Monday, June 30, 2014

Terse Verse

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I went to the launch of the docklands library in Melbourne recently. The Master of Ceremonies was Brian Nankervis, whom I first met when he was working as a primary teacher at Kingswood College, long before the rockwiz days. Brian gave a shout-out to me in the third row. I wasn't expecting it but I was chuffed. Brian used to read my poems aloud to the kids. He never 'taught' poetry, he didn't believe you could. I think he was right. Brian is also one of the nicest men in the business. Really. He puts the curmudgeons to shame. At the library launch, Brian described me as a poet, which was kind but no longer correct, since I've stopped writing it. It felt nice to be called a poet, and put me in a reflective mood.

Here is an interview conducted by author and friend Di Bates who asks some questions about the verses I used to write in an earlier life:

What was the first poem you ever remember reading and/or reciting?
It would have been one of the Dr Suess verses, probably ‘The Sneetches’. I was hooked on Suess and was happy to buy a book recently that featured his work for adults.

Did you write poetry as a child?

I tried. I wasn’t good. I was better at drawing the pictures. For a while I thought I might be an illustrator, but I wasn’t good enough for that either. I get embarrassed when I look back at the pictures I drew for Puffinalia magazine. I edited this Penguin children’s magazine with Di Bates for a few years.

Did your parents recite or read poetry to you? Any inspiring teachers?
Dad and Mum both read to us kids when it was time for bed. Dad never used to read much fiction until he met my mum, who made him read the books that she liked – and these were generally books of funny kids’ stuff. So Dad was more or less discovering the stories at the same time as we were. His enthusiasm wore off onto us. We also both loved Spike Milligan’s seminal radio series, ‘The Goon Show’, so I started reading the Spike Milligan verse books. Mrs Bullen in year 2 was my best teacher.

Can you talk about your first book of poetry which you published (and illustrated) as a teenager?
It was an exciting time, with a lot of publicity. Because I was young I was indulged, and often found myself talking about things that I really didn’t understand.  I was writing some verse for The Age newspaper every month. They had a big kids’ lift-out called ‘Og’s’. In the end, I did what a lot of authors do. I gathered up these verses and sent them to a publisher, Outback Press. They recommended I send them to writer Michael Dugan, who was editing some books for them. Michael liked the book (it was an anthology of verse with my own pictures) and in the space of one afternoon we went about compiling the manuscript into a workable draft. I owe Michael a great debt. When he died, I found the first letter I sent to Michael. He had kept it for all those years. It wasn’t a very good letter. It was far too pompous and I was obviously a bit full of myself. But I was 14 and hadn’t learned grace and decorum. Michael was a kind man for continuing with the project, even though I had been a bit odious. Michael also showed me how vital editors are. We all miss him. My nervous parents asked Michael if I could make a living from writing. He was guarded but he told them I probably wouldn’t starve.

Sister Madge’s Book of Nuns (illustrated by Craig Smith) was a huge success; can you outline your experience of writing and compiling the poems and how you submitted the collection?

