Essay: Tamryn Bennetton poetry

Outside the Lines

This is part of a series of essays co-commissioned by the SRB and non/fictionLab that foreground experimental approaches to the question of value in the sphere of arts and literature. ‘Outside the Lines’ is a companion piece to ‘How Poems Make Things Happen‘ by Jessica Wilkinson.

Bayawurradyangun, djirrundyangun
We are all wounded, we all fear
Ngabay midyungngunbuni ngaliya
Together, you and I, we will heal

Joel Davison from ‘The Wounded Brave’ commissioned for Poetry in First Languages. (Written partially in Gadigal, with interpretations by Joel Davison).

Before we’d finished scattering the ashes of trees after the bushfires, a pandemic folded us inside with our grief and confusion and sourdough. Soon enough, poetry started to float out through the windows, across our screens and social media, as if a salve for isolation. Inevitably, when the world is too difficult to describe we turn to poetry, arguably our oldest form of literature, ‘to explain the unexplainable’, as Bruce Pascoe says in Extinction Elegies. Poems speak to us through panic and fences, closed doors, forests, rivers and distanced days. Their atoms lodge somewhere within us and we carry them close, hoping that, in the inferno of loss and uncertainty, the intensity and ambiguity of poetry can salvage something. Whether it’s a memory, a way of undoing the world, the remnants of a life, a new relationship, a forest or community, poems connect us by distilling the personal and universal. So what’s the social impact of poetry in the midst of a pandemic?

How much it hurt the leaves
To join the bloodbath in the streets
And alleys.
This is still autumn, and the times
Still a tumult, and the lips of the world
Are still torn from the kisses they knew
before contagion spread. 

Saba Vasefi from ‘Segregation’ commissioned for Shadow Catchers.

This essay is a companion to ‘How Poems Make Things Happen’ by poet, editor and academic, Jessica Wilkinson. In coming to write these essays, we spoke a lot about the value of what poetry can and does do. We talked about poetry not only for poets but as particles and waves that ripple outwards to change the way we see and experience the word. Poetry as exchange between the poet, existence and audience. Our conversations led Jessica to look at the internal mechanisms of poems that impact on social consciousness and activity, while as Artistic Director of Red Room Poetry, I was drawn to sharing the outward impact poetry can have in creating positive connections and action within our environments and communities. Using creative, cultural, social, civic, economic and environmental evaluative dimensions, this essay explores the impact of poetry by looking specifically at a range of projects created by Red Room Poetry in 2020.

Since 2003, Red Room Poetry has grown to be Australia’s leading organisation for commissioning, creating, publishing and promoting poetry in meaningful ways. Reflecting a spectrum of styles, stages, ages, voices, communities, cultural backgrounds and cross-sector partnerships, our projects showcase the value of poetry in multiple spaces. These spaces span poetic installations on mangrove boardwalks and botanic gardens nationally, to performances in galleries and youth justice programs, to MAD Poetry workshops that provide safe spaces for emerging voices with a lived/living experience of mental health issues.

Just as Red Room’s projects exist to give space to many voices, so too does this essay. The weaving of these many voices is itself a metaphor for interconnectedness, complexity and multiplicity of form that makes poetry so valuable.

It’s often said that writing can be an intensely solitary activity – and this is perhaps part of the reason why certain people, with certain predispositions, are drawn to it in the first place. What an organisation like Red Room, and a project like Rhyming the Dead, do, is to bridge the gaps between these small, solitary cells; to illuminate those lines of continuity that exist between ourselves and the writers and readers of the past, as well as the writers and readers who surround us in the present. The building of communities in any human endeavour, artistic or otherwise, is always necessary and important: nothing exists in a vacuum and without writing there is no reading, without reading there is no writing.

Bella Li, project reflection for Rhyming the Dead

The premise of this series of essays is ‘the question of value in the sphere of arts and literature’. This seems as much a question of ‘what’ is the value of literature, as it is ‘how’ and ‘who’ measures it. How is value defined? Who by and for whom? Writers, audiences, funders? Do we value the process or product? Does its worth lie in the art of writing or the pleasure of reading? Or something else entirely? There’s rarely a week that passes where I’m not asked to quantify or justify the relevance of poetic projects or to pitch to funders alongside hundreds of other worthy causes. Invariably there’s the question, why poetry, what can it do differently?

