25th Trillium Award

Poets in Profile, with Nelson Ball

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Nelson Ball is a poet, former publisher (Weed Flower Press) and bookseller at Nelson Ball, Bookseller in Paris, Ontario. Nelson is the author of over 20 poetry books and chapbooks, his latest collection of poems is titled In This Thin Rain (Mansfield Press). In the fall of 2014 Mansfield Press will publish Ball?s new book of poetry Some Mornings. Nelson's latest chapbook, A Rattle of Spring Frogs (Hamilton Arts & Letters/samzidat press) can be read in full here.

In today's Poets in Profile interview, Nelson speaks with Open Book about how he deals with a poem that isn't working, his surprising source of unlikely inspiration and the last book of poetry to knock his socks off.

Open Book:

Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?

Nelson Ball:

I spent a great deal of time as a child without much contact with other children. I lived with my parents for a year in an isolated log cabin at Lake Huron in Bruce County when I was 6 and 7 years old. I spent a lot of time with frogs, salamanders, beetles, mice, water striders, minnows, turtles. They were my playmates. We subsequently lived at several locations in Clinton then moved to Seaforth when I was 8 years old. My first sibling was born at that time. I had bonded strongly with the natural world and not much with people, especially children. I caught rock bass by removing one end from a juice can and leaving the can on its side in the water. Occasionally a fish would go into it and stay there until I picked up the can next day. Maybe it liked the shine of the can. I caught field mice in a wooden shoe. They chewed their way out of the cardboard box I kept them in. I spent a lot of time doing things alone. I had a museum containing arrow heads, a crudely made artificial leg for a horse, a kerosene flare from an old fire engine, a copper kettle, a toy iron, a bell, and numerous other artifacts; a cow's skull, rattlesnake skin, birds' eggs; fool's gold and lots of other things. I made a small handwritten label for each item. The museum occupied one or two 4 x 8 foot tables in my bedroom. My classmates were brought by our teacher to visit. I was fortunate during my early twenties in meeting Barbara Caruso, my late wife, who liked to work alone, too. I've always been reclusive; recently I learned I'm mildly autistic.


What is the first poem you remember being affected by?


There were several while I was in secondary school - E. J. Pratt's "The Shark" I remember most clearly; also poems by Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Earle Birney, E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot. I began to read contemporary American poets such as Allen Ginsberg. I wrote a poem about the Canadian government urging the populace to build backyard bomb shelters. It was a big thrill to meet Ginsberg in the early 1970s. Victor Coleman brought him to visit when Barbara and I lived in Toronto.


What one poem — from any time period — do you wish you had been the one to write?


Maybe two poems by Robert Herrick (1591-1674), "Upon Julia's Clothes" and "Delight in Disorder", "[l(a]" by E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", or "In a Station of the Metro" by Ezra Pound. I read this last poem (it's 2 lines long) in 1964. I was amazed: Is this really a poem, I wondered. The more I thought about it I began to realize I wanted to do that. Maybe I could. I would try. Bill Hawkins had directed me in 1964 toward Imagist poetry. I eventually recognized that had been a life-changer for me. Nonetheless, many of the poems I wrote before 1970 were failures.


What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?


Poop. I'm not the only one nor the first. John Riddell produced a work titled Shit: Nicky Drumbolis published it in 1990. Kemeny Babineau wrote a good one about his daughter in the bathtub. David McFadden wrote a poem with poop in it in the 1960s.


What do you do when a poem is not working?


I set it aside and revisit it next day, next month or next year. Many times I discard much of it and find a core that works. Sometimes a poem that isn't working can become two or three separate poems. Or portions can attach to a different poem. Often, it's the lines I began with that must be discarded because the poem moved away from them. It can be difficult to recognize that when it first occurs.


What was the last book of poetry that really knocked your socks off?


Light by Souvankham Thammavongsa; Frank St. by Cameron Anstee; books by Mark Truscott; From This Condensery by Lorine Niedecker, always. Others, including by Kemeny Babineau and Stuart Ross.


What is the best thing about being a poet?.and what is the worst?


Best is scrutinizing the meanings and sounds of words; listening to them; watching them. Worst is when I fail to give close enough attention.

Nelson Ball (b.1942) was born and raised in Ontario. As a university student in Kitchener, Ontario, he founded Weed Flower Press (1965-74). From 1967-71, Ball worked as a library technician for the University of Toronto Library, and was also a cataloguer at Village Book Store in Toronto from 1970-73. (The versatile Ball also worked as a chauffeur, seasonal forest ranger and record store clerk). He founded the book store William Nelson Books in Toronto in 1972 and ran it until moving to Paris. In 1985, he moved to Paris, Ontario and established Nelson Ball, Bookseller, which is still going strong today.

Although Ball took a twenty year hiatus (1970s-90s) from writing to meet the demands of his extensive career in the book business, his return to writing saw him publish several nature-inspired works of poetry with literary presses, including Bird Tracks on Hard Snow (ECW Press, 1994), The Concrete Air (The Mercury Press, 1996), Almost Spring (The Mercury Press, 1999), At The Edge Of The Frog Pond (The Mercury Press, 2004), and his latest, In This Thin Rain (Mansfield Press, 2012).

In the fall of 2014 Mansfield Press will publish Ball?s new book Some Mornings: a collection of 74 poems written in 2013. For more information, or to order this book, see Mansfield Press. (http://mansfieldpress.net/contact/)

Read Nelson Ball?s new chapbook here: A Rattle of Spring Frogs.
Published by Hamilton Arts & Letters / samizdat press, 2014. www.HALmagazine.com

For more information about In This Thin Rain please visit the Mansfield Press' website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the Poets in Profile interviews in our archives.

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