Atoms and Imagination: An Interview with Magdalena Ball

This week, we had a chance to interview poet Magdalena Ball, one of our members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association!

She was born in New York City, where she grew up. After gaining an honours degree in English Literature from the City University of New York (CCNY), she moved to  Oxford to study English Literature at a postgraduate level. After a brief return to the US, she migrated to NSW Australia, where she now resides with her family.

She holds a Masters degree in Business from Charles Sturt University and a Marketing degree from the University of Newcastle. Magdalena runs the respected review site Compulsive Reader.  Her writing appears widely in anthologies and journals, and she has won local and international awards for poetry and fiction.  Her books include Unmaking AtomsRepulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, Black Cow, Sleep Before EveningThe Art of Assessmentand, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, the Celebration Series poetry books Sublime PlanetDeeper Into the PondBlooming RedCherished PulseShe Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, Compulsive Reader Talks.  Visit her online at: http://magdalenaball.com

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Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get started as a writer? What was one of the hardest things for you to learn?
I feel like I’ve been writing my whole life – like it’s not something I ever got ‘started’ in but was writing poems almost as soon as I was able to write my name – that writing was just another form of reading for me. I got read to a lot – and I would make up stories or poems along similar lines and as soon as I could write them I would. Reading and writing are just part of how I process the world.  I’m sure it’s the same for most writers.  I remember once when I was quite young getting a front page spread in a local Greenwich Village newspaper and seeing my work in print was a buzz.  I’ve been writing and sending stuff out pretty much since then but always as a hobby – something I enjoyed doing of an evening like you might watch television – to relax or work through a problem.  I didn’t write a full length novel though until I was pregnant with my first child.  I thought I’d have a lot of spare time on my heads while I was on maternity leave (lol), and began to plot the thing out in earnest (with lots of books about writing a novel as guides).  Because of course I had far less, rather than more time once my son was born, the novel took me 10 years!  But I did eventually finish it. Learning to write a novel was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done with the biggest learning curve.  The sustained act of world creation over such a long period of time and through a series of life changes was very challenging (and remains so).

 

 Some people think themes of science don’t go well with poetry, but you’ve written several books demonstrating a tremendous intersection between these and the imagination, including Sublime Planet, Repulsion Thrust, and Quark Soup. How do you explain your approach to poetics to others surprised at these possibilities?

I’ve always been poetically charged by science – even as a child (and I’m afraid I spent rather too much time in the Haydn Planetarium).  It’s probably as much due to my lack of mathematical capability as to anything else.  I’m able, for example, to look at a formula – let’s say Euler’s Prime, and see the visual beauty without having a clue how it’s applied or what might be created from it.  I can read about the collision of two neutron stars (!), and feel like something is opening up in me – a sense of possibilities and ways of seeing and perceiving and exploring both human emotion and the broadest picture of what we’re all made of, without being able to map the process in any experimental sense.  So it’s possible that my poetry is a kind of limitation spurred by not quite understanding.  That said, I do feel that all science is spurred on by not quite understanding and that many hypotheses have their basis in poetic wonderment.  I wrote about 10 poems through my reading of A Brief History of Time.  I usually get at least one poem from each issue of New Scientist.  I mean, and again, this is partly just my ignorance and playing with the semantics rather than accurate meanings of words, but how exciting and visceral is the idea of quarks having “flavours” (just one example).

When are you most satisfied with a poem?
I’m most satisfied when I feel that something has been said that couldn’t be said (at least by me) before I wrote the poem and that the poem has a kind of coherence and completeness to it.  It’s a pretty subtle place and something I feel more by gut than by anything else. It’s also not necessary consistent or a stable point.  I might, for example, be satisfied that I’ve done something really powerful when I finish writing and then a few weeks later I reread the poem and become dissatisfied and find that what I’ve written is clunky.  I sometimes will write something that I’m not too happy with that others love and that sense of reader input can change the way I view my poems.  Satisfaction is a shifting target!

What’s a poem you usually suggest for readers who want to read you for the very first time?
I’ll pick a poem of mine which isn’t in a book yet (soon!), and which was highly commended in a hotly contested competition (so many wonderful poems were in the shortlist – I was pathetically grateful for the placement). I’ve included a link below.  It’s not my simplest poem, but it covers a lot of the themes I tend to gravitate towards – it’s pretty indicative of my style and conceits: https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/12/01/new-shoots-poetry-prize-2016-highly-commended-anneslea-fragrans-by-magdalena-ball/
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What inspired you to write Unmaking Atoms? What was the most challenging poem for you in that collection?
Many of the poems were written through my mother’s very intense illness and after her death.  I’m not sure ‘inspiration’ is the right word, but perhaps finding a way to process the complexity of death, of my feelings, and looking for ways to generalise all that confusion.  I think the most challenging poem for me was “In Situ” which was probably one of the simplest.

Who do you look up to as your literary heroes and heroines?
I feel a bit guilty choosing just a few as the list is so long.  But let me say that the book I’ve reread more than any other is Ulysses – a pretentious answer probably but Joyce has inspired so much from me – I nearly did a PhD on him (then I saw the existing bookshelf and gave up).  Woolf, Dorothy Porter, Gertrude Stein, Gwendolyn Brooks, Faulkner, Umberto Eco, Julian Barnes, Margaret Atwood – I could go on (and probably left out the best ones).

Do you have any poetry projects you really hope to take on in the next few years?
I’d love to do more multimedia and visual work.  I’d also like to do a sci fi verse novel.  I haven’t plotted it out yet so just a rough wish at this point.

What’s your favorite music to listen to as you write? 
I listened to a lot of music through my novel writing – it might be period music to get my mind in the right space (there was quite a lot of music in Sleep Before Evening – most of what I listened to got into the book – I’ve done a pinterest of it: https://www.pinterest.com.au/magdalenaball/the-music-of-sleep-before-evening.  But I find I listen very closely – even to music I really know, and that distracts me from writing (I’m a deep listener!), so usually I don’t listen to music.

If you could have any creature, fantastic or real, for a traveling companion, what would it be?
Maybe Dr Who’s K9?  He’s cute, friendly, intelligent and loyal, but I haven’t really thought about the implications.  I might change my mind!
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What are some of the interesting differences you notice between poets in the US and the Australian approach to poetics?
 I tend to work poetically between both countries, so aside from the linguistic differences and spelling, I haven’t really noticed a consistent difference in approach.  I continue to discover so many innovative poets both American and Australian, and stylistically they are all unique and different and wonderful in different ways.

Coffee or Tea? 
Both!  Most days I’ll have one coffee in the morning and then one or two cups of green or black tea during the day and herb tea at night. I like it all.

What’s your preferred writing space?
I’m not at all precious about my writing space.  I’ll write anywhere (including pulled over in my car if something comes to mind), under any conditions (on occasion even in a meeting about something else).  But I do enjoy sitting in a sunny spot in my back yard when the birds are singing and the scent of Eucalypts fills the air.
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We often talk about how a poet gets started, but what keeps you going?
I’m inspired by other writers, by the continually changing world around me, by new discoveries, by fear and pain and joy and hunger – the usual stuff. I’m pretty curious.

What’s your advice for beginning writers who want to write poetry?  
Community makes a huge difference to poets.  I’d say get out there, go to readings, buy and read other people’s work closely and talk about it with others, and read your own work – even if it’s scary at first – even if the first few readings don’t go well.  You learn by playing and exploring.
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