1. Judy, can you tell us a bit about yourself? Where were you brought up and educated?
I was born in London, England, in 1956. My mother was English and my father Scottish and we emigrated to Australia in 1960 as part of the assisted passage scheme. Most of my mother’s family (she was one of 8 children) had already emigrated here. When we first arrived in Australia, we lived with my mother’s parents at Carlingford, NSW, which was a semi-rural suburb in north-western Sydney, about 26 kms out from the CBD. My grandparents ran a plant nursery there. Strangely, I now live in Carlingford again, after 49 years absence, but it’s now a well-developed suburban area of Sydney. After we left my grandparent’s house, my parents bought a place in North Auburn, Sydney, a working class/industrial area in the western suburbs of Sydney. Our plan was to only stay there for a while until we found somewhere better, but we remained there for a long time. I remember my mother used to walk around the streets crying because after London, North Auburn felt like a wasteland. I was educated at Auburn North Primary School and then Arthur Philip High School, Parramatta. During my twenties I lived in many places all over Sydney, then married had a child and settled in West Ryde, Sydney for 17 years before finally moving back to Carlingford—not by design but because it was one of the more affordable suburbs at the time. I love living here now – it’s quiet, safe and has an interesting cultural mix. I undertook my Bachelor of Arts Degree at University of Technology Sydney.
2. When did you realise you were a poet?
I don’t think there was a moment when I thought I was ‘a poet’. I’d always loved words and reading, and I used to spend a long time on my English essays and assignments at school, as I somehow had the sense that using words in the best way possible was a good thing to develop. I was very shy as a child, pathologically so. I hated social interactions with strangers. I simply could never find the words to speak to them and so I felt that, for me, spoken communication was limited and difficult. Thus, I resorted to written words and books as the safest modes of communication. I always loved English subjects and did well. During my final year at High School I decided that I wanted to write. Initially, I thought I might write literary criticism, but I had started to write poetry and found it gave me more satisfaction. I wrote the most awful poems. Truly. Horrible adolescent angst. It took me years and years to develop any competence at all and this was done by reading as much poetry as I could and trying to apply the lessons I learnt through reading to my own work. I undertook a degree in creative writing, but I basically taught myself how to write by trial and error, persistence and reading.
3. Who were your main influences?
My early influences were the American poets born between 1920-1935, that wonderful generation including Galway Kinnell, Philip Levine, Denise Levertov, Sylvia Plath, Robert Bly etc, but the first book to really show me what was possible with language was DH Lawrence’s Sons and Loverswhich I read when I was 17. Subsequently, Rilke, Derek Walcott, Elizabeth Bishop, Cesar Vallejo, Robert Gray, Les Murray, Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens became extremely important to me and these poets remain among my favourites. I’m still an avid reader of poetry, discovering new poets all the time.
4. How do ideas for poems occur to you?
For me the ideas come during the writing process. If I waited for an idea to come to me, I’d never write much at all. It’s in the act of engagement with language – the playing around with sounds and rhythm that things start to happen. I may have a very vague idea of subject matter, but I try not to hold onto that too tightly. I prefer just to let poems work themselves out in their own time and manner without imposing my own demands. I’ve always found the creative process deeply mysterious and inexplicable, but I know that if you keep feeding your imagination through reading and paying attention to what’s around you, if you keep trying to build your linguistic resources, then you’re in a good position for the writing to take off in some way that’s powerful and engaging. Louis Pasteur said, ‘Chance favours the prepared mind’ and I think there’s truth in that. It’s also important to remember that human beings are inherently creative, there’s a deep part of us that wants to be expressive, you just have to try and tap into that and keep remembering how much joy there is in creativity and being a vehicle for something larger than the ordinary self to reveal itself.
