Poet Spotlight: Stacey Balkun on the elusive in history and mythology

Stacey Balkun
Stacey Balkun. (Photo by Karl Ault, Kault Photography.)

Stacey Balkun’s poetry has been described as nuanced, insatiably curious, and fearless. She is the author of two chapbooks, Lost City Museum (ELJ Publications 2016) and Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak (dancing girl press 2016), which has recently been nominated for an Elgin Award. She is also co-editor along with Catherine Moore of Fiolet & Wing: An Anthology of Domestic Fabulist Women Poets, a teaching artist at The Poetry Barn, and Chapbook Series editor for Sundress Publications.

Your most recent collection of poetry is Lost City Museum. Tell us about the project and how it came into being.

Oddly enough, the phrase “Lost City Museum” came to me after a poetry reading by New Orleans poets Elizabeth Gross and Geoff Munsterman. Both read fascinating poems about loss, water, and preservation: all of the themes linking my most recent poems. The idea of a lost city and a museum commemorating it made me realize exactly how this project would come together.

Lost City Museum by Stacey BalkunI’m interested in how these poems incorporate imagery of both the concept of museums as buildings for artifacts and objects kept static and preserved behind glass cases, untouched, and imagery of water in the form of sea, rivers, and rain as a constantly moving force. Can you talk about what draws you to this kind of imagery? Did the imagery provide a focus for forming the collection or did you discover the theme after having written a number of individual poems?

I’m fascinated by weird, under-known history as well as mythology, both of which seem elusive to a degree and ever changing, ever moving. I wanted to somehow capture that tenuous energy to reflect an emotional landscape. Some of these poems were written during my MFA, and some came later. I lost my father about a month before my wedding. For months I wondered, how can a person feel the most lonely at a gathering of friends and family meant to celebrate her love? I struggled to write about this tension, and I think images of ocean and rain or desert and drought helped me explore and understand that odd momentum of gain and loss. This type of tension has always been there in my work, yes, but as these poems came, I sort of re-discovered it and saw a thematic thread that helped order the poems, though not necessarily narratively.

Jackalope Girl Learns to Speak by Stacey BalkunYour previous collection, Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak, was recently nominated for an Elgin Award. Tell us a little about this collection. Did you have a different approach for the writing of this chapbook?

Yes — completely! The book started as two poems, which were actually imitations, in which Jackalope-Girl was “Rabbit-Girl.” Once I figure out that she was indeed a Jackalope-Girl, the poems just came. I had always struggled to write my own story of adoption, but fabulist elements gave me the distance and creativity to tackle the tough subject matter. It no longer felt autobiographical once it became Jackalope-Girl’s story rather than mine, and I was able to pull material from jackalope folklore to create a sort of sustained mythological narrative.

How did you get started as a writer? What keeps you writing?

You know, I’m really not sure — I remember being a little kid writing poems on the playground in elementary school. I really wanted to study the Titanic, but when I realized it would probably be gone by the time I was an adult, I wrote a poem about it instead — at like, 7 years old. In middle and high school, my best friend always wrote and read poetry which inspired me to do the same.

What keeps me writing lately is the hopes that a young reader will find these poems and they may save her. Lately, I’ve been writing the poems that I needed as a young person: poems that question patriarchy, engage with fairy tales and the stories girls are taught to believe and the roles they’re taught to inhabit, and poems that explore the history of female surrealist painters. I keep writing because there are conversations we must have and stories that need to be told.

I love this idea of writing to save young readers. Was there an author or poet who you felt really spoke to you when you were young? How did connecting with their words help you?

I was lucky enough for poetry to have a huge presence in my life during middle and high school. The Dodge Poetry Program brought poets into my school plus hosted a Student Day each year of the Festival, and my senior year, I was able to go to a weekly arts program where I met other poets from other high schools. So in a way, it was more about knowing there was a community that saved me more than a singular poet. It was seeing my instructor, who made a living and a life in poetry, that gave me confidence that I had something to offer the world; that I could actually have a career in the arts.

Do you feel community is important as a writer? How do you stay connected?

Incredibly! I attend readings here in New Orleans and support local writers as much as possible. I stay connected via Facebook and attend conferences when financially feasible. I volunteer as Chapbook Series Series Editor at Sundress Publications and help out at Five Oaks Press to help bring other poets’ beautiful books into the world. I review titles when I can. I absolutely adore the poetry community over at Poetry Barn where I began as a student and now lead poetry workshops. I firmly believe we have to be here for each other and constantly encourage each other to make beautiful things!

Name one poet no one knows but should.

This question froze me for awhile. Two poets who I don’t think get the credit they deserve are Corrinne Clegg Hales and Cecilia Woloch. Both are such inspiring, brave writers who have truly influenced me and my work.

What advice do you wish someone had offered you when you first started writing?

Write what you want. Don’t be shy, and don’t be afraid to get weird.

What can the world expect from you in the future?

Hopefully poems about the lives and works of women surrealists, and fairy tales about two young girls in the suburbs. I’ve had these two projects in the works for awhile, but I think they’re finally finding their form.