to write, outlining or making notes or thinking through the project in an analytical way, is of primary importance. Then in the moment, in the writing session, you have to really be open to trying things and doing tests.”

Jonathan Ball
Jonathan Ball

What’s different this time is that he worked on this book, as well as the manuscript for his upcoming book of short stories, as a stay-at-home parent to two toddlers while also taking on freelance work, including teaching university classes.

Ball’s focus in these busy years is his family and his writing career.

“It’s busy and stressful a lot of the time, and I don’t have much free time for relaxing or ‘self-care’ or whatever you want to call it, but I can’t let myself slack on the writing front,” Ball says. “If I stop now, then I will never start again. It happens to people all the time.”

Ball considers himself a professional writer, not an amateur or a hobbyist, which to a certain extent simplifies his life and his decisions.

“I don’t have Netflix, I have The National Gallery coming out this fall, and another book of short stories coming out next fall, and I just got a grant to finish a novel. I would like to sleep and go on a bike ride, but I can only do one. That’s how it goes.”