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Chat with a poet: Stephen Whiteside

Stephen Whiteside
Stephen Whiteside

Stephen Whiteside lives in Victoria and has been writing rhyming verse for over thirty years. He writes for adults and children and recently had his first book of poetry for children published — The Billy that Died with its Boots On. It’s full of poems great for reading aloud and performing. 

Stephen agreed to chat to Alphabet Soup about writing and reciting bush poetry.

What do you like about bush poetry in particular?

Perhaps I should begin by defining bush poetry.

The Australian Bush Poets’ Association (ABPA) defines it as follows:

“Australian bush poetry is metred and rhymed poetry about Australia, Australians and/or the Australian way of life.”

In other words (and this is very important) bush poetry does not have to be set in the bush! Many of Australia’s greatest bush poets — Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson, CJ Dennis, etc., wrote poems that were set in the city as well as in the bush.

Which brings me to my next point. Today we might call Banjo Paterson a ‘bush poet’, but back when he was alive he was not called a ‘bush poet’, he was just a ‘poet’.

Bush poetry means different things to different people. Sometimes I worry it makes it sound inferior, like ‘bush lawyer’.

Everybody knows that bush poetry rhymes, but the rhyme is not the most important thing about it. As the ABPA definition implies, the metre is even more important than the rhyme.

So what is metre? Metre is rhythm. Bush poetry has a strong sense of rhythm — a bit like music without the notes. Can you tap your foot or slap your thigh to the rhythm of the poetry? That is the test. If you can, it is probably bush poetry.

So what is the difference between bush poetry and rap? Surprisingly little, really. Rap tends to be faster, louder, more urgent than bush poetry, but that’s probably just about it.

So, what do I like about bush poetry in particular? For me, it is the rhythm, the rhyme and the word play. Much bush poetry tells stories or jokes, and that is great fun too, of course.

How old were you when you wrote your first poem?

I think I would have been in middle or late primary school. I started writing poems for family members on their birthdays.

Who is your favourite bush poet?

My favourite bush poet is CJ Dennis, but I prefer to call him simply a ‘poet’, not a ‘bush poet’. Although he lived in the bush, he wrote mostly about the city. (Banjo Paterson lived in the city, but wrote mostly about the bush. It is all very confusing, really … )

I think of CJ Dennis as a chameleon. He could do anything. He could write realistic poetry (set in both the city and the bush), he could write fantasy and satire, and he could write excellent poetry for children. Who was the real CJ Dennis? I’m still not sure.

Do you ever recite/perform your poems to an audience? (Do you have any tips?)

Yes, I often recite to an audience. In fact, all of my poems are written to be recited or read aloud. The rhythm and rhyme becomes much more evident when the poems are read aloud.

The tradition of reading poetry aloud harks back to the days of old when there were no tablets, mobile phones, TVs or even radios — and certainly no Facebook. Bush workers often used to entertain themselves by taking it in turns to recite poems to each other at the end of the working day — often around a campfire. A campfire is a great place for telling stories!

A tip for reciting? Choose a poem that you really like, for whatever reason. If the audience can sense your love of the poem, they are much more likely to enjoy your performance. Read it over to yourself several times before you perform it. It is important to be familiar with the work. If you can learn it off by heart, even better! If you find you are feeling nervous, remember, the performance is not about you, it is about the poem!

Do you have a tip for young writers who want to write bush poetry?

As I said earlier, it all comes back to the rhythm, or metre. Too many poets worry about the rhyme, and ignore the metre. Poetry with rhyme but no metre does not sound good. Make sure you can tap your foot or slap your thigh to the words as you read them out. If you can’t, there is something wrong with the poem.

How long did it take you to put together The Billy That Died With Its Boots On?

I began planning the book in 1990, and it was published in 2014 (this year), so that is over twenty years. Why so long? Lots of reasons. I knew that the publisher would be most interested in publishing poems that had been published before in magazines and anthologies, and it takes a long time to have enough poems published that way to make a book.

It also took me a long time to find a publisher. I received many rejections. It is very difficult to make money publishing poetry. I am extremely grateful to Walker Books for taking a risk, and publishing my book!

The Billy that died with its boots on (cover)


Find out more about Stephen Whiteside and his poetry! Visit his website, and check out some of his poems here.

Interview with Stephen Whiteside © November 2014 Stephen Whiteside & Alphabet Soup Publishing