My first thought when asked is usually of Kakua, a Japanese monk, who played a single note on his flute then vanished when told to explain Zen to Emperor Takakura. Like a single note, if a poem has ever hit you in the head or chest you know its value. Instead I return the question, asking people for their favourite line or image in a book, song, article, artwork, film… Pretty soon we move beyond default recitation or restrictions of the page to see poetry and literature as the footings on which many other artforms stand. This is the realm where poetry and its meaning is much more malleable, though dangerously subjective. For me, the value of poetry lies in this multiplicity of meaning. In this web of connections where each of us is able to look through language at the world and ourselves anew. Or as Jane Hirshfield suggests

Poems also create larger fields of possibilities. The imagination is limitless, so even when a person is confronted with an unchangeable outer circumstance, one thing poems give you is there is always a changeability, a malleability, of inner circumstance. That’s the beginning of freedom… What poems give us is a way to feel through the underlying dilemmas, a way of recognizing that your own life and the lives of others are not in any way separable.

No matter where we find ourselves, poetry enables us to shape sounds and symbols that tie us together in the uncertainty our shared existence. The value of this interconnectedness is not something neatly measured yet it is the lifeblood of literature, poetry and humans as a species. Still, if literature must be quantified to justify its value, at least where arts funding is concerned, let’s look at the metrics.

Engagement with books and literary events is increasing according to the Australia Council for the Arts, National Arts Participation Survey (2019). Despite evidence of growing audiences, it doesn’t translate to increased funding, as the 44 per cent decline in literature funding over the last six years demonstrates. And as Gail Jones contends,

Literature is a mainstay of the creative and cultural industries, which contributed $63.5 billion to the Australian economy in 2016-17… Literature operates in the economy in many and complicated ways, since writers are ‘primary producers’ of creative content.

Though for this contribution to the economy, the average Australian writer can’t survive through their craft alone. For poets, the fate is even worse with recommended rates of $3.19 per line.

Like valuing clean drinking water and our climate, some are slow to ascribe value to literature and the undefinable form that is poetry. Poet Aden Rolfe echoes this in his reflection on the Rhyming the Dead project:

…it’s easy to make a life of poetry, just not a living. Projects like these go some way to bridging that gap, but more than that, they provide opportunities to connect writers with readers and audiences. In this way, organisations like Red Room play a vital role in developing and showcasing new work by new and established writers.

While funding scales slide, poetry sales and readership are at an all-time high given the climbing emotional, social and political chaos and poetry’s adaptability to social media. While labeling it ‘literature’ might be a stretch for some, social media has given ‘poetry’ its largest audience in history, a value measured by the millions who read, listen, share and write it. Such a following speaks to poetry’s capacity to distill the social, political and environmental zeitgeist for increased connectivity and awareness.

the ghostly hand of genocide has been as busy as the honey bees it irradicates…a red lunar surface reflects the burning season which will eventually touch us all; a cruel sea of tranquility in the scarlet night marks a gathering of momentum, claiming wrath upon even the smallest, hardened critters…the one’s forgotten about, without as much as a price placed upon their existence

Samuel Wagan Watson, from ‘Keep all receipts’ public submission for Extinction Elegies

Airing across the Community Radio Network as the summer fires of 2020 hammered hundreds of species, Red Room’s Extinction Elegies project commissioned six Australian poets to create and record new elegies that reflect on losses and endangerment of Australian species. The project was woven with Dr Thomas Bristow and the Durham Centre for Cultural Ecologies (Durham University) to explore elegy as a means to refocus lyric attention on the non-human realm as countless species disappear due to global environmental change, and we edge closer to the next ‘great extinction’ – the sixth in our planet’s history.

Each poet was invited to choose an extinct or threatened species with John Kinsella lamenting the extinction of the Christmas Island Pipistrelle, Michelle Cahill the King Island Emu, and Bruce Pascoe the Azure Kingfisher. Along with the poems, a three-part radio series with the poets and extinction experts John Woinarski, Sarah Bekessy and Thomas Bristow, examined the impact of losses in the non-human world to encourage awareness and empathy, and inspire action through poetry.

