Wombwell Rainbow Interviews
I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.
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 then migrated to NSW Australia, where she now resides on a rural property with her husband and three children. While in Australia she received 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 short stories, editorials, poetry, reviews and articles have appeared in a wide number of printed anthologies and journals, and have won local and international awards for poetry and fiction. She is the author of the poetry books Unmaking Atoms, Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, the novels Black Cow, and Sleep Before Evening, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, the Celebration Series poetry books Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, Compulsive Reader Talks. In addition to her writing, Magdalena is a Research Support Lead for a multinational company, and regardless of what she’s doing, will usually be found with a book or two in one form or another, sneaking time for reading.
1. When and why did you begin to write poetry?
I honestly cannot remember a time when I wasn’t writing poetry. It feels very natural to me to express myself poetically, probably because I grew up with a lot of poetry around me, from Dr Seuss and Maurice Sendak to the songs my mother, who was in a rock band, was writing and singing or the poetry my uncle set to music including literary giants like Edna St Vincent Millay, Frank O’Hara, WB Yeats and Emily Dickinson. Poetry has always been part of my environment. I created a lot of handmade ‘zines, themed booklets and celebration poems for friends when I was growing up, but my first official publication was a full centre-page spread in a Greenwich village magazine while I was an undergraduate. I’ve lost the publication now though I kept the clipping for years, but the buzz of that first publication was pretty intense.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
I think I’d have to say my parents. They both read to me a lot – and there was poetry in the children’s books I loved. Sendak and Seuss come to mind immediately because I also bought and read many books by those two authors for my own children, but there were many books I loved when I was very young like The Story of Ping by Marjorie Flack, Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, and Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crocket Johnson, all of which became introductions for me to what language can do as an art form, and how poetic language in particular can convey complex ideas in ways that jump past the intellect using rhythm, correspondence and imagery. I always had a visceral response to the books that were read to me, perhaps because my parents were very good readers and tended to act out the work and engage me in the process by talking to me about what they were reading, letting me fill in words and take over when I was ready. I’m deeply grateful to them for this early gift, which to be honest, I didn’t properly recognise until I was much older. Beyond being read to, I was pretty heavily influenced by my uncle, the composer Ricky Ian Gordon (https://rickyiangordon.com/), who not only set a lot of superb poems to music – the sound of which formed a backdrop to my childhood as I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house where Ricky, who is only 10 years older than me, was growing up, but also he was always recommending and gifting books to me. I remember a book pack he gave to me when I was around 12 after he read some of my poems. I still have the books, which include Plath’s Ariel, Sexton’s Live or Die, Brecht’s Manuel of Piety and Rimbaud’s The Drunken Boat – none of which were age appropriate (!) but they certainly left a mark on me – like many young women I became a bit obsessed with Plath in particular for a while! Even now, when I see him he’ll usually recite a poem by heart to me from someone he personally knows or has recently discovered which will immediately blow me away.
3. How aware were and are you of the dominating presence of older poets?
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t suffer from imposter syndrome regularly as a writer. However, I have always been a confident reader. The delight I take in other people’s words is something that has bolstered me since I was very (possibly too) young. I think it’s fair to say that nearly all writers, no matter how famous, need and love attentive readers and reading is my happy place. So whenever I don’t feel like I’m writer enough to match the company I’m keeping (and that company may be on the page rather than in the flesh though I have been lucky enough to meet some intimidatingly good writers), I’m always able to fall back on the joy of delighting in the words of others. It’s a great privilege I think to be able to just pay attention to art that is exquisite. The sheer joy of that deep engagement is something that I think transcends age, fame, and even genius. It’s connection that is very primal and powerful and wipes out jealousy, intimidation and domination. That said, I’m always actively seeking diversity in my reading as I’m conscious that the “dominating presence of older poets” is really partly determined by a canon that isn’t necessarily very diverse. I’m actively trying to read as diversely as possible, not only because it is healthy to be exposed to what challenges you, but also because nuance and exquisite beauty can often be found in under-represented writers that isn’t so easy to find in some of the bigger, more famous names that are treated as “classics”. So I will sometimes deliberately resist that domination.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
I think it would be a rare day when I didn’t write something, but aside from that I just write whenever I can, often in brief snatches here and there, or while everyone else is watching television in the evening once the hubbub of the day has eased off. I have done things like pulled my car over to the side of the road to write something down that came to mind; written poems during business meetings; stirred something on the stove with one hand while writing with the other – you get the idea. I have three children and a day job so can’t really be precious with the time. Poetry is particularly flexible that way and can be fitted into a tight schedule but I have to admit that fiction is harder for me to write in short bursts which is why I’ve been writing a lot of poetry over the past few years.
5. What motivates you to write?
I’m not really sure what motivates me! It’s kind of instinctual. If I don’t write almost every day I find I’m not at my best – I get cranky – some variation of hangry – like there’s a hunger that needs satiating. Being able to sit down, even for just a few minutes, and put something down in writing is part of what my body needs each day – like food, water, exercise, sleep. It’s just part of how I live in the world. I get a lot of pleasure from extrinsic motivations like publication, praise (poets seem to me to be particularly supportive of one another and I’m so grateful for the gorgeous community I feel very much bolstered by), the odd tiny financial reward, and being able to perform/read/connect with readers – they’re all really wonderful perks, but the practice of writing is something I do regardless of those things.
