Photo credit: Martin de Ruyter
Rachel Bush was born in 1941. She has published 7 collections of poetry, her first was called The Hungry Woman and was published in 1997. She currently lives in Nelson.
The Interviewer: My name is Lucy and I am 11 years old. I like to write poems and LOVE to read. I go to Mahana school and I am in Year 7.
Have you always loved to write and from what age?
I have always enjoyed writing, but I don’t know that I have always ‘loved’ it. When I was a bit younger than you, I was a very keen reader of Enid Blyton books and I wrote two rather pallid imitations of her books. In both of them there were four central characters called George, Kath, Alice and Anne – which names are very like those of some of the characters in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books. I was starting to grow my hair at this time and all four characters had long plaits.
At first I wrote more stories than poems. Poems seemed to be what i wanted to write as I got older. I still write stories occasionally.
I kept a diary from when I was thirteen. I don’t exactly keep a diary any more, though sometimes I will write about particular things that have just happened but I do always have at least one notebook on the go and I write something in it most days.
What advice would you give to a writer wanting to publish a book?
I’d encourage anyone who wants to do this to go ahead. There are more opportunities now for publishing than there were when I was a young writer.
I sometimes think publishing is a gradation. At one end is someone whose poems/novels/short stories are hidden away deep in a computer file. When I was younger the equivalent was having them hidden in a bottom drawer, and at the other end is a big fat book like The Luminaries with lots of publicity for the author. A first step to publication might be sharing your writing with another person. Probably the first time I had a poem published was when I had a poem in the school magazine when I was in Year 12.
Computer software make it possible to publish your own work and have it looking very smart and stylish. A poet whose a friend of mine sends out a stylish looking card on his birthday. It’s folded in three and on five sides there’s at least one poem. On the sixth side there’s a little note about it being his birthday. (He also has a book published and has work published in magazines.) Or you can go online and publish your work there.
If you want to have a book published, I suppose you try to get some sort of publishing record first of all – maybe sending things to magazines for instance. This involves a bit of research because you need to be familiar with what sort of thing that particular magazine publishes. What sort of length are the pieces they publish? Are they prose and/or poetry?
If I had a book ready to go I would look hard at different publishing firms and what sorts of things they like to publish. I’d be trying to decide whether my book would fit in with the sort of thing they seem to want to publish.
I’d want to make a manuscript look good with no typos, a good clear plain font, double spaced with wide margin space. It would be easy to find information about this sort of thing online. Some publishers don’t want a hard copy, but prefer to be sent a computer file. Again you need to do some research. So this aspect of writing is more like being your own Personal Assistant and being business-like about trying to get work published.
What is your favourite genre to read?
I don’t have a favourite genre. I try to ready widely.
There’s almost always a book of poems that I’m reading and I keep it by my bed or in my handbag if the book is skinny enough. At present I am still reading Essential New Zealand Poems and I am also reading Horse with Hat by Marty Smith. I’ve also read some of Milton’s poetry, particular a verse drama called Samson Agonistes that for some reason I never got round to reading when I studied Milton as a university student. (Paula — these books aren’t children’s books in case you think they are.
I’m reading a novel too – it’s called Concluding by Henry Green. It first came out when I was 6 years old but of course I didn’t know anything about him then. He was talked about a bit when I was at university but was never in any of the English papers I did.
I love Victorian novels. I read and reread Dickens, Trollope and George Eliot’s books for instance.
I’m enjoying biographies more as I get older.
I’ve read several books from the Old Testament this year.
I like reading good short stories and this year I discovered an excellent writer, Lydia Davis. I also found out that nearly everyone except me had known of her work for years!
So it seems that I can’t really answer this question about my favourite genre but have just meandered around it
If you want to write in a particular genre it’s likely you’ll read that genre. At the same time I sometimes find that the books that really get me writing are a surprise. It’s not necessarily books of modern poetry that make me want to write poems.
Where does your inspiration come from?
I don’t often feel inspired. I try to keep writing and sometimes something unexpected happens and I find I’m writing more easily and confidently than usual. It’s wonderful when that happens.
Things that make me want to write vary.
What I read is often helpful. Sometimes first lines of very good writers make me want to write my own poem almost as a response to theirs. Janet Frame and Anne Carson have done that for me.
Sometimes being under a particular pressure makes me write easily. Which seems strange. Pressure might be a time constraint, like to write something in 20 minutes. Or it might be a set of ‘rules’, like ‘Write a poem that consists entirely of untrue statements’. I think the hardest thing to do is probably to be told to take as long as you need to write the best poem you possibly can about whatever you think is important. If there are constraints you can always blame them if your poem isn’t as terrific as you would have liked it to be.
Walking helps me to write. I’m pretty sure Fiona Farrell has written about how how walking helps her to write.
Glenn Colquhoun says something somewhere (I’m sorry I can’t be more precise), about writing being best when you write about those things you see out of the corner of your eyes. I like that idea. Sometimes it helps to sit with and discover what I’m really preoccupied with and use that in my writing, rather than write what I think I ought to write about.
Do you ever take a break from writing a poem and come back to it?
Yes, I almost always do this.
I mentioned earlier that I always have a notebook. Usually this is where I draft poems and then maybe weeks later I read back over this notebook. Some things I’ve written look a bit feeble but often there’s something I can use and develop further.
After a gap of time, I can often look at a poem a bit more objectively and see what needs doing to it. I would hardly ever send a poem I’ve just written away to a literary magazine because I am so likely to see things I want to change if I look at it after a few weeks.
Do you ever get writers block, if you do how can you get rid of it?
Yes, I suppose sometimes I do feel the opposite from inspired and can’t think how to begin or continue anything.
Sometimes I find that to think of it as being like having a bit of a headache is useful. Okay, it’s there, and I can either retire to bed feeling sorry for myself or just go on doing what I do as best I can. But if I decide I am suffering from Writer’s Block and stop writing then there is no chance of my writing well.
Michael Harlow once said at a workshop that if you write a word another flies to it. That’s mostly true for me. So if I can find a word or a phrase from anywhere and write it down then there is a chance some writing will happen. It may not be very good, but at least its writing.
If I was feeling flat about my writing, I used to return to a book called Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and it helped me to forgive myself for often writing rubbishy, dull stuff. (And it also has some really good suggestions, about daily writing practice that I found useful.)
What is the hardest thing about writing?
I don’t think I can answer this very well. There’s no single thing that is particularly hard for me.
I have learned to accept that alternating between thinking I have just written a Truly Terrific Poem and thinking that I am an Embarrassing Disaster of a Writer who will never manage an even halfway decent poem doesn’t help me at all. I’m gradually realising that nothing I write will change the world and knock its little cotton socks off, but also I’ve come to realise that there’s no need to be ashamed of what I write.
Just keeping going, I guess, is hard. There are lots of other wonderful things to do. How do you balance these different aspects of your life? I’m busy, as most people are busy. I don’t write as much as I would like to write. I also need to work on regularly finishing poems and sending them away to literary magazines.
Sometimes writing can seem a bit lonely. But having a group of people you trust and with whom you can share your writing helps.
Nobody has to be a writer. But when it’s going well it’s good fun and satisfying.
Thanks for a wonderful interview Lucy and Rachel. Rachel has given us all kinds of tips about writing and has shown us the wide range of books she reads as an adult. To be a good writer you do need to keep reading and trying out things as you write — no matter what age you are! Rachel has a lovely poem in A Treasury of NZ Poems for Children called ‘Early.’