[Acid Western is currently available for pre-order for a few more days to offer a discounted rate to the community — order your copy here! Join us on Saturday February 27 at 7pm to launch Acid Western. We’ll be joined by community member-poets Constantine Jones, Matthew Gahler, Orchid Tierney, and Michelle Whittaker. Event invite and link here.]
Greetings! Thank you for talking to us about your process today!
Can you introduce yourself, in a way that you would choose?
Hello! I am honored and humbled to be in this space as a collaborator with The Operating System.
Why are you a poet/writer/artist?
Being a poet (which for me entails being an active reader as much as it does actual writing) is a means to think about and process the world around me, my place in it, particularly the privileges I have as a straight, white, male, working to mitigate the harm of those privileges, while beginning a dialogue with a reader, a literal point of connection, if asynchronously.
When did you decide you were a poet/writer/artist (and/or: do you feel comfortable calling yourself a poet/writer/artist, what other titles or affiliations do you prefer/feel are more accurate)?
At some point my writing practice became something more intrinsic, vocational, and this is when I felt comfortable and confident in that identification. But also, more importantly, I began to see being a poet as only one aspect of being in the world. Writing helped me to consider and inform who I was in the world, and that it was important for me to take on additional, constructive work. In my case, this work manifests itself in my teaching and in my work as a union organizer.
As a teacher, working in the classroom is a way to explore ideas and to apply literary study, working with students to practice revealing, understanding, and dismantling the obfuscated structures that dominate each of our lives, in different ways. The City University of New York university system is one of the largest and most diverse public university systems in the country. As a white professor in this space, it has been vital for me to consider my own position of privilege and how to be most effective towards, and supportive of, the needs of my students, trying to understand the issues that my students may be facing, issues that I by and large do not have to deal with, considering this in the development of curriculum that is potentially useful and relevant to their needs and validating to their experience. While each student’s life and background will differ, part of my job as a teacher is to empower their perspective, to offer tools for students to engage with the world through their experiences, and to assert the validity and vitality of their voice through their writing and coursework. More structurally, I’ve done things like institute labor based grading contracts in my classes to help mitigate the so-called meritocracy of typical grading schema perpetuated by the neoliberal academy. As an adjunct, the primary issue that I run up against is economic precarity, but it’s been important for me to understand and connect this to the issues my students might be facing, to link our struggles, though I do not experience the hierarchical violences of this country to the same degree that they might.
In addition to my work in the classroom, I found it important to get more directly involved in the issues confronting CUNY in general, specifically the racist austerity that undermines the quality of my student’s learning conditions. This is why I volunteered to become a union delegate, to help shift the conversation and trajectory of the union. For example, the group of organizers that I caucus with, Rank and File Action, managed to help pass a resolution that explicitly calls for the union to begin strike preparation, something the leadership had resisted, even as CUNY faces cut after cut from Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Being a poet, then, has led me to these more active roles, and I’m grateful for the impetus.
What’s a “poet” (or “writer” or “artist”) anyway?
What do you see as your cultural and social role (in the literary / artistic / creative community and beyond)?
Poetry led me from the internal to the external, to working more directly in the world, and for me that meant getting somewhat further afield than the literary community. I think working to be as collaborative and constructive as possible has been a general motivation in this regard, which is one reason that I came to The Operating System, first as a fan and then as a volunteer (more on this below).
Talk about the process or instinct to move these poems (or your work in general) as independent entities into a body of work. How and why did this happen? Have you had this intention for a while? What encouraged and/or confounded this (or a book, in general) coming together? Was it a struggle?
I’ve never really been able to sit down and write a poem. There’s always some external thing that sets off a line of thinking that becomes a poem down the line. Plus I’ve worked 2–3 jobs at a time for the past 9 years so I don’t have a tremendous amount of time anyway. As a result, I developed a practice of writing notes, lines, phrases, stanzas, on the move, usually while commuting, and then composing those into “standard” 1–2 page poems. These notes were usually pretty structured, as I was trying to make them into poems as I was writing them, a restrictive mistake, I think now.
At some point in the process of writing the poems that would become this collection, I realized all of these 1–2 page “poems” were part of a bigger sequence, and I began to get rid of their individual titles, I began to literally cut out the parts I liked best or thought were the most interesting and started to arrange them into the sequences they appear as in the book.
Putting together the collection in this way opened up my process and gave me permission to work differently. I stopped trying to write singular poems and I started writing the collection first, thinking of the collection as the object, instead of the individual poem.
Did you envision this collection as a collection or understand your process as writing or making specifically around a theme while the poems themselves were being written / the work was being made? How or how not?
About halfway through the process, I understood that I was writing a collection, which helped me see how everything I was writing fit together, or how it could fit together. Figuring out the title also helped cohere everything (more on that below).
What formal structures or other constrictive practices (if any) do you use in the creation of your work? Have certain teachers or instructive environments, or readings/writings/work of other creative people informed the way you work/write?
While completing my MFA at City College, Michelle Valladares and David Groff were immensely supportive in terms of their responses to my work. Even then (2011–2014), I was writing weird little poems that weren’t particularly narrative, and Michelle and David both encouraged that experimentation in such a way that I began to feel comfortable in that mode. During this time, my friend Karin Olander was also fundamental to facilitating a sense of a poetics to pursue.
Less personally, the world-building in the work of Ursula K Le Guin and Jorge Luis Borges stands out as influential to the shape of the poems here. In different ways, there seems to be a shimmering contour of strange yet familiar worlds in their works, and I wanted to attempt something similar in a collection of poetry.
More broadly, all of the musicians, artists, writers, thinkers that are listed in the “liner notes” portion of the acknowledgements page were all vital to the aesthetic texture of these poems, in some way. These poems don’t exist without that resonance.
Timothy Morton’s theory of agrilogistics was also important to thinking about this collection. Agrilogistics is the idea that agriculture is a kind of algorithm that has been upgrading itself since humans first began to cultivate plants and animals on a large scale, beginning in Mesopotamia (which is why those references pop up in the book). As agriculture continued to be optimized by humans, it continued to upgrade itself and mutated into different forms and resulted in new technologies and all sorts of things: writing, kings, aristocracy, etc., etc. The trajectory of human history, civilization, globalization, begins there, is an outcome of that, and that we’re looping through, iterating through that original input. This quality of looping repetition that seems to dominate life in the 21st century United States/west is a primary concern of this book, how this country keeps replaying the same traumas and tragedies, of racist police brutality, cycles of poverty, repression and marginalization, played out on stolen Indigenous land in the ongoing legacies of settler colonialism.
Speaking of monikers, what does your title represent? How was it generated? Talk about the way you titled the book, and how your process of naming (individual pieces, sections, etc) influences you and/or colors your work specifically.
The acid western is a small sub-genre of western films that started being made in the 1960s, which are essentially anti-westerns, or countercultural westerns. When I came across the name I was immediately drawn to it as a title and thought that it could be a unifying concept for the poems I was working on.
The book isn’t exactly a western in the sense of the typical genre, but the poems are concerned with the west in terms of capitalism and its entanglement with the repeating, reverberating myths of manifest destiny’s justification for genocide and (North) American exceptionalism, which continue to influence the imaginary archetype of what it means to be “American” and the money-hustle-bootstrapping death cult and general worship of wealth we see in today’s version of the United States; the perpetuation of those myths as a kind of iterative loop. So that would be the western part.
The acid part works on a few different frequencies:
-acid in the sense of the hallucinogenic, mutagenic, malleable, and collapsing ontologies and realities of each day spent in the 21st century west; and if the former are viewed as a description of a state of being, there is a sense of atemporality caused by that liminal state, in this case the looping repetition and effect of the day to day, whose essential character seems the same and fixed;
-in the sense of sharp-tongued critique;
-and lastly, in the sense of disintegrating and melting all that down to construct a just, inclusive and dignified place to be in the world.
