ISSUE 23. July 2017 – September 2017

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Teasing Threads

 

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Published by Rochford Street Press
ISSN 2200-9922

 

“The core of Unmaking Atoms”: Zalehah Turner interviews Magdalena Ball

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“Poetry was a way for me to give my grief the time and energy I felt it needed. A loss like the loss of a parent changes and reshapes you… My feelings at that point were so complex that only poetry felt right… I found I was writing a lot of poems, and these ultimately became the core of Unmaking Atoms.” – Magdalena Ball

 

Zalehah Turner: Can you tell me a little about the story behind Unmaking Atoms- your mother, your relationship with her, and your experience of her diagnosis and death?

unmaking_atomsMagdalena Ball: I was fairly far along with the writing of a novel when my mother got sick. She lived in the United States, and though, we spoke every week on FaceTime, I couldn’t tell how much weight she had lost. [Despite being] a lifelong hypochondriac, she underplayed her symptoms dramatically when it counted. I thought maybe she had a urinary tract infection. Her many doctors didn’t pick it up either, though she had classic cancer symptoms. Something only apparent to me in hindsight. It wasn’t until she was bleeding heavily that they decided to remove her kidney. At that point, we still had no idea that it was cancer. She was only seventeen when she had me and her marriage to my father was very short lived. So, my mother and I were very close, shifting the role of mother and daughter at times, as we grew up together, often just the two of us. Although the landscape of our lives changed pretty frequently with different partners, and much later, brothers.

I left the United States when I was about twenty to go to graduate school in England. Basically, I never went back [except for short visits]. I migrated to Australia with my husband a few years later. I probably didn’t visit the America as often as I should have, and she wouldn’t fly, so we were limited to electronic communication. The trip back to the US with three children was prohibitively expensive and difficult, though we did go back as a whole family two years before she became sick. I [also] visited several times on my own and with my eldest when he was eighteen months. Through her sickness, I went back and forth three times: the first to look after her, after her kidney operation in September /October; again, in December, after the cancer diagnosis; and one more time in January, when I didn’t quite make it in time. She died while I was en route, at Los Angeles Airport, but at least I was there for all the post-death stuff with my three maternal half-brothers. My mother never fully trusted her doctors, sometimes with good reason – they made a hash of her diagnosis. I was torn. I wanted to look after her and be with her. I had no idea, at any point, that she would die so soon, and [I needed] to be at home to take care of my three teenage children. It was a very intense time!

I kept working on my novel through the first visit. I was actually trading chapter by chapter critiques with another writer and kept to the schedule: writing on the plane, at night at my mother’s house when I couldn’t sleep, and in snatches of time. However, by the time I was home after my first visit, I found that I had lost my interest in writing prose. My feelings at that point were so complex that only poetry felt right. In the meantime, I found I was writing a lot of poems, and these ultimately became the core of Unmaking Atoms.

Zalehah: Many of the poems deal with the pain and loss of a loved one; her absence in the everyday, the future, and in the eternal. Can you elaborate?

Magdalena: I certainly wanted to explore the notion of loss – obviously in the context of the loss I was experiencing but I wanted also to go further than that. So much of what we are, and the way we perceive ourselves, falls away. Our skin cells die and are replaced every day, our hair falls out, our body changes, we lose track of people who once filled our lives – life is a progression of transformations. This is partly what I wanted to explore, in the context of loss, an exploration of identity and what remains as a constant in the face of all that loss.

Zalehah: Did the incredibly short time she was given create a situation in which you could only think about your feelings and deal with the loss afterwards and is this why writing poetry appealed to you?

Magdalena: I did a lot of writing on the many flights I took (Sydney to Richmond was about 25 hours in the air), but I also did a lot of work in the years following. The things that were drawing me during that time, and what still continues to draw me, usually involves many things are going on at once. Poetry handles that complexity very well – better, I think, than other art forms. Poetry allowed me to go a little deeper, and to also allow for enough ambiguity to invite the reader in. No one is immune from grief. Patti Smith says, ‘the privilege of being human is that we have our moment when we have to say goodbye’ – it’s part of the ‘human package’.

