Knife-Work: An Interview with Jonathan Ball



By Maurice Mierau

Jonathan Ball is the author of three recent books of poems, Ex Machina (BookThug, 2009), Clockfire (Coach House, 2010), and most recently, The Politics of Knives (Coach House). He completed a PhD in English at the University of Calgary and now teaches English, Film, and Writing at the Universities of Manitoba and Winnipeg. He’s directed a number of short films, and is the former managing editor of dANDelion magazine. Jonathan also writes the humour columns “Haiku Horoscopes” and “What Rappers Are Saying.”

You can read the opening of Ball’s new book on TWR here; for an early comment on the form and theme of The Politics of Knives, check Doug Barbour’s blog here.


One of the distinguishing features of your work is your self-awareness about form and convention. Many Canadian poets, it seems to me, plug away producing the same poem over and over without much sign of self or medium-consciousness, almost as if modernism never happened. Why does awareness of form and its presence in the text matter to you?

Because modernism happened. Maybe some future war will obliterate all traces of the past hundred years. If so, post-WW3 writers will have an excuse for ignoring the literature of the last hundred years. I don’t have any such excuse.

So Dr. Ball, why do so many readers, including me, still love Philip Larkin? Please help.

It’s obviously still possible to write excellent eighteenth- and nineteenth-century (and seventeenth-, etc.) poems. I just don’t see why anyone should. We have a few hundred years of those already. We can enjoy them and love them, but do we have to keep producing them?

You have an unusually intense interest in film for someone who writes experimental literature—you’ve even had a short film (Spoony B) on the Comedy Network. In The Politics of Knives, there are two sequences that address film directly, one called “Psycho,” that re-imagines the Hitchcock masterpiece as a fragmented prose poem, and then “K. Enters the Castle,” which re-imagines Kafka’s incomplete novel as a film. Then “He Paints the Room Red” is about a filmmaker, or possibly a deranged performance artist. What is the connection for you between film and writing?

Since I have some background in both film studies and film production, and of course love film, it seems natural to carry such things over into my writing. In addition to what you’ve noted above, I’ve also worked as a crew member on a number of Winnipeg Film Group films, including shorts by Mike Maryniuk and Solomon Nagler. I used to be the short films programmer at the Gimli Film Festival as well.

Formally, the film cut and the poetic line break have always seemed to have some connection for me, and the filmic manner of “thinking in images” has obvious parallels in imagistic poetry.

In The Politics of Knives, most of the poems either address or engage with film directly or have some filmic device at their core: “K. Enters the Castle” describes a slow steadicam shot that is on one narrative level the very consciousness of K., and then in “That Most Terrible of Dogs” no real filmic reference occurs but the text itself proceeds as if in the manner of just such a slow steadicam shot, moving toward the edge of the realm of Hades to encounter Cerebus, past which the book cannot proceed. So on the formal level I’ve tried to incorporate somewhat cinematic movements, and on the content level that same cinematic sense can also prevail.

The title sequence, “The Politics of Knives,” features text that is blacked out or redacted, in almost every line. It’s a bold formal decision to redact part of a poetic text. What are you up to?

I wanted the text to seem like it had been censored, as if by a government agency, an appropriate choice for a poem that on one level is about political assassination and thus a document or record of political terror. There’s a suggestion of censorship as violence there as well. At the same time, I wanted some disjunction and a way to knit various phrases, in a less jarring way than a line break would. The sutures are hidden by the black bars, but the black bars themselves also operate like sutures. Even as, in some ways, the redaction of the text constitutes a “cutting up” or “cutting out” that plays into the overall motif of knife-work.

At your Winnipeg launch on Sept. 11 you made a remark about the violence inherent in narrative. Many writers talk about that. What does it mean for you, in the context of your work?

