In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Anthony Ceballos

by Feb 13, 2024

Q: One of the lines of your poem, “Glassful of Prayer,” is used as the title of Volume 26—“wreckage of once was.” Where did your own title come from? What was the impetus for you to take readers on this poem’s journey? 

A: One February day, I was faced with a blank page, alone with my writerly anxiety, and all I could think was, there’s nothing there. For some reason it brought to mind a glass. What does the glass hold? Alcohol? A prayer? And what happens if we feel both have failed us in some way?

Much of what I write revolves around reconciling the devastation of addiction and alcoholism I witnessed as a child in the adults around me. In this poem’s case I was thinking of my father whose life was cut short due to his own addictions. I never had a chance to meet him. That’s a very strange fact I have trouble wrapping my head around, that I will never meet my father.

I believe he would have snapped his fingers to change his situation if he could have, as I believe anyone dealing with addiction might, but life is never that easy, and his was the worst kind of outcome. The speaker of the poem is at the beginning of a lifelong journey to avoid his father’s fate and the finalization of that age-old adage “like father, like son.”

The particular line, “wreckage of once was,” is for me everything one stands to lose or has lost to addiction, all the stupid, irresponsible things we do in the midst of our addictions. The hope is that we find a way to build something new from that wreckage.

Q: I enjoyed hearing you read your work at Water~Stone’s reading this November; I always like understanding how an author hears their own work. What is your process when practicing for a reading?

A: For me, it is a tremendous part of a poem’s creation. From the moment I write the first words, I am speaking them aloud. As a draft progresses, I will often record myself reciting it as both a rehearsal of sorts and as an editing tool. After a draft is complete, I will speak it multiple times until its voice is found. The words on the page and the auditory expression are both equally important and necessary in my writing.

Q: This story of a father’s death and alcoholism is echoed in earlier poems; “A Poem About My Hair” published in Sleet Magazine and “Shot Glass Narrative” published by Midway Journal. What new experiences do you find occur as a writer as you return to this theme? Do you think you’ll return to this theme again?

A: As I’ve gotten older, I have understood more the complexities of my father’s life situation, as well as the complexities of addiction. I suppose I’ve always been somewhat keyed into those things, being raised with alcoholism so close at hand, but certain perspectives have come only with time’s passing and further life experience. I find also as I get older my need to write with full compassion and empathy only grows stronger. Where once I might have felt merely angry, frustrated, or hurt by my father’s absence, I now feel a more intricate array of emotions, still for his absence, but also for him. I imagine he will be with me in my writing for some time to come. Oddly, I feel closer to him now than at any other point in my life.

Q: Your previous work has also dealt with colonization and resistance; you had a poem as part of Pangea World Theater’s Poetry in the Windows Placekeeping Project. What role do you see poetry playing in relation to educating and interacting with the community at large?

A: I firmly believe the creative has the potential to spark new thoughts and ideas in any viewer. With Pangea’s Placekeeping Project and what I wrote about South Minneapolis’s beloved East and West Lake Street, I like the thought of someone who might have read it recalling their own cherished memories of the great thoroughfare. There’s a profound connection in that, and an even deeper appreciation for Lake Street through that connection. 

There is something about the visceral quality of poetry, the melodic, the rhythm and cadence, the rawness of an image, that hits in a way so unique to its form. If you add the experience of hearing it read aloud, just a voice and the words and the exchange that happens with an audience…in that I find possibility truly infinite. You will hear not only my story, you will hear the stories of my family, of the wicked, ongoing aftereffects of colonization and displacement on Indigenous people, how it affected my mother and her family and how I’ve carried that into my adulthood, you will hear of the cruelty of the stigmatization of addiction in this country, how it silenced my father and began to eat away at me. Most importantly: You will hear.

Q: What writers inspire you? What novels or poetry books do you read or re-read?

A: I am inspired by so many authors. I am grateful everyday to work at Birchbark Books and Native Arts in Minneapolis, Minnesota, owned by the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe writer Louise Erdrich. Over my years there, I have come across so many wonderful books and writers that I cherish to this day.

Of course anything by Louise, and anything by her wonderful sister Heid E. Erdrich, who was just named Minneapolis’s first Poet Laureate!! Tommy Orange, Kaveh Akbar, Danez Smith, Joy Harjo, Layli Long Soldier, Michael Kleber Diggs, Billy-Ray Bellcourt, Patti Smith, Lynette Reini-Grandell, Joan Didion, Sun Yung Shin, Mona Susan Power, Kao Kalia Yang…I mean we could be here for months…at least a year if we start talking about books!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: In the now-now: Answers for these wonderful questions!

In the bigger now: Assembling a manuscript, which is quite the task. It is always shifting its shape, catching me off guard with unexpected inspiration or the slow burn realization of parts no longer working. It has had at least five different titles and any number of pages. It had a photographic element at one point. It still might have a photographic element. It’s been every font and every font size. It’s been double spaced, single spaced, one and one half spaced…

I am also enjoying writing every day for the sake of writing every day, be it poetry or prose. I am doing everything I can to nurture the creative spirit in whatever form it takes, whether writing, photography, drawing, long walks, reading, etc. If I am not nurturing the creative self, then I am not whole.

Anthony Ceballos is a poet/bookseller/enthusiastic reader/ all right cook. He lives in Minneapolis and can be found penning staff recommendations at Birchbark Books & Native Arts. In 2016 he was selected to be a Loft Literary Center Mentor Series mentee. In 2022 he was part of the inaugural Indigenous Nations Poets retreat in Washington DC. He is a first-generation descendant of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.

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