Zalehah: Did you find writing it a healing process, an attempt at understanding all that had happened, a journey that is still ongoing, and/ or a tribute to her memory?

Magdalena: Writing for me wasn’t so much a healing process, but a way to transform an unapproachable and therefore poisonous pain – this inchoate, black thing – into something that could be lived with. I found that as I wrote, I continually rediscovered my mother: the person she was, but also the person who I am through her. I feel her with me – not in a supernatural way, but just as a part of who I am now – her voice is always in my head. Writing kept me open to that; to letting this sense of loss become also a way to find her.

I think the key for me, has been not to shrink from the pain – not to look away. Talking about it is hard. I never wanted to whine, or to fall into the trap of misery. From the moment I returned to Australia, and even while I was away, dealing with all the stuff that has to be dealt with when someone dies, there were so many distractions. My husband and kids needed me to deal with their issues after I’d been away so much. My job needed my attention. I had food shopping to do. The house needed a vacuum. It would have been easy to let those distractions keep me from the painful act of reflecting.

Poetry was a way for me to give my grief the time and energy I felt it needed. A loss like the loss of a parent changes and reshapes you, and to pretend otherwise isn’t healthy. I’ve been exploring that grief endlessly – allowing it in and exploring the universal nature of it and finding great solace in community.

Zalehah: What poetic devices did you find best suited your subject and themes?

Magdalena: There are lots of devices that I find myself drawn to, again and again. Anthropomorphism and Personification are probably the devices that I’m most drawn to. I think the idea of moving away from a purely human perspective – I mean it’s always a human perspective – but to open myself to the notion of ‘difference’ and explore a sense that there may be other forms of intelligence and other ways of experiencing life, by allowing rocks to talk, or trees, or planets, lets me get a little closer to the heart of alienation, or love, or loss, without falling into cliché or standard tropes.

Zalehah: The title, Unmaking Atoms, is immediately provoking, and draws to mind atomic bombs, where the atom is split, yet somehow the verb unmaking suggests an ongoing process. In Unmaking Atoms, you’ve managed to create emotive, scientific jargon which is, at times, antagonistic, by the juxtaposition of contrasting or conflicting words or phrases. How did you find the balance, in Unmaking Atoms between emotion and science, not to mention, the connection (or contrast) between the two?

Magdalena: I think that there is an essential poetic underpinning to physics. I’m not the only one. The physicist Richard Feynman has likened poetry and physics: ‘The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination — stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern — of which I am a part… What is the pattern or the meaning or the why?’ This stretching of the imagination is the same impetus in the scientist, as it is in the poet.

I tend to naturally think in the space between emotion and science – it feels quite ordinary to me. It might be because I’ve worked for the last twenty-seven years in a science job as a kind of language focused/ non-scientist. So, I’ve developed a way of fitting in that environment that skirts at the edge of science. It allows me to explore similar questions and do my own form of experimentation that is language, rather than formula based. I think that the deep, careful observation of a poet is a kind of science. It’s very different from a lab experiment, but it still plays out in a similar trajectory.

Zalehah: Are you an atheist (or not religious) and, if so, is science your way of understanding, or questioning, disease, death, and the possibilities or limitations of existence afterwards?

Magdalena: My family background is Jewish. I know I have the most Catholic name possible – my great grandmother was very distraught by Magdalena. Though my mother called herself culturally Jewish, she was actually a practising Hindu for most of her life, aside from a brief stint as a Zen Buddhist. She left very strict instructions for a Tibetan ritual to be performed over her body and left New York for Virginia to live close to her guru. So, I’ve had exposure to a lot of Eastern religions and I suppose I like to think of myself as a reasonably spiritual person, though I certainly don’t believe in a deity. I suppose, science tells us we’re all made up of the same stuff – that matter cannot be created or destroyed (the Law of Conservation of Mass). For some bizarre reason, this does oddly comfort and in some very small way, excite me (just the nerd in me). That said, I don’t think it’s fair to pitch science against religion. They’re not equivalents. Science is based on evidence, and isn’t meant to provide final answers. It’s always best evidence and repeatability, and scientists expect their work to be superseded. It’s part of the process. Faith is something else entirely and I think it can coincide with science, as long as, you see it as something that doesn’t contain a burden of proof.

