Interview with Ray Ball

“Sometimes I like to rebel in my poetry.”




Coffin Bell: Introduce yourself / short bio / photo.

Ray Ball: I am a history professor, essayist, poet, and runner. I live in Anchorage, Alaska with my wonderful spouse Mark and my lazy beagle Bailey. I like drinking bitter beverages like coffee and IPAs.

CB: What got you started writing?

RB: I have been writing history for a long time, but I hadn’t written a poem (excluding the occasional haiku) since high school until a little over a year and a half ago. Then the words just started tumbling out of me. Since then I’ve written many more poems and started working on some short stories and creative nonfiction, too.

CB: What is the most rewarding aspect of writing?

RB: I love being in the flow of writing. It’s similar to having a really good run. The effort feels simultaneously tangible and invisible.

CB: Do you have a designated space for writing? Tell us about it.

RB: I am a promiscuous user of writing spaces. My campus office isn’t usually a very productive place for writing, but sometimes I can write a bit there in between teaching and meetings. I prefer writing in my office at home. I also have a regular rotation of coffee shops where I go when I need a change of scenery. When I’m in Madrid for research, I love writing at the National Library. I have drafted poems in my car in parking lots and in airports and made notes on my iPhone while out running on the trails. If an idea comes to me, I need to get it down as soon as possible.

CB: Are you a planner or a pantser? Tell us a bit about your writing practices.

RB: Like my spaces, my writing practices are pretty varied. I used to think I could only write first thing in the morning, but now I can write at just about any time and in just about any place the mood strikes. Because my academic writing and the discipline of history requires so much research and the need to treat sources with integrity and care, sometimes I like to rebel in my poetry. A lot of my poems play with history and myth and allow me to envision different alternatives for historical actors. These aren’t necessarily happy endings, but they are ones I can shape in different ways. At the same time, my academic background has made me very willing to revise my poems and other creative writing. Sometimes only a scrap of the original survives.

CB: What advice to new and emerging writers could you give?

I agree with Lucinda Kempe about allowing yourself to be messy. Keep putting yourself out there. Rejection is part of the reality of being a writer, and it can mean the piece isn’t finished. It can also mean that the venue just wasn’t right for that piece.

CB: Who are your influences?

RB: I read widely and in different fields and genres, so I have many. I love early modern authors like Cervantes and Lope de Vega and Aphra Behn and magical realists like Isabel Allende. Holly Tucker and John Demos are historians whose writing styles are just wonderful. I can’t get enough of the poems of Mario Benedetti, Pablo Neruda, Anne Sexton, Joan Kane, and M. Stone.

CB: Physical books or e-readers?

RB: Both. I prefer the tactile experience of physical books, but I read a fair amount of fiction and poetry on my tablet. Sometimes that’s just a lot easier when I’m traveling. I also like to read in bed and the tablet is just more comfortable for me to hold for longer than physical books.

CB: If you could give a PSA to journal editors, what would it be?

RB: Have a good system for keeping track of submissions. There’s really no need to reject someone who has already withdrawn a piece from you after it’s been accepted elsewhere. Most editors I’ve interacted with in the literary community (and the academic one!) have been awesome even when they’re rejecting me.

CB: Taphophobia is the fear of being buried alive. Tell us about your fears.

RB: I have a legitimate fear of encountering an unfriendly mama moose or a hungry bear on a run. I’ve had to change routes or wait out a moose a few times while out on the trails. I also have a severe fear of edges. It’s a shame because I love nature and hiking, but there are many hikes in Alaska that I can’t do because coming down a narrow trail near a cliff edge immobilizes me.

CB: What draws you to dark fiction?

RB: The human experience is full of both light and darkness. Dark fiction captures that.

CB: How does the darkness in your piece enhance the work?

RB: In my poem “Doll Operatives” the historical subject matter was already dark. At its heart this a poem that is about families being torn apart by war and political events. There really is a doll in a glass case in the Museum of the Revolution in Havana. She was used to smuggle intelligence and bullets. But the doll is also a metaphor for the loss of innocence. During Operation Peter Pan many Cuban children came to the United States and, although some of them were reunited with family, many were not.

CB: Tell us about your book / publication / web site / promotion.

RB: I’ve recently had poems appear in Cirque and in West Texas Literary Review. My most recent book, Treating the Public: Charitable Theater and Civic Health, came out last year with LSU Press and focuses on the development of public theater and its relationship to other urban institutions in the Spanish and English empires during the sixteenth and seventeenth century. I’m working on a new history book about patronage and spy networks in Spanish Naples in the seventeenth century and on a chapbook of poems that explores historical themes, especially those that intersect with stories about the lives of saints. I tweet @ProfessorBall.


Read Ray Ball’s Doll Operatives” in issue 1.1 of Coffin Bell!