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.
“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.
How does one become a poet? This
perennial and intriguing question is in part answered by recent research in
Australia. Interviewing 76 poets, Jen Webb, Paul Magee, Kevin Brophy and
Michael Biggs isolated key factors which help to foster excellence in poetry.
Although my research here emphasises process rather than end results, this
group’s study has implications for process more broadly: it’s about the making
of the poet rather than the making of the poems and can tell us much about what
behaviour contributes to good writing.
Hello poets and readers. Have you listened to the podcast with Melinda Smith yet? Don’t forget we’d love to hear any comments about what resonated with you. Today Poetry in Process is excited to bring you one of the found text poems Melinda referred to in the interview, about Ernie Ecob. Hope you enjoy it!
Ernie Ecob . . . was arguing against providing bathroom facilities in shearing sheds for female shearers because he said women only want to be shearers for the sex. My mind melted at the number of levels on which that was the weird and wrong thing to say. Melinda Smith