It was already political

It was November 2006 and I knew I was going to be on stage that night. Already it was political: I took the tiny newspaper cut-out Tarzan had stuck to the fridge and left screaming baby Boy in his arms. I wore stretched maternity pants and a fast beating heart. I knew I’d come home with some kind of trophy, but never realised I was carrying it before the taxi even arrived.

The Writers Centre was in the grounds of a former mental asylum. I was late to register, but somebody took pity on me. It was already political. Before I arrived or spoke a word, before anyone knew I would be taking the mic, before anyone told me to write poetry about everyday life, before I had a chance to use my ninety seconds to say fuck you in a hundred different ways to a hundred different already-thinking-they-were-listening-to me people who needed to hear it a hundred different times and would carry it away in their hearts without maybe even realising. Before I left the house, it was political. That night a young brown woman left her child to stand up in a room full of mostly white, perhaps even mostly hostile, people. It was political. There was a vomit stain on my shoulder. I didn’t notice it till afterward.

Give me two minutes and a room full of people and I am going to give you a poem about what – the way Ophelia may or may not have felt about Hamlet? I am gonna hand you broken-hearted vitriol with some anecdote thrown in about washing the dishes. How else will you emphathise. After all, that is what women both live and write. That I am here in the first place might not be so convenient but here I am – do you or do you not want me to sing?

I am always being told to be smarter about the way I write. God knows, I have plenty of suburban anecdotes that could probably win me a prize. My parents planted two silky oak saplings behind their house in this country shortly after they arrived. One fell on the house – it was over fifteen years later then and the tree was ten metres taller than when it was planted. We were away on holiday at the time, the whole family. The tree waited until our backs were turned and just decided on devastation. That should have been a warning. The walls, quite literally, were falling in. My mother sent me a postcard when the other tree went. It strangely withered for no apparent reason the day the ink was dry on their legal documents. I like letters, but that tree postcard was the shortest note I have ever received. Write about dying trees, it ended.

Writing silky oaks would have been political. I could already hear people saying this woman has an interesting story. Where in the hell did she come from and how is she even doing this. She has a chance to really speak. And she is going to write about whattrees?

It is already political, before I speak.

So think about it. What is it you really have a problem with?
At that first slam I read a poem about female circumcision and came home with a shiny gold trophy and an envelope worth many books. I made money the first night I said fuck you, a young brown woman in a room full of strangers, talking honestly for ninety seconds.

A woman in a headscarf came up to me afterwards. She put her hand on my arm and said ‘Thankyou’. I had never heard that kind of thankyou before.

It was quiet when I opened the door to the second floor flat in our red-brick Kensington apartment. Boy was asleep chewing his bottom lip. Tarzan stared at my shiny spoils incredulously, looked at his watch and said ‘You made short work of that then. Do they even know what hit them?’

I went straight to the fridge. ‘No’, I said, ‘I don’t think they don’t have any idea.’

Believe me, it was poetry.

It Was Already Political is an extract from my book Sewn Shut

Maxine Beneba Clarke

Maxine Beneba Clarke is an Australian author and slam poet of Afro- Caribbean descent. Her short fiction collection Foreign Soil won the 2015 ABIA Award for Best Literary Fiction and the 2015 Indie Award for Best Debut Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Stella Prize. Her memoir, The Hate Race, her poetry collection Carrying the World, and her first children’s book, The Patchwork Bike, will be published by Hachette in late 2016.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Nice piece, Maxine.
    Have you seen the article about this new film about Billy Sing? It seems relevant to your forthcoming article about blackface.

    A FURORE has erupted over a new mini-series about the deadliest sniper at Gallipoli, Chinese-Australian Billy Sing, who is played by a Caucasian.

    The portrayal in the The Legend of Billy Sing has been attacked by Australians of Chinese ancestry as a betrayal of their heritage, robbing them of a rare historic hero, The Australian reported.

    Director Geoff Davis has cast his son Josh in the lead role, while Sing’s Chinese father is played by the veteran actor Tony Bonner, who came to prominence as a blond-haired helicopter pilot in the Skippy TV series.

  2. Thanks Jeff, I hadn’t heard about that. Maybe time for a post script…if these apalling happenings keep on keeping on, the article may well be updateable :I

  3. Thanks Maxine.Very nicely put indeed. Especially the images of the baby-vomit and the vitriol.
    So you should write smarter? Says who?

    Perhaps not inappropriate that a writers centre is/was in the grounds of a former asylum.

  4. You’re right Stephen – very apt positioning for a Writers Centre.

    As for the urgings to ‘write smarter’, it’s the cumulative effect of the ‘we would love to publish your work but are concerned about the dialect/broken english/politics of your submitted piece…’ emails in addition to the urgings/advice of the ‘powers that be’ (agents, publishers, well-meaning fellow writers), saying ‘Well, if you want to make a decent living from it, you know what you have to do…’

  5. Seriously? I’m probably glad then that I don’t know a lot of writers. Or agents. or publishers. Jacinda’s post about the Deveny sacking addresses the contemporary idea of the writer as a ‘brand’ who has to have an image and so on and so forth. I suppose a lot of writers are happy to go along with that, hence the proliferation of writers festivals. Writing seems to me, not that i would know of course, a kind of existential-vitriolic-broken-babyvomiting thing, that you do as if your life depended on it. Which it does in a way.
    Say it in broken english I reckon…..

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