6. What is your work ethic?
I was born and raised in New York, and it may just go with the territory but I think my work ethic has always been a little bit too strong. I have really tried to ease back on my work ethic – to be more present; to take more time on quality over quantity; to slow down a little bit and not feel like I have to be ticking every box on a daily to-do list. That said, I’m always feeling the tug to get one more thing done today. I’m trying to plan a little bit less, and to be more open as I get older.
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
See question 2. The writers I read when I was young have had a massive influence on me – they’ve helped formed my identity and not just as a writer. I honestly don’t think I’d be the same person if I hadn’t read so much Maurice Sendak as a child. I still get a little shiver of excitement thinking about Little Bear’s trip to the moon or that wordless page of the wild rumpus in Where the Wild Things Are. I also was heavily influenced as a young adult by writers like Czesław Miłosz who I saw perform at Princeton when I was about 17, and I used to hang around the Poetry Project at St. Marks (https://www.poetryproject.org) (around that time hoping one day I might just end up having a conversation with Patti Smith, Jim Carroll, Allen Ginsberg or Anne Waldman. I was always too shy to approach them (see question 3), but I knew very strongly then that this was a place I felt at home and that theses were voices that resonated with my young self. I took a lot of that in and it helped form my identity.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
I love so many writers that the answer to this question could go on for about 20 pages! It never fails to amaze me how much superb work just keeps coming out. I’m very lucky to be a book reviewer and so I get a lot of books. I certainly don’t like everything but I get at least one book a week that is excellent, often by someone I never heard of before. I know that the minute I commit a name to paper I’ll have missed out someone critical or maybe I’ll read someone tomorrow and by the time this goes to air I’ll be sad I didn’t include them. So instead of answering this question I might just ‘gather some paradise’ (to steal a phrase from the wonderful PoemTalk podcast (https://jacket2.org/content/poem-talk) and talk about a few poets that I’ve recently read whose work I like. Please note that this is a snapshot of the work I’ve been in contact with over the past month or so and is in no way comprehensive! Tracy K Smith’s latest book Wade in the Water is just so good. You can read the title poem here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/147467/wade-in-the-water Another poet whose work gets me everytime is Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead. I don’t even know why but the book has brought me to tears several times and even now, I’m thinking of the title poem. I’m right in the middle of reading Anne Casey’s Where the Lost Things Go (https://www.salmonpoetry.com/details.php?ID=437&a=307) which is just so warm and lovely – so rich with empathy and compassion, and so very relevant. Another book I recently read and loved was Ali Whitelock’s And My Heart Crumples Like a Coke Can, ( https://www.wakefieldpress.com.au/product.php?productid=1437) which is hysterically funny, raw, sad and uplifting all at the same time. Both Anne and Ali are people I recently met and immediately became friends with – it was like we’ve known each other for years and we instantly began planning collaborations, tours, tweeting about one another’s work, etc. I’m so happy to give their wonderful books a shout-out.
9. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
At the risk of sounding like Yoda (it wouldn’t be the first time), there is no ‘become’ – if you want to write, write. Don’t waste too much time dreaming about it or making elaborate promotional plans (something I have been guilty of). Just get on with it. Write what you like to read best or what you feel compelled to write. Or pick a competition and begin working towards a submission. Push asdie the doubt and discomfort and that stupid “monkey” voice at the back of your head that says you’re not up to it, and just get on with it. No one is a ‘natural’ – first drafts are almost all bad, every writer no matter how well-respected is struggling with what they’re working on now, and the only way to get good at writing is, like anything, regular practice. You have to fail. It’s part of the learning curve – so get on with the failure, accept it, become comfortable in its presence and keep going. When you’ve got enough material or when your material fits a market, submit it somewhere. Then repeat the process. The one other thing you must do is to read, a lot, and diversely. If, like me, you’re nervous about promoting your own work or you’re uncertain that what you’ve done is great, then promote someone else. Shine a light on the wonderful, especially where it’s underrepresented. Everyone has the power to do that these days – leave a review, buy someone a book for a present, talk up what you love. Then get back to the table and make your own beauty. There’s no magic formula and raw talent that isn’t utilised is nothing. (may the force be with you…)
10. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I’ve just had a poetry book published by Flying Island Books titled High Wire Step, and I’ve got another one coming out in April from Girls on Key Press titled Unreliable Narratives. Neither of those were planned this time last year and I’m really pleased with how they came together and the incredible editorial support I had on both books (I’m very grateful to Kit Kelen and Anna Forsyth respectively). I’m still in promotion mode for these two and there are launches and performances planned at the Newcastle Writers Festival this year and throughout the early part of 2019. I have begun working on a new book of poetry and I am still working on my third novel, a sci fi which is proving to be quite difficult. One of my resolutions for 2019 is to either finish the thing or call it. Every time I sit down to write it strikes me as being too good and too far along to abandon but then I get distracted and it drifts away from my mind and the desire to work on it recedes. This is the year I either finish, or make the call. I also have quite a few multimedia/anthology collaborations in-hand, which I’m very excited about. I can’t divulge, but good things are on the horizon.