5. What are the biggest challenges you encounter when you set out to write and how do you deal with them?
Despite what I just said about inherent creativity, I do suffer from self-doubt—I think most writers do. The blank page can be terrifying, but usually once I start putting something down, the joy of writing comes back. It’s just a matter of feeling those fears and doing it anyway. Frustration too can be a large part of the writing process, when you are just not writing at the level you’d like to, but again you just need to feel it and notice that it too passes. Writing is a great way to observe how your own mind reacts and acts. Time of course is the curse of writers, there never seems to be enough of it. It’s also quite hard to be a poet in Australia. Very few people care about it and that can be depressing and demoralising, but you just need to surround yourself with those people who do care about it. I run a reading and workshop group and I attend another poetry group, so I have plenty of people around me for whom poetry matters. I’m also married to a very fine poet.
6. Buddhism is a big part of your life. Can you tell us about that?
I’ve always been attracted to Eastern religions and have practised meditation on and off for decades. I’m not a Buddhist in any formal sense, but I try and live by its principles because I think it is a very ethical system and it provides a framework for living a more fulfilling life, one that tries to do less harm. It’s a very practical way of looking at yourself and your relationships, how you operate in the world on a moment by moment basis. Since I was very young, I was impressed with the Buddha’s story and I have written a number of poetic sequences around the life of Siddhattha Gotama which was the Buddha’s name before he became enlightened. I’ve also always felt that the interrelationships between everything in existence is vital to acknowledge, otherwise we live lives dominated by separation and exploitation. Buddhism does a great job in understanding and promoting the idea of the interconnected web which enables you to see yourself as part of a larger whole where your own existence is in a more balanced perspective. I also think there are amazing connections with this way of thinking and poetry because poetry (at least some of it) tries to reveal, through simile and metaphor, the underlying connections and similarities between things. Both are ways of looking deeply beneath surfaces.
7. You won the 2019 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for a poetry collection for Sun Music: New and Selected Poems. Are you working on anything at the moment?
I’m working on a further two sequences of poems around the life of Siddhattha Gotama as well as miscellaneous poems on a variety of other themes. I’m also considering writing a book of essays on poetry, but that will be a long-term project. I’m very impressed with Jane Hirshfield’s two books on poetry Nine Gates and Ten Windows, and John Burnside’s The Music of Time and I’ve always thought I’d like to write something similar but with a focus on Australian poets.
8. Not only do you write poetry, but you were the poetry editor for Meanjin for many years. In your editorial role, what do you look for in a poem?
I think it’s important when you have a role as an editor to try and be eclectic. It would be a mistake to select poems that simply reflected your writing style or poetic approach. The aspects I looked for were signs that the poet knew what they were doing, that they weren’t just dashing off well-meaning and sincere poems, but which lacked any attention to craft, or the how of the poem. I would agree with William Carlos Williams’s statement, ‘if it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem.’ That doesn’t mean to say I looked for poems with pleasant subject matter, but rather that there was something transformative in the poem, some pleasure in the language or insights, in the music, the word choice, the rhythm. I do think that poems need to be moving. Ezra Pound’s idea that ‘only emotion endures’ is a good one to keep in mind. As editor you always have to reject poems that you like and admire simply because of space restrictions, so it’s quite a hard task to be a poetry editor because you know you are always going to disappoint a lot of people. Also, there’s always going to be a subjective element in the choices that you make even if you try and be as receptive and open as possible. I also always tried to ensure a mix of established poets alongside new and developing ones.
9. What advice would you give to a writer aspiring to write poetry?
Be patient, it takes time to learn the skills of poetry. Read as much as you can lay your hands on. Don’t rely on friends and family to give you feedback on your work, find a skilled person who knows about poetry. Keep your mind and your senses on alert for those moments that can initiate a poem. Keep working tirelessly to build your critical skills. It’s very hard when you first start out to know if your work is any good. Most probably it won’t be, but don’t be discouraged, just keep at it. Find other writers and build a coterie of like-minded people. Try to develop a routine and discipline, make it your life’s purpose. Writing is a life style and it involves commitment and sacrifice. Don’t expect to make money from it or to become famous, but know it will give you a way of being in the world that is deeply enriching and worthwhile.
Sun Music: New and Selected Poems by Judith Beveridge is published by Giramondo. It won the 2019 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry.