Duncan Ball · Poetry · rhythm

Duncan Ball

What poets did you enjoy reading as a child?

Although I was born in America and lived there till I was twelve, I had the usual British poetry read to me when I was very little: Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, A A Milne’s poems, and lots of nonsense poetry such as Edward Lear’s poems. My mother was good about reading to us kids. I was probably in primary school when I first heard longer narrative poems such as Alfred Noyes’ wonderful “The Highwayman”.

Do you remember the first poem that you ever wrote? How old were you? Can you share it with us?

In primary school I made up poems. Like most kids I responded to poetry but assumed that if the words at the ends of lines rhymed then that was all there was to it. I had no idea that other factors might have been at work. If someone had explained a bit about how poetry works early on I could have spared my family some ghastly stuff. On the other hand I wouldn’t have understood it anyway.

When I was eleven or twelve I started reading poetry in earnest. Up to that point I was a very poor reader and I think I liked poetry because it had an emotional impact and it was short. I didn’t have to read whole novels to get a buzz.

I liked the English Romantic poets: Keats, Byron, Shelley, and also Coleridge and Tennyson. I must also have started reading more American poems like the ones in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. And, gradually, I read more experimental poets such as e. e. cummings. Robert Frost was also a favourite. I went to hear him read once but was seated directly behind him on a stage and could only see the back of his head. But the back of his head was interesting because he had quite obviously cut his own hair and left some long scratches from the scissors. He was fond of joking that the difference between him and Carl Sandberg was that Carl had a “hairdo” while he cut his own.

I spent a year in Paris when I was nineteen and twenty studying at the Sorbonne and it was there that I met and spent some time socialising with the Beat poets, who were also living there at the time. Just to namedrop there was Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Curso, Peter Orlovsky, Harold Norse and others.

They were not always easy people to be around and I didn’t care much for their poetry apart from Ginsberg’s “Howl” and “Kaddish” and maybe a few other poems by the others.

I was writing poetry myself and reading it at poetry readings. Recently I found a sheaf of poems, still curled from having been carried in the inside pocket of a sports jacket and ready to be produced and read aloud back in those days if there was the slightest hint that anyone would listen. I re-read some of them and threw them into a fire that I was stoking. It gave me a wonderful feeling.
Do you write mostly in rhyme or in free verse? Do you know why?

These days I write funny poems that rhyme. Because I’m writing for kids. I occasionally write poems that aren’t as traditional in structure but these I keep for myself.

Are your poems best performed aloud or read quietly to oneself? Can you provide an example?

My poems aren’t performance poems in the sense that they have to be read a certain way aloud to make them work. Although a good reader can always bring something extra to a poem, I’d like to think that mine can be enjoyed by a reader reading alone.


TV or not TV


They say TV’s not bad or good;

That’s why it’s called a medium.

To get away from TV tedium

I often switch to DVDium.

From My Sister Has a Big Black Beard, HarperCollins, Australia

© Duncan Ball 2009


Who first published your poetry?

A few of my poems were published in university literary magazines. Later, I wrote poems for the New South Wales Department of Education’s School Magazine. (As I was the editor so there was no problem getting them published.)

Where else have your poems been published?

I’ve written a series of books about a talking dog named Selby and Selby has become my poet alter-ego. Selby writes poetry, not me. Most of the fifteen anthologies of Selby’s adventures published to date have Selby’s poetry as well as the stories. I’ve found it liberating to have Selby be the poet. His most popular poem to date is the following poem from the book Selby Splits:

O Bum, O Bum


I think the time has finally come
To write a poem about a bum
That fleshy bit behind, I mean
Around the back, so rarely seen


Some poems sing of broken hearts
And lots of other body parts
There’s even one about a thumb
So why not praise the humble bum?


O bum, O bum, O humble bum
Of thee I sing, of thee I hum


And why this silence, pray tell why?
Because your bum is very shy
It’s almost always deathly quiet
Depending on your type of diet


O bum, O bum, O quiet bum
O little chum, O quiet bum


A built-in cushion, is your bott
So spare your bum a moment’s thought
Then plonk yourself into a chair
And thank your bum for being there


O thank you bum, O thank you bum
O bum, o bum, O bum, O bum


From Selby Splits, HarperCollins, Australia
© Duncan Ball 2001


Over the past few years I wrote a number of poems that I didn’t think were suitable for Selby. One of them was a long poem called “Quentin’s Lunch”, about a boy who eats rotten food until he explodes. It is gross and disgusting and fun to read in schools. It was published as a book by ABC Books and illustrated by Steven Axelsen.

Eventually the book went out of print but I convinced HarperCollins to bring it back. I said that I wanted to add some poems to make the book a bit longer. I ended up adding forty-seven poems and the book became My Sister Has a Big Black Beard, this time graced by wonderful illustrations by Kerry Millard.

Here’s a poem I wrote to help kids write thank you notes:


Thanks for Nothing


Thank you for your stupid gift —

I’ll chuck it when you’re out of sight,

But not before I jump on it,

Then set the stupid thing alight.


You always give me useless things —

Like all the latest fashion clothes,

Motorbikes and mobile phones

And DVDs of horror shows.


I’m sick to death of MP3s,

Of fibre optic flying planes,

Video console action games —

They’re all so silly and inane.


One fact that has eluded you

I’m not some kid back in Year 2

I’m grown up now that I’m in Third

And money would have been preferred.


From My Sister Has a Big Black Beard, HarperCollins, Australia

© Duncan Ball 2001


Anthologies are often places for poets to seek publication. How would you suggest a new poet find out about upcoming anthologies?

I don’t know if there’s any way to do this. Anthologies are usually the brain-children of editors in publishing houses who then enlist a poet to lend their name and to do the collecting. The person doing the collecting then sometimes approach poets and ask for submissions but more usually they pore over existing anthologies and magazines and select the poems they like.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m writing a new Selby book, a new Emily Eyefinger book, a collection of weird short stories for somewhat older kids and, when I have a chance, some more poetry for another collection. As My Sister Has a Big Black Beard took a couple of years, I assume it’ll be at least three years till this one is written and in print.

Do you have a website/blog/facebook etc – where we can find out more about you?

There’s a bit on Wikipedia but my website is:


But also have a look at Kerry Millard’s website:


Do you have a favourite poetry websites?

No. Call me old-fashioned but most of the poetry I read is in books magazines.

Would you like to share one of your poems with us?

Yes, of course:


My GM* Family


My sister has a big black beard;

My brother needs a bra;

My mother is a baritone

And loves to smoke cigars.


My dad’s a ballet dancer,

With all the ballet clothes,

But his tutu’s too revealing

When he dances on his toes.


My granny had an extra leg,

But she’s since passed away.

We’re just a normal family

By the standards of today.


As for me, my love is football —

The most normal boy on earth —

And I’ll be back to playing it

Just as soon as I give birth.


From My Sister Has a Big Black Beard, HarperCollins, Australia


© Duncan Ball 2001