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Arts & Culture

Tiny Desk Contest Winner Tarriona Ball On When Poetry Says What Music Cannot

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Back in 2017, Tank and the Bangas won NPR's Tiny Desk concert with this song called "Quick."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUICK")

TARRIONA BALL: (Singing) Down by the river where the green grass grow, where the sun be burning hot. Take your pantyhose. Don't nobody know where you go. Just know the block just got hot. When you see a trick got to be slick...

DETROW: That's Tarriona "Tank" Ball on lead vocals. That Tiny Desk launched her band to a new level, but she's flexing another muscle right now and has just published her first collection of poetry. It's called "Vulnerable AF," and it's kind of a diary of mostly short, poignant, sometimes pretty funny poems about a problematic and intense romantic relationship. Tank Ball joins us now from New Orleans. Hey, welcome back to NPR.

BALL: Thank you for welcoming me back. (Laughter) That introduction made me laugh - problematic or - oh, goodness, gracious - like a diary. You're so right about it. You're right.

DETROW: So, yeah, that's what I wanted to start with. Do you agree with that description, that it's kind of a diary of this relationship?

BALL: For sure, especially since I never planned on publishing it. I just was feeling so many feelings inside of my heart and in my body. I said, I have to write this. I have to get this out of my head. And he was the only person that I gave it to, years ago.

DETROW: So all of these poems were written in the moment? How many were contemporary, and how many were you looking back and saying, oh, what was going on there?

BALL: It was definitely like walking through a graveyard of an old relationship. Some of the feelings - still dealing with a lot of them. And some of them was like, man, girl, you were really into him. Jeez, you were really into him - like, embarrassingly into him.

DETROW: And I feel like a big theme of a lot of these poems is maybe wanting to be in love more than necessarily that person themselves.

BALL: Well, I don't need your judgment (laughter). You may be right. You may be right. I may definitely have probably been in love with the idea of love and, you know, not realizing that a person is not just your favorite parts of them.

DETROW: In my defense, I think there's a fine line between reacting to a poem and judgment when you're reading the poem. I didn't mean it that way.

BALL: I feel judged. No. Oh, so far you're right on (laughter).

DETROW: Well, I'd love to start out by having you read one of these poems that kind of gets into all of those things, "Magnifying Glass," if that's OK with you?

BALL: Well, thank you. (Reading) If I took away every drum solo, every sway of your wooed, think, onyx hair, every touch from your long, piano key fingers, and every glare from the deepest mud puddles I've ever stepped in, to every ridiculous remark that showed that your planet was near mine, by every time you said something that made my mind and change its shape. If it were not for the little things blocking my view of the whole you, I would see something entirely different. I would see you and not just my favorite parts.

DETROW: I love the ending of that poem especially because I feel like so many people can relate to that feeling.

BALL: Oh, yes. It's exactly what I spoke of earlier, just saying that when you're loving somebody, you're supposed to be loving all of them and not just the parts that you connect with.

DETROW: You performed another poem, "For The Body, For The Heart," when you came to NPR to play at that Tiny Desk. You started off the concert...

BALL: Yes.

DETROW: Let's listen to that moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TANK AND THE BANGAS: (Singing) Greens, peas, milk, fruit, eggs, you.

BALL: Love that. I love that.

DETROW: I'll get it out of the way. I was about 10 feet away, loving that moment, listening to that concert. Do you typically - and has it changed over time? - separate the poetry from the music writing and the musical performing?

BALL: These days, they're just so intertwined because so many of my songs are my poems, and a lot of my poems, you know, are my songs. And when I'm on stage, at any given moment, I will speak the song like a poem. Or at any given moment, I will make the poem a song because when I first started out, I felt like - well, I started out as a poet first, and then I went into music. But I thought, I don't have any lyrics at all. And then I remember, well, I have all these poems. And aren't poems just lyrics without melody? And that's when I decided to really combine them together. And it's not always easy, but it still feels like it's coming from the truest parts of myself.

DETROW: Do you mind if I read one poem and tell you what I like about it?

BALL: I would love if you read a poem.

DETROW: I don't get to read poems too much. "Thank You, Next." (Reading) Damn, you have helped create a symphony of similes. With what we made, I have created. Thanks.

I love that because I feel like whether it's a relationship or what - whether an experience, the older I get, the more I feel like even things that were terrible and did not work out well - like, you learn something about yourself or you can say that's something I took away from that or that's something that I now know that I didn't know before, and I kind of got that feeling from that poem.

BALL: I love that. That's so important, especially since in the beginning, when I first wrote it - do you ever - do you curse on this show? Do you curse...

DETROW: If you curse, we can beep it.

BALL: OK, because in the beginning it said, thanks for the [expletive].

(LAUGHTER)

BALL: And I thought, I should change that. That sounds a little - you know, a little harsh-y (ph), you know? And it was supposed to be funny. But just thinking about all that we made just for him to be such a muse to so much of my music but he has been stitched into so much of my music and my poetry that even though I had moments where - I wish this never happened. I wish this never was. But I would say, well, would I have this? And would I have that? You know, would I have had these pieces that helped me and helped my fans and honestly helped my career in such a special way? And I just - I can't regret it because my life would just be so different without him.

DETROW: Yeah. Is there a poem that you would like to read to end this segment? And also, at the same time, what's a good Tank and the Bangas song that we should end the segment with?

BALL: Well, I'm definitely going to read "You Stuff."

DETROW: OK.

BALL: I like that one. And a song for you guys to play - I think it would be really cool if you played "Oh Heart."

DETROW: OK.

BALL: (Reading) You are a smelly hand that I played way too much. You are little lips that I crave more than I should. You are fingers everywhere but the right place. You're stupid art that I look at for way too long. You're a wet sky, and I've been outside. Now I smell like a dog. You are glasses that I want off your freaking face. You are eyes that are as deep as a neighborhood (ph) drowning in unsuspected lakes. There should be a warning label on your face. You're an unpleasant combination of sounds. You are cymbals and bass drums that I listen to too loud. You make me feel like an abusive B-I-T-C-H...

(LAUGHTER)

BALL: ...Simply because I'm too prideful to ask to touch. I'm nothing but attitude, pride and excuse around you. I'm insecure and beautiful, fresh and spoiled. I'm too much or way too little. I often wondered what it would take to get to you, often questioned what she did to capture that heart of yours, especially since it has been on the run ever since I met it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH HEART")

TANK AND THE BANGAS: (Singing) I'm a bee. You're a tree on a moon cloud in the sea. We're islands...

DETROW: Tarriona "Tank" Ball - her poetry collection is called "Vulnerable AF." Thank you so much for speaking with us.

BALL: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH HEART")

TANK AND THE BANGAS: (Singing) Oh, heart, oh, heart, stop making a fool of me (vocalizing). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: June 13, 2021 at 9:00 PM PDT
A previous headline on this story incorrectly referred to Tarriona Ball as Tarriona Bell.