Zalehah: Which are your favourite poems in it and why?

Magdalena: I’m not sure I can choose favourites, but I wrote the first set – ‘The Last Report of the Day’, ‘Charitable Crumb’, and ‘Luminous Air’ as a kind of trio in tribute to three writers – Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop and Edna St Vincent Millay – who I felt were almost like historic mothers to my work. I tried to contain their style and many of their lines and even some biographical details, while trying to create something that stood alone and had my own voice. It felt to me, as if I were in conversation with these three poets across time. As if, in my motherless state, I was leaning on them for the kind of unstinting support that mothers provide. It’s outrageous hubris I know, but there was something very enjoyable about doing that.

Zalehah: In ‘Ashes for the Earth’ you write in your mother’s voice, as one who has passed. Tell me about the importance of this poem and the variation in style and tone denoting a change in voice. What insights did you gain from writing ‘Ashes for the Earth’?

Magdalena: I don’t even know how it happened that I slipped into her voice when I was writing that poem. It felt a very natural thing to do. I did it again in ‘Six Realms’ though not as emotively. There’s a bit more of a wry edge in that one. This is partly what I meant by being able to continue to find my mother through the work. Writing the poem, felt almost like an extension of the Tibetan ceremony we held for her: like I was giving her permission to go. [It was] something I had to find in myself, because I wasn’t just sad, I was also angry and guilt-ridden. Letting go of my own pain, so I could see her off by taking her voice, felt a necessary step.

Zalehah: Which poets or specific poems did you draw on, or find connections with, when writing your book?

Magdalena: I’m a pretty regular reader of poetry, and am always inspired by other poets. Probably one of my biggest, most pervasive influences is Dorothy Porter. Her book, Other Worlds is a kind of gold standard for me on bringing together grief and science; the natural world and human pain. Of course, the influence of Emily Dickinson, Edna St Vincent Millay, Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, and Gertrude Stein are quite strong through the book, but I was inspired by a lot of modern poets too. One example is Lisa Gorton’s Hotel Hyperion. Gorton also seems to walk a very fine line between the minute domestic and the grand scale; between big science and an often maternal emotion that appealed to me immediately and that continues to provide inspiration every time I return to the book.

Zalehah: Can you tell me about the new book that you have in the pipeline?

Magdalena: I’ve just finished writing a poetic memoir. I’ve tried to situate each of the poems in a specific historical context, so it’s not so much a book about my life, but about the nature of memory and time, primarily set in New York City in 1960s/ 70s /80s where I grew up. Time is such a complex thing to explore. We’re immersed in it. It makes up every aspect of how we define our lives, in linear intervals on a continuum, and yet the reality of experience doesn’t fit that very well at all. Time isn’t only relativistic in physics – it’s also relative psychologically. I wanted to play with the notion of time using a number of situations that happened to me, without discounting the dreamlike way we experience our lives. All those distractions, perspectives, sensations: our piecemeal memory that consists of different sensory imprints, not all of which are linguistic. Some of those experiences exist outside of language and I wanted to play with these forms of memory and perception.

So, while the book is in many respects deeply personal in that it traces a trajectory that is specifically mine, it’s all real in the sense of things that I can recall having happened. I didn’t want to shy from some of the more difficult things that took place. Some of the pieces were written in prose first to get the shape of them, but at the same time, I think there’s a scientific eye that is inquisitive in a fairly objective way. The tone is somewhat more upbeat than Unmaking Atoms. That said, I’m afraid I’m always a bit apocalyptic in my writing.

