Interview: Jonathan Ball

The cover of your book of poems, The Politics of Knives, is incredibly unique, where did the idea come from? Butterflies tend to be a symbol of rebirth/renewal in their ability to transform from one form into another. Does the “nailing to the wall” symbolize anything that is within the book?

The cover is a photo by Robert and Shana Parke Harrison that existed prior to the book’s existence. I love their artwork and when Coach House Books asked if I had any cover ideas I sent them this photo.

They hated it, thinking it was too obvious — violent photo for a violent book. I think the exact word was that it was “unsubtle.” I eventually convinced them of its glory.

The reason I wanted this image is precisely because it is not subtle, because it serves as something of a metaphor for brutality against beauty — but a brutality that at some point becomes beautiful itself. I felt that was a nice way of summarizing my aesthetic.


“In Vitro City” was filled with a ton of imagery, creating depictions of bombs dropping and waking up in a world that doesn’t seem to make sense, that can be applicable to the world we currently live in. What was the inspiration for this piece? In addition, what does the line “erasers at the ends of penises” mean?

I read Nathalie Stephens’s book Paper City, which is incredible, and I loved her title, and around that time I ran across the phrase “in vitro” somewhere and was holding the book and “In Vitro City” appeared as a phrase in my mind. Often I just like a phrase and think it would make a great title and then come up with an idea to follow from the title, which is what happened here.

The obvious thing seemed to be to write a long poem about a city where things exist in some state of flux and then I settled on the flux/transition state of demolition. I feel that life itself is a process of falling apart and so why not metaphorize life as a city in collapse.

The line “erasers at the end of penises” is a metaphor for ICBMs.

In your words, The Politics of Knives is a book with poems about violence and narratives, and this can be seen in a number of the works within the text like “In Vitro City,” where you describe scenes of bombs being dropped repeatedly. Were these themes inspired by any specific event that has taken place within the world?

No, but by the world in a broad sense, which I see as a place of ceaseless, nightmarish violence.

The amount of words on each page varies as you go through the words, and some pages only have a line. Is this a method to draw emphasis to that specific line in order to portray the message further and leave no room for misinterpretation?

Yes and no — it’s a technique meant to draw emphasis but often to lines that are most susceptible to misinterpretation. I like it when people misread literature and I work to produce lines that have actual legitimate meanings and are not nonsense but can be interpreted multiple ways.

Nevertheless, it annoys me when obvious things get misinterpreted, things that are obvious to me. Like when I wrote “twelve awaited another” it seemed obviously an allusion to Judas but I’ve had reviewers assume bizarre things like I miscalculated the number of muses in ancient Greece. One reviewer took my mention of “Count Westwest” in a poem about Kafka’s The Castle as a reference to a writer of Harry Potter fan fiction who has that Internet handle. Which is moronic. Count Westwest is the count in Kafka’s The Castle.

As a book of poetry, this is the first time I am seeing such an experimental and diverse array of prose. What made you decide that erasure poetry was the best style for The Politics of Knives?

There actually isn’t any erasure poetry in The Politics of Knives. It just seems like there is, because the title poem, “The Politics of Knives,” contains black bars like text is redacted — and then other poems have strange gaps in logic between sentences and it feels like they are fragments from a larger whole.

But there is nothing beneath those bars. There was no larger whole. I added those bars like I would add words, not to cover things up but to build, to serve as breaks for rhythm.

However, I do mimic the style and tone of erasure poetry throughout and deletion/erasure is a persistent theme. I don’t like to write erasure poetry, however. I prefer to mimic the style and tone of experimental techniques more than I like actually using them. Otherwise the techniques limit you and you can’t get vicious enough with the language, you’re stuck with the source text’s language, which is often tamer than I want.

Sometimes, I use those techniques. But more often I mimic them and judge my success or failure on whether or not people assume I have used the techniques. People keep calling that particular poem an erasure poem and so I guess I won.

In the beginning of the book, there are two texts from Plutarch and Fitzpatrick, what was the significance of using these two quotes and how what how should they function in relation to the overall text?

They both relate to assassination. Literal, political assassination in the case of the summary of Caesar’s death and a figurative, capitalist assassination (aiding your self-suicide through consumerism) in the case of the Fitzpatrick quote.

Throughout the texts, there is an inconsistency with the formatting of words on the page, and it’s very interesting and unique. How does this impact the work? What made you want to format your work “unconventionally”?

