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Turning the ordinary into the extraordinary

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Poet and painter Frieda Hughes, daughter of renowned poet Ted Hughes and author Sylvia Plath, will be taking part in the Jersey Festival of Words. She spoke to David Edbrooke about her life, her literary loves, her famous parents and the inspirations behind her work.

Who are your three favourite poets, past or present? ‘Carol Ann Duffy, and my parents.’

What do you most love about writing poetry? ‘The freedom of expression, challengingly distilled for maximum impact.’

Does poetry offer a deeper commentary on the human condition than long-form literature? ‘It depends on an individual’s own point of view. Mine relates to my statement above – and the fact that I feel a good poem should contain an aspect, or truth about the poet; their observations define them – whereas prose can contain aspects of anyone, and, if so desired, exclude the writer altogether. ‘To put it another way, I think of the poet sitting inside his or her poem, and the writer sitting outside his or her prose – unless it is autobiographical, in which case I’d hope the essence of the writer was written all through it like the name of a place in a stick of rock.’

You were The Times’ poetry columnist between 2006 and 2008; you have published seven children’s books and several poetry collections; and your poetry has appeared in various prestigious magazines including The Spectator and The New Yorker. But what does ‘success’ mean to you? ‘When I was young, ‘success’ would have meant plaudits and praise and phenomenal sales. As a much older person I consider success to be contentment within oneself, and to be able to continue to do those things that I love – in my case, writing and painting, keeping owls and riding motorbikes. ‘To live life fully, even if, for some, that means walking to the newsagent every day for the milk or the papers because that’s all that is possible, is success; to do the things we do to the best of our ability, even if our best isn’t as good as someone else’s best, is success. To not waste ourselves is success. And bloody hard work.’

At the festival, you will be sharing some of your experiences and observations in a reading from your recently published selected poems, Out of the Ashes. How did you decide on the title for this collection? ‘Parts of my life have felt like walking on hot coals – if I knew what was going to happen in advance, I’d have chosen a different direction. This metaphor is fed by the bushfire that devastated my Australian home in January 1997, the year before my first poetry collection was published. ‘My brother once said to me that somehow, no matter how bad things got, I always seemed to manage to get up again, and I will always try to. I think of myself always trying to climb up out of my own ashes, and my poems are born of the fire of my effort to work my way through life.’

Out of the Ashes comprises the main body of your work from your collections Wooroloo, Stonepicker, Waxworks and The Book of Mirrors. How proud are you of this collection? ‘Very! My life can be read through the lines, and those poems follow my trajectory. Those poems also contain what I have seen and understood of other people, and studying the workings of others is sometimes very important in unravelling our own workings.’

Some of the poems in your collection relate to the death of your father; the loss of your brother, Nicholas, to suicide at 47; and recollections of adolescence following a childhood affected by the loss of your mother, when you were very young. Has it been in any way a cathartic experience to address these bereavements in your poetry?

‘Not cathartic so much as finding a practical voice – making a statement as in “this is what happened and this is how it made me feel, and now I’m able to tell you about it because I’m over it”. ‘I can’t talk to others about what has caused me pain or distress until I have processed it, so then putting it in a poem simply gives it freedom.’

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Could you imagine a world without poetry? ‘If there was no poetry, then someone would already be busy inventing it. The human psyche needs outlets such as poetry, music, art and literature as being the next level up from breathing air. ‘Without these, what kind of grey, colourless world would we inhabit? Anyone can function as a human being without reading or writing a poem, (and I’d have to include the other disciplines) but in what way will their function be less of a function? ‘And in what way could poetry, art, music and literature give them and their imagination wings, and add colour and meaning to an otherwise ordinary day?’

Are you a positive person and how would you describe your approach to life? ‘I think of myself as logical, so the fact that every day can be as good or bad as we make it is important to me. The person who trashed your Wednesday two weeks ago, or the partner who picked a fight on an anniversary that cannot be returned to you have just wasted your time. Learn to not give them another opportunity. ‘And why waste time being a negative miserable bitch or bastard, when smiling at a stranger in the street might be the only nice thing anyone did for them that day? ‘Long before I lost my father and brother I was painfully conscious of the passage of time – developing myalgic encephalomyelitis (chronic fatigue) in my early 30s was very grounding in this way, as for a long time I had limited waking hours. ‘I found that anger made my condition worse, but acceptance and a determined effort to use the minutes or hours I had available, even in the most constrained way, made my condition better. This was a lesson for life. ‘There have been some challenging situations in my life, but somehow I plodded through them, looking for the end, and turning to poems and paintings to record them.’

