June Spotlight: Letters in the Mail


Twice a month, The Rumpus brings your favorite writers directly to your IRL mailbox via our Letters in the Mail program.


Paul Hlava Ceballos

Paul Hlava Ceballos is the author of banana [ ], winner of the AWP Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His collaborative chapbook, banana [ ] / we pilot the blood, shares pages with Quenton Baker and Christina Sharpe. He has fellowships from CantoMundo, Artist Trust, and the Poets House. He has been featured on the Poetry Magazine Podcast, Seattle’s the Stranger, and has been translated to Ukrainian. He currently lives in Seattle, where he practices echocardiography.

The Rumpus: Tell us about your book? How do you hope it resonates with readers?

Paul Hlava Ceballos: I like to think of banana [ ] as part poetry and part reportage. The title poem, a 40-page collage, follows the history of bananas in the Americas. Each line comes from a separate source text and includes the word “banana.” There are 296 sources, from 18th century botany texts, 19th century history books, and 20th century declassified CIA documents. The story of this fruit is the story of the Americas, the painful and urgent history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, colonialism and their sequelae in corporate land-theft and resource extraction. 

The first section of the book includes formal and persona poems, and elegies to migrants. The last section is more personal, and includes a long poem about my mother’s reticence to share with me how she was once precariously documented. 

I hope this book has an emotional resonance that connects the histories of this fruit (and the other economies we in the global North are tied to) to the present-day violences, uprisings, and triumphs of individual people.

Rumpus: What book(s) made you a reader? Do you have any recent favorites you’d like to share?

Going way back, probably The Hobbit and Where the Sidewalk Ends! But hundreds of stories along the way, including family lore, kept me reading and imagining. Recently, We Had Our Reasons by Ricardo Ruiz moved me a great deal.

Rumpus: What’s a piece of good or notably bad advice or insight you received in a letter or note?

Ceballos: A friend responded to a poem that I sent them with “What is it you want to say with this?” That may sound harsh, but they’re a close friend, and well, the poem wasn’t working. Ultimately, the advice really helped me with my manuscript. I had to ask myself: What is the necessary thing I’m writing for?

Rumpus: Is there a favorite Rumpus piece you’d like to recommend?

Ceballos: Luther Hughes, always. The beauty, the depth, the breathtaking places his sentences carry us to. His three poems beginning with “The Wind Did What the Wind Came to Do” are just stunning. 

Rumpus: What is your best/worst/most interesting story that involves the mail/post office/mailbox?

Ceballos: Years ago, a friend mailed me a poem on a postcard, so then I mailed one back to her. Over a couple weeks, what began as a small text offering became watercolored postcards, and then paper stitched with twine, and then decoupage and clay-plastered postcards embedded with keys, and then even more complicated and weirder objects. The larger the postcard/object, the less likely it was to arrive at its destination, but there was something magical about knowing that a unique thing was made just for me, somewhere out there, never quite reaching its destination.

Rumpus: Banana [ ] (2022, University of Pittsburgh Press) is a collection informed by and, at times built from, found text from primary sources and other documents. What was this process like for you? Did you find yourself down any deep research holes? 

Ceballos: Yes! It took seven years to research and write the title poem. I did three years of research before I wrote the first word. Working with found material that took me so long to gather was actually pretty scary—I was worried I would mess it up, or not do justice to the banana workers in the text. And I did mess it up, often! But for years, I kept writing, kept pruning the pieces that didn’t work, re-writing sections, cutting more, until I figured out what I was trying to say and had the first draft. After that, during the pre-publication process, my research continued for another year or two as I typed up endnotes and annotations for the banana poem, which can be found in full on my website.

Rumpus: I read in your bio that in your day job you practice echocardiography (a type of medical imaging of the heart similar to an ultrasound). Frankly, I didn’t know what this was until I looked it up, but some of the images I see online are kind of beautiful. Has looking at the way heart activity presents itself visually shown up in any way in your writing? [This might be a stretch here!] 

Ceballos: Not a stretch at all! During the pandemic I started to write healthcare poems as a kind of emotional release. Also, I am very interested in the ways that cultural inequities appear as personal health outcomes. There may be more research and poems in that in the future.

But I agree with you—what could be more poetic than using sound to look into the human heart? While it is more of an analytical part of my brain that I use in the hospital, the images are striking! And I think that knowing the intricacies of cardiac structure and pathology doesn’t take away from that, but somehow serves to deepen the mystery and beauty of the heart’s hemodynamic function.



James Allen Hall

James Allen Hall (he/they) is the author of two book of poems, most recently Romantic Comedy (Four Way Books, 2023), selected by Diane Seuss for the Levis Prize, and Now You’re the Enemy (University of Arkansas, 2008). They have received awards from the National Endowment of the Arts, the Lambda Literary Foundation, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Their book of lyric essays, I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well, won the Cleveland State University Poetry Center Essay Collection Award and was published in 2017. With Aaron Smith, they are the co-host of Breaking Form: A Podcast of Poetry and Culture. They teach at Washington College, where they direct the Rose O’Neill Literary House. 

The Rumpus: Tell us about your book? How do you hope it resonates with readers?