If you are referring to how some poems are prose and others are lined and one is centred and the margins on the final poem are thinner, then the answer is that I try not to default to any standard format and instead let each poem self-select its best format.

What were some of your inspirations when writing the pieces that make up The Politics of Knives? Can any of those be seen within the works?

Some are obvious, like the poem about Kafka’s novel The Castle or the poem about Hitchcock’s movie Psycho.

Often my inspiration is simply a formal challenge. I wanted to write a poem with black bars like a censored document but where I didn’t actually erase an existing text. Instead, I wanted to do almost the opposite, suture fragments together using the black bars. So I just started working through the logic of how I might achieve that and why I might do it and I ended up with the poem.

Even things like the theme and what the subject of the poem might be about will come about that way. I am a very analytical author. I proceed in a very analytical manner, overall. Once in a while, I have some emotion I want to pour out but usually that produces boring poems. For the most part, I have an intellectual idea or challenge and I try to make it work.

I like to come up with an idea that shouldn’t work, and then see if I can succeed with it. “To Begin,” for example, is my attempt to write a bunch of lines that sound like the first lines of stories that never continue, but then string them together in a way that suggests an entire story has unfolded already, but cannot be told.

I often return to this concept, a story that is so horrible that the narrative voice breaks down and cannot continue to tell it properly.

On your website, you mention that you help writers experiment in innovative ways to allow them to break through their own blocks. Have you found that this has assisted you in your own work as well?

I think writing is more or less a game of analyzing problems and finding solutions, and that it is best approached in an emotionless manner.

That said, I usually shove my emotions in there somewhere and there’s a lot to be said for the therapeutic qualities of writing. However, it is usually safe to assume everyone would be bored by your emotions and try to push past them into some more interesting realm at some point during the work. Use the emotions like an anchor to grab and hold, but then stay above deck.

Often the best advice for writers is to calm down and disconnect emotionally from the work you are doing. Save your anxiety in a bottle called the poem. My ideal writing session is one where I wring every bit of emotion out into the text but I am just a cool cucumber, totally disaffected while working.

In 2014, you won the “Most Promising Manitoba Writer” award. How did this impact your career as a writer? Did it make you want to experiment with your craft further?

I bought a new computer with my prize money, the best computer I had ever purchased. I thought that it made sense to invest the money in my supposedly promising career.

I have been lucky enough to win a number of awards now, and what I have learned is that it is best to be grateful and feel lucky and ignore the fact. There is serious danger in being emotionally connected to the reception of your work. I have worked hard to honestly not care whether or not people like my work. It does not bother me in the least when I receive a bad review (I just find stupid reviews annoying). When I win an award I smile and am happy but I do not take it seriously, it is meaningless.

Winning awards are like winning roulette. It is dangerous to think that when you win it is a result of something you did. There’s a green 00 on there and so there is no possible system.

Right now my daughter has a copy of my latest, unpublished manuscript sitting in her room, unread. Zero interest in reading it — she said she wanted to read it but there it is, unread. My daughter, whose opinion means the world to me, except in this one area where it does not matter to me. She’s her own person. Not everyone likes the same things as everyone else.

I mean, it would be nice if she liked my writing, but it’s not important. The writing is what’s important, not whether or not anyone likes it. Writers wrap their ego up in the world and it paralyzes them. The world ruins everything! Get used to it, do not expect more. I do not even get upset by rejection anymore. I just wish I was so “zen” about the rest of my life, my non-writing life.
Your writing is very experimental and unique and this text includes a number of different forms and elements of creative writing, such as erasure poetry, in order to make one larger collective piece. What is your favourite form of writing to work on when it comes to your craft?

I don’t have a favourite form, that’s why I keep moving around. I don’t believe in developing a unique, individual style. I think that is death to a serious writer. Unfortunately, it’s also a good business decision.

Dr. Jonathan Ball [photo credit: Michael Sanders @electricmonks] writes fiction, poetry, screenplays, and criticism and teaches literature, film, and writing in Winnipeg. Visit him online at, where he writes about writing the wrong way.
Chris Lawrence is a third year student at Brock University that is currently pursuing a degree in English Literature & Creative Writing while also taking an interest in content creation online, social media and activism.

This interview was originally written as an assignment for Natalee Caple as part of the Brock University Creative Writing Program.

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