A conversation with Mary Blackwood

Besides writing books and short stories for children, Mary Blackwood’s adult poetry has been published in various newspapers and journals. She lives in Hobart, where the following conversation was taped during two sessions in April and May, 1990.

Mary began by discussing her life-long love of literature.

'Yes, I have to confess to liking Enid Blyton when I was a child because she was so accessible and the stories were so lively, so light; they weren’t difficult to read. I enjoyed all the schoolgirl stuff – horse stories, Fourth Form at Mallory Towers, everything really. And oddly enough I always liked at an early age, Victorian writing. I liked things like Eric, or Little by Little, and some early American writing, like The Last of the Mohicans. It might have been to do with being in my grandmother’s house often, and those books being a part of that rather Victorian atmosphere. I always liked Hilaire Belloc’s poetry, the Cautionary Tales for Little Children, most of which I know; I do like his rollicking rhythm and the dry understatement that an adult appreciates at one level and a child at another. Now I’m an adult I know that, but when I was a child I probably didn’t care about it one way or the other; I still liked his poetry.

'I think the books I liked best as a child really reflect some of the themes that seem to have worked their way into what I write now, and that’s … cosiness, warmth, people being safe … which is a part of Derek the Dinosaur: you know, animals coming out of the cold. And the other theme of course, is triumph, and succeeding in the end. That’s a kind of ‘ugly duckling’ thing, isn’t it? And Jeremy’s a book of triumph.

'The writing I now like would include, among Australian poets, Les Murray and Bruce Dawe, Andrew Sant, Peter Goldsworthy, Margaret Scott, Stephen Edgar…. Their poetry is part of what I am probably reading every day, in Poetry Australia and elsewhere, and I try to keep up with what they’re doing. Adult prose writers? It’s very odd, I’m still attached to Victorian novels. I read Middlemarch every six months or so, Vanity Fair once a year. I have them in the background all the time. At the moment I’m reading a bit of Martin Amis. I like Jessica Anderson, Amy Witting and I read women novelists such as Margaret Drabble, Fay Weldon and Margaret Attwood. You probably need to emphasize that I’m a very ordinary person, my tastes in writing are not particularly elevated.

'My grandmother was an important influence on me. Before the age of television, the whole attitude towards reading was different. Reading was easier to maintain: you automatically went to the library every couple of days to change two or three books. My parents and grandparents read all the time, so I was constantly exposed.

'My grandmother wrote poetry. When her husband – to whom she was extremely attached – died, she began to write a lot more and published four books of her work: The Rim of the World, Time and the Cherry Tree, The Quiet Bay and From a High Place. Some of the poetry in those books is marvellous, and ahead of its time. She was eighty-eight when she died, and still writing.'

Gray Day

       Agnes M. Morris
       (from The Quiet Bay)

There is no reason to despair
when great waves break,
and sorrow pours like tears
to dim the sun
and scatter petals where the roses bloomed.

It is enough to think of seasons gone
and know that more will come,
if not to you, to some dear other one.

How gray the sky, and mountains gray with rain,
and gray the sea,
in this return to Winter
when the air of Spring
was so translucent only yesterday.

The sudden changes leave one rudderless
upon the changing sea.

The Peace Rose

       Agnes M. Morris
       (from Time and the Cherry Tree)

I like the repartee that roses make
to the cold threat of winter rain,
raising their most glorious blooms
like staunch, defiant flags,
as the invincible enemy comes.

Or is it a cry of grief
for the great beauty lost?
A last farewell?
O breaking heart – peace.
Peace to you all.

But no.
It is a valiant call;
the last brave stand of beauty
as the leaves fall.

'Writing things down in this condensed way was a part of what I grew up with. It wasn’t until 1977 that I began to write myself. With the particular encouragement of Margaret Scott, I sent three poems to the Sydney Morning Herald, and a couple were accepted.'

Are you a prolific writer?

'No, just the reverse. I guess since I began writing poetry I’ve written … twenty poems? Once I’ve written something I’m happy with, I’ll try to have it published in a newspaper or journal. I don’t think I’m very much externally motivated as to what I write, I usually feel I know if it’s worth writing. Then it’s always worth trying to have it published. In that way I guess I’ve had about a dozen poems published in a range of places.

'Having children forced a change to my writing. It interrupted my poetry – but being involved with children made me think about writing something for them. My children’s writing began accidentally with a story written for my five year old niece at Christmas. It was one of those years when you cook jams and jellies for your grandparents and aunties – home-made gifts – and Derek happened. My niece thought it was good. When I had my own kids they liked it too, so I entered the story in a competition. It came second, and I began seriously putting it out to publishers. It was knocked back by three or four, then lay about gathering dust until the day Clive Tilsley at Fuller’s Bookshop put me on to Omnibus – and within a week they’d sent me back an offer.'

Is there financial reward in writing children’s books?

'Well, you don’t get very much in terms of return per book: the illustrator and author share 10% of the retail price. But the thing is, they do such big print runs. The hardback run for Derek was 8,000, and his paperback run was 15,000 – and there’ll be 20,000 in America.

But I understand too that you need to have about ten books in print to actually make a living from children’s writing. I don’t rely on it for a living, I don’t have time or capacity to attend to that aspect of my life in a sustained way.'

Do you have artistic control over the illustrating of your books?

