Alison Whittaker and the law of poetry

August 7, 2016

Sometimes the poem will be captured entirely in the moment and you can’t get access to it outside that moment

A scalp-scab burnt and straw-haired woman
spoke to me a revolution
that roared within my belly, only once it were ate
after years of pushin’ it round the plate
and when I realised what she knew
and what I missed—O, Eureka!

“Everywhere! Poetry comes from everything, and I’m a dull and obsessive person who likes to drink it all in,” says poet Alison Whittaker, underselling her anything-but-dull nature and her ability to capture the English language and reflect it back to us in rhyme and reason.

Alison—a Gomeroi woman, lawyer, daughter, sister, niece, and an award-winning poet—is coming to Brisbane as a guest of the Queensland Poetry Festival.

Alison’s work has been published by Magabala Books and her 2015 black&write! Indigenous Writing Fellowship winning manuscript ‘Lemons in the Chicken Wire’ is a collection of poems about family.

Having had a ‘warm, untidy childhood”, Alison says her writing has been more about unlearning than learning, and “trying to bring myself back to that space of play, shamelessness and possibility.

“I grew up on Gomeroi country, my country, in Gunnedah and Tamworth. I was grown up by my mum and dad, who are my bedrocks. For play, my sisters and I would swim at any chance we’d get! We had board games, crafts, art. I hand-wrote fan fiction in diaries that I never shared with anyone,” she says.

“In my late childhood we had video games, which I’m still enthralled by. In my early childhood, while my extended family were cutting up wood, me and my cousins run amuck for hours in what we thought was mud. It was not mud! We were under the hose for hours after that,” she admits.

Sources of inspiration

I ask Alison what moves her, inspires her, and results in the assembly of her words into poems.

“I’m moved by everything – totally porous to even the most disgusting or mundane experiences,” she says.

“I once cried about a packet of chips that went off in the cupboard. I like wholesome, earnest memes about love on the internet. Embarrassing to say that aloud, does it sound as bad in your head as it does mine?

“Of course, on the other side of experience entirely I am moved deeply by being on country, and by seeing birds of cultural and personal significance,” Alison says.

Ebbs and flows of creativity

Do poems tap at her brain constantly, begging to be expressed? “Regrettably, poems aren’t always tapping at my brain,” she says. “I get ebbs and flows of inspiration – so I try to keep a notebook to jot things down.

“Sometimes the poem will be captured entirely in the moment and you can’t get access to it outside that moment. I remember a few months ago I felt struck by an unfurling poem, and wrote down a few lines of it to get back to later at home. When I did get the chance to sit down, those words were total nonsense to me!

“Poetry makes me feel less like an author in control and more like something caught in an updraft.”

Mentors and inspiration

Alison finds inspiration in the work of all Aboriginal women.

“Is it corny to say that?” she asks. “I can see this upheaval of Aboriginal women’s work, especially writing, music, performance, and it fills me with a sense of grave, earnest, and gleeful importance for the time we’re in, creatively and culturally speaking.

“I’ve really doubled-down on my love of poetry in the last few years and I think that’s because I’m entering a more complicated relationship with the English language, and my own Gamilaraay language, as carriers for a message.

“I’m starting to see language as the message itself, or even the story. What a better place to explore that than poetry!”

Of body and mind

A lawyer and a poet—the systematic versus the creative—Alison intertwines her day job and her creative side.

“There’s lots to be had from refusing to separate the two!” she says. “I find that systematic features crop up in poetry, and creative bits pop up in law in delightful, unexpected ways. Law has poetry, and poetry has laws so to speak.”

Moving from body to mind, and as a writer who has not shied away from portraying the female body as resilient and strong, Alison says she has had a long history of learning to love her body.

“I can’t say that I have seen Embrace [Taryn Brumfitt’s documentary on body image], but I’ve seen the preview! I’ve had a long history of learning to love my body. I’m a really fat woman, so even films like Embrace, perhaps don’t go far enough!” she says. “I always hear a lot of ‘body image’ rhetoric qualify itself with ‘oh, you know, not the morbidly obese’, and orient itself towards the average woman. And I’ve seen that ‘body image’ rhetoric be really whitewashed, too.

“Treating bodies as resilient, strong and beautiful, and learning to stop punishing our bodies, needs to be a meatier task than beyond how we perceive them against a copy of Vanity Fair.

“We need to look at the politics of bodies.”

The politics of poetry

And what of the under-supported art of poetry? Does Alison bemoan the ‘old days’ and the lost world of the art patron?

“I don’t remember the old days! I’ve only got the new days. The arts are horribly under-supported in the new days, even though I think poetry is experiencing its Australian renaissance – just look at the last two years – wow!” she says

“I’d like to see poetry get the material support it deserves, and to see that support go to who is really carrying this renaissance: ‘minority’ poets.”

Of which Alison is one – a minority poet, an Australian, of the Gomeroi people, and a woman.

“I can’t say that I feel more affinity or passion with any part of my identity than another. Although I have to say, I’ve never really felt Australian! That’s an easy one to cross off.”

She is, herself.

My nan clasps my hands and whispers to me
decolonising epistemology, and
critical autonomy, and
affective phenomenology.

And what she says is:
remember yourself, and call me once a week
on which I ruminate
O, Eureka!

Alison will be featuring at three QPF2016 sessions, including opening for Pulitzer Prize winning poet Tracy K. Smith.  For more information and for tickets, click – here.

Queensland Poetry Festival
Lost Language, Found
25 to 28th August 2016
Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Art

Extracts from O, Eureka! from Lemons in the Chicken Wire kindly provided by Alison Whittaker, and published by Magabala Books.

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Helen Goltz

After studying English Literature and Communications at universities in Queensland, Helen Goltz has worked as a journalist, producer and marketer in print, TV, radio and public relations. She was born in Toowoomba and has made her home in Brisbane. Helen is the author of eight books and is published by Clan Destine Press and Atlas Productions. She is the original founder of She Brisbane.