Maxine Beneba Clarke on book bans and writing poetry for young people
Maxine Beneba Clarke is the author of the short fiction collection Foreign Soil, the memoir The Hate Race and the poetry collections Carrying the World and How Decent Folk Behave. Her children's picture books include the CBCA Honour book The Patchwork Bike and the illustrated poem When We Say Black Lives Matter, which was longlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal. In 2023 she is Poet in Residence at The University of Melbourne.
Maxine has appeared on The Garret before, and you can listen to her most recent interview here.
ASTRID: Maxine, it is a great pleasure to welcome you back, to talk to you once again. We have spoken quite a few times over the years in person and online, and at some point during the pandemic that I have only hazy memories of Maxine. In those conversations we spoke about your short story collection, Foreign Soil, and your memoir, The Hate Race. Today I would like to just focus on all of the poetry work that you have been doing. It's the Sound of the Thing, the new workout in 2023 for young people.
MAXINE: It's great to be back on The Garret talking to Astrid.
ASTRID: I'm also going to ask you about the fact that you are now the poet in residence or the poet laureate at Melbourne University, which deeply intrigues me, Maxine, but I will come back to that. Let's kick off with the matter at hand. It's the Sound of the Thing. This feels like a different type of collection than what you have published before, from an outsider's perspective. On the front it says 100 new poems for young people. And am I right in thinking these are kind of to middle grade readers for teenagers, for people in high school?
MAXINE: Yeah, I think the idea behind the book really was to create that chocolate box of poems for kids. There are poems in there that would be suitable for a seven- or eight-year-old, poems about peanut butter or lollies or Halloween or whatever. And there are also poems that are more suited to, I guess, grade six, seven or eight. I think it was also partly recognising that high school students have lots of different reading levels, that you can have a kid in grade nine who has a typical grade six reading level or kid in grade six who has a typical grade nine reading level. The idea was look, let's just have a hundred problems for young people. And I was very particular about young people, not kids, because I think as soon as you put kids on the cover of a book that kind of almost ages it down a bit. But I didn't want to be too particular about age range, which is quite hard in publishing. People always want to know that it's a particular four-to-five-year age range.
ASTRID: Look, I'm 42, Maxine and I got a great deal out of this collection. I was laughing at several points. Firstly, there is a little sequence of poems and it's like summer, spring, autumn, winter. And I did a project with my nine-year-old niece a few months ago, and we had to come up with phrases or words or images that describe the seasons. And I confess, I did a very bad job. I was like, ‘Damn, if only I had Maxine's work’. We could have illustrated your poems. Anyway, I suspect this work is going to really help adults who find themselves in that situation, but more importantly, young people of so many different ages engage with poetry. And that's what I want to talk to you about, Maxine. This book made me reflect on the poems that I still remember that I had to do in high school. And do you know what I remember and can still kind of recite? ‘The Flea’ by John Dunn.
MAXINE: Oh wow.
ASTRID: ‘Mark but this flea and mark in this’. And for anyone who is not familiar with that terribly appropriate poem for adults and terribly inappropriate poem for young girls. It's about a guy talking about how a flea has bitten him and her, and now basically they can have sex because that's consent. It's truly terrible. So, congratulations, I hope you replace The Flea on the curriculum. Can you talk to us about how you came to these 100 poems? Were they random? Did you have a collection of ideas that you wanted to give to the young people?
MAXINE: Yeah, I think this is probably the most difficult poetry collection I've written, and I think it's partly because when you're talking about writing for young people, there is a certain range of life experience, so it was kind of going back to, ‘Okay, I have a 12-year-old and a 17-year-old, so kind of thinking about my 12-year-old and what is a typical Australian child life experience’. And of course there is no typical Australian child. We have kids from many different backgrounds who've come and landed in Australia in many different ways. But in terms of things like wanting to belong in class at school or roller skating with your friends or hanging out in the park after school, and those things that are huge at that age that as an adult, you don't really think about too much.
That's interesting that you mentioned The Flea because part of the reason I came to these poems was going into primary school classrooms with my picture books and having teachers say, ‘What poetry can you recommend for kids? Because we've got to do a poetry unit’. And kind of saying the only age-appropriate poetry I know of that's contemporary that's been written in Australia today, other than there are a few great verse novelists like Kirli Saunders and Sally Morgan, but in terms of poetry, it's all in picture books. That is the main way that poetry is delivered as a kind of narrative story and a picture book for younger children. And so that's kind of how I came up, I guess, with the idea was, ‘Okay, there's a need there. What would it look like to write a contemporary anthology of poems for kids?’
