‘Anneslea fragrans’ (the spitting plant): Zalehah Turner interviews Magdalena Ball, highly commended for the New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016

“Walking through a place like the Sydney Botanic Gardens is very much a sensual experience, and I feel that part of what a poet does is to slow down and pay attention to those experiences – to really smell, touch, taste and feel in a very deep way…” – Magdalena Ball

Zalehah Turner: What drew you to Anneleas frangrans, the spitting plant?

Magdalena Ball: As a writer, I tend to be drawn to anthropomorphism. I like the idea of trying to get inside the perspective of something non-human – an animal, a mineral or plant in a way that somehow comes back to the human condition. Trigger plants like Anneslea fragrans are easy to do this with, because plants are usually immobile (at least to human eyes) and making this beautiful, elegant flower, which also smells lovely, actually do something reactive and fast was evocative for me.

Z.T.: Can you tell me about your own experience of the ‘Anneslea fragrans’ in the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney?

It has been quite a few years since I’ve been to the Botanic Garden, Sydney, but being rather verbal and a chronic teacher of my children, sometimes to their dismay, I tend to read every sign aloud. We had the children with us the last time and were doing a self-tour. There was a lot of excitement at the ‘Spitting Plant’, because it smelled and looked good and then did this seemingly un-plant-like thing of reacting when we very gently touched the flower, which was great fun. We spent a lot of time waiting and hoping for an insect to land (that didn’t happen). There’s a kind of mystery in that trigger – is it deliberate? Is it reflex? I sort of filed the plant away in my mind as something I wanted to explore, so when I found out about the competition, it was the natural choice.

Z.T.: In ‘Anneslea fragrans’ you open with “first there is touch”. The poem contains many references to the senses and even the interconnection between them: “most of what we taste is smell”. Why are all five senses so integral to your poem, ‘Anneslea fragrans’?

M.B.: The plant certainly lends itself to that – because it’s a tactile experience, but also because it does stimulate the senses so strongly – with the scent, the look and the feel of it…I also wanted to make that connection with the other senses that are on alert in the garden. Walking through a place like the Sydney Botanic Gardens is very much a sensual experience, and I feel that part of what a poet does is to slow down and pay attention to those experiences – to really smell, touch, taste and feel in a very deep way – not just on the surface of it, but to think about what it means to be smelling this smell, or having a tactile experience – what is the broader implication.

Z.T.: Are you interested in synaesthesia and if so, in what way does it inform your poem?

M.B.: I’m fascinated by synaesthesia. Even for people who operate in the centre of the spectrum, the senses themselves don’t function in isolation. Our sense of smell and taste are intimately connected (as I suggest in the poem) and there’s so much still to learn about, not only the connections between our senses and how we perceive, but the connection between our senses and illnesses or emotional state. I’m not at all certain that the separation of the senses is anything other than a human and perceptual response – it may be an agreed illusion or at least, entirely subjective. In the poem, I’m trying to embed myself a little more elementally into the natural world – to take a different perspective than the human. Of course, I’m limited to my own all-too-human linguistic capabilities, but I want to move a little deeper into empathy and the mixing of senses worked well for this, for me because animals and insects often use smell, colour and sound in ways that are more acute than humans are capable of.

Z.T.: You write in the second person. Who is the ‘you’ in the poem?

M.B.: I like the way poetry allows for multiple points of view simultaneously. So there are a few different versions of “you” that are being referred to at the same time in the poem. One of those is synonymous with ‘one’ – the human, including me. On another level, the ‘you’ is the reader and I like the idea of bringing the reader directly into the poem and making them a very direct participant and referent. The third ‘you’ could potentially be a companion, as well – a kind of single co-conspirator.

Z.T.: Why did you write “there were no bees this year”? Australia has been so far spared from Colony Collapse Disorder but it may well be in our future. Are these lines in reference to a highly possible, near future? What are your thoughts on the world wide bee shortage and its effect on pollination and ecology?

M.B.: I believe there’s some disagreement about whether Australian bees are in decline even if we’ve been spared Colony Collapse so far. The number of bee-keepers has definitely declined and the use of antibiotics in beekeeping and pesticides (neonicotinoids) has dramatically increased here as elsewhere. From an anecdotal point of view, I’ve totally noticed the decline of bees in my own backyard. It’s palpable. Five years ago we had so many bees in Spring, I was worried my kids would get stung swimming and was considering calling in someone to relocate the hives (I didn’t in the end and we learned to co-habit). Now there are only a very few bees. I think that the worldwide bee shortage is a major ecological issue. Bees are critical in the human food chain and their role as pollinators is crucial to food production. Albert Einstein said “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination…no more men”.  Aside from the fact that the loss of any species is tragic, most particularly when it’s man-made, the loss of bees will have a dramatic impact on our own species’ ongoing ability to survive.

