I am continually learning about all the ways that poetry fills the skin of my being. How in putting word to page I feel myself become more true, more full, less resolved, and safe in complexity. How that act of storytelling connects me with lineages that travel the whole way back. Poetry is a door to home within myself. I came into that house backwards. I came into myself unknowingly. But that’s okay. Surely there are many of us who fill the skin we’re given slowly, rather than appear fully formed within it. The house that words built I came to by reading myself in.
I started writing poetry a few years ago to figure out the mess within myself, when I felt my insides collapsing like a fire in slow motion. I threw myself against the page, to see what would be revealed. The writings were chaotic, strange and trite, and yet, the more I wrote, the more the complexity didn’t feel so frightening. The writing allowed me to sort myself from my surrounds, some steps in finding peace within this queer, Indigenous body living in a colonised capitalist state. Poetry was the place where I could present my messiness, my confusion, my fear. Poetry felt unrestricted and non-judgmental, it felt like the form where I made sense. The page (which we know is not neutral) felt strangely safe, despite its long white claws, and so that is where I watched all this knowing form.
When I began this writing, I didn’t understand the depth of community, of lineage. I was ignorant to the ways that protest and word and song and story have been home to so many Indigenous peoples. That poetry has long been a form that First Nations people have gravitated to. Story and form is embedded in Country and in all the ways we know it. It was the presence of colony that made it hard for me to feel.
Every day Indigenous people across this continent are confronted with the violence of living in the Australian colony. The cruelty of invasion is present in our life expectancy, the rate of our incarceration, the removal of our children, the desecration of our homelands. To walk down the street and see sacred land, yours or somebody else’s, overrun with pollution, with sick waterways, with shit city planning, is an insult. To be forced within the confines of English while so many cannot speak their ancestral tongue is another cruel daily reminder of the colonial invasion.
And yet, there is still so much Blak joy.
And yet, there is still so much Blak art.
Everywhere I look I see Blak art, Blak words and Blak excellence.
Poetry has always rung out in protest against the invasion of our lands. At rallies, at gatherings, the poetry of our people can be heard in those who are compelled to speak, those who move others with the power of words. When Aunty Oodgeroo Noonuccal released We Are Going in 1964, the first book of poetry authored by an Indigenous Australian, she cut the first path of a mighty river, unleashing generations of written Indigenous poetry onto this continent. Since that moment, Australia has had a strong tradition of Indigenous poets writing in protest against the invasion of our sovereign lands. Unbeknownst to me when I first began to form on the page, I was participating in a legacy of people who have made sense of the world through poetry – long before the word for poetry was coined in the English tongue.
Our stories are ancient. Our Indigenous languages are poetry in themselves, formed within Country that has gifted us all this. The rhythms of our words meet in our chests and harmonise with the beat of our hearts. As the world has changed in the past 250 years upon this continent, our words have changed too, and our poems guide us through our current moments while keeping us connected to our ancestors.
I came into this home of words the wrong way around. It was only once I started writing poetry, that I realised I should be reading it. Where I had felt alone, I opened my eyes and ears to the brilliance of the First Nations poetry community and felt myself becoming as I read the words of others. I saw the diligent and radiant work and felt the pain within myself ease. How eloquently these writers processed the horrors that I saw in our society, made rage where rage was needed, made beauty where beauty has always been. It was our matriarchs that welcomed me to the page. Indigenous women and queer folk have a particular power within the poetic form. Across the spoken, the sung, the written, the gathered, our women care for story and continue songs that began with the first sunrise.
Of course, the violence of colonial reality is reflected in our art and writing. In the words of Ellen van Neerven, ‘whiteness is always approaching’ (Throat, 2020), and so, we are constantly working against the colony. In many ways it seems to me that any writing from Indigenous Australians must occupy a space of protest. All our forms of expression are in defiance of a system that has wanted to keep us silent. All our successes refute the narratives of less-than. Our writing exists within a canon that has sought to contain and reduce us, as Evelyn Araluen reveals so sharply in the 2021 collection, Dropbear. In reviewing Dropbear, Wiradjuri poet and academic Jeanine Leane noted that ‘each book and each story written by First Nations authors rallies against the traumas of description that make all First Nations peoples objects of study to be fed through the poorly oiled machines of western literary analysis’.
