Image courtesy of ABC
Some writing teaches you possibility. Possibility in a number of ways: seeing yourself reflected in a body of work, echoing familiar words, places, or ideas; some writing is a lesson about form, or acts as an overall object to aspire to. When I picked up a copy of Lemons in the Chicken Wire by Alison Whittaker, I saw for the first time a young queer Aboriginal woman subverting the form of poetry in a way that resonated with me. Yet Alison’s writing followed a lineage of other Aboriginal poets, and from reading her work I went on to find Samuel Wagan Watson, Ali Cobby Eckermann and Lionel Fogarty. These significant discoveries alongisde Lemons showed me how lyrical poetry could be reshaped in Aboriginal ways, encouraging and challenging my own writing. It felt like insurgency into Western ways of reading and writing.
When Alison and I came together for breakfast in Marrickville in early 2019, we had a fortifying conversation. And her second collection BlakWork dials up the insurgency a couple more notches. A Fulbright scholar at Harvard Law, she simultaneously interrogates and challenges the colonial inheritance of the English language, while critiquing injustices embedded into Australia’s legal systems. It might have been an inevitable outcome of two blak poets coming together, but as we spoke about the craft of writing and how poetry can serve as resistance, I was left with a sense of drive and momentum. What alternatives exist outside the Western acts of ‘reading’ and ‘writing’? And how can we continue to use poetry to reshape and resist old narratives? Alison’s poetry embodies those possibilities.
Susie Anderson: The crafting process of a poetry collection is really interesting to me. When you’re trying to please your own vision, maybe try to make sense in a linear way – because it’s a book – but then also you have to consider the reader. It creates a strange dynamic of prioritising. Do you feel this way as a writer as well?
Alison Whittaker: I write books of poetry because I think what I’m representing in poetry is important. Though I can get caught up in my own frame of understanding. As a legal scholar I’ve had really intense specialisations in certain areas outside of poetry and I like to talk about them when I’m writing poetry too, and I forget that other people don’t have that sensibility. To some extent, it’s really valuable to have good readers who can give you advice before your work is published, people who can tell you what’s coming through the poems. Sometimes it’s more than just miscommunication if you’re not expressing what you mean in what can often be a sardonic form. If the reference doesn’t translate through your poetry then it can come across as cruel.
SA: Yes, it’s funny how easily the tone of poetry can verge on the sinister or even mean. After talking with a friend about poetry readings, we agreed that the one-to-one communication, reading aloud, can almost feel like a jibe in some ways.
AW: It can be so, so intimate, like writing a letter. But you can also anticipate that a reader doesn’t exist. When you’re writing your first drafts you are anticipating a reader, so you’re constraining your work to meet their needs right off the bat, but then you can miss so much of what you as a poet are actually trying to produce. So I think maybe, the consideration of the reader maybe comes in through in the editing process. And even if you do anticipate a reader that exists and that is your primary audience – so you can meet their needs – then you can still constrain yourself unnecessarily, I think, at the wrong point of creation. It doesn’t have to make sense right away. Some poets fall into an illusion that genius just comes through or if you put on certain restrictions then all of a sudden it just flows but that’s not the case. It can be quick to write a poetry book, it doesn’t have to take long, there are not that many words – but the hardest bit is the editing process where you’re trying to be economical, you’re trying to be tight and you’re trying to be concise, you’re trying to be experimental, novel, fun. That doesn’t always come through during the first stage.
SA: I also think when it comes to editing it’s very much like ‘how long is a piece of string’? You can keep on honing and distilling for as long as you want and it can be quite hard to put an end to that process.
AW: I’ve become less and less precious about that process because I now know I can put the work out there with imperfections and still enjoy the work. I’m pretty sure I found a typo during BlakWork in a reading and I was like ‘it’s done, don’t worry about it’. Editing truly is a question of the audience that you’re implicating, the press that you’re going with, the extent to which you care about whether you’re a technical poet or are you more of an exuberant and expressive poet where the form doesn’t matter too much.
SA: Speaking of form, there are so many different types and styles of poetry in BlakWork and I while I was reading, I just kept on thinking oh my god ‘Alison made language her bitch’.
AW: Language is fun, but writing poetry can be kind of like watching a sausage get made. Watching poetry get made isn’t sexy and yet poems can be sexy. From my point of view ‘word play’ is such a great way to launch from a concept, when you’re stuck and you don’t know where you’re going to go. Word play, for me is one of the key things that you can use to generate a poem. From that you have something that germinates and takes on a life of its own somewhat organically. But you always need that first point to start from, which is where I struggle the most. Language is definitely not my bitch!