And regret is that the bird is gone,
Because we didn’t love enough?
Or because the angle of the sphere is out of our control

Bruce Pascoe from ‘Loss’ commissioned for Extinction Elegies

The questions of agency blooms in ‘Loss’ and the broader call for climate action essential to stem extinctions. What can love or poetry do in the face of eradication? More than offer a platform for expression, I was interested in exploring what tangible impact our words could generate. So in awareness of Australia’s 300+ threatened animals and plants, Red Room Poetry invited public submissions of poems about endangered species. For every poem received, we donated $1 to support Rewilding Australia’s reintroduction of the spotted quoll and Greening Australia’s bushfire recovery and native seed restoration program. This callout remains open for submissions as long as extinction is a threat to animals and plants. A new project, Poem Forest, also continues this work with a focus on poetry’s positive environmental impact. Launching in March 2021, Poem Forest is a nature writing competition for young people that will see a tree planted at the Australian Botanic Garden for every poem received.

I’ll take this dust back to the city,
as memory and archive
May it stain my hands
like the congealed blood of this forest –

Michelle Cahill from ‘Green Cape’, Red Room Fellowship 2020

Responding to Extinction Elegies, bushfires and continued cultural erasures is also what called Michelle Cahill’s Fellowship project and poems into being. Travelling to Kangaroo Island, the Pilliga and the South Coast of NSW, she created a suite of ten poems scrutinising invasion, grief, loss, extinctions and colonial trauma. Applying longform poetics to activism Cahill writes,

To be powerful, this must be poetry of immediacy and experience where the gap between observer and subject is, if not closed, at least narrowed, so that the observer/poet becomes a sentient participant in the ensuing trauma resulting from settler history, industry and climate policy.

These poems consequently critique colonial and Anthropocene hierarchies, tracing the detail of destruction from East Gippsland to South Australia and the archives turned to ash across these lands. Poems like ‘Green Cape’ open the wounded landscape through personified, almost medical, examination. Against the background of the fires and deaths in custody, the poem confronts continued colonial power dynamics mirrored in continued land dispossession and racism. The connection and comparison of bodies of trees to othered bodies voices the violence enacted on land, flesh and language alike.

I am burnt out, like this sacred forest, my branches broken,
                                                             once felled, my mouth full of ash.

Who dares not question the validity of words that ignore such violence?
Layers upon layers of erasures pile up. White pulp, white poetry
works to dispossess; to exhaust us, until we are so deprived of ourselves
as fringe-dwellers, speaking their past, we forget how to remember
                                                                                who we are.

Michelle Cahill from ‘Green Cape’ Red Room Fellowship 2020

Through direct experience and archival excavations, poems like ‘Green Cape’ close the distance between observer and subject by mapping trauma and questioning dominant narratives, colonial power, anthropocene hierarchies and climate policy. These poems also find their way into Red Room Poetry’s collaboration with artist Janet Laurence for the Requiem exhibition, a public installation and ritualistic readings that mourn and remember the irreparable ecological losses of flora and fauna wrought by the black summer fires of 2020. As Cahill reflects, the process and her ‘praxis is decolonial, unpicking the grammar of racism […] Poetry is a way of storytelling that dreams and heals the injuries and assaults of our times, across culture.’ In this way, not only the poems but the process call readers to attention, to peel back the layers, language and narratives of place to learn from and listen to the voices, human and non-human that shape its existence.

cup a hand
skin and bone
this water well
a beating heart
of molecules life
one two three
thousand years

Tony Birch, from ‘How Water Works’ commissioned for Writing Water: Rain, River, Reef

Recognising poetry, language and culture are intrinsically linked to the environments that sustain them, Writing Water: Rain, River, Reef explores themes of justice in relation to our most vital substance. We first began commissioning poems for Writing Water: Rain, River Reef while the sky was on fire and the only thing raining was ash. The premise of the project was to again examine how writing poems for, with and about water could manifest in tangible environmental action. Deeply inspired by the activist poetry of Chilean poet, artist and activist, Cecilia Vicuña, I’m interested in the ways our poetry is both an act and action. Since encountering Vicuña’s ‘Vaso de Leche’, a poetic protest of the poisoning of milk which caused the death of 1920 children, I’m always questioning the potential impact of poetry as social, political and environmental action.