I don’t want to reduce our writing to the status of ‘protest poetry’, for as Leane has written, this ‘is a tired and reductionist descriptor of First Nations poetry that denies such works both literary merit and the capacity for nuance’. Further, the suggestion that we are in constant dialogue with the colony makes me feel uncomfortable with that orientation towards existence through a colonial lens. For we, and all our forms of expression, far exceed those confines. However, it seems to me that to consider our poetic expression in the 21st century it is difficult not to feel the heavy weight of colony, even if it is just to note the lightness when it is lifted.
Any Indigenous writing in English exists within an inherent tension in using the colonial oppressors tongue and written form of language. In Comfort Food, van Neerven writes in ‘Dalgay/Yugambeh Death Poem’:
I don’t speak my language
but I speak yours
and I write it well
haven’t yet found the place I will die
and I haven’t yet written that poem.
We live with this complexity, and make it beautiful, even when it is painful, even when it is harsh. Poetry itself is a vehicle that seems to draw First Nations writers in as a place where these tensions can be tested, where messiness can be explored without needing to be revealed.
In the moments of ascension when our expression can make absent the colony, it seems to me that even those actions become protest. For when living with the reality of colonial invasion, to be able to find sovereign joy becomes radical.
It is often in the simple, the minute and the domestic that poets revel in an absence of explicit colony. Indigenous queer and female writers, so often the caregivers and the story keepers within our communities, capture the intimate joys of kin, Country and connection. Our role as gatherers continues to bring together community, to find sweetness and rage, to make whole the world.
ABC journalist Daniel Browning recently called the current moment a ‘renaissance of Blak poetry’, and surely we are seeing the fruit born from many generations of preparing the ground for Blak writing, editing, publishing, collaborating, organising and storied excellence. The past few years has seen brilliant and much awarded collections from Blak women and non-binary folk, too many to mention here*, alongside incredible storytelling that is not currently recognised through publishing contracts. [*To begin: Ali Cobby Eckermann, Charmaine Papertalk Green, Evelyn Araluen, Ellen van Neerven, Natalie Harkin, Lorna Munro, Laniyuk, Yvette Holt, Elfie Shiosaki, Kirli Saunders, Alison Whittaker, Jeanine Leane, Ambelin Kwaymullina.]
These contemporary gatherers of story and form challenge the neo-colonial, patriarchal, heteronormative, hierarchical structures that have underscored the invasion of this continent. These poets are sexy, fun and funny, they use wit and humour to subvert the colony, they use love and passion to transcend the colonial reach. In a colony where blatant police brutality against Indigenous people is the norm, where we suffer the continued desecration of sacred land, live within a health and mortality gap, and a government that seeks to undermine sovereignty in all its forms, we need poets that can see all this – and still celebrate the joy, resilience and love of our community.
Alexis Wright describes this as writing against the ‘extreme pressures of oppression and relentless, ongoing colonisation’ (On Writing Carpentaria, 2010). All our writers and storytellers are acutely aware of the material reality of Indigenous Australia, which is evidenced throughout their writing with explicit protest against the colony, yet these writers continue to carve out sovereign joy despite colonial horrors. Ali Cobby Eckermann observing a boobook owl, Natalie Harkin rubbing the arching body of a beloved Aunty, Evelyn Araluen making curry for her family; the moments are not against the colony, but ascend to a place of joy made radical.
Poetry is malleable, it is defiant. It makes sense that so many Indigenous writers turn to poetry to express the many complex, contradictory, resilient, sovereign lives we lead. The dialogue of protest is empowering and enriching, it offers fresh perspectives on that which has been long known and creates space for healing and for new understandings. Poetry allows us to hold the pain of the colony and the joy of Blak existence simultaneously on the page. Indigenous female and queer poets make beautiful all the small and precious, make resonant the large and painful, all while continuing a legacy that has existed in this land always, and always will.
I am formed and reformed when I participate in poetry as reader and writer. Poetry has been the method through which I have found myself, found community, and found home. It has allowed me to understand the power and beauty of all moments in our Blak resistance.
Join Jazz Money, along with Roanna Gonsalves, Yves Rees and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey, for a public webinar on Friday 17 September about the role of writing in generating new knowledge and understandings around gender. Find out more and register here.