Z.T.: You have references throughout the poem to critically endangered species, including a list which ends with a mammal which is not. Humans. “What else is on the way out?” Do you feel that humans are ensuring their own extinction through harming the environment and war?

M.B.: Yes! I don’t want to be a prophet of doom, and in fact, it’s my nature to be positive. I don’t think giving up is a helpful approach, but all indications are that we’re headed for a sixth mass extinction that may well include the human race. Apparently, over the last century, species of vertebrates are dying out up to 114 times faster than they would have without human activity (that stat from Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University). I have no idea if this is reversible – Ehrlich suggests it is. I’m not an expert, but from where I’m sitting, I’m not seeing a trend towards increased conservation amongst worldwide governments.

Z.T.: “A day that might not last”. Why do you feel that?

M.B.: As above. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t make every effort we can to save whatever species we can, and above all, to take notice now of the beauty that surrounds us – to give priority to using less resources, to living in a more sustainable way and lobbying our governments (and vote accordingly) to take climate change seriously. I probably sound a little like an eco-warrior, and I’m not really, and don’t feel art should necessarily be polemical, but I certainly know how precious the natural world is and how little hope we seem to be leaving for our children and grandchildren. Art does seem to me to be an appropriate means of exploring these issues and if nothing else, connecting dots that might not otherwise be connected. We’re not really so different at the end of the day from other animals or the plant world – we have a common goal of survival and well-being.

Z.T.: What are your thoughts on Botanic Gardens, conservation programs, and their efforts to save endangered flora?

M.B.: Utterly important on every level. I’m grateful for programs like the ecological restoration work, and wildlife and plant ecology programs, and support them wholeheartedly. I’m well-aware that these research projects go far beyond the confines of the Botanic gardens site.

Z.T.: Anything you’d like to add?

M.B.: I’m particularly appreciative of the opportunity to explore these themes poetically (and of competitions like New Shoots), because I think that opening a dialogue on conservation issues with the arts community is not only a natural affiliation, but one that can both link the reading population with the scientific population, and explore dystopian impacts in a way that hopefully reaches more people in new ways.

Z.T.: How does it make you feel to have been highly commended for the New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016?

M.B: Being highly commended for the New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016 was a particular honour for me, for a number of reasons. One is that the shortlist was seriously impressive, as were the winning and shortlisted poems. ‘Fallen Myrtle Trunk’ by Stuart Cooke just blew me away, as did Stokes’ ‘Leaving Wilona’ and Bennett’s ‘our primitive lives’, and I felt strong synergies between what we all were striving for as poets.
Another reason this means a lot to me is the ecological nature of this project. I’m not sure I qualify as an ecopoet specifically, but much of my work has an ecological focus and being able to situate myself in this area means a lot to me.
I’ve been following the New Shoots project from its start and have been deeply moved and excited by the work being done by Tamryn Bennett, Eileen Chong, Eric Avery and Mark Tredinnick, and though I didn’t get to see the actual guided poetry walk at the Sydney Writers Festival (wish I had), I have been following it closely online.
Finally, I have a great deal of respect for The Red Room Company and the innovative work they’ve done over the years, from installing poetry on toilet room doors, working with prisoners, working with first nations cultures and lost languages, attempts to map disappearing places, and distributing poetry via carrier pigeon- to name a few of the projects that come to mind. Being associated with The Red Room Company and with Rochford Street Review (another organisation I’ve come to respect greatly) is a kind of prize in itself.

‘Anneslea fragrans’ by Magdalena Ball: highly commended for the New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016
New Shoots Poetry Prizes: the winning and highly commended poets
The winning and highly commended poems from the New Shoots Poetry Prizes can also be found on The Red Room Company’s website.

Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is a novelist, poet, reviewer, interviewer, and the editor of Compulsive Reader. She has been widely published in literary journals, anthologies, and is the author of several books of poetry and fiction. Her most recent work includes, the novel, Black Cow (Bewrite Books), and the collection of poetry, Unmaking Atoms (forthcoming, Ginninderra Press).

-Zalehah Turner



Zalehah Turner is a Sydney based critic, writer and poet currently completing her Bachelor of Arts in Communications majoring in writing and cultural studies at the University of Technology, Sydney. Zalehah is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review: https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/09/welcome-zalehah-turner-rochford-street-review-associate-editor

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