Di Bates interviews Australian children’s poet, Anne Bell
When did your interest in poetry begin and what were the circumstances?
It was just always there. I grew up with the ballads. My parents and aunts and uncles knew Paterson, Lawson, Ogilvie and the rest — as did lots of people — and often quoted them. Ask the whereabouts of somebody and likely as not you’d get the answer, “gone to Queensland droving and we don’t know where he are.”
Palgrave’s Golden Treasury was in the bookcase alongside Dickens and Warwick Deeping — take your choice. Later on, a special aunt always had a pile of books for me to read when I came to stay and there were always poetry books amongst them. I think poets were quite respected then. One uncle even had a horse called Kipling.
What was your experience with poetry as a child at school?
Encouraging. The magazine that came with my Correspondence School lessons (by horse and sulky, in a blue canvas bag with a brass lock) had poems in it. I still remember, “In every dimpled drop I see/wild-flowers on the hills;/ it isn’ t raining rain to me/it’s raining daffodils” (Author unknown, so I apologise). The concept delighted a child who lived where it seldom rained – and certainly not daffodils. It is slotted into my memory with Wordsworth and Herrick and with April in England.
Later, when isolation made it necessary for me to go to boarding school, each year had its own anthology, starting I think, with year six. I still have those books and often trawl through them. I remember the excitement I felt when I first met Flecker’s Golden Journey to Samarkand. “We who with songs beguile your pilgrimage/and swear that Beauty lives though lilies die/we Poets of the proud old lineage/who sing to find your hearts, we know not why”: I still love it.
Incurable romantic? We didn’t study every poem but read many in class, just for pleasure. One teacher used to lend me books from her own collection when she realised my interest; she also wisely gave me poems to learn as punishment for talking after “lights out”. What has happened to degrade poetry?
Did you write poetry as a child?
Yes, with some absolutely excruciating rhyme that had nothing to do with the subject. My mother kept some gems; this ensured that I always tell those in workshops that poetry doesn’t always need to rhyme and that there are other ways to make a poem hang together.
When was your first poem published?
Must I answer this? Ageism (clumsy word) always rears its ugly head here. Short of putting a bag over my head, there is no way I can avoid showing that I’ve been about for a while. Written while I was still at school, I think it was published in 1946.There now — and I am not invisible, I have not gone into a mental decline and above all, don’t you dare patronise me.
Who are some poets whose writing you love?
How much time and space do we have? I suppose the Australian poets that I first read when they were still brand new are those I turn to most: Rosemary Dobson, Douglas Stewart, Judith Wright, David Campbell, Kenneth Slessor and many, many more.
I get the double whammy of remembering the delight I felt when I first read them — and then the pleasure of re-reading. But then I stood on Westminster Bridge and looked up and down the Thames and thanked Wordsworth…and there is Robert Frost….and Yeats….and…and…
The best thing is that they travel with me, adding another dimension. There is no way I could say I have a “favourite poet”; poetry is such a thing of feeling and emotion and mood. What I read depends on how I feel.
Just at the moment I am reading Carol Anne Duffy’s The World’s Wife. Brilliant. On the other hand I was once fortunate enough to visit Longfellow’s tranquil house and I swear, had I not turned my head at the wrong time, I would have seen those children coming down the stairs. It all depends on the moment; there is not enough time to give you a truly full answer.
Have you had any poetry writing mentors?
Not really as such. Bill Scott and I often used to send each other poems and opinions. Same with Eric Rolls, but it was more like a conversation. I was fortunate to have Douglas Stewart as an editor when I first started writing. I still treasure a note he wrote when he suggested I rewrite a ballad I sent him. He rejected the rewrite and ended his reply with, “just shows you what narks editors are.”
What inspires you to write poetry?
Goodness knows — it is a sort of addiction, I think. It is an interesting world, perhaps it is a need to communicate.
When you are writing a poem, what comes first — a subject, a line, a word?
All of the above; mostly it is a line or a sudden simile that comes into my mind. When it is a line, it is usually the last one; I then have to work backwards, which is frustrating. Sometimes there is a “given” poem when the whole complete thing drops into your lap — magic but rare!
Do you workshop your poems with anyone?
No. The Good Fairy gives us the marvellous gift of individuality, along with our five miraculous senses. Although we are all of the family of man, the telling of our experiences, if it is to be sincere, is very much a personal thing to me. Having said that, I often suggest it to others: it seems to help some people get started, especially children. On the other side, some children will firmly insist that a word or phrase they have used is quite what they intended to convey the meaning of their poem…and they are usually right.
How do you know a poem you write is finished?
I don’t, I fiddle with things like assonance and internal rhyme and rhythms and half-rhyme, and then I put it away in the proverbial bottom drawer for a time and the clumsy bits jump out and bite me when I take it out again. It is usually the lines that I thought were good that need taking out; it is easy to overwork a poem…and Pegasus becomes a cart-horse. Lest I hurt the feelings of cart-horses in the more mundane real world, I like you — I really do.
The thing is, I am rarely satisfied with my work…it is a frustrating craft. I never like fiddling too much with children’s work. Sometimes what appear as mistakes at first glance make the poem live, and certainly make it personal. I have often found kids in special classes (once unkindly called ‘slow learners’) often write some amazing things with touching observation and sincerity.
How do you know a poem is ‘good’?
What makes a ‘good’ poem? Sixty-four plus plus plus dollar question! Ask twelve people and you will get thirteen answers. It’s a bit like meeting people who are on the same wave-length as you are and going home and thinking “Goodness, they were nice. I’d like to meet up with them again.”
The intrinsic bit is all about pleasant company and it applies to both poems and people and it is very hard to define. “Memorable” is one word that applies to both, but I would only apply “fresh” to poems, if I were you. It is very much a personal taste thing, but the more people you meet and the more poems you read, the richer you will become.
There are lots of definitions of poetry by lots of people; I go along with Dylan Thomas who said — and I hope I quote him correctly — “Poetry is what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, what makes my toe-nails twinkle, what makes me want to do this, or that, or nothing.”
If your toenails twinkle when you read a poem, you can be pretty sure it is a good poem: it is much the same as the hairs rising on the back of your neck.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Long may your toenails twinkle.
27 February, 2014