Shrewsbury Literature Festival : ‘Adversity makes us try all the harder’ says poet Frieda Hughes
Frieda Hughes flicks through her new latest book of poems, before settling on one entitled For The Living Left Behind:
"The dead become a part of us; our skin, our bone, our thinking; Their existence is continuous in us, and the best we do in everything, as we move on from the moment of their passing."
The daughter of former poet laureate Ted Hughes and celebrated American writer Sylvia Plath speaks from the heart when she talks about bereavement. Her mother took her own life before she had reached her third birthday, her younger brother also killed himself. Her half-sister was killed by her own mother.
"I can never remember a period in my life when I was not affected by loss," says Frieda, who is headline speaker at Shrewsbury Literature Festival tonight.
From just a few minutes in Frieda's company, it is apparent that she is very much a person of emotions, talking expansively about heartbreak and tragedy, yet with a distinctly positive, upbeat demeanour.
Explaining the meaning of her poem, she says bereavement goes with a responsibility to move forward with life, to carry on living as a tribute to those who are no longer with us. Her own experience appears to have given her a motivation to live every day as if it is her last, and to squeeze the last ounce out of every opportunity.
"We have to do the best we can with what's left, otherwise it's like a sort of betrayal. I lost my mum, my dad, my brother, and the girl who was my sister, I don't have any really close family left, and I feel very responsible having to live on.
"We have to make the best of what we have got, I don't want to be looking back at something I could have done better.
"The poem is about the fact that, if you really love somebody, do you really want them to be miserable when you are gone? If you want them to be miserable when you are gone, you really don't love them."
Both a poet and a painter, her work is intensely personal, drawn from the experiences of a rollercoaster life.
"Everything I write is influenced by what happens in my life," she says, explaining her latest collection Alternative Values, a book of poems and paintings reflecting the themes of life, love and death. Most heart-rending of all is the final poem in the book, For Shura, where she reflects on the death of her half-sister Alexandra "Shura" Wevill. Shura, the daughter of Hughes's lover Assia Wevill, was just four years old when Assia decided to end her own life in a similar manner to Plath's suicide six years earlier – only Assia decided to take her own daughter with her.
In the poem, Frieda ponders whether she has denied Shura a father, "as your mother, denied me mine". She writes of a "mother-shaped hole" left in her own life following the death of her own mother, and concludes that Assia denied Shura "the choice to live a life, beyond her wish for death."
Frieda, who looks younger than her 57 years, lives in an 18th century country house just outside Newtown, which is filled with her work. Giant murals adorn the walls, even her sitting room table has been turned into a work of art. She invites me to stroke the snowy owl perched on her table.
"His wing is broken, meaning he can no longer fly, but he can get up on the table to see what is going on," she says.
"A lot of my poetry is about animals, they fascinated me," she says, adding that she has got eight other owls, two small dogs, as well as a python. Generally, they all get famously, although one of the owls has a tendency to swoop down onto one of the dogs.
It was many years before Frieda revealed to her father that she had been writing poetry. As the daughter of two renowned poets, she feared she would not be judged on her own merits, but compared to her parents, and instead embarked on a career writing children's books. But after being diagnosed with chronic fatigue in 1994, she found that all she wanted to do with her waking hours was to do huge oil paintings and write poetry.
Eventually she plucked up the courage to tell her father about her poetry, and asked him for advice.
"If he didn't think they were any good, I would have left them in a box," she says.
"I knew he would be a good judge, and he wouldn't praise anything he didn't think was praiseworthy because it was me.
"I asked him to put them into three piles, 'good', 'bad', or 'could be worked on', and from the 'good' there was enough for me to publish my first poetry collection."
She reads another poem, The Rolling Car, which tells of the close bond she shared with her brother Nicholas, who took his own life in 2009.
"It is about when my dad left me and my brother in a car, and it started rolling down the hill because he had not put the handbrake on properly," says Frieda.
"I told my brother to get out because there would be a crash, but he wouldn't, so I stayed with him, because I did not want to leave him on his own. Suddenly my father runs out, and throws himself through the window – I will never forget the way he threw himself through the window – and we are safe.
"The thing is, I was prepared to crash with my brother, because that is what would have happened if my father had not been able to stop the car. After that, I made sure I learned how to use the handbrake."
Something that will surprise many is that Frieda also suffers from dyslexia, although she says it has never really held her back.
"If I have got a problem like dyslexia or chronic fatigue, it's about like finding a way to walk around it," she says.
"Adversity makes some of us try harder."
Would Frieda have led a life as artistically creative had it not been for the adversity she has lived through? "I find that very hard to answer, because I haven't lived a different life," she says, philosophically.
"Everybody's life is unique to them, it's why they say everybody has an autobiography in them."
The one area of her life which she is reluctant to go into detail about is the controversy surrounding her father following her mother's death in the 1960s and 70s, particularly from the growing feminist movement for who Plath had become a cause celebre.
"I wasn't aware of it when I was growing up, my father shielded me from it," she says.
"I loved my dad. It was hard to think that people were making judgements, but they didn't know what went on."
*Frieda Hughes will be headline speaker at Shrewsbury Festival of Literature, appearing in The Wightman Theatre in The Square at 7.30pm. She will be supported by award-winning Shropshire poet Liz Lefroy.
Television historian Alex Langlands, best known for Victorian Farm, talks about his new book Craeft at The Wightman at 5pm tomorrow.