And I have to say thematically, given I set the task of writing 100 poems, it got more and more and more difficult. There are some things you have to have in there. It's like you have to have lollies, you have to have the sports poem, you have to have the seasons, you have to have some like school detention, and then you kind of ticking off and off and it's like, ‘Oh, what else? What are the other experience of young people’, kind of brainstorming with friends saying, ‘What are some of your most vivid memories of being a kid?’
ASTRID: Can you talk us through the origin story for It's the Sound of the Thing? It was your idea. You've published many works for adults and young people of various ages before. What was the pitch and in what timeframe did you have to do this?
MAXINE: Look, the pitch really was, ‘There is no contemporary poetry for children in terms of a collection and what would that look like?’ And I guess how much it's needed both on the shelf in bookstores and in schools. I think the one thing I realised, I kept asking myself why. Why is there this big gap between the kind of nursery rhymes we're learning in kindergarten or whatever, and studying Keats in grade seven or eight, or Sylvia Plath, whoever you're studying.
As I wrote, I was fortunate enough to be able to, when I was halfway through the writing to get a grant from Creative Victoria, which meant that I could spend, I'd already worked on it on and off for about six months. And the grant meant that essentially the next six months I could only solely focus on, I was doing a few other things work wise, but it was primarily writing these poems. Halfway through I started to realise, ‘Okay, it's probably a lot of the reason why it's not done is financial, because poetry doesn't sell’, and that's in quotes, ‘poetry doesn't sell’, the industry tells us poetry doesn't sell, or at least doesn't sell as well as other forms of writing.
And I started to realise, ‘Oh my goodness, I've essentially just put 100 picture books in one book and I've put it in the form that is least likely to sell’. It was a bit of, ‘What have I done?’ And in fact, when I went to sign the contract, the publishers did say, ‘Oh, a whole heap of these would make great picture books’.
ASTRID: Look, I like to think that they can still be picture books in the future, Maxine, because then everybody can see your artwork as well. I'm not asking for figures here or anything, but I do just kind of want to go onto that received wisdom of poetry doesn't sell. There are areas in Australian publishing where the received wisdom is you're not going to make any money. Poetry is first and foremost among them. But I am interested in... You already have two books that I'm assuming sell well, because they're on the curriculum and people can study them in school, The Hate Race and Foreign Soil. The idea that there is no book like this that a librarian or a teacher can otherwise draw on, suggests that there's a waiting pool of buyers. So how can we push back upon the idea that all poetry doesn't sell?
MAXINE: It's partly, partly is looking at figures. I know you said you didn't want to look at them, but it's partly when you look at things like-
ASTRID: That was just because I was being polite, Maxine.
MAXINE: Yeah, I mean, look, an average poetry collection I will put out will probably sell in the first two years, maybe 4 or 5,000 copies.
ASTRID: So that's amazing because the general figure I hear bandied about is most poetry collections don't sell out their first print run, which might be 500 or 1000.
MAXINE: I think that's generally true, but I think it's also to do with the promotion of poetry. When you look at things like the Seller Prize, Evelyn Araluen's Drop Bear, and Sarah Holland-Batts’ The Jaguar, I don't know figures on how many copies The Jaguar has sold since it won the prize, but it's regularly on bookshops' bestseller list for the week. And so that's an example of two books really that had probably sold, I guess less than like say a literary fiction debut when they won that prize. And because of the visibility that the prize gave them, they've kind of been brought into public consciousness and I guess to mainstream readers.
Probably part of the reason why my work has a bit of visibility is because I publish in other forms. Sadly, people who have read my fiction have read my kids' books, have read my memoir, we'll see a poetry book and they'll probably think, ‘Oh, okay, we'll give that a go because we've read her other work and might be something that appeals to us’. I do often wonder, had I stayed only in the genre of poetry? Would my poetry be as widely read? And I also think I was fortunate to have that job where I wrote poetry for the Saturday paper for 12 months, and so it was kind of just a bigger audience. I still have people kind of... The other day, someone in the news agent in front of me was buying the paper and was like, ‘Oh, I wish you were still in here’. I really missed that poetry.
ASTRID: That's such a lovely compliment. And also thinking back on that, Maxine, that was a few years ago, but oh my goodness, upon a week, that must have been intellectually tough.
