Smile Politely

Tarriona “Tank” Ball gets Vulnerable AF in her debut book of poetry

Therapists say that the only way to get over it is to go through it, not around it. Artists demonstrate this when they perform the alchemy of pain into art. And in Vulnerable AF, her debut collection of poetry, Tarriona “Tank” Ball invites you to experience her journey from heartbreak back to herself. For those who know her from her band Tank and the Bangas, where her musical and lyrical skills earned a Grammy nomination, it should come as no surprise that Ball’s wordsmithing would find its way into the world of slam poetry and onto the written page. During this week’s Pygmalion Festival, Ball will be doing double duty, offering C-U both sides of her extraordinary talent.

To call this is a collection of poems about love and loss would do it a disservice. Ball herself calls it “a collection of poems so that I can remember . . . and forget.” The notion of longing, whether Romantic or romantic, is not a new one. But Ball’s unique take, an intimate and vivid deconstruction of infatuation, examines the real danger of losing oneself “in the idea of  someone else.” 


I once heard someone say if you read Tarriona’s poetry
You will know that she has never been in love
I wonder if they listened closely
They would know . . .
That I wanted to be

“Know” from Tarriona “Tank” Ball’s Vulnerable AF

Vulnerable AF is a mash-up of poetry and verse, with a sprinkling of magic realism. The illustrations by Shonté Young-Williams, like Ball’s poetry and verse, are deceptively simple with their line drawings and brief bursts of color. They bring Ball’s words to life in a way that underscores the magic in her similes. And like Ball’s poetry, part of their magic is the negative space, the air, the opportunity to slow down and let their power linger. 

Image of book cover from Amazon. Illustration by Shonte Young-Williams.

Throughout Vulnerable AF, Ball poses the hard questions about what it means to truly see another person as they are, not what we want them to be. And she does it in, to use the poet’s own words, “a symphony of similes.” The experience of misplaced longing for love is made tangible in gritty, real world terms. With her vast and vivid vocabulary of analogies, she strikes the perfect balance between the deeply personal and the larger implications.

Ball and the unnamed “you” are connected through static-riddled phone wires. They are stuck in a washing-machine style cycle of “Vulnerable. Hate him. Heal him. Hug him. Mop. Wash. Clean. Wear Again.” He is the monster in her closet that turns out to be nothing but clothes. The discounted Walmart pick-up she brings home only to discover it is far more damaged than it seemed. She is the soup that would have been good for him, body and soul. The woman who begs him not to make her “feel like loose change” at the bottom of a wishing well.

Let me stop you before you tell me that infatuation is like acne—most people get over in their teens. This debut proves that Ball is both poet and philosopher. Her work is so intimate and accessible, that you might, for a moment, be blinded to her deeper layers. She is a brave pioneer who expertly avoids the land mines of melodrama and cliche when taking on notions of insecurity, body image, and the destruction that often men bring to women’s relationships to each other. When a man cheats, Ball realizes that “her success would mean my failure.” But the very act of placing this in print (or digital code), in this context, begs the reader to question this deeply problematic dynamic. 

The intertwining short verses dubbed “Tank’s Story Time,” read like late night confessions between old friends. Except they are not. Or not just that. They challenge the stories we tell ourselves and each other about love, infatuation, insecurity, and survival. Ball is the youngest of four sisters and was often sheltered her older sisters. This leaves her unprepared for love and uniquely prepared for this deep dive into insecurity and infatuation. 

As she draws us futher in, Ball boldly and unapologetically confronts the dark side of self-actualization.


September 3rd
Today, I killed someone
I took the high school girl I used to be
To the back of the playground 
And I hung her with the chains from the swings
That your emotions and I used to dangle on
Everyone will say that I killed her, but I think I saved her life . . .

“Swings” from Tarriona “Tank” Ball’s Vulnerable AF

Vulnerable AF contains a Odyssean-level journey within in 112 pages. As Ball reaches her conclusion, her voice echoes the sass and hard-won self-awareness of Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman”  and “Still I Rise.”

Thank you, next

You have helped create a symphony of similes
With what we made . . . I have created

“Thank you, next” from Tarriona “Tank” Ball’s Vulnerable AF

Pondering, or, let’s call it what is—overthinking—is an occupational hazard (and prequisite) for writers and reviewers alike. So I hope that Tarriona “Tank” Ball won’t mind me sharing the thought journey her book took me on. In Ball’s universe, infatuation is highly specific, but it is also universal. We live in an Instagram world of perfection, where curated content and enhanced images offer themselves up as reality. We swipe right or left on potential lovers, jobs, and purchases based on a thin layer of surface information. We have spent the last 18 months experiencing each other virtually through digital platforms. If you think it’s just Tarriona “Tank” Ball that struggles with infatuation you’re wrong. We are all in love with the idea of love, the idea of the perfect vacation/yoga practice/jeans/fill-in-the-blank. We long for the highs and the lows, for the striving, for the possibility. 

Whether you experience this collection in print, in person at Pygmalion, or, as an audiobook read to you by Ball herself, I do suggest that following the order in which it was created. As a master of the set list, Tarriona “Tank” Ball knows how to build a compelling arc. In my week with Vulnerable AF, the struggle to put it down was real. And how often do you hear a reviewer say that about a collection of poetry?

Follow Tarriona “Tank” Ball on Instagram or check out her website.
Vulnerable AF is available in paperback and audiobook.

Tarriona “Tank” Ball at Pygmalion Lit Fest
Friday, September 24th, 6 to 7 p.m.
25 O’Clock Brewing Company
208 W Griggs St, Urbana, 
18+ to enter

Top photo from the poet’s website.

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