Thursday, December 2, 2010


Don't blame me for the title! That was the publisher's idea and they know their market well. Unfortunately it probably obscures the original nature of the poems and songs. I wanted to call it 'The Fish Wall' and that's still how I think of it, but I can see why they didn't love it.

The dynamic Rebecca Hermann and Nerida Fearnley at Bolinda Publishing asked me to do several audio projects for them: a collection of traditional nursery rhymes for younger and older listeners; a collection of traditional rhymes about size, shape, colour and so on; a collection of original mnemonic rhymes designed to help children learn multiplication; and a collection of my own original poems and rhymes that they would set to music.

They wanted to give these collections an Australian edge. That proved to be harder than I'd anticipated with the traditional rhymes, because although there are many examples in the 19th century of Australian parodies and imitations, such as 'Who Killed Cockatoo?' (you might remember this was the first picture book under Margaret Hamilton's own imprint) they are mostly too archaic in language and too 'clever' for young listeners. Changing tastes in poetry account for part of the problem, but many of those parodies were clearly intended for adults.

Hush-a-bye, baby on the treetop
Grasshoppers ate up the whole of our crop
When the drought breaks the rabbits will come
Hush-a-bye, baby, the outlook is glum.

That's the Australian adults' way of lulling themselves out of it. I did include it eventually, but mostly for the adults listening in the background. Similarly one for all the bank-bashers:

Baa, baa, black sheep,
have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir, three bales full.
One for the master, who grows so lean and lank,
None for the mistress,
But two for the bank!

I'm hoping the sexism is as ironic as the rest of the rhyme.
Writing the multiplication rhymes was fun, but a challenge to try and avoid using the same rhyming words over and over.

1 x 3 is 3
I wish that I could ski.
2 x 3 is 6
Get on the T-bar, quick!

Okay, we're already in trouble. To create a narrative that makes sense as well as finding rhymes and keeping the scansion regular enough for the composer is not easy. English isn't a great rhyming language, and I wanted to avoid the whiff of the thesaurus or rhyming dictionary as much as possible. I think I managed it most of the time, but there are one or two moments where I wince a bit. You try it! It's a tough call.

When it came to the collection of original poems and rhymes, it's as if I had been waiting for someone to ask me. I wrote them over the summer, one every day and sometimes two. The romantic 'the story/poem/play/script wrote itself' line that writers love to trot out has done more damage than good for the way readers perceive the business of writing and the way they regard writers and I had hoped I would never say it about my own work. But these poems did come pretty naturally.

What was tricky was working with the team setting them to music. Peter Sullivan of 'IMT' and 'The Footy Show' fame, who with the Peter Sullivan Big Band has worked with so many Australian and international stars, is brilliant - creative, energetic, endlessly patient - and I feel lucky to have had the chance to work with him. But the difference between the needs of the contemporary poet and the composer when it comes to the rhythm of a song is quite marked. I found both the composer and the singer stressing prepositions and definite articles, simply because the underlying metre demanded it, whereas the poet reading them aloud would skate quickly over the top to get to the key words.

Putting this collection together was a great experience. We had a couple of moments where I had deliberately played round with the gendering of the piece. For example, there is a poem that runs through all the outrageous colours that people wear, and ends up asking if anyone cares whether boys wear pink. I based this on a mother I heard saying quite definitely that pink shirts were not for boys. (Still?) When Peter and his team put this to music, they had a woman singing it. That simply didn't work.

Similarly, I was interested to hear some macho teenage boys one day saying that they let their girlfriends put nail polish on one of their toenails. They were almost boasting, but the fact that it was only one toe told another part of the story. This was what I wrote:

I've put polish on one of my toes.
Two people know.
(It's a secret.)
It shines like a jewel
I found in the sand
and Mum says I can keep it.

When I heard the finished recording, this rhyme had been sung by a woman. And when I asked that it be redone by a man, some of the producers were worried that it would sound gay and that that would be a problem for their conservative market. Even though the cost of redoing this song and a few others was significant, and intimidated me into silence at first, I'm glad that I was worried enough to insist in the long run, and I'm grateful that Bolinda supported and trusted me. So what you will hear is a man singing these words. That was really the point.

Bolinda wanted these songs to be Australian and I was really pleased when a short poem came to me about the prime minister. Unfortunately, the first line, 'Mr Prime Minister', went hurtling into history with Kevin Rudd and it was too late to change it. The words still work, but you'll have to imagine them applied to David Cameron - or maybe Tony Abbott.

I loved working on this project and can't wait to do another collection of songs. Some of them are funny, some are thoughtful and even sad. Hope you have fun listening to them! Maybe I'll leave you with one of the quieter ones.

Drink warm milk with honey and nutmeg,
wash off the day in town,
clean your teeth, switch off the light
and turn the music down.

Count the stars on your pyjamas,
remember to cuddle your friends.
Leave your slippers where you'll find them,
when your journey ends.

Flick the lamp on again! Jump up and check,
lock every door in the place.
Make sure there's no one under your bed
and sleep with a smile on your face.