Given that you are the daughter of literary luminaries, how difficult was it for you to find your own identity and voice as a poet? ‘I’ve always had my own voice – my father used to remark on it – but the comparisons people choose to make are the external inhibitor. A good example would be the editor who actually wrote to me many years ago; he told me he couldn’t decide whether I was more like my mother, or more like my father… this is an impossible attitude, since they were both very different poets. ‘I do not believe I am like either – nor did my father, who should have known – but people will have to read my poetry without imposing my parents’ voices before they will hear mine. Anyone can make comparisons to suit an agenda or an idea, and it is unhelpful – a bit like creative accounting.’

In one relatively recent interview you were quoted as saying you did not read any of your parents’ poetry until you were in your mid-30s and had finished writing your first collection. Is that true?

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‘It is indeed true. And I didn’t see my parents as literary luminaries, because I lived with one, and with the idea and memory of the other. But it did mean that the word ‘poet’ was synonymous with the word ‘parent’ during my teens. My father being famous did not resonate with me because I didn’t witness the trappings of fame.’ ...........................

ISLANDERS with a penchant for poetry have only until the end of the month to enter the Jersey Festival of Words Poetry Competition, with the chance of publication and cash prizes. Here Frieda Hughes gives her top tips for how budding Island-based poets can stay on the right lines with verse.

What makes a great poem? It might be a poem that resonates with, or affects the reader; it could be a poem that makes the ordinary into something extraordinary. It might be a poem that has an integral rhythm, which draws the reader in and is a sort of music to their ears. It might be a very emotive poem that makes the reader laugh or cry – or maybe just think a little bit more.’

What are the traps that people can fall into when writing poetry? ‘Being too clever, or pompous, or self-important – not being authentic. I DON’T WRITE DIRECTLY ONTO A COMPUTER because it removes the hand-eye action from me, which connects to my thinking brain. Writing by hand engages us in a way that a computer doesn’t. ‘I always read poems out loud, because that way it is possible to hear all the wrong notes, clumsy words and cliché phrases that our eyes skim over when we read silently. And we are more likely to see our spelling and grammatical errors.’

Some people think poetry should rhyme. What would you say? ‘I like rhyme, but I don’t think it’s necessary to rhyme. However, rhythm and meter are very important. When a poem is read out loud and the rhythm is good, it can sometimes have the illusion of a rhyme. I draw the line at a poem which, when read, reads like prose, because then that’s what it is.’ Some people may wish to write with a thesaurus open. Is this a good or bad idea? ‘Once, a long time ago, someone told me that my mother had been criticised as a poet for using a thesaurus. I was astonished! What critic had thought that using one of the most useful literary tools was CHEATING? Why is it okay to sit with a dictionary, which does a similar thing, but not a thesaurus? 'A thesaurus isn’t actually writing the poem for you, but it might jog your thought process as you write even if you don’t use a comparative word that it tosses up at you. 'We learn from reading and association; does this mean that if we once read a thesaurus we are now travelling around with a cheat’s bible in our heads?’

What themes would you suggest to get people started on their poems for the competition? ‘Anything, absolutely anything. But something that annoys or makes them laugh might get them the furthest (ie, something that produces an emotional reaction in them).

How important is it for entrants to check their spelling, grammar and punctuation before submitting their work? ‘Very! Grammar is part of the construction of the poem, and punctuation dictates the breath we take when reading the poem – how long to pause and when, for emphasis! Bad spelling will only distract the reader from the content.’

*The deadline for the Jersey Festival of Words Poetry Competition is Wednesday 31 July. The competition has three age categories: over-18, 14–17 and 9–13. The overall winner will receive £300 and the Alan Jones Prize, named in honour of the inspirational Jersey poet and teacher who died in 2013. Winning entries will be published in the Jersey Evening Post and the top three writers in each category will be invited to receive their prizes at an awards ceremony during the Jersey Festival of Words, which runs this year from 25 to 29 September. *For more information, visit jerseyfestivalofwords.org

David Edbrooke

By David Edbrooke
Journalist

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