The Sister Madge book really was the most wonderful thing to assemble. Jane Covernton from Omnibus books in Adelaide was putting together an anthology of ‘putrid poems’. She asked me to contribute, which I did. For some reason, a few of the verses were about wicked nuns having extraordinary adventures. (I’m being disingenuous. I do know why I wrote these verses.  Back then nuns were regarded as being fairly serene, gentle creatures. Comedy often works by mixing two unlikely scenarios together. Nuns having a Harley rally in a supermarket, for example.) There was a lot of slapstick. I realised later that I had been inspired by the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch about ‘trampo-nuns’ – an order of nuns that started each day by bouncing on trampolines. They were called ‘The Leaping Berylians’. We had the sketch on a record and I would play it a lot. Peter Cook, the Mother Superior, waxes lyrical about what a joy it is to leap. For many years she held the convent record – eighty feet vertically, though unfortunately she landed in a lawn mower, so she had to curtail her morning ritual leaping to just a few inches, still enough to 'keep one in practice'.
These nun poems were quite different from my other offerings. They were more like verse stories. So I sent them under a pseudonym – ‘Sister Madge’ -  using my parents’ address as the location of ‘Our lady of Immense Proportions’, an imaginary convent for wayward nuns. My parents were surprised to receive a letter addressed to ‘Sister Madge Mappin’ at their mud-brick home in Eltham. I hadn’t warned them. Jane Covernton knew exactly what was going on, but she played along and urged Sister Madge to write her own, separate anthology of verse. Craig Smith illustrated, and of course his work was beautiful. (There's more about the practical joke history of this book on my website. You can even see a photo of me dressed as a nun, in an effort to call Jane Covernton's bluff when she asked for an author photo.) The book was a bestseller because it was very cheeky back then to write about God, Christ and his brides, as though they were cartoon characters. The book was reissued a couple of years ago, but it didn’t do as well, even though people have fond memories of the original book, they felt the joke had run its course, and the Catholic Church was in all sorts of trouble. The reprint is actually a superior book because I fixed up some of the things that weren’t quite right and added a verse explaining how ‘Our Lady of Immense Proportions’ came to be. Craig’s illustration for this poem is some of the best work in the book. I urge you to seek out this new, improved version of the original hardback. It has a shiny yellow cover.

How many poetry collections have you published to date? And there any in the pipeline at the moment?
I’ve contributed to a lot of anthologies. I did two collections of my own stuff back in the eighties – ‘In The Garden of Badthings’ and ‘The Fed up Family Album’. I revisited them recently and was surprised by how may of the verses end in the bizarre death of a character. One critic in Queensland attacked me about that, and of course I was arrogant enough to feel offended. I think I rang him up and argued with him. ‘Never respond to a critic’ really should be a golden rule for writers. Remember they can always get you back. It’s their sandpit, not yours. And ‘a critic is someone who reads arrogantly and swiftly but not well.’ That is a paraphrase from the movie based on David Mitchell’s beguiling ‘Cloud Atlas’. I took great delight when early in the book and movie an aggrieved writer met his damning critic at a cocktail party in a twelfth floor apartment, and he threw the critic over a balcony. The critic made a very agreeable squishing noise when he hit the ground.
When I stopped working in television (which I had done full-time from 1988 to 2002,) I wrote two further poetry collections, both illustrated by Craig Smith. They were ‘Spiky, Spunky My Pet Monkey’, which I really liked but it didn’t sell. (It contained more bizarre deaths and extremely weird subject matter.) Then in 2002 I put together a book called ‘On The Cards’, for 'Comic Relief'. Granada, the TV production company I worked for, was about to bring ‘Comic Relief’, the famous charity, to Australia. I thought there should be a book to go with the event.

Writing 'On The Cards' was a joy. The rest was horrible, because Red Symons had a go at me in The Age newspaper, on the front page of section two, before the book was even published. He wrote terrible things, about how bad an author I was and how the book was just a cash-in. I couldn’t believe he did it because we had been mates. I'd also done a lot of work on the book and felt offended. Like a moron, I tried to fight rEd's review by writing a letter of complaint to The Age. It made me look small and stupid. The 'review' was a product of Red’s frequently misplaced sense of humour, and it would have been funny if delivered as a monologue, but it didn’t work on paper. When I complained to the editor of the newspaper, she was appalled to learn that I was a real person. Penguin was likewise horrified, but the book is still out there and I think it’s pretty good. The experience with Red left a nasty taste in my mouth. That was the last verse book I wrote. But Red didn’t stop me writing verse. The market did.

Have you had any poetry writing mentors? Any poets whose work you particularly love?
My heroes were mainly English, because there weren’t that many Australian poets doing stuff for younger audiences back in the eighties. I was a mighty fan of Roger McGough and some of the other Liverpool Poets. Then there was Kit Wright, who wrote stuff that was mad and disobedient. I liked him very much and probably stole his style a bit. There was also the wonderful Charles Causley, who published a kids’ collection called ‘Figgie Hobbin’. That book is a real masterpiece. It’s genuine poetry, not just verse. He has a huge amount of fun with language.