MAXINE: Definitely. But I have to say in writing, It's the Sound of the Thing, the kids' poetry book, that experience of just having to write the poem and knowing that if you don't get it in there is an empty page in a national newspaper. Although at the time it was, and part of the reason why I stopped doing it was because it just was not sustainable. And it was actually a poem a week. I would get the poem topic on the Tuesday and the paper printed on Thursday, so it was really 48-hour poetry. I'd actually pitched that job myself, you know you should have a poet. At time I think, ‘What have I done to myself?’
I think with this collection, and you're right, it is different from my other poetry books, but I worked a lot. I usually write in free verse. In fact, I think there are maybe only two poems in my previous two collections that are not in free verse. There might be a couple of haikus. And with this one, because I knew that it was likely going to go into schools and school libraries, I had to go back to how do you write a limerick again and how do you write a sonnet and how much can I veer away from this form while still technically having it be a limerick or having it be you know.
ASTRID: Poetry is not my specialty, Maxine but I was laughing to myself when I realised you were writing in rhyming couplets. I'm like, ‘Oh my goodness, Maxine is going to show every single form’. I found it very impressive, but also because I am an adult reader of this collection for young people, I think my favourite poem was Worlds Away, which is near the end of the collection, and you draw all different kind of mythological references and references from literature. There's Hobbits and Alice on Wonderland and all the rest of it. And I noticed that there was no... This is such a leading question, I'm aware of this back then. There was no reference to anything that was obviously Harry Potter. There's wizards in there, but it comes directly after Hobbits and there are wizards in Tolkien and whatever and that led me to my adult question. You go into schools, you write for young people, how do you navigate the tension that now surrounds JK Rowling?
MAXINE: I think in a way it's not just JK Rowling. There's two things going on in those school spaces. There is, I guess the book banning movement in the United States, which there's always a fear that when something is that loud and prolific and contentious, that it will spill over to Australia. Yeah, there is one poem in the book Halloween where I have mentioned, it's a poem about this girl getting ready for Halloween, and she says, ‘All the white girls on the street girl was Hermione’.
ASTRID: I'm so sorry. I forgot that.
MAXINE: Yeah. It's funny because when I read Worlds Away, I did think about that because the question was what are those children's series and children's writers that have proliferated public consciousness, I suppose? And I made a conscious decision not to have JK Rowling in there and not necessarily because of her being transphobic and all that kind of thing, but also because it was partly what did I read? What did I read? And I was never taken with the Harry Potter series. I think maybe I read the first book and maybe half of the second book. And it just never really resonated with me, partly because of what I describe in the book Halloween where the girl says, ‘Hermione was made to fixed boys' mistakes, and I want to be Wednesday Adams or Miss Marvel’, or someone who has a bit more autonomy over their own destiny. So yeah, it was partly, and because it was more about what I was reading, there are problematic titles in there.
ASTRID: I was laughing with the Roald Dahl references.
MAXINE: Yeah, exactly. Charlie in the Chocolate Factory. It's not necessarily just, ‘I'm going to leave this particular person out’. It's kind of, ‘What did I enjoy regardless of what I think about it now? And what really swept me away?’ And some of the references in there are I think, as references to the story of the Loch Ness monster and Bunyips those kind of folk tales. And it's interesting because that poem was one of the first poems that I wrote for the book. It ended up being the last, but it is written for the Ultimate Child reader, those kids that just live in the library and they'll get almost every reference, and if they don't get the ref, they'll probably go away and look it up.
ASTRID: So that was me, Maxine, that's why it was my favourite.
MAXINE: For sure.
ASTRID: Maxine, you mentioned book bans before. I wanted to ask you about book bans because they are in the news and they are terrifying and irrational and deeply, deeply disturbing. If I remember correctly, you have had a book banned in the United States.
MAXINE: Yeah, The Patchwork Bike. Yeah.
ASTRID: How does that feel? And I say that married to an American and deeply horrified by everything that country is doing.
MAXINE: I think my concern is always for the students, for the kids in the instance where, so The Patchwork Bike is a book that follows an African diaspora family living on the edge of a desert and they have this amazing bike that's kind of made of junk that they find around. It's illustrated by Vant T. Rudd. And in the illustrations, there are things that are seen as politically contentious. And so that circumstance, the book had actually been handed out to, I think all of the first-graders in a particular school district. It was like a give kids a book day. So that wasn't just, ‘Let's take it out of the light because the parents complained’. As I understand it from the article that we were sent by kind of someone in the States. It was handed out, someone then complained. There's a scene in the book where kids are dancing on top of an abandoned police car, which is seen it's a comment on the Black Lives Matter movement and on police brutality.
