Cross-Pollination in Poetry
Frieda Hughes channels voices and images
By Felix Cheong
Frieda Hughes was born in London in 1960, the daughter of former British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes and American poet Sylvia Plath. She grew up in Devon and spent some time living and working in Australia. Since studying art, she has exhibited her work in several solo and group exhibitions in Britain, the United States and Australia.
Frieda has published seven childrenís books, the most recent being Three Scary Stories. Although she has long resisted publishing poetry so as not to be compared with her parents, she finally put out her first collection Wooroloo in 1999. She has since published two more books: Stonepicker (2001) and more recently, Waxworks (2003).
The latter volume is her most mature work yet. Diverse personalities, such as Rasputin, Cinderella, Medea and Lazarus, Houdini and Lady Macbeth, have been reborn of their old selves, re-voiced in contemporary terms.
Felix Cheong caught up with Frieda Hughes during the Edinburgh International Books Festival to put three burning questions to her.
FC: Why have you decided to adopt voices in your third collection of poetry?
FH: I decided to adopt voices because thereíre a lot of characters Iíve met over the years and certainly over the last 20 years, and writing about them was too personal. It was too obvious who they were and who they mightíve been. And sometimes, you meet several people who combine and sort of form a single entity.
I started with two poems: ďSisyphusĒ, which was really [about] my father and ďJezebelĒ. And they went into Stonepicker, my earlier collection. And I thought nothing more of it.
[But] when you put on a switch in your head, something catches you, snags you. Those two poems snagged me and I began to add to them. The mountain of characters grew and so finally, I ended up searching for characters. I would go through Madame Trussardís, the Bible... I went through books on mythology.
By using a previous character, I could define and pinpoint the point that I wanted to really make about somebody, or something Iíd witnessed. These characters Ė they become the update. They become us effectively, and the people around us. As wicked, as sorry, as lovelorn, as happy, and sad, as we all are.
Looking at it, we havenít really changed. The clothes have changed but our emotions have not evolved hugely.
FC: Do you find bits of yourself in each of these characters?
FH: I look at Cinderella and I thought, ďIím definitely not there.Ē Itís been out nearly a whole year. About a month ago, I was reading it at a reading and I thought, ďBut Iím in there!Ē
Madame Trussard is me. Thereíre echoes of me all through the book. Thatís bound to be the case because people Iíve given birth toÖ effectively, Iíve lived with them for such a long time; thatís bound to be me embedded in there somewhere, good or bad.
FC: How much of your work as a painter has influenced you as a poet?
FH: Not at all. One answers a need in me that the other canít take care of. With painting, I can be a lot more expressive. Poetry requires a definition, a caution, an absolute directing of the thought. For me, thatís how I look at it.
I always see things as a film clip in my head anyway. When Iím writing a poem, Iím actually writing a vision in my head thatís happening. Iím trying to express it in that way.
What I canít do in a poem is to get really wild about it. And now that Iím painting in abstracts Ė and Iím painting quite large Ė I can really get out a lot of the energy on there. Whereas, the poem is a condensation of emotion.
I need both. I did try not painting and I became unhappy. And I did try not writing and that was impossible. Even if it doesnít go anyway, even if nobody buys it or looks at it, I have to do it. Itís like a compulsion in each case.
They answer to different parts of me. They each influence me, in a sense, as I influence them. Thereís always going to be a cross-pollination of some sort; but really, only with me as the filter and not directly.
Iím trying to do a project now where Iím marrying the two Ė a series of paintings and poems, one for each year of the first 40 years of my life. I thought about it when I was 40. And it was to be celebrating the fact that I was 40. But of course, Iím 43. Iím only a third of the way through.
Each painting is 5-feet by 4-feet; an abstract distillation of emotions of that year.
The poem is a crafted gathering of what affected me during that year. By writing it as a poem, itís possible to encapsulate the essence. In a way, prose would fall flat on the floor. Poetry has the music to it, thereís a lightness and dance to it. The poems arenít going to be enormously long because Iím trying to get them opposite the painting in the book.
Itís an interesting process to see that they do affect each other in this project. And yet, each one stands entirely happily on its own. It doesnít need the other. But the other enhances it. Thatís a joy. Itís more difficult than I ever thought it would be Ė raking over your history. I thought itíd be a lot easier but itís not.
I thought itíd be very interesting for an abstract painting to have a verbal key, just to unlock the idea. People may read the poem and look at the painting and think, ďWell, I canít see a co-relation, really.Ē But for me, there has to be.
I cannot do the painting until Iíve written the poem. I have to go over and over the poem, have to digest and enlarge within myself everything Iím writing about.QLRS Vol. 3 No. 3 Apr 2004