Bob Schofield, Dalton Day, and Key Ballah: I spoke with them all fairly recently. I’d come to know them and their poems through the dual miasmic process of clicking through from one Tumblr blog to the next and through the already active enthusiasm of a woman I want to get dogs with. The conversation with the poets threatened to turn wildly casual at more than one point, longer and flow-ier that these terse little clauses, but it wasn’t a chat “Dropped from a tree’s back pocket”, as BR Dionysius said of a Kingfisher or – per Adam Aitken – “crows consider[ing] life in a decommissioned bomber”.
It was the kind of chat where I reached out to Bob Schofield and asked him – in an echo of his style – to tell me about the time Edward Gorey passed the time as his babysitter by turning into a bat playing a ukulele, or, to put the joke in sensible clothes: what – to him – makes a good influence?
“Well,” he said, “obviously the night was dark, stormy, the whole deal. I was small, barely more than a shadow. I slid under doors and through the cracks between old leather books. But my ears worked, and I heard a beautiful twanging coming from the attic. I drifted toward it, and there he was, Mr. Gorey himself, hanging upside down from the rafters and strumming sadness straight into my heart. “The truth of it is simple,” he squeaked to me in bat-speak. “A good influence is one that makes you excited to go and make something of your own. They light the fuse inside your brain, but the ensuing fireworks are yours.”
Schofield, Ballah, and Day often post a new poem every single day, and this was the game – to see if I could interview these three relatively ‘unknowns’ with a decent following in their own style. The New York Times posts around 200 or so new stories to its website every single day. Hemingway wrote seven novels during his life. So far, Toni Morrison has written eleven. But does any of this matter? Coleridge didn’t even finish a poem and is more than settled into the history of things. What is the 'right’ rhythm here?
It’s just fucking turtles all the way down.
"Lately I’ve been feeling that maybe my devotion to rhythm is slavish, possibly unhealthy, and that perhaps I should take a step back from it,” Schofield told me. “There are other ways to write, and those are well worth exploring. Sometimes it’s like I’m blindfolded and wandering towards the sound of drums pounding through some lightless forest in my head. If the words don’t have the proper beat, the sentences don’t have the right interplay of punchy and meandering, I’m lost. But then I have to wonder if stepping outside a maniacal focus on linguistic rhythm would take me to a similar place, just yield a different task master. Like say I took a few more steps toward linear narrative, would I not end up kneeling before the dark god of story beats? Any way you slice it, language is words. Words are spoken. Its core is organised sound, which is music, and rhythm is a part of that. So there’s no escape really. It’s just fucking turtles all the way down.”
“Rhythm is a natural part of my life,” Ballah said. “As a child my father was heavy into hip hop, and discussion on the topic of rhythm and beat were often had between him and my uncle. My dad was very keen on ensuring that I understood the lyrics I was rapping along to in the back seat. He’d often turn around and ask ‘Do you know what you’re saying?’ Then he’d tell me to write out what I heard when we got home and he’d explain it to me. He was heavy into Slum Village, ATCQ, AZ, Slum’s song tainted was his joint. I actually reflect on this often because it’s where my love for words came from but also my understanding of the musicality and rhythm that words inherently have. It’s probably my one of my favourite parts of writing, manipulating the inherent rhythm in a combination of words to form a greater rhythm in a poem as a whole.”
“Recently I participated in a project where I listened to other people read my work out loud,” Ballah continued. “I was struck with the difference in rhythm, and how it often felt like a completely different piece of writing. I was incredibly taken aback by how the words felt different, like they took on entirely different meanings with the different interpretations of rhythm that my writing invoked … After that initial shock though and that eerie disconnect there was conversation about what the specific pieces meant to every individual who performed and I had a moment of clarity. As people we inherently have our own rhythm, it’s how we navigate and negotiate the world around us, it’s like a fingerprint.”
Rhythm adds up to a book. The mystery is then – as was the case when watching Le mystère Picasso – when to call time, pull the ripcord, and send it sailing off into the world.
Writing was just puzzle solving.
“The first book was like scratching days off a calendar,” Schofield said, “because it literally was a calendar. It was like one of twelve perforated sheets of paper on your desk, only with bird legs and a black octopus floating above it. What I mean to say is the writing was just puzzle solving. I wrote until I knew the pieces I wanted to play with, then arranged them so they fit in thirty different slots. And there were illustrations too, to keep it running smoothly, and the reader’s eyes don’t get too sleepy. So I knew it was ready after one of umpteen different readthroughs, when a calmness in my spine told me there was no more need to tinker. I packed it up and hit‘send’ and disappeared in my little boat.”
Evan Fleischer is a writer-at-large. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Paris Review, Esquire, and elsewhere.