Alison Whittaker and law

Hello poets and readers,

I came across a fascinating interview with Indigenous poet Alison Whittaker in a recent issue of the Melbourne-based journal Rabbit. Whittaker is both a lawyer and a poet. She believes that poetry and law have much in common, since they both “litigate meaning and try to persuade people,” and both have rules and codes. They differ in their degree of formality, and Whittaker’s progress in both domains has become less about balancing and more about harmonising. This has resulted in the emergence of an intriguing process at work in some of her poetry.

She explains the way she takes a legal document, searches their 50 most common three-word phrases and uses them to compose. In assembling these combinations, she says, “you can see what the law thinks is the most important part of a case. You get this weird summary of what the law is doing in a particular case” (p. 111). The passive language often gives events a sense of inevitability which the circumstances could not have had. She sums up her poetic investigation of legal texts by saying that “you can learn a lot about the law through picking its language apart because that’s where the power resides” (111).

Three of these pieces are included in Whittaker’s second, celebrated collection Blakwork. The process of using found language to dramatic effect started earlier with poems like ‘Sharp Tongue’ (from her first collection Lemons in the Chicken Wire), which follows the format of a receipt; ‘Carp’ which repurposes a speech by Barnaby Joyce about the control of Eastern cod; and ‘Don’t @Me’, taken from Twitter messages (also in Blakwork). These strategies are similar to those adopted by Melinda Smith in the misogynistic language poems discussed in our podcast.

Whittaker characterises the law as a self-perpetuating skeleton. Sometimes, it effectively says, “We would like to do this just thing, but, if we do, everything will fall apart” (p. 112). Whittaker wants to be prepared to deal with the question of how to enforce a treaty in Australia.

There are some other intriguing interviews with Whittaker online. One of them also reminded me of Melinda Smith’s comments about the use of music in activating writing. In Tincture Journal, Whittaker says that “the bodily experience of writing is all about riding a crescendo of heightened senses for as long as I can.” Music helps get her there, but she can’t write with the music playing. Smith said something remarkably similar, in terms of music being able to activate the creative impulse, but that it couldn’t be sustained whilst writing.

There’s another interview in Kill Your Darlings which you might like to check out, and I highly recommend her poetry, which is consciously experimental and vibrant. Alongside Ellen van Neerven and Evelyn Araluen, Alison Whittaker’s writing forms part of the emergence of an important and exciting group of young Indigenous women poets.


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