Essay: Jeanine Leaneon First Nations Poems

Guwayu – For All Times

Hopefulness still blooms
And remains strong
Claps a beat
Through layers
Of questions
We ask ourselves in the stillness
Of contemplation
And stay reminded
That beauty still resides here after 228 years
In silence 

Lorna Munro, from ‘Dreaming Track’
commissioned by Red Room Poetry 2015

Guwayu – a Wiradjuri word – means still and yet and for all times. Guwayu means all times are inseparable; no time is ever over; and all times are unfinished. Guwayu – For All Times releases the arrested times of the Country’s First Peoples held captive in the colonial calendar, and frees kidnapped memories held hostage to false claims of settlement, nationhood, sovereignty and justice. In all First Nations languages, there is a word for all times. And now there is a time for these words. Guwayu breaks the silence Munro’s poem speaks of to unleash the beauty of First Nations words that have been and always will be here.

Welcome! You are now entering into the many Aboriginal Countries of the nation’s First Peoples. This is not Australia as you know it. This is Blak Australia – uncut and unleashed on the page.

This new and dynamic collection came together through several projects led by Red Room Poetry. Red Room Poetry is a national not-for-profit organisation that creates poetic projects and learning programs in collaboration with a spectrum of poets, schools, communities and partners for positive impact. The mission is to make poetry accessible to all, especially those who face barriers to creative opportunities.

Since 2003, Red Room Poetry has grown to be Australia’s leading organisation for the creation and commissioning of poetry. Reflecting the diversity of contemporary Australian voices, Red Room Poetry embraces all styles of poetry, including page, performance, experimental, musical and visual. Poetry is published and promoted across a range of landscapes, languages and mediums, such as radio, installation, stage, digital spaces, murals, poetic pathways and mapping apps. These imaginative projects increase poetic visibility, vibrancy and engagement.

In the English-speaking Commonwealth of invaded and occupied settler colonies, Red Room Poetry is unique in its ongoing commitment to poetry across many different styles and forms that recognises the voices of new, emerging and established poets, and in its continued commitment to the first stories of place. First Nations songs, stories and languages have echoed across the Countries under this nation from time immemorial. Since its instigation, Red Room Poetry has commissioned, published and provided platforms for First Nations poets, artists, students, Elders and communities to celebrate, strengthen and share our culture. Continuing in their commitment to first voices, Red Room Poetry has cultivated this collection of First Nations poetry to celebrate Culture, Community, Land, Language and Identity – all of which are integral, interconnected and inseparable parts of the deep history of this continent more recently called Australia.

This collection is unique in the following ways: first, this poetry comes from the heart and soul of First Nations communities across Australia. It speaks from the many Countries under the geopolitically federated nation. Second, the collection brings together many voices never heard before, and many new poems from across the length and breadth of the continent, alongside those of more established, previously published poets. Third, the editing and consultation process that underpins this ground-breaking collection is a benchmark in First Nations editing and consultation practice with the poets, Red Room Poetry and Magabala Books. Finally, the diversity of First Nations languages represented in this collection is to date unprecedented in Australian Indigenous publishing – yet long overdue.

Several poems appear in both First Language and English with interpretations provided by community Elders and/or Language Custodians of the many First Nations languages that live and breathe among us on the mainland. The use of the term ‘interpretation’ rather than translation is a conscious choice and one recommended by participating Elders and Custodians. The term speaks more faithfully to the complexity of each of our languages that are unique and refuse direct classification and translation into the coloniser’s introduced language of English. For some poets, too, the decision to craft their works in Aboriginal-English rather than Standard Australian English is a conscious and deliberate choice. It is also a testimony to our ability to make the introduced language our own and to make it work for our many communities, and is further evidence of the innovation and resilience of our First Nations peoples post invasion. Such innovations are transforming the English language and Australian literary studies.

The editing process for this collection adhered to cultural protocols devised and implemented by First Nations writers, editors and community members for Red Room Poetry. As a result, the voices in this collection are largely uncut and uncensored. It is a collection written for and by First Nations from the many communities that form the modern nation of Australia. Much Aboriginal writing in Australia is still subject to imported, introduced and sometimes invasive northern hemisphere, western literary practices. This collection knows no such limits, borders or boundaries. The works within are not trimmed or manipulated or edited by settler editors with a settler audience in mind. This collection is a radical intervention in Aboriginal publishing for its breadth of representation, diversity of language, and drafting and editing protocols.

The collection is organised around the themes of several Red Room Poetry projects: Extinction Elegies, New Shoots, Poetic Moments, Poetry Object, The Disappearing, Rhyming the Dead, Unlocked and Poetry in First Languages. These projects and the poems realised go beyond the acknowledgement of poetry as an art form to recognising its capacity and far-reaching and lasting impact for social justice, greater community awareness and emotional wellbeing.