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Magdalena Ball

Interviewee: 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 collection of poetry, Unmaking Atoms, was published by Ginninderra Press in 2017. Magdalena Ball was shortlisted for the Queensland Poetry Festival Philip Bacon Ekphrasis Award 2017, the Bayside Poetry Awards 2015, and highly commended for the New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016. She also received commendations in the Poetry competition at the Morisset Lake Macquarie District Show.

website: http://www.magdalenaball.com
Five poems from Unmaking Atoms
Unmaking Atoms by Magdalena Ball is available from Ginninderra Press
“the inner and outer worlds of the bereaved”: Malcolm St Hill reviews Magdalena Ball’s Unmaking Atoms

 

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Zalehah Turner

Interviewer: Zalehah Turner is a Sydney based poet, photographer, cultural journalist, and Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review (RSR). Zalehah is currently working on an intermedia poetry collection entitled, Critical condition, focused on the interstitial threshold between life and death in medical crises based on personal experience. Zalehah holds a BA in Communication with a major in writing and cultural studies from the University of Technology, Sydney where she continues to pursue pushing the boundaries of poetry and multimedia in Honours (Communication- Creative Writing).

Featured Writer issue 21: Four poems
Featured Artists issue 23

 

Featured Writer Magdalena Ball: Five Poems from ‘Unmaking Atoms’

Unmaking Atoms

Yesterday you said goodbye
for the third time
your breath lifting
the hair on my neck as you
whispered another vow.

I watched you leave
your lips barred, arms bridged
against an unyielding chest.

I’ve kept track of these
farewells
a book by the bedside
scribbling invisible letters
while I blank my face.

When you return
your breath is shallow
the bed colder than wind
but we pretend it’s warm
wake in silence
words hidden in the ledger of loss.

Because I’m a woman
I know you’re right
it’s my habit of hiding
meaning in parcels
beneath my skin.
If you reached out a finger
you’d find them
swollen against the veins
releasing a strange scent:
musk and sadness.

You said goodbye again
maybe it was just an ordinary wave
a little post-coffee blood
pieces of flesh
I might pick up while I wash
dirty dishes, tidy the counter.

I don’t know how to share
other than secretly
in lemon juice ink
knowing every word unspoken
is one step closer to the one
that sticks
the one that will unmake these atoms.

 

Ashes for the Earth

Walking slowly
distraction of hearth left
to those that still bleed
a forest grows around me.

Lichen and stone
vine, rock and leaf
each footstep goes deeper
into the soil
breaking down the loam
beneath incorporeal feet
crushing barriers in my mind.

This forest is a city
the buildings of memory
tug and sting
phantom pain
whispered against this journey.

Sound comes in even pulses
breath is a dream I once had
in the days when trees were buildings
and fear was a girdle
maintaining form.

My body unravels
through this
nameless place
those attachments
the hunger of the living
can be shed
though not easily.

I still taste salt on my tongue
still hear the soft call
of my children
their fingers looking for me
in black and white lacunae
echoes in the disappearing air
even as I continue
making ashes for the earth

it’s too late to turn back.

 

Mapping Pluto

In the corner of my eye
crude patterns of dark and light winked behind
averted vision, engaged the cones and rods
of my retina as a shadowy silhouette
then gone.

Not for the first time.

When I was no older than four or five you were
there, question mark on your chest
like a slogan T-shirt, appearing from the dreamworld
whispering my name when no one
else was answering the phone.

In the lean years
your celebrity reduced to dark glasses and exo-status
I tried to keep you close through long nights
thrashing in my hallucinations
the nightmare of your voice, muted music
Holst’s Renewer, unwritten, unknown
like a true god of the underworld.

Let’s not pretend you’re nameless
hovering just there, in the ICU
lurking like an unwanted friend
against the metal tang of machinery
monitors, ventilators, keeping life going
while you wait, wait, always waiting
for the soft touch of flesh.

