Interview with Stephen Whiteside

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>Stephen Whiteside
What was the first poem you ever remember reading and/or reciting?
I can’t be sure about this, but I suspect my favourite poem when I was younger was “The Geebung Polo Club” by Banjo Paterson. I also loved the poems by A. A. Milne (“James James Robinson Robinson”, etc.), the creator of “Winnie the Pooh”.

Did you write poetry as a child?
I did write a certain amount of poetry as a child. I started writing poems for various family members on their birthdays. The trouble was that everybody wanted one! The pressure became too great, so I had to stop.

Did your parents read or recite poetry to you?
Yes, my father read me the poems of Banjo Paterson. Other early favourites were “Mulga Bill’s Bicycle” and “The Man from Ironbark”.
He also read me Henry Lawson, but whether it was the poetry or the stories I cannot be sure. I loved both Paterson and Lawson as a child.

Have you been writing poems for long? And what kind of successes have you had?
I started writing poetry on a fairly consistent basis when I turned 21. I took most of the 90s off, as my kids were very young then, but apart from that I have been writing pretty much all of my adult life.

During the 80s I managed to place a few poems in anthologies here and there. It was all very low key, as I was only just beginning to feel my way. In the early 90s I decided to write for children, and had some early success with placing poems in magazines – mostly the New South Wales School Magazine. I stepped this up considerably in 2003, and have had quite a number of poems published since then.

I also began submitting poems in bush poetry competitions. I won a few Commended and Highly Commended before going on to win several First and Second placings.
Can you outline your experience of writing and compiling the poems in The Billy That Died With Its Boots On’ and Other Australian Verse, and how you submitted the collection?

I began planning this book in 1990, so it has been a long process. There were many times when I thought it would not happen at all. My good friend, writer Edel Wignell, helped me enormously to find a publisher. Many was the time I was at the point of abandoning the search and simply self publishing, but Edel always stiffened my resolve.

Most of the poems in Billy have been published before in magazines or anthologies, and this was a very important consideration in Walker’s decision to accept the manuscript for publication.

Have you had any poetry writing mentors? Any poets whose work you particularly love?
Without a doubt, the book that has been a shining beacon for me for many years is Book for Kids, by C. J. Dennis. It was published way back in 1921, and most of the poems do not work for children today, but I love the rhythm, musicality and sheer joy of these poems.

Banjo Paterson is another great favourite, as I have mentioned before, as is Henry Lawson. Outside of Australia, I love A. A. Milne and Hilaire Belloc. I have also really enjoyed the poetry of Roald Dahl, Pam Ayres, and Roger McGough.

What inspires you to write poetry?
This is never an easy question to answer. Often it is simply a simple word or phrase that I hear, or perhaps an observation. Increasingly over the years, though, I have tried not to be at the mercy of inspiration, to make it my slave and not my master. I will often make a decision to sit down and write a poem whether I feel inspired or not and hope that, as I begin to write, the inspiration will come. Sometimes this works, sometimes not, but the time and effort is never wasted.

Can you describe the process of writing a poem?
Usually it is a question of finding a first line that I am happy with, and taking it from there. I always have one eye on what I want to say, and the other eye on how I want to say it. Will it be a short poem or a longer one? Will the rhyming scheme be simple or complex? Complex patterns tend to suit shorter poems, and vice versa. Will it be a simple narrative, or a series of verses on a theme? Or will I simply follow my nose and see where it takes me?

I generally complete the poem the day I write it. Most of my poems take between about 20 and 90 minutes for me to write. The average would be about an hour. It would be very unusual for me to continue the poem the next day, though it does happen sometimes.

Do all of your poems rhyme?
Almost, but not quite. I have had one free verse poem published, and I have written quite a number of free verse poems over the years. However, it does not give me nearly as much pleasure writing free verse, and I have largely dropped the practice in recent years.

Do you workshop your poems with anyone?
No, I don’t. I have a couple of close friends that I will often send a poem to shortly after I have written it. Occasionally I am persuaded to make minor changes, but not often.

How do you know when a poem is finished? And how do you know if it’s publishable?
Often I will put a ‘sting’ in the tail, so it is pretty clear then when the poem is finished. Interestingly, though, there have been several instances where a publisher has – with my permission – lopped off the last verse or two of a poem before publishing it. I can even recall one occasion when only one verse of a poem was published.

I never really have a strong sense of what is publishable and what is not. Over the years, I have probably written two poems for every one that I submit to a publisher. Of those that I do submit, about ten are rejected for every one that is accepted. I am often surprised by the poems that are chosen, too.

Are there any poetry anthologies and/or collections you could recommend to readers?
Of the older books, I would certainly recommend Book for Kids by C. J. Dennis. While much of the language and subject matter is out-dated now, it is still a wonderful book. All of A. A. Milne’s rhyming verse is worth reading, as are all the Dr. Seuss books. Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl is excellent, as is Cautionary Tales by Hilaire Belloc.

Closer to home, Sister Madge’s Book of Nuns by our own Doug McLeod is brilliant. (I should add that about 25 years ago I sent Doug a collection of my own poetry for comment. He very graciously sent me a considered and generous reply, which meant a great deal to me at the time.)

Big Book of Verse for Aussie Kids, published by Allen & Unwin in 2009, is a great resource, as is Celebrate – The End of Year Reciter, published by Triple D Books in 2007.

Do you have any advice to struggling poets (including children)?
First and foremost, writing poetry should be fun. If you are not enjoying it, then you need to stop and think about why you are writing. You don’t have to write for publication, and there are many levels of publication anyway.

I would strongly encourage all poets to read widely, but again, only if they enjoy it – and if they do enjoy it, they don’t need me to tell them to do it!
If you are writing for professional publication it is important to remember that the market is small, it is very difficult to find publishers, and the financial rewards are very limited. Try to write every day if possible. Your most powerful tool is persistence. Remember, too, if a poem is rejected, that the poem, and not you, is being rejected. Also, that only that poem is being rejected, not others you have written in the past, or may write in the future.

The process of becoming a professional poet is (usually) slow, but it need not be arduous as long as you maintain your zest for writing. The rewards, of seeing others enjoy your poetry, as well as the pleasure of writing, are great indeed!

© Stephen Whiteside 09.07.2014

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2 thoughts on “Interview with Stephen Whiteside

  1. It’s great to get an insight into how you work, Stephen. I admire your persistence and talent. I’m very glad it paid off with a collection published by Walker – a big achievement. It was nice too, that you thanked Edel Wignell. She’s helped so many, including me, and is persistence personified, as well as being a terrific writer. And well done to Di for another excellent interview.

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