Bill Condon is best known as an award-winning author of YA novels, but early in his career he published three books of poetry. He is interviewed here by Dianne (Di) Bates.
When did your interest in poetry begin and what were the circumstances?
It was so long ago . . . I sent poems to the children’s pages of a Sunday newspaper. I might have had something published but I can’t remember. My father was keen on the poetry of Banjo Paterson so I was around poetry from an early age. It’s about the only area where I have a sense of rhythm, and I’ve always liked playing with words.
What was your experience with poetry as a child at school? Did you write poetry as a child?
At school we had a book called Poems of Spirit and Action. I doubt it had anything by Australians in it, but at least the poems were vibrant and alive. (I can’t say the same for the tired old English stories we were given to read.) There was enough good material in Spirit and Action to keep me enthused about poetry. Despite my ravaged memory, bits and pieces of poems still remain vivid.
‘Do you remember an inn, Miranda, Do you remember an inn? And the tedding and the spreading And the straw for a bedding. Do you remember an inn?’
I’ve forgotten just about everything else in my life, but I remember that inn!
What was your first published book of poetry? It was called That Smell Is My Brother and it was published in 1990, with illustrations by Kevin Burgemeestre. It was a lot of fun to write and I thought, ‘Nobel Prize for Poetry, here I come!’ It didn’t work out that way, but I had lots of pleasant daydreams.
Have you had any poetry writing mentors? Not really. My wonderful wife, Di Bates, (who you may know) was a great mentor to me with prose writing, but I think the poetry gene was instilled in me from a very early age. Perhaps my father is the closest to a poetry mentor that I had. He mentored me by simply having Banjo and Henry Lawson in our house as I grew up.
What inspires you to write poetry? When I used to visit schools I saw how happy a poem could make kids feel. I don’t think there is any other literary medium that can grab a child so quickly and so completely. A funny poem can produce big laughs. But poems also can pack an emotional punch. To be able to make kids smile and laugh, to make them think and feel – these are the things that inspire me to write poetry.
Can you describe your process of writing a poem?
I usually start with the last line and then work backwards. I think that’s probably the most successful method for me. Sometimes poems can be written quickly and with little effort. I think with those ones the poem might be ‘cooking’ in my subconscious for a while before I physically start writing it. It’s more often the case that I labour long and hard to write a poem. Finding words that rhyme isn’t difficult, but finding words that surprise the reader is a tougher ask. Tougher still is digging out the right words that will give your poem some emotional impact. So many people are writing poetry these days that you have to really stretch yourself if you want your work to be noticed.
Do you workshop your poems with anyone?
I used to workshop with my dog Sassy. Her advice was always the same: ‘Stop talking to yourself and throw the ball!’
How do you know a poem you write is finished?
You just know. When you’ve said everything you wanted to say, rounded it out – boom – the end.
How do you know a poem is ‘good’? Can you read it out loud without getting tangled in the words? Does it make you gasp, smirk, chuckle? Does it make you think ‘Nobel Prize for Poetry, here I come’? Any of these signs mean that it’s probably a good poem. If, on the other hand, you fall asleep while reading it or the person you are reading it to throws up, you might like to consider some editing.
Who are some poets whose writing you love?
In no particular order of wonderfulness (if that wasn’t a word before, it is now) – Doug Macleod, Max Fatchen, Roger McGough, Banjo Peterson, Henry Lawson, Stephen Herrick, CJ Dennis, Edgar Allen Poe, Judith Wright – and on and on . . .
Why do you think publishers are reluctant to publish poetry?
The obvious answer is that they don’t sell enough books to make it worth their while. That’s a real shame because, as I said earlier, my visits to schools showed me that kids really love poetry. I still think that, given lots of promotion and advertising with the right poems and good illustrations, poetry will sell.