Poet for Change
“If you’re not giving what you love everything you’ve got, what’s the point?” says Joshua Ballard, sitting outside Café Volan in Asbury Park. The coffee shop’s website markets itself simply as A Cafe on Bangs Avenue but Ballard has an ironic relationship with this space and its owners’ former business, Coffee Blue, in Belmar—specifically, on 10th & Main—as where he started to claim his identity as a poet over a decade ago.
Joshua is more than another coffee-fueled poet trying to stake his claim at a handful of open-mics every year. Author of one published book, two self-published chapbooks, and one spoken word album, he’s been a massive figure in terms of organizing the community, if not only for his efforts as a teacher and event host, then also for simply being a recognizable face in an otherwise varied and spread-out scene—a powerful node in New Jersey’s network of poets and writers. “If you’re not giving what you love everything you’ve got,” Ballard repeats, “what’s the point?” solidifying his response to the question What is your motto? But it’s a fitting answer from Asbury Park’s current poet laureate, who only a few years ago started leaving a significant mark on New Jersey’s poetry scene, after winning his first poetry slam in 2011.
As poet laureate, Ballard feels “charged with a certain duty or responsibility” though the title is just an annual one, given out as part of the Asbury Park Music Awards every year. “You don’t have to do anything as poet laureate,” he says, “but I wanted to dictate something.” For a community that awards laureate titles, Asbury oddly isn’t home to much poetry or spoken word. In fact, aside from teaching poetry classes at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Elementary School, Ballard is one of the few people fighting to host poetry in Asbury Park, amid a much more prevalent and active music scene which is, most of the time, occupying any and all usable space.
The NJ poetry scene is, at best, scattered. Most writers are “trying to do their own thing,” says Ballard. There is no “hub” community for poetry in the way that Asbury Park and Montclair are for music, with only a handful of active open-mic nights and slams existing in various parts of the state. But having toured most of the United States to promote his own work, he observed that some scenes are worse off, noting that NJ’s scene is generally on par with most other places. “It just always spoke to me,” he says, remembering a time before he knew putting pen to paper was anything artistic. “I started writing poetry before I knew what it was, as an outlet for expression and thought.” His introduction to poetry, or more so learning that he was writing poetry, was in 7th grade. Assigned a comprehensive poetry writing project, Joshua’s teacher was so impressed with what he had turned in that he told Joshua to “never stop writing.” Perhaps a simple compliment from a teacher isn’t an awe-inspiring revelation for some, but it nonetheless led Ballard to further seek out the mode of expression he “serendipitously curated throughout [his] life,” which put him on a path to become one of Loser Slam’s Grand Slam Champions.
Loser Slam is the longest running poetry reading in the South Jersey area, currently hosting events out of the Two River Theatre in Red Bank. They host tournament-style slams throughout the year and ultimately one grand slam that features the winners from the previous slams. “I didn’t like slam at first,” Ballard recalls, “but I think I attribute that to never having won a slam.” That is until March 2011, on returning from Florida with a group of poets known then as the Charm School Dropouts, when Joshua won his first slam…and won every slam that followed, all the way through the finals of the grand slam, making him the Grand Slam Champion.
He repeated his sweep of the Loser Slam again in 2012 and earned a position on Loser Slam’s team, with whom he practiced and traveled to the National Poetry Slam that year. The team practiced three times a week in sessions that could go on for as long as five hours, adjusting their writings and performances, tweaking body movement and cadence to enhance the poetry with even the most subtle gestures. The goal was to have their limbs and eyes speak the words as much as their mouths.
As workshopping improved his craft, it improved his ego as well. “You just sit back and accept what other people tell you,” Ballard says, speaking of the humility he learned on top of his enhanced skill and technique. Though he doesn’t specifically “teach slam,” Joshua brings what he learned with Loser Slam and what he’s learned outside of slam poetry to workshops and classes all over the country as a way of getting “poets together to nurture something they love.”
Currently, on top of hosting events as the found of Sound Waves in Asbury Park, Joshua is a co-founder of Artists for Change, which hosts 100,000 Poets for Change, a yearly non-profit event to “create global change through a series of small local changes” but also, more directly, “to raise a lot of money for the charities involved and to throw a really bad-ass party.” It seems the poet laureate has always felt driven toward this type of work, saying, “A lot of the big poets used their abilities for social change. I don’t think it’s mandatory, but it’s important for people to use their ability for good if and when they can. I have the ability, so why not?”
Though his work and life are nestled in New Jersey, it was an experience on the road while in search of poetry elsewhere that set his focus on his work back at home. While on tour with Chris Rockwell, Zach Kluckman demanded the two come out to perform on a Friday night. “The whole community came out and had a great time,” Joshua says, “and experiencing this, this was the moment I decided to create a community rather than find one.”
Ballard’s biggest goal? Building the hub that New Jersey desperately needs. He says, “ Poetry needs to become more entertaining, more engrossing, more encapsulating. I do think of having some dedicated space with resources. Most people aren’t too willing to give a piece of their pie. They aren’t being selfish – just nurturing their own dream. But it has to start with a community.”
Feature Photo by Brandon Schwartz
This article first appeared in Issue 04