What inspired you to write poetry?
Teachers were very encouraging. I also had a friend in school, and I used to delight in making up verses funny enough to make him laugh. (But no fart or bum jokes, which I thought were cheap.) These days I’ll scribble down a verse if I get a strong idea for it. My colleague Humphrey Barclay, is putting together a collection of limericks in the UK, so I’ve been creating stuff for that as well.

Can you describe your process of writing a poem?
I always write longhand, because there are often ideas I’ve crossed out that can be used elsewhere. I’m careful with the words I choose. There’s a lot of assonance, dissonance, and alliteration. In the ‘Spiky Spunky’ book I tried to come up with poems that made me laugh. Many of the poems have killer last lines or ‘stings in the tail’. I’m rather proud of some of them. But I think it was one of the last collections of verse that Penguin published in Australia. Teachers complained that they couldn’t teach poetry, because after hearing some verses that made them laugh, the students would write kilometres of really bad verse. It never made sense, it just rhymed.
I would never attempt to ‘teach’ poetry, I would just introduce into the classroom a tradition of reading poetry aloud. The kids who have a knack for it will start writing poems in their own time. Kids (and some parents) never seem to get the idea that a poem is rarely good on the first go, you have to do various drafts to get it working.

 Do all of your poems rhyme?
All my poems rhyme, because I’m a musician and poems to me are like lyrics. I think that kids also prefer rhyming verse, though it’s so very hard to get right.

Do you workshop your poems with anyone?
I don’t, because I’m self-critical and won’t send a verse to a publisher unless I’ve already written out about five drafts. I also had a stroke not long ago, and it’s hard to write. I make stupid mistakes, not just misspellings, but often I leave out entire sentences. For example, I’m finding this interview very hard to type, though I am delighted that Di has invited me to do it.

How do you know a poem you write is finished? And how do you know if it’s publishable?

You just know. It sounds good when read aloud; it has the jokes in the right places. Sometimes I take work-in-progress to schools. I did that with ‘On The Cards’, and the kids were very helpful. (They weren’t paying for the session, so they didn’t feel cheated.)

Are there any poetry anthologies and/or collections you could recommend to readers?
Anything by Roger McGough, but The Kestrel Book of Poetry is probably the best anthology. There is a very funny McGough poem about a teacher who is sick and tired of his class misbehaving, so he teaches a lesson about ‘Violence’. The strength is in the wordplay and the outrageous images that are instilled into your brain. One fairly dim-witted primary teacher got the kids to draw pictures to go with the poem. Where Roger had been oblique and witty, the kids seized every opportunity to go overboard with the gore, so much so that there were complaints from parents and there was an outraged report on TV of kids drawing torture porn. I know that Roger would have been horrified about that, because he was a gentle man, and if there were gory moments in his verse, he represented them with great wit and subtlety.

Do you have any advice to struggling poets (including children)?
Keep everything. Read other poets. Don’t show your work to others until you’ve done a few drafts, and you’re sure the work is in reasonable shape. Never show your work to anyone as soon as you’ve done it, because it won’t be right and you’ll lose confidence. When I did the Sister Madge book, I received a lot of letters from kids who had written their own ‘nun poems’ and they were almost always dreadful, but I tried to be encouraging. A girl sent me some work that was really dire, and I didn’t reply to the letter. Six weeks later I got a very angry letter from her Mum, lambasting me for impoliteness and making her daughter cry because every day the teacher would ask her, ‘Has Doug MacLeod written back yet?’. These days I always reply, but I don’t get anywhere near so many letters. They are mainly emails that arrive via my website. Get in touch, if you have a question.

The amazing Roger McGough

And check out Di Bates' Australian children's poetry blog here.

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