Vera Falenko, Contributing Editor

Interview: Featured Writer Devon Balwit

Devon Balwit‘s most recent collection is titled A Brief Way to Identify a Body (Ursus Americanus Press). Her individual poems can be found or are upcoming in Jet Fuel, The Cincinnati Review, Tampa Review, Rattle, Apt (long-form issue), Grist, and Oxidant Engine among others. Devon Balwit is the O:JA&L Featured Writer for June 2019.

Falenko for O:JA&L:  To begin, what can you tell us about your earliest influences,Devon? How did your first home shape you?

Balwit:  I was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan and grew up in and around Detroit, MI. My earliest memories are of the chemicals smells associated with the making of art—oil paint and turpentine from my painter-mother’s studio and dark-room chemicals from my photographer step-father. In both cases, I would watch something emerge from nothing—the proportions of a human figure from a blank canvas or from the developing bath in the red-lit darkroom. My mother’s creativity extended beyond the canvas to clothing, cars, dart-boards. Captain Marvel muscled from the back panel of a blue-jean jacket, naked women tempted from the wide legs of bell-bottoms, a rainbow arced over the hood of our olive Chevy, making us an easy mark for the police who always thought we were going faster than we were. My step-father’s photographs were usually concept series—the poems of Rilke, a green-sequined dress making its way around the world a la Carmen Sandiego, the texture of water, the rocks and roots of Mayan ruins, and so on. For a long while, he was the house photographer for a number of theaters and Jazz venues, and our house was frequented by Jazz musicians, both nationally and internationally-known. Our shelves were full of glossy art books. An only child, I told myself stories about the pictures, priming the way for my later and current love of Ekphrastic writing. I would draw next to my parents as they worked and lose myself in line and color. I was illustrating the authors I was currently reading—J. R.R. Tolkien, Anthony Burgess, Lloyd Alexander, Rosemary Sutcliff—or my own stories and poems. My step-dad was a recent Dutch immigrant who taught me early to take an outsider’s perspective to my own culture. Although I’m happy for this wider optic now, at the time, the opinions he fostered set me up for bullying. Creating art and poems was a way to escape the considerable and constant cruelties of my peers, who didn’t know what to make of me.

Falenko for O:JA&L:  Tell us about your formal training. Did you graduate from an MFA program?

Balwit:  At twenty-three, knowing nothing at all about what I was getting into, I applied to six MFA programs. My only criteria were that the school be located on a coast and that it cost me nothing. Thus, I was unprepared in every way for UC Irvine when invited there in the mid-eighties. I had no formal instruction in poetry, no clue what it was like to critique or be critiqued, and virtually no background in the poetic “greats,” in poetic forms, or in the academic language one uses to discuss poetry. Horrified by the workshop process, I made a lateral move after only one quarter into their PhD English program, where, equally nescient, I had to grapple with Jacques Derrida (there, teaching, in the flesh!) and post-structuralism yada-yada… Although I loved reading and analyzing texts, I left before my qualifying exams. I don’t think I’ve ever recovered from the intense posturing and one-upmanship I witnessed in academia and remain happiest as an auto-didact. I want to make my own way in whatever I do, reading what interests me, talking about it in my own voice, unhampered by others’ value-judgements. Recently, I’ve finished all 3,000 plus pages of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Melville’s Moby Dick, Plato’s Republic, Kierkegaard’s Fear & Trembling and Sickness unto Death, and I read widely in history and natural history as well. I do not say this to boast, only to underscore how one does not need an academic setting to grapple with challenging texts.

Falenko for O:JA&L:  How did you start publishing?

Balwit:  Although I’ve written fiction and poetry for as long as I can remember, I published poetry just briefly during my graduate school years, then not again until 2016. At that time, my best friend and I met weekly to discuss books we were reading. One was Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings. In it, a character dismisses an acquaintance thus:

Ethan knew a woman who called herself a writer, but when you asked her what she’d written, she’d tell you ‘I only write for myself.’ Then she would coyly show you her quilted journal, and when you asked to see its contents, she demurred, saying what was inside was for her eyes only.’ Could you be an artist if you didn’t have a product to show?”

