A Review of The Traditional Feel of the Ballroom by Hannah Gamble

Published June 30, 2021 by Trio House Press.

Hannah Gamble’s second poetry collection, The Traditional Feel of the Ballroom, never shies away from the violence of her themes, which address misogyny and rape culture. Her direct and often conversational tone makes the collection accessible to new readers of poetry—the speaker often pausing to explain her process, including her hopes and aims for a piece. The first poem in the collection establishes this rapport with the reader immediately:

I’ve wanted to give people

who come to see poetry a little something extra,

and me, blabbering, is all I’ve ever had

to give or to keep or to be with on my own.

There’s really very little art in that.

You’ll never hear me say it’s noble.

This delicate balance of egalitarianism and artistry does not always succeed, however. Certain sections of the book feel like there’s little room for trusting the reader in thinking critically about the collection’s themes. More experienced readers of poetry may feel frustrated, at first, as they wait for the collection to find its bearings. Later poems, however, dive delightfully into surrealism and extended metaphors that outshine the rest of the collection—a quiet sigh builds in my chest in the release at the end of Gamble’s poetry.

Many readers, myself included, will find themselves grappling with their own internalized misogyny while reading poems like “Always Given,” because Gamble never shields her readers from difficult themes.

I knew I couldn’t fight him off, or that even if I could,

there would be 5 others like him waiting.

I chose to welcome him, in my way.

Other women were nearby

so I wasn’t afraid.

He kissed my neck and I said “Oh, yeah,

people tend to like that.”

He bit my earlobe and I said “Oh, yeah,

goin’ for the ear.”

I was trying to be above him.

Above the doorway, above the street.

Above the other women who wouldn’t have

“handled it as well.”

Even as the speaker tries to “handle” the situation, she is looking at herself from a disassociated perspective, showing us how self-defense can appear like self-sacrifice. We see it from the women standing by, “grinning—in on the joke I was / trying to make of the man,” perfectly illustrating the way discomfort and powerlessness can only be met with a nervous grin, a fleeting grasp at controlling a situation. In the volta of the piece, the illusion of control shatters for the speaker: “Only upon seeing my friend’s face did I see that / I had been mistaken about what was the joke, / and who was the joke.” In these moments, the simplicity of Gamble’s writing brings these everyday occurrences into sharp clarity.

In other pieces, in which Gamble finds her poetic muse in the surreal, she allows an extended metaphor to express her themes, rather than the speaker’s direct reflections. In the poem “Growing a Bear,” she creates a keen contrast between whimsy and domestic decay:

You haven’t even considered how your wife will feel

when you have finished growing your bear. You could

write a letter to her tonight, explaining how your life

was so lacking in bear.

“Janet, it’s nothing you’ve done—

clearly you have no possible way of supplying me with a bear

or any of the activities I might be able to enjoy

after acquiring the bear.”

The bear is the elephant in the room, a sex life like beating a dead horse, an unexpressed middle-aged desire, a receding masculinity. The use of second person and passive voice adds to the dubiousness of this experiment and how the husband plans on explaining his needs within this marriage. The speaker is attempting to convince us of his need to fill the bear-shaped hole in his life, but the reader must extrapolate their own meaning out of the bear, the wife’s isolated nighttime routine, how friendships between adult men in suburbia wax and wane now that they are “past the age of college athletics, / most friends don’t even know what each other’s bodies / look like, flushed, tired, showering, cold.” This poem, alongside the curious bestiality of “The Queen,” evokes the ferality tucked in the guts of our patriarchal society. Gamble joins a tradition of poets using a persona to express the viciousness of girlhood and womanhood—the act of unmasking through the use of a mask—similar to Claudia Cortese’s Wasp Queen or Franny Choi’s Soft Science.

However, some poems unfortunately fall back on bioessentialism in their critique of rape culture as they illustrate the societal connotations of vaginas and penises. “The Sun and Open Air” and “Cabana” felt like they were over-simplifying that binary, making it difficult to parse what was tongue-in-cheek and what was meant earnestly—especially when the tone of the collection emphasizes directness. Other poems succeeded gloriously in their commentary because of their humor and specificity: “your dick would have rowed you through / the world like a paddle—[.]” While others felt like gross generalizations: “The man who, rejected . . . was biologically programmed to put things in” or a couple of stanzas later in the same poem: “if it weren’t for dicks, all vaginas would be naked at the seaside—always.” These lines rub me the wrong way—they stray from the specific moment and speaker, creating a synecdoche in which the vagina represents all of womanhood and dicks are “biologically programmed” to threaten anyone with a vagina.

These poems feel like they are doing a disservice to the collection as a whole and its mission to explore the nuances of rape culture. While every poet writes from their own experiences, when writing about sex-based violence, the writer should also consider how cisnormativity plays a role in moralizing genital metaphors.