From this space, Writing Water encouraged four commissioned poets, Tony Birch, Eunice Andrada, Luke Davies and Georgina Reid to consider gifting their poems to other charities working in environmental protection. More than gift their words, many of the commissioned poets donated their entire fees back to charities like Wilderness Society and The Nature Conservancy’s projects like Gayini on Nari Nari country where the river and water has been handed back to Traditional Custodians.

And as COVID-19 closed beaches along the coast and shut many of us off from communal connections with water, we received funding from the City of Sydney which allowed us to open up participation and collaboration opportunities, along with a digital workshop for 65 poets to write across the seas with guest editor Eunice Andrada. From hundreds of public submissions, the Writing Water chapbook was shaped with poems that witness and deepen our essential relationships with water. Poems by poets known and new call us to see water differently; Brooke Scobie speaks with ancestral tongue ‘That belongs to the sea/ Calls to salt water Coroboee’, 17 year-old student Paris Lay-Yee writes about the shared water in our bodies despite the separation. For Duy Quang Mai it is the migrant mirage of the foreign waters:

in each hour there is a season
                 to be again                  look,
      another hour to hold your life-raft
                like holding
                        a thirst

Duy Quang Mai, from ‘The Act of WaterWriting Water chapbook.

Each poem witnesses the memory, loss and life of water with urgency and an undercurrent of questioning. In the introduction to the chapbook, Andrada invites deeper attention not only to the poems themselves but our actions in relation to water, social and environmental justice:

What have we taken from water? What are we doing or giving back in return?… Reader, as you move within the streams of these poems, I urge you to see the currents that connect water justice to justice for Indigenous peoples. While those in power continue to ignore rapidly warming oceans and debate how to divide and distribute the diminishing water from the Murray-Darling River Basin, it is up to us to remember that water is life – and it must be protected. As we deepen our individual and collective relationships to this vital life source, let us honour and protect water every day.

Eunice Andrada, Writing Water chapbook.

These questions, workshops and opportunities to write thematically also invited connection during the distanced days of the pandemic, recognising it is the substance that unites all life – human and non-human as it comprises 60-75 per cent of our bodies and 100 per cent of our existence on earth. As one participant reflected on the unexpected civic connections of the project ‘The workshop was one of the most generous writing spaces I have experienced. Having people beam in from all places in Australia and overseas felt exciting to be connected. I’d just like to see more of these events in future and with other environmental themes.’ The collected poems of Writing Water and their provocations are now available digitally and continuing to connect with unsuspecting commuters on Sydney Ferries.

I have turned around the sun
and turned in to you
and left as much of my blood in the soil
as my blood is the soil

Evelyn Araluen from ‘Bahloo’ commissioned for Poetic Moments and published in GUWAYU

Reflecting the inextricable links of land and language, country and culture for First Nations people is the pulse of GUWAYU – For All Times, a collection of 63 poems by 36 poets in 12 different languages commissioned by Red Room Poetry and published by Magabala Books. Edited by Wiradjuri poet and academic Jeanine Leane, GUWAYU gives space to First Nations poets to celebrate, determine, strengthen and share culture on their own terms. The poems were commissioned over 16 years through projects spanning Extinction Elegies, New Shoots, The Disappearing, Rhyming the Dead, Poetry Object, Poetic Moments, Unlocked in Correctional Centres, and more recently Poetry in First Languages. As noted in the acknowledgments of GUWAYU, more than poems, these works are conversations, connections with community, understandings and relationships ever evolving. What I witnessed as a settler writer is that for poems commissioned through these projects it is the process of connecting to community, family, language, Country and culture that holds as much, if not more, value than the poem. Of the process and protocols underpinning the collection Leane writes:

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. This collection is a radical intervention in Aboriginal publishing for its breadth of representation, diversity of language, and drafting and editing protocols.

