Some thoughts on Alison Whittaker’s process

Alison Whittaker, pictured at Poetry on the Move 2019.
Photo by Kendall Kirkwood.

Hello poets and readers,

Our podcast with Gomeroi poet and lawyer Alison Whittaker was full of insights. We introduced the podcast by quoting her comment about the similarity between the law and poetry, in terms of reducing things to essentials: “The logics of law and poetry boil meaning and power down to their barest components.” The issue here is clarity of language. Commenting on the law without doing further injustice to the people affected by it motivates Alison. She wants to demonstrate how settler colonial power is exerted through language in a legal context. In three poems from her collection Blakwork, she uses tools developed for search engine optimisation, including trigrams, and searches court and coroners’ reports for these commonly used three-word phrases. Arranged into stanzas, the phrases exhibit what Alison describes as a certain rawness without the evasiveness sometimes found in law; the poetry deals purely with the mechanics and logics of legal decisions.

Alison explains that her process consists largely of employing poetic restraint. She eliminates some choices to be able to make other choices more fully. Interestingly, she says that these poems resonate most with readers.

She describes herself as an increasingly collectively driven poet, because of the way she learns from others. The power of teaching poetry has also strengthened community connections. She explores the usefulness of poetic restraint here, too, in workshops where participants are provided with restriction and stimulus and have to adapt in ‘controlled panic’, producing the raw material for a chapbook of poetry in just three hours. The writers’ willingness to adapt to the process creates surprises valuable to poetry. The concept of authorship can also dissolve in collaborative ventures in healthy ways. Writing for the stage has also informed her writing.

She often uses movement, particularly walking, to help establish the rhythm of a poem. Her poems ‘many girls, white linen’ and ‘murrispacetime’, for example, were shaped by being spoken aloud whilst pacing the sections of a tiled kitchen. She also describes walking through the snow for an hour each morning in preparation for writing on a stay in the US.

Sharing her insights into these specific aspects of process gives other poets opportunities. Her ideas about narrative nonfiction, experimental memoir and reportage raise important questions about the journalistic capacity of poetry. It’s an aspect of writing she’s keen to continue to explore, perhaps in a verse novel – we look forward to seeing how these drivers of Alison’s creative process continues to develop.

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