From my understanding, somebody took the book home, there was a police officer in the family, and then the police officer essentially complained to the school and the book was then confiscated from the kids. My main concern was well, how do you explain that to children, particularly kids of colour or black kids whose families have suffered police brutality? How do you explain that you've been given a scene that's been taken away because someone believes that you shouldn't actually be able to learn about it? And my response to that, in fact is in, It's the Sound of the Thing.
There is a poem called ‘There's a Shelf in the Library’ about books being banned and how kids mobilise to make sure they can read the books that they want to read... I needed to write something that explicitly deals with book banning, so that when it happens, there is this poem that exists that kids can read to understand, ‘Okay, this is censorship and this is what can be done about it’. But it's terrifying the idea that shelves are going to become more and more censored.
ASTRID: It disturbs me so greatly, particularly when, and this is a generalisation, but I think quite an accurate one. The people advocating for book bans or the banning of individual work, so in the name of their rights, but they're taking away people's rights in the very act of doing so. It's deeply disturbing. Unfortunately, we can't solve book banning in this conversation, Maxine. So I would like to move us on to something hopefully a little bit more positive. Your role as poet resident at the University of Melbourne and full disclosure, this year, I have just started a PhD at the University of Melbourne, and I want to know what you're doing there.
MAXINE: Yeah, it's been fun so far. It's the first time that the university's had a poet in residence. I guess in that sense, a lot of it is kind of up to, ‘Well, what kind of work do you want to do?’ I've done some kind of lectures within existing subjects where I'm really talking about my work and practise. I think part of the role is to give students some insight into actually what it is to be a practising writer and a practising poet. Being the graduate of creative writing degree myself, we had lots of visiting writers, but I think often it was less about, that was more about the process of making literature as opposed to things like, ‘Well, what does it mean to do a poet? What kind of things do you do in your job?’
I think part of it is letting people into things like what is it like to write for the Saturday paper and produce a poem a week? Other interesting things that I've done, write some poetry for a BBC kid shows and things like that, and just show the possibilities of poetry. I think part of it is about just putting more poetry in the university space. I've done things like read at the art students commencement, which was quite funny actually, because a lot of the students, because I've had two books on the syllabus the preceding year, a lot of the students were like, ‘Hang on a minute’. It was very funny, but also nice to have that continuation of students interested in writing who were familiar with my work kind of thing. We had a kind of poetry drop-in session, which unfortunately due to COVID in my household, ended up being online, but just kind of a two-hour open session where it's literally just log on, talk about what you're working on, ask any questions you have.
So just things like that where it's just access to someone who is a working poet. And I think also part of the position is just the university, because if I'm there kind of one and a half days a week, so it's not a full-time role. But just for me, as someone who has been a freelance writer for 12 years, literally that baseline income of going, ‘Okay, now I can take a week off to promote my book, or whatever it is that I'm working on’, there are projects coming up that a kind of poetry projects where hopefully I'll be able to amalgamate what I'm working on with opening it up to students so they can see how something develops. But for me, it's just more putting poetry in that space. And I think for me also, I haven't been in a university space for 20 years, more than 20 years, other than the occasional guest lecture here or there.
I think my work also, most of my poetry work is autobiographical when we're not talking about kids poems. So already, just from being in that university space, just having those experiences of what it means to be amongst a new generation of thinkers and creators. And even things like unexpected things like I was started to write a poem the other day about, I was standing in part of the university and I saw this long line that I thought was a coffee line, and I was like, ‘There are so many people on that line, it must be the best coffee place’. And then I walked to the front of the line and it was the food cart.
It was like student food relief. And so, things like that that when I thought about it, of course, given the cost of living, given we're post pandemic, of course there'll be so many students, particularly international students who literally just need food. But I think being able to see the world that the students live in, I mean, obviously I'm not kind of following them home to their share houses, that would be creepy. But being able to kind of, all those things I've forgotten. I remember doing stuff like that when I was at university, but it's kind of so deep back in my consciousness that I think part of it is about what kind of work do I create once I'm in this new environment as well.
ASTRID: Maxine, I can't wait to read it. Thank you so much for talking to me again, Maxine. It is always such a pleasure.
MAXINE: Thank you so much, Astrid. I think these conversations are some of my favourites, The Garret.
ASTRID: Oh, thank you.
MAXINE: Thank you for having me on again.