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Interview – Mary May Simpson

Artists turn up where you least expect them. They’re hiding under rocks. In this instance she was right next door, visiting her family, when we dropped in for a barbie (pre-COVID, of course).

You’ve got to recognise who you are, and be brave enough to be who you are. It’s so sad to see people constrained all their lives by what’s expected of them.

Mary May Simpson

Creativity as a spiritual act. A manifestation of this principle sits across the table from me: Mary May Simpson – a bubbly octogenarian poet with a love of motor racing. What the—?

“Spirituality has everything to do with my poetry. It’s the way I live. It’s the basis for everything I do, everywhere I go. And I do strange things,” she confesses.

Such as? “Moving up to the Gold Coast (from Sydney, six years ago) was a strange thing to do,” she explains. “Everyone thought I was mad. But I just decided, that’s where I’m going. And miracles happened – the support that came my way, the place I was given to live. It’s what I call following the spirit. And when you do, you can’t go wrong. You feel like you’re walking in the dark, but somehow you’re confident that something is waiting, that you couldn’t do on your own.”

She tells me the extraordinary story of how she found a community on the Gold Coast, felt that it was right, but had insufficient income to qualify for rental of any apartment. She met Annette, a local real estate agent, and they developed a friendship so strong that Annette refused to let her give up her dream and return to Sydney, eventually buying an apartment and renting it to her at an affordable rate.

I am learning that Mary May has that sort of influence on people. It seems to be in her interaction with people – with the world – that magic happens.

Mary May has read the great poets (she names Keats as an influence), but she is not a student of poetic form. She says, simply, “it comes to me and I write it down.”

“I don’t claim to be the author of my poetry. It comes to me, I am only the ‘tube’ it comes down, the conduit. I accept that I haven’t written it; I can’t take credit for it. But it’s a thrill to have been given the opportunity to be the medium. So I love to re-read my poetry— the wonder of it, it just makes me laugh!”

I ask her where it comes from. She gestures overhead. “Obviously it’s spiritual. It comes down, and I go, ‘Oh, okay— I’ll guess I’ll run with that.’ Who am I to argue? Who am I to question?”

Mary May was born in 1930, the second child of her mother’s second marriage. Her mother had been left with two young children after her first husband was killed in the Great War. Through necessity she remarried, to a veteran who had been gassed in the war and was in permanent ill-health.

“There was no love in that marriage,” she says. Her older sister was the ‘obligatory child’; Mary May was ‘the mistake’.

“My mother favoured my sister enormously. She made sure I understood I was the accident. She told me she’d tried three times to abort me, but I ‘just hung in there’. I can take credit for that, at least,” she says with a laugh.

Mary May’s family was not religious, but as a ten-year-old she made up her own mind to go to Sunday School. “I knew straight away it was where I belonged. There was no epiphany; it just became my family, my life, because I really didn’t have one at home.”

“Words are powerful, but people are careless with them,” she explains. “I had to survive my mother’s words.” She wrote the poem, The Power of Words, about her mother.

“We all damage; all parents damage their children, without realising it. The trauma is there in your building blocks, and unless you can free it, like with a poem, and let it take flight, you will always react to it. You’re even compelled to choose it. So people choose the wrong partner, as I did. You’re locked in a cycle of fear, you are not a free person.”

Sounds like therapy. “Absolutely,” she responds.

“I once wrote a story in which I recast my life, from the moment of conception through to my own marriage. I was born to the most beautiful parents, I was a happy child. There were five-yearly instalments. It was the life I wanted, the parents I wanted. I made a doll representing each stage. It was therapy, alright. I was giving myself back my life.”

A curious aspect of Mary May is her long-standing interest in motor sport. When I confess my surprise, she warns me against judging a book by its cover— before admitting she had done the same about me!

It all started when she took an advanced driving course at Amaroo Park Raceway in Sydney, driving her pink Holden Torana. The instructor happened to be a rally driver; one thing (typically, Mary May’s je ne sais quoi) led to another (typically, a serendipitous opportunity) and he invited her to navigate in a rally. Before she knew it she was part of the rally team.

“Something inside me was inspired,” she says. “There was something about the speed, the accuracy, the skill. Anyway, I was hooked. And I’ve never lost that love.”