When I finally find you, looking
directly into your dark face
tenderly tracing bony cheekbones with my fingers
alien scent against my skin
will I feel this same hot longing
hollow pain driving my hands to knit and unknit
or will I know you implicitly
all the geysers, craters, moons and rings mapped
familiar as a welcome home.

 

Watagan Walk

There was a moment
Mount Warrawolong in view
throat constricted with the effort of climbing
where I stopped thinking about you.

Only fools would work this hard
I heard you say
but it was just wind in my ears
clouds parting briefly for a shot of blue.

Past boulders covered in moss
Illawarra flames, red cedar branches
walking barefoot, my feet treading
lightly on broken promises
like the memory of kinship
a wedge-tailed eagle overhead
eyes squinting against summer sun.

How easy it would be
to reject this gift
that was never mine
an exception to the rule
city girl on the hill
in plastic sunnies and khakis
lips whiter than the
ice cream mountain top.

Yet I call this forest home
find my own handprint
in abandoned caves
recognise goannas blending to bark
the screech of lorikeet and cockatoo
more familiar than a honking horn.

Eucalyptus breath
draws me back
as if it were a return
c’mon it says
your body is earth bound
this soil, this smell.

 

Redhead Beach

Arriving, never fully
at this beach
closed due to rough surf
snuck in, an interloper
sand from another time
between these toes

not one molecule
other than the enamel
on my teeth
the cartilage in my bones
remains
from that person
on that beach
but here again
memory finding itself
the water hitting the shore
in patterns fully familiar
the rocky outcrops
shark tower

blue on blue
like heartbreak
your eyes against the ocean
the ocean against the sky

a seagull nods
as if to say
yes, me too
refreshed but not renewed

a network of cellular
connections between neurons
a conduit that survives
even the startling indigo
of that light

alone, always
but never quite
without you.

-Magdalena Ball

 

The poems are a selection from Magdalena Ball’s ‘Unmaking Atoms’ (Ginninderra Press 2017) and are republished in Rochford Street Review with the author’s permission. They include, ‘Mapping Pluto’ which was shortlisted for the 2015 Bayside Poetry Awards, and ‘Watagan Walk’ and ‘Redhead Beach’, versions of which were awarded commendations in the Poetry competition at the Morisset Lake Macquarie District Show.

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Magdalena Ball. photograph by Morgan Hardy Bell (2017).

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 collection of poetry, Unmaking Atoms, was published by Ginninderra Press this year. Magdalena Ball was shortlisted for the Queensland Poetry Festival Philip Bacon Ekphrasis Award 2017, the Bayside Poetry Awards 2015, and highly commended for the New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016. She also received commendations in the Poetry competition at the Morisset Lake Macquarie District Show.

 

website: http://www.magdalenaball.com

Unmaking Atoms by Magdalena Ball is available from Ginninderra Press

“The core of Unmaking Atoms”: Zalehah Turner interviews Magdalena Ball

“the inner and outer worlds of the bereaved”: Malcolm St Hill reviews Magdalena Ball’s Unmaking Atoms

 

Featured Writer Magdalena Ball: Biographical Note

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Magdalena Ball. photograph by Morgan Hardy Bell (2017).

 

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 collection of poetry, Unmaking Atoms, was published by Ginninderra Press in 2017. Magdalena Ball was shortlisted for the Queensland Poetry Festival Philip Bacon Ekphrasis Award 2017, the Bayside Poetry Awards 2015, and highly commended for the New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016. She also received commendations in the Poetry competition at the Morisset Lake Macquarie District Show.

website: http://www.magdalenaball.com

Five poems from Unmaking Atoms

Unmaking Atoms by Magdalena Ball is available from Ginninderra Press

“The core of Unmaking Atoms”: Zalehah Turner interviews Magdalena Ball

“the inner and outer worlds of the bereaved”: Malcolm St Hill reviews Magdalena Ball’s Unmaking Atoms

“the inner and outer worlds of the bereaved”: Malcolm St Hill reviews Magdalena Ball’s ‘Unmaking Atoms’

Unmaking Atoms by Magdalena Ball (Ginninderra Press 2017).

unmaking_atomsMagdalena Ball’s Unmaking Atoms, her second full-length collection, is a prodigious and often heart-wrenching array of poems, speaking to themes of loss and grief. In the ninety-two, generally short pieces, Ball projects an astounding breadth of knowledge, particularly in science, and mines this in unique and skillful ways.

