At a time when the work of many artists is sidelined by COVID, the issue of earning a living from art is more glaring than ever. As a poet you know that very few poets earn a living from their work and have to do something else to survive. So why do we do it? One answer came to me when an elderly reader of mine told me she was going to include one of my poems in her funeral notes. The poem helped her express something, and her response helps me value my vocation as a poet: it has an important role in the community, and being a poet is a calling from which there’s no escape, even if you wanted one.
In my essay ‘The poetic vocation’ recently published in Qualitative Inquiry, I describe the process of writing and what it’s like to work seriously at a vocation that is all-consuming, and that has to include regular doses of play to nourish the creativity that’s at its heart. The article includes original poems, mostly in the prose poem form, to illustrate the ideas discussed, and refers to Max Weber’s ideas about vocation in politics and Vincent Dubois’ research into cultural vocations.
In an earlier blogpost about the work of Gomeroi poet and lawyer Alison Whittaker, I discussed her work with trigrams and the process behind the creation of poems like ‘the skeleton of the common law’ from her collection Blakwork, which Alison expanded on in our podcast. Thanks to her generosity in sharing her work, we’re now able to reproduce that poem so that our readers can see how she used the technique based on search engine optimisation, commenting on the law, as she says, without doing further injustice to the people affected by it.
the skeleton of the common law
‘This Court is not free to adopt rules that accord with contemporary notions
of justice and human rights if their adoption would fracture the skeleton of
principle which gives the body of our law its shape and internal consistency.’
Mabo v Queensland (No 2) (1992) 175 CLR 1
The forty-nine most common three-word phrases in the Mabo decision, ranked.
The Murray Island –
The Murray Islands.
The common law
(By the Crown
Of the crown).
New South Wales,
The Meriam people
(Of the Colony
Of the Murray)
Rights and interests
Law – native title
Common law native
Of New South
(In the Crown)
The Privy Council
(Of the Island)
The Land Act
(Of the Meriam)
Governor in council
(The Governor in
The Aboriginal inhabitants)
The colony of
The Crown in
that. The Crown
Act of State.
Lands of the
Inhabitants of the –
– to the Crown.
Interests in land
(Of the Aboriginal
Of the Islands)
Consistent with the –
– the Common wealth
Title of the –
– the Crown to
The rights of –
V Attorney General
For the purpose
Of native title.
Vested in the
The indigenous inhabitants
The native inhabitants
In relation to –
With respect to –
The Crown, the –
Of the native
Racial Discrimination Act
By the common –
The Racial Discrimination
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 collectivelydriven 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.
If you’ve been following Poetry in Process and would like to delve further into some of the findings of this research, I’m running a short, intensive online course based on the findings of Poetry in Process called Creativity and Innovation, from the 27th-30th July. The course takes the form of four three-hour workshops over four days, and is run through the University of Canberra.
It highlights the following factors that have been found to contribute to innovation:
The need for physicality, play and movement
The importance of experiment, especially with different points of view, as a way of enhancing understanding and empathy
How using novel creative approaches, including collaboration, helps us generate creative ideas and tackle problems
The value of other disciplines and genres, and how creativity can become a way of managing diverse tasks
“The logics of law and poetry boil meaning and power down to their barest components.”
We’re delighted to be able to bring you an interview with Alison Whittaker, a Gomeroi poet and author of the collections Lemons in the Chicken Wire and Blakwork, shortlisted in the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry 2019.
An earlier blog post introduced Alison’s ideas about law and poetry and highlighted an experimental technique which makes use of trigrams – a device used in Google optimisation – to show us what the law considers important in a legal case. This technique is used in poems like ‘the skeleton of the common law’. She discusses these and other issues more fully here, and we’re proud to be able to share her insights with the world.
Alison Whittaker is a Gomeroi multitasker from the floodplains of Gunnedah in NSW. Her debut poetry collection, Lemons in the Chicken Wire, was awarded the State Library of Queensland’s black&write! Indigenous Writing Fellowship in 2015, and was published by Magabala Books in 2016. Alison was co-winner of the Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize in 2017 for her poem, ‘Many Girls White Linen’. Her latest book, Blakwork, was shortlisted in the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry in 2019.
At the heart of Baghiu’s poetry and process there exists
a concept coined by the poet himself, chimerism.
The concept encapsulates a tendency to escape everyday realities and to
create a parallel universe, a counter-reality in which the poet lives.Baghiu remembers
the defining moment where it all began. On 21 August 1988, a day that changed
his life, he was working as a nurse in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Romania. He
was smoking, enjoying Chinese tea and reading Flaubert’s The Art of Travel. In the background, a radio station was broadcasting
in Italian. A foreign voice insinuated into his, a voice that seized his throat
and his vocal chords making him talk about things he had never lived or seen. The
world around him came to a standstill. He was overcome with a sense of tranquillity,
inner peace and detachment from everyone and everything. He likes to call it ataraxia, some sort of poetic trance.
Introducing our podcast with Filipino-Australian poet Merlinda Bobis, I mentioned her poem ‘siesta’, an innovative multilingual work. In the podcast, she spoke about her writing in Filipino and English, and the way in which it is mediated by her first language, Bikol. Thanks to Merlinda’s generosity, we are able to reprint her poem ‘siesta’ in this blogpost so that readers can enjoy an example of her multilingual writing.
our recent podcast with poet Merlinda Bobis, she notes that consciousness of
process comes about after the fact. While writing, she is too busy leaping from
one thought to another to allow for this kind of reflection. Something captures
her and makes a poem possible. She describes the initial impetus as an accident
–her book title Accidents of Composition reflects this – the poem has to
retain an element of surprise. The poem leads her, and further accidents happen
as she writes, through associations; the poems seem to compose themselves. Analysing
her own text, she remembers what gave rise to it, an act of contextualising how
the work happened, and of looking at it as a reader. Even her return to poetry
from the novel was accidental. Her writing often begins with strong images;
sometimes she takes photos to use as prompts – the sense of ‘something else’
that is in the image becomes the poem.
Poetry – “Most of the time, it’s an accident of composition.”
Hello poets and readers,
We’re delighted to be able to bring you an interview with Filipino-Australian poet Merlinda Bobis. Bobis’ assertion that the writing of poetry is accidental is reflected in the title of her most recent collection Accidents of Composition (2017). Her poetry is characterised by a sense of universal connection with the natural world, reflected in the use of other voices and points of view, including the fishes and birds of the air. Writing is part of that whole, with art as natural an act as the world spinning (2017a, 65).
Canberra’s Poetry on the Move is coming
up soon: 17th-21st October! On Friday 18th
from 1.00-2.15pm I’ll be hosting the panel ‘Poetry and Process’ at Gorman Arts
Centre. This event is free, but you need to book because space is limited. I’ll
be talking with national and international poets Angela Gardner, Judith
Beveridge, Alvin Pang (Singapore) and Katharine Coles (US) about their process.