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Monday, November 19, 2007

Things people say to poets

I advise my writing students against showing their unfinished work to their nearest and dearest. I don't know why it is, but they are the very people who will bring you down. If they too are writers, they may be exceptions to this rule – but you can't count on it.

Australian author Carmel Bird – known for her fiction but also an accomplished poet – gives her students the same warning. In her book Dear Writer she shouts it in capital letters and exclamation marks.

'Beware!' she says,


I can only add that the same applies to your unfinished poems, plays, scripts and non-fiction ... and anything else I may have forgotten.

Carmel tells of students who ignore the warning and then come to her 'in tears and rage' to tell her 'how their loved-ones rejected their creation.' She adds wryly:

' "But," you say, "my lover is different. He would never be unkind about my work." Try him.'

The comments of strangers can be almost as alarming – especially when they haven't even read your work.

When I first began getting published, my then husband, Bill Nissen, introduced me proudly to new people with, 'Rosemary's a poet'. This engendered some interesting responses. A common one was,

'Oh, that must be such wonderful THERAPY.'

Well yes, it can be, as a side-effect – but I was rather aiming to create works of art!

Then there were the blokes who asked with a leer,

'Do you write dirty poems?' and guffawed at their own wit.

Yes, actually; they didn't know the half of it. I have indeed been known to write red-hot erotica. But see, I don't think that's dirty! And in terms of 'language' it's more inclined to be metaphoric than pornographic.

Most mind-boggling of all was the man who said,

'How can you possibly be a poet? You're much too young. You haven't SUFFERED!'

We had only just met and he knew almost nothing about me. Granted, I have always looked quite a lot younger than my years, and perhaps he didn't realise he was talking to a woman in her thirties (at that time). But youth is not exempt from suffering anyway. For instance, I was fifteen when my parents divorced and I found myself saddled with a cruel, mad stepmother whom I always describe as 'right out of the fairy-tales'. My brother, who was her favourite scapegoat, was only eleven.

Few people reach adulthood without experiencing some suffering, if only the death of a beloved grandparent or pet animal. Many children in the world know horrendous suffering from an early age.

This of course begs the question of whether suffering is in fact necessary in order to be a poet. Perhaps we'll never know, since it's so difficult to imagine even a young life completely devoid of suffering. But a talent for poetry seems to be genetic or hormonal, or perhaps both; not merely a product of circumstances. People typically start writing it either in childhood or during puberty, according to a study I read a long time ago. It definitely runs in my family!

Then again, I sometimes think it's natural to us all. People who are institutionalised often turn to poetry as a necessary form of self-expression. We need self-expression whether we're suffering or not. And the urge to communicate it, which follows immediately, is also very powerful.

I admit that emotions like grief and anger tend to be more urgent in demanding expression. When things are going well, I'm more inclined to bask in the moment than set it down on paper. But poetry can be made from joy as well as suffering, as witness all the rapturous love poems which poets have always made. 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day...', 'My luve is like a red, red rose...' and so on – centuries of them.

I found it disconcerting when Bill introduced me as a poet. I felt I didn't know how to 'be' a poet. Perhaps I still felt I wasn't one, really. Evidence accrued, however, in the form of publication and paid performance, and after some years I took the matter so much for granted that I became blasé about being introduced that way. At that point of self-acceptance, suddenly everyone else accepted the fact too, reacting as if the occupation of poet was unremarkable. Thereafter the only comment was likely to be,

'Where can I read your work?'

Astonishing! I have to think it was a profound change in my own energy which made the difference.

I guess the moral of this story is that we need to believe in ourselves.


  1. Interesting stories. Where can I read your work. If heard that question often, I could carry a bag with ones for sale.

  2. and yes, that whole idea of dismissal as someone being too young to have lived can be maddening. People is funny, that's all that can account for that.

  3. Advice I've had from various sources is that it's always a good idea to take a few copies of your latest book with you everywhere. I now have a bag permanently in my car.

    But I am remiss in selling myself! I realise belatedly I could have added some information about where to get hold of my work NOW. New blog coming up....