The development of Red Room Poetry’s First Nations editing protocols enables commissioned poets to work directly with First Nations editors as they wish. This step towards a decolonial process facilitates cultural safety of the works, especially where languages, scared and traditional knowledge is shared. There’s still a long way to go but the ability to partner with Magabala Books and support Leane to shape GUWAYU as an inclusive collection moves towards self-determination. Released within the prism of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, the ability for First Nations poets and publishers to write, edit and direct the events like ‘Deadly Editors: Talking First Nations anthologies’ speaks to GUWAYU’s cultural impact. Of all dimensions measured by GUWAYU poets, it was cultural connection and community inclusion that scored highest at 94 per cent. As Timmah Ball observes,

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.

Sitting alongside Firefront and Homeland Calling edited by Alison Whittaker and Ellen van Neerven respectively, it is hoped that GUWAYU helps to signify the much-needed shift to unsettle whitewashed literature. Ensuring uncut space for First Nations expression – personal, political, protest – was always the intention of GUWAYU and the projects from which the poems were commissioned. That’s not to say it’s always possible with poems commissioned in partnership contexts but increasingly there is a willingness by many to step back, listen, acknowledge, learn and let poems, language, projects and collections be woven by the communities whose stories they are to tell.

some systematic version of ourselves
radical mistrust
gender terror
institutional voice
acceptable bias
rigid unknown

Ellen van Neerven from ‘HORROR (PLURAL)’, Throat, UQP, 2020 republished In Your Hands

Inclusion and responding to the needs of literary communities was also at the heart of many of our COVID-19 response projects like In Your Hands and Panacea. In the first weeks of watching the pandemic reshape life and paralyse literary festivals as we knew them, it became clear that poets and publishers were rapidly losing opportunities to launch and share their new releases. Teaming up with Oranges and Sardines Foundation, we put out a call for poets who had lost their book launches in 2020. The result was In Your Hands, which curated 80 poems from 80 new collections, many by debut authors and small presses who had lost their gigs and launches. The value of drawing together this cross-section was measured across cultural, civic, social and economic dimensions with its civic value scoring highest with 91 per cent of participating poets feeling a sense of connectedness and community through the project. It’s impact could also be measured in the 4000+ people reached via online events from Yamaji to Gadigal Country, the 1500+ downloads of the anthology, the 80 poets paid, or what it means for authors and audiences to connect through poetry. Regardless of the measurement, it seems communities find their own scales.

It met a need for many poets to have a chance, stolen by the lockdowns, to promote new major works. It was a celebration and recharging of the community of creativity we all work within. The readings (and the poems read) were of high quality. I sense that the event reached a wide audience, which reminds all of us there is a deep well of need for poetry out there, and a larger market for our work than we realised. The event was a heart-warming enactment of poetic fellowship/kinship.

In Your Hands commissioned poet 2020

Screenshot of Panacea.

Considering community and collaboration during COVID-19, the Red Room Poetry team approached Melbourne-based poet and programmer Benjamin Laird to code an interactive poem titled Panacea. Building on the WHITBOAM chain poetry project by Canadian poet Sachiko Murakami and Benjamin’s body of experimental work, we invited poets, teachers, truckies, lawyers, accountants, artists and non-artists alike to add their own seven-word responses. All poetic lines originated from the source prompt Now it is home we can …taken from Laura Jean McKay’s 2020 debut novel The Animals in That Country:

this is us and we are this
into the shadows behind the full bookcase
into a calligraphy of Egretta sancta upon
surrender to slow porridge and fine china
release your mortal anxiety, send the mist upward

from Panacea:

The result is an animated co-creation in which every line hinges on its relationship to another. Or as Benjamin suggests, Panacea is a social poem in the pandemic.’ By coding the poem to be interactive both in its creation and reading order, each line is dependent on the one previously composed and floating in the collective. While physical distancing kept us apart, Panacea’s very existence depended on coming together. It’s not only the social element of the poem but its collaborative structure that assist with the side effects of disconnection. By riffing on surrealist constraints and concrete poetry experiments, like a sprawling exquisite corpse, written and read in multiple directions, the poem epitomises connectivity.  Panacea cannot exist without connection, community and collective consciousness. Through the alchemy of coding and 218 collective responses, Panacea explores the connectivity in the making of the poem as well as its physical structure which encourages readers to navigate the web of connections in constructing their own poetic Panacea.

