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.
I recently revisited the text of UK poet Philip Gross’ keynote speech ‘Together in the Space Between: Collaboration as a Window on Creative Process’ given at the Poetry on the Move festival in 2015 and later published in Axon. Gross has had the advantage of a number of productive creative collaborations, both with artists from other media and, less commonly, with a fellow writer. Early in his career, he worked in a mixed group of painters and musicians from several traditions gathered around John Eaves’ huge charcoal drawings of Stonehenge, a collaboration which was extended to include the artist FJ Kennedy. The topic of Stonehenge is one shrouded in unknowing, which was deemed inviting to creative adventure, to leaving behind preconceived notions and to improvising.
In our recent podcast, Australian poet Melinda Smith gave us a wonderful variety of insights into the processes that make up her writing practice. Can we learn from poets such as Melinda and adapt ways to update or invigorate our own writing?
Smith makes a lot of art. She is a poet willing to experiment, and, invariably,
the experiments pay off. Whether with form, or seeking out incisive and vital
new content, her work interrogates language and society. It’s reaped the
rewards of recognition in the form of the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary
Award for Poetry and in being viewed as a poet who balances openness and play with
a concern for social justice.
We have a society . . . in which artists are free to do and say mostly what they like without being . . . thrown into jail for it, and we should celebrate that fact and use it to aspire to be a society in which there is a lot of art for everyone.