The comment was that we tell stories to order the world, to shape the random chaos of the world in a way that expresses our desires and makes sense and brings comfort to us—and we use violence for the same purposes, and this troubles me. The use of violence and narrative to similar ends, and the way they can’t truly be disengaged from one another, troubles the role of the author for me. Since film and video remains the dominant cultural form for narrative at the current time (even with the growth of the videogame industry, the cultural imagination remains locked, in my view, to film and video), I wanted to engage with that art form while still playing within and staying rooted to my beloved literary realm. I find that violence, its varied purposes and its conceptual force, its transformative power and cultural omnipresence, is my major thematic preoccupation.

In the sequence “To Begin,” which is partly about an act of domestic violence, I’m intrigued by the language. For instance, “The mist dissolved what it did not need” takes a verb and noun combination (mist dissolved) that is usually intransitive, and then adds a predicate. Since you produce many sentences with unusual syntax, I’m wondering how you work with the structure of sentences in your writing or revision process?

A lot of the time when I use odd or shifting grammatical forms, as in the example you give, the purpose is to mislead the reader, to set up an expectation and subvert that expectation. The effect I want is a slipperiness to the language, so that you aren’t sure what you’ve read, and everything seems unstable and disorienting. Also, a lot of the time I’m turning some inanimate or abstract force into an active agent—here, the mist is imbued with agency and consciousness and supernatural power through the grammatical shift. In that particular poem, I’m trying to pile up the sort of lines that typically begin horror stories or images you would see in horror films, but then add a sense of poetry and forward motion by altering or somehow revitalizing what would otherwise feel worn.

The point being, in this instance, to suggest that the narrator of the story isn’t effectively able to tell the story, due to its horror—an inversion of the sober, third-party narrator of the conventional horror story, who relays the terror in clinical detail. If a story is truly horrific, shouldn’t the teller be somehow rendered speechless, unable to process and thus produce a telling? Unless the teller is participating in or promulgating the terror, which of course becomes a theme in a poem like “Psycho,” where the disjunction works more to reveal an odd patterning of thought, a psychosis.

Who do you read these days that keeps you going back to the keyboard? And how come?

Tony Burgess. In Burgess’s fiction, the violence of what is occurring distorts and in some ways makes impossible its easy telling. He’s also blurring genres in various ways, while remaining anchored to the horror genre, and both of these hallmarks of Burgess’s work makes him my current object of fascination. Ravenna Gets (Anvil, 2010) begins as a short story collection, but each story is interrupted when characters who are not part of the narrative literally burst through the windows and murder the protagonists. Eventually, this short story collection falls apart and becomes a novel about a town that decides to murder the neighbouring town, as if cornered by its own events. There’s an instability to Burgess’s work also, where characters suddenly become other characters, and so forth. His best known work, Pontypool Changes Everything (ECW, 2009), is effectively about a zombie virus that is passed on through language, and I don’t know if you can get more brilliant than that.

I know you’re a really energetic writer, so can you say something about other projects you’re working on that still haven’t appeared?

I’m planning one more (perhaps one last) book of poetry, called The National Gallery. I think I’ll follow my poetry about books (Ex Machina) and poetry about theatre (Clockfire) and poetry about film (The Politics of Knives) with poetry about visual art. Since I’ve been working primarily in prose-poetry, at least in the books, The National Gallery will be almost entirely lined poetry, conventional verse forms, although when I say “conventional” I don’t exactly mean it, of course.

Before that, I’m currently revising an academic monograph on the Canadian director John Paizs that focuses primarily on his 1980s films, specifically Crime Wave. It will be called, imaginatively, John Paizs’ Crime Wave.

I will then complete a short story collection called The Lightning of Possible Storms that also has some novelistic qualities. Then a debut novel called The Crow Murders. I’m planning a graphic novel called The Eye Collector as well. Most of this stuff is in draft 5 or 6, although Lightning and National Gallery are still creeping toward draft 1. I work slowly, despite appearances, and it’s less energy than a lack of focus that has me chasing all of these partially complete projects.

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Maurice Mierau

Maurice Mierau is editor of The Winnipeg Review. His new book of poems, Autobiographical Fictions, is just out with Palimpsest. His previous book, Detachment: An Adoption Memoir, was recently shortlisted for the 2016 Kobzar Literary Award.