I think that I’ve thought that I’ve thought that I’ve
thought and repeat when it hurts. Corvid songbirds
have souls unfortunately:  mania can be a dance but
for months the catastrophe stumbles on without

Jonathan Dunk from ‘Ghost Song’ commissioned for MAD Poetry

The anxiety and isolation we’ve experienced during the pandemic isn’t unusual for many of the communities we connect with through Red Room Poetry projects like Youth Unlocked in behavioural intervention settings, or collaborations with Studio A commissioning artists living with disabilities. For many of the participants in projects like MAD Poetry, ‘social distancing’ is an everyday experience, with or without the virus. In response to COVID-19, the Brain and Mind Centre at the University of Sydney developed a national model of mental health that estimated the ‘cumulative cost of lost productivity associated with psychological distress, hospitalisations, and suicide over the period March 2020 – March 2025’ to be $114 billion. Recommendations, unsurprisingly, include increased investment in support programs and technology-enabled team-based care, much of which aligns with the approach of MAD Poetry, an initiative coordinated by David Stavanger that found a home at Red Room in 2020.

Originating in the Illawarra with support by the Mental Health Commission of NSW, the intention of MAD Poetry is to

create a safe space for emerging voices with a lived/living experience of mental health issues to express how they see the world, where these poets can define themselves through their creativity not their diagnosis, and explore by pen and page their experience of illness, institutions, recovery, self-care, and beyond.

With COVID response funding, 2020 saw the co-production of community-led projects to commission and mentor more than 35 poets with lived experience of mental health and disabilities as well as supporting LGBTQI, culturally diverse, regional and older voices via commissions, face to face and digital workshops, performances, exhibition and publication outcomes. Throughout Mental Health Month in October 2020 a total of 24 workshops were delivered via Zoom and four face-to-face in the Illawarra with 126 participants, 10 paid facilitators, and 20 commissions with live streamed events. Just as the worlds of the poets can’t be contained by a pill, the value of poetic projects are more than numbers as affirmed by commissioned poet Holly Isemonger, ‘This project was actually super instrumental in helping me get back into writing and performing more, after not having done it for a long time due to my mental illness’.

Far from a complete fabric, each of these examples provide their own ways to navigate the currents of environmental catastrophe, COVID-19, social and political distress that made 2020. While ‘isolation’ has been a recurrent theme, these works show us that nothing exists in a vacuum, not the poem or the poet. From hundreds of Extinction Elegies to requiems for the fires and the connectedness of waterways or experiences of mental health, poems resonate with shared experiences. Bridging the gaps and spaces ‘between these small, solitary cells’ is what Red Room Poetry and literature exist to do. Measuring the value of such undertakings is less about an empirical scale, than making space for many different voices and what each of them brings to the creation and possibilities of poetry. This aligns with Hirshfield’s argument that poetry is ‘a way of recognizing that your own life and the lives of others are not in any way separable.’ Whether those lives are human or non-human, poetry has the capacity to awaken possibilities within and beyond us. When these connections are open, isolation and separation dissolve. Attempting to quantify the worth of connection, wonder, or to define the poem flies in the face of the infinite possibilities that make it so. Rather than pin it down, let’s recognise the multifarious value and many voices poetry gives space to, each of them essential in shaping our collective existence.

Yanangunla, barayangunla mari bula
Let’s move together and sing out loud
Naawala, mimugurubuni, yanagn un, ngyinarigai gana manuwi
Look, do not close your eyes, we walk together, with feet on fire

Joel Davison from ‘The Wounded Brave’ commissioned for Poetry in First Languages (written partially in Gadigal, with interpretations by Joel Davison)

This is part of a series of essays co-commissioned by the SRB and non/fictionLab that foreground experimental approaches to the question of value in the sphere of arts and literature. ‘Outside the Lines’ is a companion piece to ‘How Poems Make Things Happen‘ by Jessica Wilkinson.

Published May 10, 2021
Part of Powerful and Moving: The SRB and non/FictionLab have joined forces to commission new essays on the question of value in the sphere of the arts and literature. All Powerful and Moving essays →
Tamryn Bennett

Tamryn Bennett is a poet, artist and Artistic Director of Red Room Poetry. Her...

Essays by Tamryn Bennett →