The death of a parent is the predominant subject of this collection. Ball examines this primarily from the perspective of a bereaved daughter. In ‘Irrational Heart’, one of the longer poems in the collection, the daughter negotiates the ‘untempered rawness’ of loss, the silence and permanence of her suffering:

 

when the wash is done, lights off
kids in bed
leather gloves come out
silently punch the wall, which never yields.

She walks her ‘dreams alone’, hoping to find the parent in the liminality of sleep. She sorts her mother’s belongings, a mundane but necessary act of bereavement, and contemplates staying up all night, baking cookies to ‘negotiate the hurt.’

Symbols of loss haunt these poems. In ‘Inside Your Darkest Everything’, which references Frida Kahlo, the deceased is ‘the dull scent of memory/ that lingers on the drapes’, and ‘a neat row of shoes/ that won’t be worn again’. ‘Yellow Jacquard’, apologizes to the parent for disliking the inherited jacquard sofa, a striking object, which mocks the child, with its ‘stupidly/ happy flowers’ sign-posting loss.

There is a sense, at times, of the parental eye watching over the child. In ‘Cold Mirror’, ‘…you’re everywhere/ a peek-a-boo phantom dropping by/ to check my progress’. In other poems, the mother is the persona and we witness death from the deceased’s point of view. In ‘Ashes for the Earth’, the mother tells the reader that,

I still taste the salt on my tongue
still hear the soft call
of my children
their fingers looking for me
in black and white lacunae

‘In Situ’, describes friends and family gathering around the bereaved and portrays grief as so intensely personal that others cannot possibly understand the suffering. Those around the daughter comment that her mother looked peaceful, while she thinks otherwise, that ‘a grimace is not a smile’. According to them, death ‘was the natural order of things’, and when they left, they smiled, ‘empty containers in hand’. This poem encapsulates the feelings of emptiness and isolation in the face of well-intentioned others, with their awkwardness and insensitivity. It is a poem of contradictions. There was ‘much to do, but nothing more to be done’. There was ‘hunger and too much food’. There was barrenness and comfort. These are the inner and outer worlds of the bereaved, the disconnect emphasising the estrangement of the daughter from those around her.

Ball likens the isolation of grief to that of Planet Nine (in the poem of the same name), the predicted but unobserved outer planet of the solar system. This is one of many references to astronomy in the collection. There is some consolation, however, in an earlier planetary poem, ‘Maven on Mars’, about a spacecraft exploring the atmosphere of the Red Planet. Maven, in the vastness of space is ‘…never alone/ no matter how dark/ or cold’.

Life in the fog of loss is not without hope and Ball suggests that, in time, some healing will occur. ‘Relief comes in bursts of sunlight’, says the persona in ‘Dark Matter Wants to be Alone’ and in the final stanza of ‘Hieroglyphics’, ‘finding a tincture of who you were/ each detail of your absence, bringing back/ the line and curve that makes us whole.’ In the end though, the sting of loss lingers as in ‘Qualia’, where ‘years haven’t covered/ everything in rosy patina’, and that grief is ‘…still ugly/ fresh enough to be raw’.

Ball leans heavily on physics as well as astronomy and other sciences for metaphoric effect. At times, this demands work from the reader. While it’s necessary to ascertain the meanings of some of the scientific terms, the reward is to witness the acuity of their use. The moment of death is a slide into the ‘atomic mess’. It is an arresting, almost visceral image, from the poem ‘Atomic Mess’, but it also represents the point of release from suffering. Apart from its conspicuous inclusion in the collection’s title, this is the first of many references to atoms. The persona describes herself in ‘Most of Everything is Nothing’, as ‘a conduit of buzzing atoms/ moving by kinetic heat’. There is a striking paradox between the self as a sentient being and as a collection of atoms, molecules, cells or other fundamental building blocks of life. We are both ends of the spectrum and everything in between.