I was startled to realize that I was very like that woman, with hundreds upon hundreds of poems, all unseen by other humans. I considered myself to be “a poet,” and a “real” one at that, but if the consensus seemed to be that one had to publish to earn the label—and thus began the cycles of submission and rejection with which I’m sure all of my readers are well-acquainted.

Falenko for O:JA&L:  Who were some of your earliest poetic influences?

Balwit:  I have to give a shout out to Dr. Seuss. I still find his work inspired and am prone to busting out highlights from Fox in Sox (especially The Tweedle-beetle Battle) with my adult students. Another one of my earliest poetic influences was Bob Dylan. I am in the camp of those who applauded his getting the Nobel Prize as I know the wide reach of his lyrical exuberance. I also loved e.e. cummings playfulness and experimentation. Though I rarely read it now, as a young person, I was a devotee of science fiction. When I have returned to the books I dog-eared in my teens, I have often found the writing stilted and even embarrassing. But at the time, what appealed to me was the innovation—sexual, gender, cultural, and scientific. I loved exploring alternate worlds, economies, religions, and languages.

Falenko for O:JA&L:  Which poets do you read now?

Balwit:  I resist listing my favorite contemporary poets as I don’t want to hurt or offend anyone I fail to include. Some more established poets whose work I enjoy are Sylvia Plath, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Philip Larkin, A.E. Stallings, Sharon Olds, Paul Merchant, and Brad Leithauser. I gravitate towards dense, formal poetry that combines narrative with musicality. I love reading through poetry journals and discovering new poets. Whenever I find an artful or especially moving poem, I try to track down the author’s email address and send a fan letter. I’ve gotten some kind replies, and a few have even sent me copies of their books!

Falenko for O:JA&L:  Where else do you find inspiration?

Balwit:  I am inspired by both low and high culture, sources as disparate as Proust and HBO’s Chernobyl. I often write in response to whatever I’m reading—thus my published chapbooks inspired by Sylvia Plath (A Brief Way to Identify a Body), Herman Melville (The Bow Must Bear the Brunt), and Flannery O’Connor (Where You Were Going Never Was), and the as-yet unpublished ones inspired by Marcel Proust, Michel Leiris, and Arthur Schopenhauer. I write many persona poems and poetry that is more autobiographical that grapples with my spiritual quests, my health, aging, and parenting. I write Ekphrastic poems, often from the works of artists who I have discovered on-line. I bumped into Canadian collagist Lorette Luzajic that way, and we published a lovely collaboration (Risk Being / Complicated). Another artist whose work I love is Cristina Troufa. She was gracious enough to let me use her painting “The Lower Self” for the cover of A Brief Way to Identify a Body. I also write a lot of topical, news-based poetry. Finally, I write about family, friends, and students—sometimes to everyone’s chagrin. Truthfully, there’s almost nothing I won’t write about—I even have boxing and basketball poems out in the world.

Falenko for O:JA&L:  Tell us about your writing process.

Balwit:  I write and revise daily before and after I teach adult ESL. I prefer to write alone and to be my own critic, whether or not that means missing some of my weaknesses, crutches, and crochets. Often when I have been edited by others, I’m left with something that no longer feels like my work in my voice. Thus, I’d rather stand and fall on my own merits.

Falenko for O:JA&L:  Do you tend to write free-verse or formal poetry?

Balwit:  I write both and always have. I’m a magpie. If I see a form I like, I copy it. A Portland friend, Armin Tolentino, wrote a nifty 8-line, 2-rhyme form, and I’ve written twenty or thirty of my own since I first saw it. I love the flexibility and control of the sonnet, especially when working with emotionally-charged issues as the tight structure helps ward off melodrama. I very much admire poets like Leithauser and Stallings, etc. who are so adroit with form that you almost don’t notice it’s there—perhaps you only catch it on the second or third reading. Leithauser’s amazing novel in verse, Darlington’s Fall, is the gold standard.

Falenko for O:JA&L:  How do you see yourself in relation to your poetry-writing peers?

