The personal experiences of poet Kate O’Neil offer a diverse and interesting look into the creative world of poetry.
After chatting to Kate over our shared memories of the old poem ‘Wynken, Blynken and Nod’ she kindly showed me her ‘waking up’ version (excerpt below) which fits beautifully with the original. Kate then agreed to answer some tricky questions for me and her responses are both thoughtful and revealing.
Thank you so much for your time.
My favourite poem of yours is short and sweet; ‘Paragliders Bald Hill Lookout’ invokes in my mind’s eye vivid colour, movement and summer days at the beach.
Talking of short and sweet, I recall asking you which would you choose ‘Lollipop or Cake?’ and you immediately said ‘Cake’, supplying a recipe with almonds smothered on top. I can identify with that! I had read your work on Australian Children’s Poetry under Kate O’Neil and recently discovered your real name is Dianne Cook. You explain why in our Q&A, and give readers a peek behind the scenes of your poetry life.
Okay, let’s get those thoughts into words…
What highlights stand out in your poetry journey?
I’ve been hanging out with poetry for most of my life, so there have been lots of decades for highlights to happen in.
Highlights of poetry reading still happen with amazing frequency. They began when I first realised what magical particles words and sounds are, and what selection, arrangement, combination – even omission, can play in shaping and delivering meaning. There were the ‘greats’ I studied at school – some fantastic stuff there, and I’ve stored many riches from them. But the thing is – poetry keeps on coming. There are poets all over the world publishing collections, submitting to competitions and anthologies and magazines – and sharing a way of seeing. Some poems have knocked me flat, left me breathless. Some have lifted me to heaven; it’s a great ride.
There have been highlights of poetry writing, too. For years the only public airing of my poems was in eisteddfod performances by drama students for whom I had written them (but who did not know this – hence my use of a pen-name). There have been lovely moments hearing something performed well.
A major ‘highlight’ was having my submission to the inaugural (and only)Manchester Writing for Childrenprize short-listed. This competition was set up by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s team at Manchester Uni.
There have been some wonderful outcomes from this. These poems were published in‘Let in the Stars’, the competition anthology, and one of them has since been chosen for inclusion by Roger McGough in his anthology‘Happy Poems’. AND I have kept in touch with several other poets in the book. I love the book. I love so many of the poems in it, and the illustrations (by Manchester art students) are wonderful.
Since then I’ve made successful submissions to several magazines and anthologies – for adults and children. See ‘Cool Poems’ information further down. And I keep on submitting – (loads of rejections, of course).
Is there a significant thread through your creativity?
I would say not. If anyone ever notices one I‘d like to be told. At the Manchester Prize event, Mandy Coe (one of the judges) commented that I write in a variety of voices / styles. She suggested it might be the influence of drama teaching. I don’t know if that was praise or not. Aren’t we writers meant to ‘find our voice’?
What challenges do you face when beginning a poem?
Nothing like the challenges of finishing it. If a beginning (or middle) pops into my head at an inconvenient moment, I fear it will vanish if I don’t get it down on paper or in the notes on my phone. This makes my amount of ‘screen time’ look dangerous.
Are you inspired or influenced by another poet?
Inevitably, and I could never know how many. I’ve done some online workshops recently with UK poet Wendy Pratt, whose work I admire. She, and others in the group, have helped me tighten my writing. Lots of deleting went on.
Can you name just one of your favourite poems?
You are asking this of someone whose word files are loaded with favourites! If they are in the cloud, it will rain my favourite poems one day. What if I narrow this to ‘favourite poem for children’? Or better still, ‘favourite concrete / shape poem for children’? I can do that. It’s ‘The Moon Speaks!’ by James Carter. It’s on his website:
This is getting difficult. There are so many ways in which a poem can succeed (or fail). I think I’d rate a poem’s success (for me) by the state I’m in after reading it.
How did you feel about poetry when growing up?
I’ve probably answered this in the first question. I had no discrimination, but anything with rhyme, rhythm, sound patterns, imagery caught my attention. Hymns, advertising jingles, greeting cards, bush ballads…
Do you draw on your own childhood memories?
Yes, at times, but much of that grist is still very much in the mill.
Have you experienced an awkward poetry moment?
Mostly private ones. (‘What? Did I really write that?’)
Are you a day dreamer or do you plan significant goals?
Genetically inclined to dreaming, but I try to impose goals to counter this. (Hence the Wendy Pratt courses which involved writing on a prompt a day for four of the past six months).
Can you give us a hint about your work-in-progress?
‘Progress’ plays tricks on me? I have drafts of picture books, a chapter book, jottings for poems – ALL OVER THE SHOP! Sometimes something gets finished, usually unexpectedly, usually when I think I am working on something else – and I send it somewhere. Results are mixed. This morning, for instance, I learned I have TWO poems long-listed in a comp (adult) and they will be published in an anthology. Last week I sent off a poem I quite liked to The School Magazine just before I left for Sydney. By the time I got there it had been rejected.
Do you have some guiding words for emerging poets?
I think it better to share another poet’s words that have guided me. The main one is READ.
Jo Bell quote: “If there is one thing I want you to take from this book, it is this: Nobody writes good poetry without reading good poetry. Those who don’t take this seriously invariably write cliched, derivative and unoriginal work – just what we all want to avoid – because they aren’t aware of the context in which they are writing.”
OOPS! I haven’t mentioned the publication last year of my ‘Cool Poems’. This was a major highlight! The book belongs in a series published by Triple D Press, Wagga Wagga NSW. It was a nail-biting thing to have a book which would sit alongside collections by Australians Bill Scott, Anne Bell, Colin Thiele, Christobel Mattingley and Max Fatchen. Many thanks to Zita Denholm (Triple D) and Christina Booth (illustrator) for helping it happen.
Did you see them pass today, Billy, Kate and Robin,
All astride upon the back of old grey Dobbin?
Jigging, jogging off to school, down the dusty track––
What must Dobbin think of it––three upon his back?
Robin at the bridle-rein, in the middle Kate,
Billy holding on behind, his legs out straight.
Now they’re coming back from school, jig, jog, jig.
See them at the corner where the gums grow big;
Dobbin flicking off the flies and blinking at the sun––
Having three upon his back he thinks is splendid fun:
Robin at the bridle-rein, in the middle Kate,
Little Billy up behind, his legs out straight.
Poem originally published in ‘A Book for Kids’ 1921
Ever get poetry nostalgia? Australian school children learn poems by C J Dennis, Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson and many more. Often a particular poet’s verse follows them through life, even though their lives are nothing like the rough and tumble era in which these pioneer poets wrote.
Changes were afoot in Australia in late nineteenth/early twentieth century and were reflected in the country’s poetry. In the evening, after dinner, someone would recite a poem or two. Years later, I grew up with Banjo Paterson’s ‘The Man From Snowy River’, a rollicking ode to bush men, stock riders, the dangerously rugged land and the great value of horses.