The Traditional Feel of the Ballroom finds its place among narrative feminist poetry and is ideal for readers who are new to reading poetry and would feel intimidated by an experimental collection. The pieces inside highlight the everyday trials of being perceived as a woman in a misogynistic society and the ways it makes one rage and cry and sometimes just sit in quiet contemplation. The collection comes to an end as simply as it began, with the speaker’s earnest voice, “Now I don’t have to tell you / anything more about it.”

Book Review: Selected Tweets by Tao Lin & Mira Gonzalez

Please note that this interview was originally published on our old website in 2015, before our parent nonprofit—then called Tethered by Letters (TBL)—had rebranded as Brink Literacy Project. In the interests of accuracy we have retained the original wording of the interview.

A critical review of Selected Tweets, comprised entirely of tweets:

This review was the absolute worst I’ve so far had to write. Ad litteram everything I tried in regular format didn’t work out.

I inadvertently ended up avoiding this review quite a lot, to be honest, as I didn’t know what exactly to say.

You’ll find, I’m sure, it’s almost impossible to write about a collection of things which—in and of themselves—seem inconsequential.

And this is what tweets are, or rather more-so what they appear to be: inconsequential.

But I wanted to look into a proper method of demonstrating that these things can, in fact, be used properly as a medium.

And so I had the absolutely poor and unfounded idea to get creative with the project—this review being the result:

Selected Tweets is the result of a joint collaboration between alt lit writers Tao Lin (@tao_lin) and Mira Gonzalez (@miragonz).

It ostensibly collects about 5-7 years’ worth of tweets from the two figures, the majority I can assume weren’t written in the…

“publication” mindset. For as candid as tweets can get, these are basically the epitome of genuine.

I make this disclaimer only because the collection might otherwise seem to have been sponsored and funded by Xanax and Xanax alone.

Appearance-wise, Selected Tweets is a work of art: Illustrated, naugahyde-bound, and its cover silk-screened with faux-gold and silver.

On public transportation, I actually took measures to communicate to people that it wasn’t the bible I had, but probably the total opposite.

It’s split almost directly in half between Mira and Tao, with collections from various accounts and “bonus” essays to cap them off.

There are also drawings by the two contributors scattered throughout, be they of their various subjects…

Or in Mira’s case, of the same face plastered onto different objects, animals, what have you.

I think it’s probably avant-garde.

And Tao, though the covers of his books may suggest otherwise, comes off in these bits as a very poised artist.

I’ll probably be focusing primarily on Mira’s half for two different reasons:

  • Because Lin has recently been the subject of some controversy which I have no strong feelings one way or the other toward…
    • (It’s a fire I’d wish to inform of, but not to stoke in the meantime.)
  • And because Mira’s half is really a lot more interesting both in structure and in content.

Tao tweets the same way he writes; if you want a redacted Lin novel, there’s no better place to find that than his Twitter.

This, however, is not to say his half should be ignored—I would simply have enjoyed to have seen more done with it.

(Of course I would be asking to restructure a true-to-form and candid assortment, going against much of what the collection is)

(Very neutral feelings regarding this half—it’s witty, it’s smart, but it’s not as ambitious as I would have liked it to be)

Mira’s tweets, however, usually run the gamut from hilarious to sad to a kind of amorphous gel made up of the two.

They’ll leave you not knowing what emotions you should be feeling. Should you laugh? Should you empathize?

There’s a kind of efficacy in this medium which breaks down the proto-narrative wall between speaker and participant.

My guesstimate is that this is probably because the audience has to some extent a knowledge of what twitter is/does…

That in the eyes of the participants it’s left synonymous with the most direct thoughts, the most quotidian ideas…

And what Wil Wheaton is having for his fucking breakfast.

And when coupled with Mira’s (and I guess Tao’s) looks into (t)he(i)r daily activities and exploits, the collection gets very real very fast

One very poignant example which returns often to me whilst writing this review is @mira_crying.

This account details just what its name suggests, and if anyone out there thinks that tweets can’t convey what regular writing can,

I dare them to read this and retain that thought, because even its opening disclaimer manages to sting just a little.

Really, I’d suggest upon reading this collection, the participant hold firm the idea that instead of just tweets, they’re reading…

Something more along the lines of a *very* redacted essay, as that’s more what these come off as:

The throwaway thoughts which, while they can’t be expanded, are no less important than the expandable ones.

(Some of them maybe a little.)

There’s a lot I could go into with this collection: how funny it is, how absurd it gets, its often white-knuckled grasp on dark humor…

But those are facets I decide to leave for the reader’s discretion, because while a bit on the experimental side…

This collection definitely deserves its fair share of readers.