Ball assays grief with sensitivity and skill in this deep exploration of the emotional impact of death. The poems are poignant but never sentimental and the prevalent references to science provide a unique counterpoint, keeping the collection fresh and alive. Technical knowledge is married beautifully with the healing power of poetry and Ball carries ‘…all this/ responsibility/ all this breath’, with equanimity and poise.

-Malcolm St Hill

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Malcolm St Hill

Malcolm St Hill lives in Newcastle and is a poet and independent researcher focused on the literary memory of the Great War, particularly that of Australian soldier-poets. His recent poems have appeared in the 2016 and 2015 ‘Grieve’ anthologies. He was the winner of the Morisset Show ‘Lake Macquarie Moments’ Poetry Competition in 2016.

 

 

Unmaking Atoms by Magdalena Ball is available from Ginninderra Press

Five poems from Unmaking Atoms

“The core of Unmaking Atoms”: Zalehah Turner interviews Magdalena Ball

‘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?

M.B.:
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.

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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

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___________________________________________________________________________

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

New Shoots Poetry Prizes: the winners and highly commended

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CONGRATULATIONS to the winning and highly commended poets in New Shoots Poetry Prizes!

Rochford Street Review, The Red Room Company and the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney are proud to announce and congratulate the winning and highly commended poets for the New Shoots Poetry Prizes. Congratulations to New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016 winner, Stuart Cooke for ‘Fallen Myrtle Trunk’ and Magdalena Ball for the highly commended, ‘Anneslea fragrans’. Congratulations also go to the New Shoots Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney Poetry Prize 2016 winner, John Karl Stokes for ‘Leaving Wilona’ and John Bennett for the highly commended, ‘our primitive lives’.

The four, award winning, plant inspired poems were published today, 1 December in the current issue 20, of Rochford Street Review and on The Red Room Company website. Interviews with the poets discussing their poems will be posted in the next few weeks.

Congratulations also go to one of poets shortlisted for the New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016, Mohammad Ali Maleki, whose poem, ‘Tears of Stone’ has been given, special commendation for extraordinary work in extreme circumstances and published in Rochford Street Review.

The prizes are a joint initiative of The Red Room Company, Rochford Street Review and the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney with the selection panel comprising of the Director of The Red Room Company, Tamryn Bennett and Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review, Zalehah Turner.

The New Shoots Poetry Prizes offered eco warriors to plant loving poets the chance to create poems around The Red Room Company’s plant inspired poetry project for 2016, New Shoots. All submissions will be included in an e-book anthology (forthcoming).

John Stokes, the winner of the New Shoots Royal, Botanic Garden, Sydney Poetry Prize 2016, wished to pass on his “thanks to the organisers and the judges; with a special thanks to [his] fellow writers for making this such a rich and interesting exercise.”

New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016
Winner: 
Stuart Cooke – ‘Fallen Myrtle Trunk
Highly Commended: Magdalena Ball – ‘Anneslea fragrans
*Special Commendation: Mohammad Ali Maleki – ‘Tears of Stone

New Shoots Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney Poetry Prize 2016
Winner:
John Karl Stokes – ‘Leaving Wilona
Highly Commended: John Bennett – ‘our primitive lives

New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016

Winner:Fallen Myrtle Trunk’ by Stuart Cooke

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Stuart Cooke

Stuart Cooke lives on the Gold Coast, where he lectures in creative writing and literary studies at Griffith University. He has published collections of poetry, criticism and translation. His latest book, Opera was published by Five Islands Press in 2016. Stuart Cooke is the winner of the 2016 Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize.

 

 

Highly Commended: Anneslea fragrans’ by Magdalena Ball

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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).