What does this particular work represent to you as indicative of your method/creative practice? your history? your mission/intentions/hopes/plans?
My hope is that this work will represent an articulation of a relatable and useful phenomenological impression of an epoch.
What does this book DO (as much as what it says or contains)?
The last line of the book in particular seeks to directly and literally connect to the reader. Through that connection, I hope to posit that the struggles for justice in the United States, and globally, particularly those that might be further afield from one’s own experience, are a matter of collective action, and that the collective begins to be built one person at a time, connecting individual struggles to collective ones, caring about those that are not directly related to you. How does an idea translate into praxis out in the world? This is a question I want to prompt with the last line of the book.
What would be the best possible outcome for this book? What might it do in the world, and how will its presence as an object facilitate your creative role in your community and beyond? What are your hopes for this book, and for your practice?
I hope that this book will encourage readers to seek to understand the interconnection of the ongoing social (and ecological) violences being carried out, day after day, all over the world. I hope this book will be a point of resonance for readers that offers some clarity to move forward with; a point of connection that helps to facilitate the work of dismantling the violent and oppressive systems that dominate the lives of many.
Let’s talk a little bit about the role of poetics and creative community in social and political activism, so present in our daily lives as we face the often sobering, sometimes dangerous realities of the Capitalocene. How does your process, practice, or work otherwise interface with these conditions?
The issues of time, information, and living paycheck-to-paycheck fundamentally inform the structure and content of the poems. Beyond that, as I hope I have conveyed, reading poetry, prose, and theory, alongside writing poetry, has been a way for me to seek to better understand not only the ruinous structures that manifest themselves in this world, but also my place and role within the perpetuation of those structures, working to mitigate those effects, working to undo these effects and those structures. The process of being a writer (and the work which that entails beyond just writing) has been a way for me to develop a knowledge base, with one project or line of research informing the next, to seek to always try to see and know more, to always try to be better out in the world.
I’d be curious to hear some of your thoughts on the challenges we face in speaking and publishing across lines of race, age, ability, class, privilege, social/cultural background, gender, sexuality (and other identifiers) within the community as well as creating and maintaining safe spaces, vs. the dangers of remaining and producing in isolated “silos” and/or disciplinary and/or institutional bounds?
Well, broadly, I would suggest that any system conceived under or within an oppressive system, such as publishing within capitalism, will by and large bolster and exacerbate the oppressions enabled, perpetuated, and profited from by that system — white dominated, patriarchal, heteronormative, ableist, hierarchical, financially exclusive, opaque — a reflection of the systems in the United States and capitalism at large. How are these struggles addressed structurally, from the point of conception, of what it means to publish, either as a writer, editor, or publisher?
One reason I wanted to volunteer with The Operating System was because it directly challenges these systems of oppression in publishing and beyond. As a volunteer, it was possible to assist in a collaborative and significant way, working with authors and cohorts, working on initiatives at the OS that model an actually existing alternative to the exclusionary and capitalist microcosm of the publishing world, offering resources and community beyond just the book object for capitalist consumption, even more so now with the launch of Liminal Lab, providing additional means of collaborative and empowering support, a node in the network of solidarity. Looking inward to turn outward, how can I personally, given my context as a straight, white, male, help to facilitate that network?
Robert Balun is an adjunct professor at The City College of New York, where he teaches creative writing and literature. He is the author of the poetry collections Acid Western (The Operating System) and Traces (Ursus Americanus Press). His poems have appeared in American Poetry Journal, Reality Beach, Powder Keg, TAGVVERK, Tammy, Prelude, Barrow Street, Apogee, Cosmonauts Avenue, and others. He is also a union delegate for City College, and a PhD student in English at Stony Brook University.