Extinction Elegies creates and records new elegies that reflect on losses and endangerment of Australian species. As countless species disappear due to global environmental change, Extinction Elegies takes the elegy, a poetic form traditionally used to reflect on human losses, and refocuses it through attention to non-human species and their habitats. New Shoots celebrates and cultivates poems inspired by plants and place that deepen cultural connections with nature. Poetic Moments focuses on cultural place-making, creating opportunities for poets to engage, respond and reflect on connections between the temporal and physical landscape. Poetry Object invites poets to create poems inspired by treasured, curious or talismanic objects. The Disappearing uses geolocations to map poetry to place through the charting of fragmentary her/histories, impressions and memories, encouraging readers to interact with the works in a non-linear way. Rhyming the Dead sees poets create new poems inspired by a deceased poet of their choosing. Poems in the Unlocked suite have grown out of a collaboration with poets, students and educational staff from New South Wales correctional centres. This program unlocks the potential of inmates through the reflective and healing power of poetry. Poetry in First Languages, developed by Gunai poet and children’s author Kirli Saunders, celebrates, shares and preserves knowledge of First Nations languages and culture through poetry. This project supports First Nations poets, Elders and Language Custodians to connect and to create poetry in First Languages on Country. Poems in this suite feature interpretations in Dharawal, Gundungurra, Gumea Dharawal, Arrernte, Ngunnawal, Barkindji, Gadigal, Yugembeh, Wiiradjuri, Djapu and Pintupi-Luritja. In addition to these projects, the Red Room Poetry Fellowship has seen two fellowships thus far awarded to First Nations poets. Poems produced from these fellowships are also featured in this book.

This extensive collection of First Nations voices is by no means exhaustive. It brings together First Nations poets who have worked on Red Room Poetry projects – there are many more, talented and prolific First Nations poets than those represented here. Many are published in other collections and anthologies – many are still waiting to be heard. And, while Guwayu is the first collection of First Nations poetry to do many things, it is our great hope that it will not be the last.

Aboriginal Peoples have woven here since time immemorial. Different fibres and materials are used in different regions. Women and men both wove and crafted nets for fishing and hunting and baskets for carrying and gathering. Children were taught to weave as part of a communal process and continuing cultural practice. Baskets and nets are significant vessels for Aboriginal Peoples all across the continent. Each vessel is crafted and woven in a certain way depending on its intended purpose. Some baskets are woven so tightly that they can hold water; others are more loosely woven so as to allow air flow. Nets can be large or small; some have large gaps in the weave to allow some things to pass through while other things are held. Just as weaving is a series of intricately connected threads that loop, twine, coil, spiral and braid, the poets in Guwayu loop, twine, coil and spiral words together as threads in a vessel. Like weaving, the spaces between the threads are just as important to the balance and cohesion of each vessel as the fibres of the threads. The poets in this collection weave their carefully chosen words while at the same time leaving spaces for silence and contemplation of First Nations her/histories, present and futures. Just as a basket or net’s purpose determines the materials, the content, the type of weave and the shape, so too are the purposes of each poem intimately related to its materials, contents, weave and shape.

Baskets are designed to gather, to hold, to keep things together and to keep contents safe. Nets are designed to be cast wide and deep, to be spread, to hold, to draw in and to give forth their contents. Baskets and nets are essential to Aboriginal food production, yet their purposes are not strictly utilitarian. They are not just material objects – they are carriers, holders, keepers and transporters of important contents, and each vessel is also a holder and carrier of stories of its raw materials, of its makers and of its history in the hands of its makers and its inheritors.

This collection extends the ancient and continuing cultural practice of weaving to words. In Guwayu, the page becomes the vessel – the crafted object that carries culture. The making and crafting of each vessel embeds the maker(s) into its final shape and form – its body. The poems in this collection are baskets and nets of the page. Together they are an exquisite vessel of twenty-first century, living Aboriginal culture.

Vessels handed down from one generation to the next. They are worn by the touch of hands and imbued with stories and memories. Entwined within each thread is something of the maker that is retained as baskets and nets are passed on.

The striking geometrical cover image evokes both a weave and a wave. The criss-crossing of lines are the warp and weft of our songs, stories and memories over our Countries. The ripple that swirls across the length of the page is the wave that moves us together as the Country’s First Peoples, and connects us with past, present and future in one continuous, unbroken line of movement.

The historical subject of much of the poetry has been carved in the dispossession of the last 232 years, but it speaks to the future of the First Peoples of the First Countries of the nation. These poems refuse the colonial voyeuristic obsession with tragedy and trauma as the ultimate and only contribution of Aboriginal writing to Australian literary studies. Instead, these poems shout and scream all the while insisting that Aboriginal poetry is innovative, astute and transformative literary intervention that extends beyond the boundaries of despair, nostalgia, romanticisation or lamentation for a ‘prehistoric, ahistorical past’ or a doomed future. The First Nations poetry between these pages rattles, flings, sings and bends the chains and constraints of verse. And it says loud and clear Guwayu – we are here for all times.

The Australian literary landscape needs this bold, brave intervention to wake it up from the 232-year slumber and the dream of the settler mythscape. Guwayu breaks the silence – feel the beauty – hear our words. Feel the texture of the sublime vessels woven within this living, breathing archive of us crafted from the living literature of our words.

This essay is the foreword for Guwayu – For All Times: A Collection of First Nations Poems commissioned by Red Room Poetry and edited by Jeanine Leane, published on 1 August 2020 by Magabala Books.