Through her work as a sports therapist (one of her many careers!) she came into contact with World Rally Championship driver Kenneth Eriksson. You guessed it— one thing led to another; he said, “I want what you’ve got,” and hired her as his personal therapist, a role that lasted six years.

She took it upon herself to design a new racing suit for Australian touring car legend Peter Brock, dressing his whole team for their victorious 1979 Bathurst 1000 motor race; she went on to dress many other racing teams; not to mention the gold medal-winning Australian Equestrian team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The list goes on.

“I told you I do strange things! I am odd. I do odd things when I feel an odd instinct. I don’t worry about what people think.

“I’m a bit of an enigma, even to myself. When I wake up, I don’t know what I’m going to think or do that day. The opportunity of each day excites me. I wasn’t a designer, but look what I managed to do.

“I think it’s a form of insanity. It’s not normal. I’ve always been that way. My mother condemned me, crucified me for it. But the flood-gates opened, and off I went!

“You’ve got to recognise who you are, and be brave enough to be who you are. The freedom that gives is the most wonderful thing! It’s so sad to see people constrained all their lives by what’s expected of them.”

We discuss the ways in which poems are conceived and take shape.

“Poems never turn out the way I plan them. When an idea appears, it’s like a drawing in your head, a sketch. I carry a recorder wherever I go, and I capture the words or the phrase when it occurs to me, this captures the core. Otherwise I’ll lose the whole thing.”

She is suddenly animated. “Do you know what it’s like? Having a baby! You love the baby when it’s born, but you know you didn’t actually create it, that’s the miracle. Poems are like ‘written babies.’”

“My dreams can be very real. I write my dreams down. They often turn out to be prophetic. Sometimes I use dreams as material for my poems. But ideas can come from absolutely anywhere.”

“You write for yourself, not for an audience,” Mary May asserts. “You know that, don’t you?”

Well, maybe, I stammer.

She explains that her journalistic work is entirely different from her creative writing. “When I’m being creative, it’s of no consequence what people think. I don’t write to publish. I’ve never set out to publish; that only happens when an opportunity comes to me. I write for my own pleasure, my own development; I write so I can listen to my ‘other side’ speaking.”

I ask how she feels about exposing her work to the public gaze.

“Opinion in the art world is very subjective. It’s inevitable that some people won’t like my work, and all the more because of the often spiritual subject matter. To have your poem criticised is a bit like being told you’ve got an ugly child. You still love your child, faults and all.

“You also get kind words from people who are just being polite. Why should I be flattered by that? I don’t have the need for validation.”

I observe that during our conversation Mary May, openly Christian, rarely refers directly to God or Christ, and never quotes scripture.

“I don’t preach to people. Ramming the bible down a person’s throat will never convince them of anything. I’ve found that my presence among people somehow guides them. Eventually people ask me the right questions, and then I’ll answer. Everyone is on their own personal search.

“The artist often needs to be alone to work. And it’s important to be alone, to enjoy your ‘self’, and to hear, away from all the noise. But we are not meant to be alone; humans are communal beasts. We meet people who can lead us on. You and I had a chance meeting the other day, and now we are affecting each other’s lives, in ways we don’t yet know or understand. Maybe it will lead to something, maybe it won’t. But we need to be open to it!”

The Power of Words

Like a two edged sword, words bring life or death
Piercing through darkness into light
Or cutting down the life force for which it aims
No word goes forth without an effect
Yet we utter them without hesitation
Often with total ignorance of the power we hold
Or that we are accountable for every word spoken
Be it good or bad or indifferent it cannot be erased
The effect lives on regardless and we are the inheritors
Along with those whom we bless or curse
A prudent tongue is an enormous blessing to its owner
Reflecting all that is good, all that is wise and all that is successful
And will fulfil all our needs, wants, hopes and dreams
And astound us with unimaginable, unending blessings
Just one word spoken in love has the power to heal the world
If spoken by all mankind, then heaven would instantly appear
And suffering would be no more; not even a memory
In place of sorrow joy will appear, sickness become health
And where there is a lack, it will be replaced with plenty
Your word is your wand so wave its magic on someone this day!

© Mary May Simpson

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