James Allen Hall: Romantic Comedy is a book about the violence that prescribed stories like “boy meets girl” do to the people who have to actually live outside of (and within) the borders those stories build and patrol. We need more liberatory models. That one-heterocis-whitesupremacist-size-fits-all needs a makeover. Defund those stories, and let’s burn the closet. I hope it resonates with folks who need some kindling and some kerosene. Because in this America, I think we might need it very, very soon.

Rumpus: What book(s), film(s), and/or music would you say most informed this collection? 

Hall: James Baldwin’s Another Country is a towering inspiration, as is Susan Mitchell’s Rapture. I write about William Friedkin’s eerily prescient movie Cruising (1980) which I see as a metaphor for the onset of the AIDS pandemic

If there were a soundtrack for Romantic Comedy, it would be the lovechild produced one wild night when Cher’s Heart of Stone invited Hole’s Live Through This over for drinks and things got way out of hand

Rumpus: What’s a piece of good or notably bad advice or insight you received in a letter or note?

Hall: Tony Hoagland, a former teacher, once wrote this to me in a letter: “…in many of your poems, I felt that you. . . sometimes end up with an overdecorated no strategy—although a lot of fireworks and bright foliage displayed.” The letter began with this caveat: “you can consult yourself to see if this has any validity.” In typical Tony fashion, he’d sewn up some indispensable wisdom inside the weapon he used to wound you.

Rumpus: You’ve published both poetry and creative nonfiction, and you co-host the (very fun, very smart!) podcast Breaking Form with fellow poet Aaron Smith. What do you see as the connections between your writing and the shows you put together?

Hall: Thanks for saying that about Breaking Form! To folks who don’t know the show, I describe Breaking Form as a torrid quickie in a dirty motel that has a fabulous poetry library. Aaron and I have a great time revisiting poets we love (Reginald Shepherd, Ai, Audre Lorde), devising games like Top Bottom Verse, and interviewing heroes like Carl Phillips, David Trinidad, and Diane Seuss.

I love history and thinking about how our present moment is made possible by those who came before. In Romantic Comedy, I wrote a poem that takes place in a college history classroom, learning about the Icenic queen Boudica’s 1st-century AD revolt against the Romans. Though it’s really about the boys in my class who painted stick figures fucking outside my dorm room, writing on the wall: “AIDES kills faggs dead.” There really is a force in this world that wants people like me torn apart. 

The animus that inspires the sensibility in that poem (“Early English History”) also drives Breaking Form episodes. We discuss how teachers can shift the canon by giving our students poetries from historically resilient communities. It’s crazy to me, for instance, that the number of college courses devoted to Wallace Stevens far eclipses courses devoted to Gwendolyn Brooks. A cursory view of the Table of Contents in anthologies and poetry craft books on my shelf confirms the same white supremacist bias.

And, since I’m up on my little soapbox, let me just add: Sometimes, I find that when people talk about why poetry matters, they often do so in ways that privilege tropes of the ennobling and purifying poem. And sure, I love those poems too. But those terms often mean the polite poem with embedded sensibilities. Those same sensibilities show up in rhetoric of oppressions, and that makes me uncomfortable.

What about the poems that wrestle with dark subjects in complicated spaces? Sexy poems and poems that roll in the dirt. Poetry that recognizes there’s blood at stake. That trans people are four times more likely to experience violent assault. That queer youth are four times more likely than their straight peers to attempt suicide. That these statistics grow exponentially more dire when you take an intersectional approach that considers ethnicity, class, and geographical marginalization. What about the poetry for those who are trying to survive the things that are trying to kill them? 

Rumpus: When did Romantic Comedy (2023, Four Way Books) begin for you? Or, how did this collection of poems come together to form the narrative within Romantic Comedy

Hall: Romantic Comedy came together very slowly, over about 12 years. After I published Now You’re the Enemy, my first book, I felt a literal closing, an aperture shutting in me. And then, a turning. What to face next? I didn’t know exactly, but I knew the method would be even more self-searching, piercing, raw, vulnerable. 

I wrote what I needed to process. The end of love, the deaths of my father and grandmother, the childhoods that ended when they did. Almost every day, I called a friend and begged, “Tell me a story.” I was so sad. 

Time passed. I was raped. That was followed by suicidal ideation that scared me. My friends told me stories again. The stories they told me let me out of myself. And so did writing poems. Then, a friend said, sarcastically enough so I got his point, “Oh, I wonder how another homosexual became suicidal in America!” 

It is such a relief to know your story isn’t unique. What a burden lifted off. This has been borne before.

I watched Thomas L. Higgins slap a pie in a homophobe’s face on repeat.

I finished a version of the book. At least, I thought I did. It turns out I wanted to be done before I was actually done. I sent the manuscript out, and it would get close, but ultimately: no. Years of that. I almost gave up. 

Then my friend Miguel Murphy read the manuscript, tinkered and radically re-envisioned and asked “what if….” about the poems. His work on it helped me to see it all more clearly: the shape of the argument, the emotional arc. I began to think more consciously about authorized identities, genres and genders. And that helped birth the last few of the poems, some of the most macro of them. The ones that lens out, give an aerial view of the battleground. Tactical, stoic, unflinching. The book desperately needed that. And then I knew it was done. Because the emotional call in the book had met the limits of my thinking.