Today another collection from the 2017 Mary Gilmore Award shortlist and a bonus poet interview. Indigenous pet Alison Whittaker’s debut collection, “Lemons in the Chicken Wire”, has already been lauded as the winner of the State Library of Queensland Black & Write Prize and the plaudits are well deserved, this is a complex, multi-layered collection of poems.
Opening with a dedication “To the land, and those who grow from it.”, the Aboriginal connection to country is placed foremost in your mind, the opening poem, “Land-ed”, continuing the theme;
takes dead skin from my feet
from under me
while the city
puts dead shoes on my feet
right into me
this train, the wind, ploughs on
through suburbs I barely glimpse
but there is
land and land and
I am landing
There are many laments and hints of tragic nostalgia, as the subjects move through domestic violence and the importance of family, in “Ext Int.”, memories and celebrations of deceased relatives, as seen in “Preface: Another Funeral”, or emotionally draining moments as in “Growing Soon” and “Tidda//Jidgja”. Mix this with the powerful feminist rant as presented in expected female behaviour in “Whatcha”, a poem of tampons, shaving and dark towels, the reader has in their hands a Pandora’s box of wonderful breadth and depth.
The ‘lemon’ metaphor reappears throughout, switching meanings depending upon the setting, the poem “Lemons : Metaphor” hinting at a few of the references:
Lemons : metaphor
juicy, weeping, squirting, tart
flanked neighbour’s orchard
Like Stuart Barnes’ collection “Glasshouses” , which I reviewed earlier in the week, there is a “fear” of being openly homosexual, in the poem “Silver Pillow”, the proud gay woman still has reservations, “we lie but never rest”.
Using a range of techniques and styles this collection is not all politically motivated, there is humour, playful moments, and joy. The poem “Do Ya?” opens with;
Do you think that tenderness lies at the end of this?
When ankle pins like Christ wounds tether
you, with motion, to the road? Perhaps wherever
that motion yanks you, there will be tenderness
if only where your wounds become a fat, soft mess.
What awaits us when this ends – pleasure?
Ultimately these poems are a love story, neither black, nor queer, it is plain love, including all the associated confusions and concerns, Alison Whittaker showing a maturity well beyond her young years, an assured and very enjoyable collection, one that demands re-reading and revisiting many times. I am very grateful to the judges, and chair, of the Mary Gilmore Award for introducing me to a range of newly published poets, all of their collections exciting in their own way, pushing new boundaries with the artform and provoking a raft of emotions.
As always I would like to thank the poet, Alison Whittaker, for her time in answering my question, her honesty in her replies and the revelations about her work that are contained in her responses.
If you are interested in her work, she was the guest editor for the latest Rabbit Journal (number 21) the indigenous issue – a collection that contains twenty-five poems.
Here’s our interview:
Q. As a proud Gomeroi woman can you tell us your story and the story of the Gomeroi?
Maarubaa nginda for asking this question first off. I can’t tell you ‘the’ story of the Gomeroi nation, but I can tell you mine! I was grown up on country near the banks of Ngamaay (the Namoi River), and then in Tamworth on a guniyal (plain). My mum is Gomeroi, and my dad is non-Indigenous. Our language, Gamilaraay, and its linkage to country and kin is what underpins and accounts for all the work I do – in both poetry and law. It’s a supporting structure, but also kind of like an ecosystem – it supports you because you support it. If you break away from it or drain it, you can no longer call yourself part of it. At its core, my story in this sense is about feeding in and out of a bigger one.
Q. From the first poem the reader knows that land, your country, is important, with a dedication to land and the opening poem being “land-ed”, can you tell us a little more about your connection to country?
I kind of can, and I appreciate that you ask, but I won’t here. I think these conversations are best had outside of a broadcast setting.
Q. You speak of a lack of passing on of cultural knowledge, “I had to Google to understand // where is the diaspora of my people?” and as seen in the poems “Heavy Tongue” and “Sharp Tongue” you speak of loss of language. Is this a nostalgic passing, a sadness or an activist outrageous voice?
All and none, I guess! Cultural knowledge is still passed on, but its varied flows have been interrupted by colonisation. Maybe reflecting on these voices now, being a little older and a little further down the path, I can see the work being done to heal the flows. There’s no nostalgia for it – there’s a yearning. It’s fundamental to being who we are, and more than that, to doing what we need to do. There’s no other English name for it. Maybe it’s not nostalgia or outrage or sadness you feel in these circumstances, it’s bereavement and dislodgement.
Q. The importance of family comes through via reflections on their passing, and the “fear” of homosexuality being uncovered, as in the line “we lie but never rest”, and you touch on the family knowledge of your sexuality in “Insider Knowledge”. Is this baring of the soul in the collection cathartic, stressful?
It is stressful! Actually, it’s more stressful now than it was before. Writing some of this collection was reckless because I was quite driven to catharsis. It felt good in the shorter term to write about this experience, this life I lived and shared with others like me from birth to my late teens. The problem with life writing is that you live with the self you create in the public domain. Others live with it to, and communities, and the selves you make for them.
I don’t give a shit about being out (just kidding, I love it!) – but I care about how I represent queerphobia and colonisation and racism and trauma and relationships. That’s more than being out. That’s almost like inviting people in to someone else. Now, I’m much more careful and slow in the things I write. I want them to mean less to me, and mean more to other people.
Q. You use rhyme playfully, as in “Do Ya?”, personally this lifted my spirits, and you use a range of poetic forms, are there any particular formats you enjoy playing with?
Oh, maarubaa nginda! That’s kind of you to say. I love playing with wordwork and storywork, there’s so much packed in there that you can weave into all kinds of terrain. What’s my favourite? Not a clue! I have features that I especially like toying with – rhyme, rhythm, repetition, time, negative space, line length, punctuation, phonetics – but I now like leaving myself out of poetic forms (like haiku, sonnets, whatever) as much as I can.
Q. I know you are studying right now so the answer may just be “text books”, but I ask all my interviewees this, what are you reading at the moment and why?
Not just yet! I’ll head over to Turtle Island North America to study in August, but for now I’m reading old loves like Home by Larissa Behrendt. I’m reading Home because I’m packing up everything I own, and completely forgot I borrowed it from a friend four years ago until I pulled it from my bookshelf last week. One last read before I give it back to her!
Q. Finally what is next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?
Yes! My next collection – blakwork.