Balwit:  Although I’m under no illusion about being a genius whose work will stand the test of time (I live with easy access to Powell’s City of Books and its thousands of forlorn, yellowing poetry books), I resonate with the following observation by Schopenhauer:

As a general rule, the longer a [wo]man’s fame is likely to last, the later it is in coming; for all excellent products require time for their development…

And why? For this reason: the more a [wo]man belongs to posterity, in other words, to humanity in general, the more of an alien [s]he is to his contemporaries; since h[er] work is not meant for them as such, but only for them in so far as they form part of mankind at large; there is none of that familiar local color about h[er] productions which would appeal to them; and so what [s]he does, fails of recognition because it is strange. People are more likely to appreciate the [wo]man who serves the circumstances of h[er] own brief hour, or the temper of the moment—belonging to it, and living and dying with it (from Fame)

This encourages me as I do not work inside academia with its easier access to publication, readings, journals, awards, fellowships, and so on. Although for a brief time when I first began seeking publication, I had fun imitating the styles/themes popular in various journals and seeing whether my work would get picked up by them, I eventually abandoned this game, finding it soulless, and returned to the pursuit of my own interests in the styles and forms that came most naturally to me.

Falenko for O:JA&L:  Does the poet have a role to play in contemporary life?

Balwit:  Although I write a lot of news-based poetry, I am uncomfortable with saying that the poet “has a role to play in contemporary life.” My feeling is we should write about whatever the hell we please in whatever voice we please. We don’t “have a job to do” or a line to tow through our writing. We’re not party hacks churning out cultural dogma. We shouldn’t worry about making enemies or currying favor, and if we are prone to such anxieties, we should ditch our social media accounts so that we remain blissfully unaware of what is being whispered about us. As to poets and writers being given litmus tests of doctrinal purity, that angers me.

Falenko for O:JA&L:  Can you say more about the latter?

Balwit:  Most of the great works I mentioned having recently read are full of anti-Semitic, misogynist, and racist remarks that are disgusting, disappointing, and offensive. I’ve also found that poets, composers, or artists whose work I deeply admire have expressed such offensive beliefs in their private diaries (I think of Nolde, Plath, and Larkin, for instance). Despite these flaws, for me their works retain their greatness—just as their creators, though diminished, retain my admiration. Schopenhauer, one of the worst offenders, is infamous for his views on women. When he writes, “Women are incapable of genius,” that smarts. I’d like to imagine I could have sat next to him at a dinner party and earned his respect. However, rather than throwing the baby out with the bath water, I laugh it off. I assume he wouldn’t have written that if he had known more women like me. Perhaps preemptively, he wrote:

Everyone, even the greatest genius, is unquestionably limited in some sphere of knowledge…Each one bears something morally bad within him, and even the best, the noblest character, will surprise us at times by individual traits of badness…to indicate its kinship with that human race in which every degree of unworthiness and cruelty occurs. (from Ethics)

People are a mixed bag—worthy of admiration and exasperating. I do not think that someone is irredeemably tainted by offensive comments they have made or even less than honorable actions they have done if these things do not comprise the major tenor of the person’s life. I’ve been appalled by the public pillorying of artists and writers, by the mean-spirited quests to silence people and erase their opus when they do or say something that offends. I deleted Facebook at the start of the year and do not miss its smear campaigns or the many subtle and not so subtle way crowds badger and manipulate. I do not like the appeal to emotion over reason. The design of social media seems to encourage superficial and rushed judgments. I wanted my brain back—my ability to focus and make up my own mind at my own pace. Overall, I’ve felt lucky not to be an academic poet as it has allowed me to teach and write without being constrained by the scandals and opinions of the moment.

Falenko for O:JA&L:  Where can people find your work?

Balwit:  For links to purchase my books, to my on-line poetry, to my book and movie reviews, and to other interviews, please visit my website at


About the writer:
Vera Falenko is a 2017 graduate of the Moscow Aviation Institute, a State University. She is a native Russian speaker and a language specialist with fluency in English (English level C2, according to the European frame) and Spanish (Spanish level C1). She is a senior teacher of foreign languages at Alibra School, a private institution in Moscow. Falenko provides selected Russian and Spanish translations for our readers in the Eurozone and in eastern Europe. She maintains an independent book review site, offering book reviews in three languages.

Image: Portrait image courtesy of Devon Balwit.