Edel Wignell interviews poet, Dr Stephen Whiteside
GP and Performance Poet, Dr Stephen Whiteside, has been writing poetry for adults for over 30 years, and for children – since 1990. He has written about 2,000 poems, many of which have been published in journals, magazines and collections around the world, and on-line. Walker Books Australia released (will release) his children’s collection, The Billy that Died with its Boots On and Other Australian Verse, illustrated with paper cuts by Lauren Merrick, in May 2014.
Whiteside’s collection is presented as a series of themes which represent his various interests. They move from the house to the garden, the street and further afield, and include poems based on fantasy and nonsense.
Whiteside – an enthusiastic researcher and talented photographer – is passionate about activity and adventure. ‘It began with my father’s regular fly-fishing excursions to the Howqua River in Victoria,’ he said. ‘Later he took me snow skiing, sailing and camping in the bush. I have continued this tradition with my own children. As a bushwalker, sailor and explorer, I am concerned that today’s children aren’t getting the same exposure to the great outdoors.
‘Hiking, sailing, skiing – all these activities present a range of challenges, both physical and emotional, that you don’t face when you’re living in an urban environment. They build resilience in many ways, showing you your limits: where you are capable and where you are not. Sometimes they show you that you are capable of much more than you ever thought.’
‘But it is more: the outdoors clears the head, lifts the spirits, and gives a sense of perspective that city living cannot do. This perspective, once discovered, never leaves you, so that even when you are bowed down by the drudgery of urban living at its most mundane, the knowledge that Life is so much more than this stays with you always.’
‘The other effect of outdoor challenge is to focus the mind on the present. Contemplation of the past and the future are luxuries the mind simply cannot afford when the wind is strong and the waves are high, or the snow is deep and the visibility is poor.’
Whiteside’s experiences and love of challenge translate to the writing of poems that are broad-ranging and highly imaginative. Many are philosophical – even the humorous ones – and many end with a twist – even the serious ones. He explained, ‘Because I write a lot of poems, they have to be broad-ranging to avoid repetition. Over the past decade or so I’ve written about 100 or 150 poems a year, so that’s two or three a week.
‘I like to move between poems that are firmly based in reality – and may even have some educational value – to others that are pure fiction or even nonsense. I include lots of humour and often try to put “a sting in the tail”, or at least find a satisfying ending.
‘My interests are both historical and geographical. I am generally biased towards Australian subject matter – history, fauna, flora… – but I’m happy to tackle anything if it captures my imagination.
‘I love science, too, especially astronomy. I find the universe extraordinary, and try to pass on that sense of wonder. I like to focus on both the very small and the very large, and remind the reader that humans are of no especial importance to anybody except humans. They are certainly not the centre of the universe, although there is a natural tendency for them to think so.’
People who love music ensure that their babies are introduced to it in utero and, knowing the importance of the first five years, many parents read board books and picture-stories to infants from birth. While Whiteside was introduced to picture-stories early, simultaneously he experienced something that encouraged his imagination to soar. ‘My father read the poems of Banjo Paterson to me at an early age, and they made a huge impression. He also read Henry Lawson – whether it was his poems or stories, I can’t be sure – and I remember thinking that Lawson was great, too, though he was certainly quieter and more thoughtful.’
‘Paterson shone for me. It was a combination of the stories and settings, the characters, the mood, the rhythm and rhyme. The overall impression was of great adventure and romance – also humour. Paterson’s writing exudes a wonderful confidence.’
This early experience of rhyme and rhythm has remained with Whiteside. ‘It’s everything to me,’ he said. ‘It creates such a feeling of bonhomie, and allows no end of word play and humour. The great American poet, Robert Frost, wrote: “Writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net”. I certainly relate to that. Writing without the challenge of creating rhyme and metre lacks the challenge, the critical edge that makes it all so much fun. It’s the difference between soda water and tap water. I write free verse occasionally, but it feels flat and lacking in bubbles by comparison.
‘I always read my work aloud as I write. That’s the test for success. If I can’t read it to a regular beat, it’s back to the drawing board! I usually choose simple patterns of rhyme for long poems, and more complex patterns for shorter ones – though not always.’
As a young man, Whiteside stumbled upon the genius of C. J. Dennis. ‘I think he is the greatest Australian writer of rhyming verse. He was able to write long poems with complex patterns which I find a real struggle. There have been many other inspirational rhymers apart from Paterson, Lawson and Dennis: for example, A.A. Milne, though his charming poetry has been rather overshadowed in recent years by the Disney presentation of his characters. Rudyard Kipling is another and, more recently, Roald Dahl and the great Dr. Seuss.’
Attendance and performance at festivals is obligatory for Whiteside, and he is one of the few poets who perform for children. ‘Folk festivals are primarily about music,’ he said. ‘But they also support poetry, as do country music festivals, especially Tamworth. The first I attended was the Port Fairy Folk Festival in 1984. News had filtered to Melbourne; excited, I had to get involved.
‘I like to think that most of my poems are easy to understand. All are at their best when read aloud. As they are primarily written for performance, I look forward to attending festivals during the next year, especially the C.J. Dennis Poetry Festival at Toolangi and the Sunnyside Festival at Kallista – also Maldon, Port Fairy, the National Folk Festival in Canberra… and more.’
Whiteside has a website and a blog where he posts poems, stories and photographs for adults and children, and information about the various festivals he attends. He looks forward to a busy, stimulating time promoting his book and enjoying his passion for poetry and delight in communication.
http://www.stephenwhiteside.com.au/ and http://www.stephenwhiteside.com.au/blog/
© The Australian Society of Authors
Freelance journalist, writer and poet, Edel Wignell has enjoyed sharing Dr Whiteside’s poems since she met him in 2005. http://www.edelwignell.com.au/