• Poetry to me is autonomy. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Poetry is a transformative force - a space for reckonings and for truth-telling.
Ellen van Neerven

14 Sep 2020 - 9:40 AM  UPDATED 14 Sep 2020 - 9:40 AM

This year I am not just a poet but a podcaster. My bedroom has been turned into a mini recording studio. I have a serious microphone and headphones on my desk next to my laptop.

An hour before recording I nervously go over my script and practice reading my poem. This month’s poem has been a particularly emotional one for me. I wipe away tears. Better out than in, I tell myself. I lie down and do a five-minute guided mediation including my own visualisation exercise to centre myself. I get up with purpose and walk the five metres to my desk.

I didn’t know I would spend 2020 marking the pandemic through poems. I don’t usually structure my writing output. It comes to me in waves, and I’ve learnt to honour when it’s flowing and walk away when it’s not.

Poetry to me is autonomy. I can write a poem and feel a lot freer than writing this article, for example. It’s a type of communication, like music, that feels as if it flows directly from my body. Our bodies, of course, are made of Country. There is no separation. 

Late last year, Maxine Beneba Clarke called me up. She had been The Saturday Paper’s Poet Laureate for more than twelve months, a role she had pitched herself, writing a poem once a week responding to the weekly news cycle. It had been a mighty task for her. She needed to outsource. She invited me, Omar Sakr and Paul Kelly to join her. We took turns, one poem per month each.

I think it was the sort of challenge I had been waiting for. We had to absorb the weekend’s news, pitch a poem on the Monday, have a 100-line draft ready by Wednesday morning, to finalise on Thursday morning in time for Saturday’s publication. To pile on the pressure, my first poem was January 26. Invasion Day in the 250th year of Cook’s arrival, and Invasion Day in the aftermath of the bushfires. My poem was called ‘Many Fires, Paper Ships’.

Australia marks the 250th anniversary 

  of a landing in two views

    the view from the ships

        and the view from the shore

I somehow came up with something that felt like poetic justice in a short amount of time. Thus began a pattern once a month of an adrenaline spike, sleepless nights, closing my bedroom door. ‘They’re on a deadline,’ my family grew to say. ‘It’s the Paper’. A week of hard work was sweetened on the Saturday, where I would drive to the newsagent and pick up a copy of the paper. It was very satisfying.

Then, before the year had even clocked halfway, we were told by The Saturday Paper that they were discontinuing the poetry section. A lot of my friends were losing their jobs and there were bigger things at stake, but I allowed myself to be devastated. It had been just four months of my life, but it had felt like my calling. Friends, family and strangers would email and text me and tell me how much the monthly poem meant to them. I was reminded of the late great Lisa Bellear, who described herself as a ‘warrior woman’, which she was. I relished the responsibility of being a ‘warrior poet’ for my people.

Despite the setback, I was steadfast and unshaken. This had all the more confirmed my belief that poetry was fundamental during a pandemic. Poetry is what we turn to in uncertain times. Poetry is a transformative force - a space for reckonings and for truth-telling. And it was there that the idea for a podcast emerged from a conversation with Omar.

UQP agreed to host and we received funding from the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund to start up our monthly podcast, called Extraordinary Voices for Extraordinary Times. Excitingly, the podcast was an opportunity to feature more voices, we go one-on-one with six poets, each of us writing a responsive poem.

The widespread attention on the murder of Mr Floyd, so similar to murders of our own people, triggered us First Nations people. Just as we have been triggered by the devastation to Country.

My July poem, paired with Eunice Andrada’s poem ‘Nature Heals Itself’, is called ‘2023’. I used the opportunity to speculate a future where we are safer.

In 2023 we will not 

keep our reality to ourselves

There will be Blak people on television

narrating joy instead of survival

My latest poem, for the September episode, with Yamaji poet Charmaine Papertalk Green, is called ‘Freedom Matters’, and describes a tragic death of a little girl in 1896. At first glance, this doesn’t seem to respond to current times, but as Charmaine and I discuss, the past is within us. Our people are continuing to die in custody by the hands of white authorities. It is important to honour these stories. Similarly Charmaine’s poem, ‘Familiar Lines’, speaks of the past restrictions Yamaji people had on their lives, and how this echoes in 2020.

After I finish recording with Charmaine, I go for a walk along the river. I feel the heaviness of the emotions that had come up during the podcast. We are living in extraordinary times, it’s clear, but so did our ancestors, and they survived to tell the story.

Ellen van Neerven is an award-winning Mununjali writer, educator and literary activist from south east Queensland. Listen to the latest episode of her podcast 'Extraordinary Voices for Extraordinary Times', co-hosted with Omar Sakr here

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