Australia’s answer to Pam Ayres? That is Bessie Jennings aspiration … A tall order, but certainly an achievable goal for an enthusiastic and talented bush poet. Bessie plans to publish her sixth book of verse this year, hot on the heels of winning Children’s Poem of the Year at the Bush Laureate Awards in Tamworth …
What’s your background, Bessie?
I came here in 1974, when my second husband was alive and we decided to retire to the country. We chose Port Macquarie, because my parents were still living in Wauchope, where my brothers, my son and I were all born.
I grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney. The first home I actually remember, though, was in Nabiac. When I write my poems – and a lot of them are about my own life experiences – there’s one about watching the bullocky go past in Nabiac.
I missed the community I’d come from at first, but after a little time I thought I’d make an effort to become part of the community in Port Macquarie. I have done so; and I feel very at home here now.
Tell us the story behind meeting Frank, your husband …
Frank was a boarder in our home in 1947 – 48, when we were 17 and 18. At that time, my little sister pictured us romantically involved … we weren’t! But, we were good mates. Frank visited me during my previous marriages, and we’d been in touch over the years. After the death of my second husband, he invited me to Melbourne – and it was then, at the age of 67, I learned that he’d asked my father for permission to marry me when I was 20. And that’s how we changed from being a brother and sister to being prospective partners. My children thoroughly endorsed the match!
Where did your interest in poetry begin?
As a child, I loved poetry – I loved rhyme and rhythm. At the age of 6, I decided I wanted to be an author. That changed over the years to other ambitions! My elderly father kept telling us the same stories over and over, and I finally told him he should write the stories down. He said he would if he had help, so I volunteered, and I’d travel to Wauchope every week and spend hours taking notes. That’s how I came to write Dad’s biography, Herman. That’s also how I found out about self publishing.
In 1996 I entered a competition I’d heard being advertised on the radio – to write a poem for the Millbank Choko Festival. So, my first competition entry was Grandma’s Choko Vine – and I won first prize, so I was very encouraged. It was a big town (laughs) – the school had 12 children!
After that, I went to a poetry writing class through adult education and through that discovered there was a bush poetry meeting (Hastings Macleay Bush Poetry Group) once a month.
Through that group, I joined the Australian Bush Poetry Association. The Association holds poets’ breakfasts and other events and is involved with the Country Music Festival in Tamworth every January. I’ve performed at that Festival twice in Poets’ Breakfasts and a few times at various other centres.
Two years ago, in Bundaberg, I performed in the Australian Bush Poets Championships, and that was great fun – although I didn’t win a trophy that time.
And you’ve won a special award recently for your poetry. What was it for?
Through the Bush Poetry Association, I learned about the Bush Laureate Awards event. One of the categories was Children’s Poem of the Year. My sister, Patricia Gardner, and I had just produced a book called Aussie ABC, and I decided to enter it into the competition. Patricia did the illustrations.
I received a phone call from Max Ellis in Tamworth telling me he thought the book was worth entering into the Book of the Year competition as well; however, it wasn’t a finalist in that section.
But, it was certainly a finalist for Children’s Poem of the Year, and we didn’t know who’d won until the award night. My sister travelled from Maryborough, and her daughter from Brisbane, and my son also travelled from Brisbane, hoping we’d win a trophy … and we did! My sister and I raced up on stage like a couple of excited children, and had our trophy presented by Joy McKean.
What is it about bush poetry, specifically, that attracts you?
Bush poetry doesn’t mean ‘rural’. It’s a blanket term that means traditional rhyming, rhythmic verse that’s about anything to do with Australian life. It’s important that people realise that bush poetry can still be about garbage bins, toasters, supermarkets etc … the tradition came from the bush, where people didn’t have access to much entertainment. There may have been a mouth organ or a violin available, but there wasn’t much access to books and reading, and people depended on the oral tradition of reciting poems and stories. Yarn telling very much ties in with bush poetry events.
Bush poetry used to focus on droving, or outback stories; but we’re no longer a predominantly rural country. Yet there is still a distinctly Australian culture and our own style of spinning yarns.
With bush poetry events there are generally three categories: traditional, where poems were written over 50 years ago; original, where the performer has written the content themselves; and modern, where anything that has been written in the past 50 years may be performed. It’s all good fun … there’s a lot of humour, but also a lot of pathos. I think it’s very sad when people think bush poetry has to be bawdy, or about things like exploding dunnies … it’s much broader than that.
What inspires you to write?
I’m not so much inspired by a lot of other poets, as I am by Pam Ayres. It’s the unpretentiousness, the homeliness, of her poems that appeals to me. I put “Pam Ayres, here I come” on the front of my CD cover, and when she performed in Port Macquarie, I gave her a copy. I bought one of her books, and she wrote on it, “Bessie, here I come.”
My aspiration is to be Australia’s answer to Pam Ayres!
How many books have you self published now, and where can readers source your works?
Five books of verse, one biography, one CD and the joint publication with my sister. I’m hoping to publish another book this year, called Homely Poems.
And I don’t mind if people want to share my work. If someone wants to copy my poems and send them to 7 relatives to read – that’s great!
Aussie ABC is available at the Book Warehouse and at Sea Acres, and the books of verse are available at Timbertown.
Where can people see you perform, or find out more about the Hastings Macleay Bush Poetry Group?
I’ll continue to perform at schools, nursing homes and similar whenever I get the opportunity.
The group meets at the Senior Citizens Centre in Munster Street, Port Macquarie on the second Saturday of each month from 1pm – 4pm. Contact the Senior Citizens Centre on 6583 7149 for more information.
Interview by Jo Atkins.