 

 

 

*Special Commendation:Tears of Stone‘ by Mohammad Ali Maleki

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Mohammad Ali Maleki

Mohammad Ali Maleki is an Iranian poet and avid gardener living in detention on Manus Island whose poem, ‘Tears of Stone’ was shortlisted for the New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016. Mohammad Ali Maleki is the featured writer in current issue of Rochford Street Review. His poem, ‘The Strong Sunflower’ was originally published in Verity La’s Discoursing Diaspora project. Mohammad Ali Maleki’s poems are translated from Farsi by Mansoor Shoushtari and edited by Michelle Seminara and Melita Luck. Mohammad Ali Maleki’s poems are emotive tales of life in detention which often employ plants as metaphors. He also enjoys gardening and has planted a beautiful garden behind his room on Manus Island.

 

 

New Shoots Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney Poetry Prize 2016

Winner: Leaving Wilnoa’ by John Stokes

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John Stokes

John Stokes is renowned internationally for his passionate campaign for plain-speaking in literature. He has won, been short-listed, or long-listed for many prizes including, longlisted for both the University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor’s and Montreal International Poetry Prizes in 2014 and 2015, respectively. His third book, Fire in the Afternoon was published in the Poets and Perspectives series by Halstead Press in 2014 and won the ATC Writing and Publishing Awards 2015 for best poetry book of the year.

 

N.B. The judges of the New Shoots Poetry Prizes were unaware that ‘Leaving Wilona’ by John Karl Stokes was previously published in ‘Fire in the Afternoon’ (Halstead Press, 2014) at the time of the selection and announcement.

Highly Commended:our primitive lives’ by John Bennett

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John Bennett

John Bennett has won the Mattara (now Newcastle) Prize and the David Tribe Prize and is represented in Puncher and Wattmann’s Contemporary Australian Anthology. A documentary on his work was broadcast by ABC Radio National’s Earshot in February 2016. His PhD updates a Defence of Poetry and he now melds poetry and image with Photovoltaic poetry.

 

 

*Special Commendation was an award that was created after the New Shoots Poetry Prizes submission guidelines were written

Selection panel: Dr Tamryn Bennet, Artistic Director of The Red Room Company and Zalehah Turner, Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review

Plant a seed of inspiration in your mind’s eye and let it grow into a poem.

Submissions to New Shoots Poetry Prizes have closed but the New Shoots online submission form remains open for plant-inspired poems. Poems submitted will be published on the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney website in 2017.

The winning and highly commended poems from the New Shoots Poetry Prizes can also be found on The Red Room Company‘s website.

-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

New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016 highly commended: ‘Anneslea fragrans’ by Magdalena Ball

Anneslea fragrans

First there is touch
teasing evergreen into position
waking naked
against sunlight
hot plasma in the morning
opens bracts

you can feel the tension
the garden on full alert

each root tip
the locus of electrical signals
reacting to groping fingers
sharp to the eye, but yielding
ready for the spit
scenting the air in anticipation
chemical compounds
communicating a warning
from the roots

there were no bees this year

silence buzzed through the air
an absence of sound
the hives empty
epithelial tissues connecting
to nothing

the air hurt with it

your eyes adjusting
the yellow cream points
unfiltered, unfettered
ready to pollinate
plant, interrupted

what else is on the way out

the list grows long
Javan Rhinos, Vaquita
Sumatran Tiger
Man

pulses like sound waves
transmitted in
voltage-based signaling
a green nervous system
sending out alcohols, aldehydes, ketones
plant to plant
the botanical telegraph

with your bad hearing
you’ll need to get down to earth level
to get the phytomorphic shivers

the splitting of senses
is a human-only perversion
most of what we taste is smell
taking the warning in vibrations
against the skull
terroir, a bitter crunch, crumbing
against the lips
almost desire

the spitting plant waits
Corymbs branching outward into warmth

a day that might not last
ineffably sad
ready for evolution.

-Magdalena Ball

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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).

 

 

 

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

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