'I’ve always been happy with the illustrators I’ve had. They’re professionals in their own right – and I’m not a professional graphic designer – so I don’t think that I have the right to get my nose in and tell them how to do it. I do think it’s correct for me to report back on whether their work reflects the feeling that I have about the book. And I’ve been lucky that Kerry Argent’s work with Derek was very much in line with how I felt, she’s added some lovely touches to Derek.

'Jane Burrell has done the same with Jeremy. I’ve seen Jane all the way through as she’s been doing roughs, and that’s been very exciting. I’ve never had any problem with what she’s doing. The illustrations are finished. Jeremy will be a lovely book; it might be out in September this year but certainly next year.

'If I did have a problem, I don’t know quite what I’d do, because I do think illustrators are entitled to their own professional range, without somebody telling them what to do … just as I don’t think editors should tell writers too much what to do. When you’re told that you start to feel a bit violated, and you lose your own sense of the work.'

As a writer, do you feel a sense of isolation here in Hobart?

'No, I don’t feel isolated at all; partly because of the energy and activity of the Writer’s Union, and partly because of the size of the place which means that anybody you’re interested in who comes to Hobart, you can inevitably meet.

'I met Les Murray about ten years ago – maybe a little longer than that – when he read at the museum and there were five people at his reading; we all went and had drinks after. I wrote to Les Murray a couple of times after that, and he back to me, about poetry; and I sent him something, to which he made a couple of changes and which was subsequently published.

'You would never normally be able to do that. And it is because of the smallness of Hobart, and its isolation – which people usually see as a negative – that you get that kind of exposure to people. So no, I don’t feel isolated. There’s so much around to go to if you choose, I haven’t even made use of what’s available.

'I went to the Adelaide Festival some weeks ago. I felt it was good to be there, because of the atmosphere and size of the thing, the number of writers all gathered together. But from the point of view of exposure to people you’d never see in Tasmania, it didn’t add that much.'

You mentioned that you’ve a copy of every issue of Island magazine to have been published….

'Yes, and of some issues I have doubles, those were my grandmother’s.

I think Island magazine has succeeded because no matter how little it was to start with – when it began as the Tasmanian Review it was a slim little thing – they never did compromise on quality. It’s always been very good. There were articles that you weren’t always interested in, but you knew that what you were looking at was always of high quality.

'Andrew Sant was an inspiration in that regard. He was something of an inspiration to me too, I first met him when he ran an Adult Ed class I was enrolled in. He was always very critical of our work – not nastily, but appropriately – at a time when it was easy just to be soft. And I think it was his refusal to compromise, his readiness to help people constructively and tell them the truth, that carried through to Island magazine.'

When you submit work for publication, are you ever asked to make changes?

'I’ve been lucky, I haven’t had to change much. But it’s really hard to change anything anyway. If an editor says ‘change it’ and you say "no, I won’t", you’re probably saying that because you wrote the thing as an organic whole you’re really quite incapable of changing it. So you pretend it’s a matter of principle but really it’s a matter of inability. That’s what I think!

What have you written recently?

'Omnibus has accepted my first (and only, so far) children’s short story, and Island magazine a couple of poems for a forthcoming issue.

'I’m trying to set aside more time for my poetry, the essence of which, for me, is to keep to what I hope are short, pithy pieces. I don’t know if that’s laziness or whatever, it’s just my natural inclination. I certainly find extended poems very difficult, and I always have. At school one of my teachers used to say "A telegram is never as good as a letter, you know!" '

'What I’m interested in is a single and probably quite pure but quite narrow, emotion of some sort of another, and the attempt to describe that in a very condensed way.

'My recent poetry has touched on the areas of grief, pain, loss … which everybody looks at all the time, I mean, it’s so important. And because it hits ordinary people inevitably, you have to keep finding fresh ways of talking about it. That’s in addition to recognizing the importance of the old repetitive ways, the "In Memoriam" notices that are very stereotyped – that use the same old words and rhymes – but serve a function.

'One of my recent poems is called ‘Wake’. What I chose to write about was the spurt of relief that I think there almost always is – perhaps except in the case of the death of a child – that goes with anybody’s death, especially when someone has been very ill for a long time. It’s embedded in the grief that people undoubtedly feel, and I think that’s a very strange thing for people to cope with. Do you see what I mean? It’s a very narrow emotion, it doesn’t last long.

'I’m interested in that kind of small observation, that’s why my poems are short. But I’d like to feel they’re not observations that have been made before, and for that reason they have to be obscure. I’m much better at observing an emotion in that way than I am at descriptive poetry. I really enjoy Bruce Dawe’s descriptive poetry about events, or the way Anne Elder writes a poem about a bird, I think that’s wonderful – but I can’t do it at all.

'It’s very satisfying to be writing poetry again, and for it to be accepted. it’s been … 1986 … since I’d last had any published. I hope to keep this particular pot boiling. What’s in the pot I don’t know, there seems to be a number of different things in there. I’d like to keep going and not to lose touch with it, until such time as I can devote more time to my writing. I hope I’ll find that having kept it going I’ll be able to tap straight back into it again, perhaps when the family’s older: when kids are the age mine are now, you don’t have much time to muse.'

       Mary Blackwood

He would not have wanted
us to weep
he would have wanted
us to think
of happy times
and smile for him

we say

and so excuse
relief –
magnesium in the
crucible of grief,
its flaring brief
but brilliant –

now he’s gone.