Independent Bath Literature Festival: Poetry royalty Frieda Hughes shares experiences as a counsellor

She is mid-way through training and currently works as a volunteer for Cruse Bereavement Care

Frieda Hughes, the poet, painter and daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, has a new occupation – as a therapist and a bereavement counsellor.

“I believe in recycling, I don’t like to waste experiences. I thought, all my life experience has got to be useful for something,” she said. “I work alone all the time and I need a job where I can be out among people. I’m not qualified for anything except living, after a fashion. This is how I’m going to put it to good use.”

In a frank talk at The Independent Bath Literature Festival, Hughes, 53, talked about her “eclectic rollercoaster ride of a life”. Her mother committed suicide when she was two years old, her father died of cancer in 1998 and her brother, Nicholas, committed suicide in 2009. Her third marriage broke up that year. All of this led her to train as a therapist. She is mid-way through training and currently works as a volunteer counsellor for Cruse Bereavement Care.

“I felt very lucky to have got through everything,” she said. “I have a very logical streak. I thought, ‘OK my life is in the toilet, things are looking pretty bad right now. What can I do?’”

Hughes worked as a waitress, an estate agent and for the Inland Revenue before she signed her first publishing deal in 1986 for a children’s book she had written. She has since published seven children’s books, four poetry collections and holds frequent exhibitions.

For years, she avoided writing poetry out of fear of criticism. “I thought, ‘I’m just going to get my head kicked in.’ People think, ‘Her father’s a poet, her mother’s a poet. She’s probably a bit of both’,” she said. “I didn’t want to reject them. I wanted to reject poetry and the inevitable comparisons... I couldn’t take it. My skin is so thin.”

It was only when she was diagnosed with ME in the 1990s that she rediscovered poetry. “I was only awake for four hours a day and I thought, ‘Why am I not spending my time writing poetry?’ Poems would leak out of me in my sleep. I would wake up, scribble one down and shove it into a box file under my bed never to be seen again. I couldn’t read them but, oh my God, it was like uncorking a bottle.”

In 1988, Hughes moved to Australia where she lived in a hamlet in Wooroloo for a decade. “Nobody knew who I was, or who my parents were. It was a marvellous freedom,” she said. She now lives in Wales and has made peace with her heritage. “Do you know what, tiger cubs don’t have a problem who their parents are, they are so obviously the product of another tiger. They’re never going to get away from it.”

She added that she tends not to read reviews: “The general rule of thumb is if my parents are mentioned in the first two lines, I put it in a box and never look at it again.”

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