Emerging poet series: Natalie Harkin

Natalie Harkin is a Narungga woman from South Australia.  She has written poetry for many years and her current PhD research is an archival-poetic response to her family’s Aboriginal records, informed by blood-memory and haunting.  She is a member of her local Aboriginal writers group and the First Nations Australia Writers Network, and was recently invited to conduct a poetics masterclass at the 2014 International Writers Festival, Ottawa.  She is part of the Unbound collective, a group of women experimental writers and artists creatively interrogating the state’s Aboriginal archives and colonial history.  She has a partner, two children, three chooks and jungle of a veggie-garden that keeps her earthed.

Weaving Lessons (on genocide), 2014 

1.   prepare the reeds
     work light with swift fingers
     gather stories with each thread
     weave through night 

     carry what you can
          food - tools - babies
     don’t spill a drop
     when it’s time to run

                here they come  
                here they come

     wait for clever winds
     to carry your smoke signals 
     subvert and deflect
     bide more time 

     sharpen flints with your senses
     cover your tracks 
     disappear with the sun
     prepare for blood 

               they’re here 
               they’re here

2.   I smell your reeds burning 
     as they cloak you with blankets
     gifted with smallpox 
     to blister your skin

     I hear red cliffs wailing 
     a ration-station’s offering
     arsenic-laced flour 
     to convulse your gut

     I cry you a flood 
     as they boil your tea
     from strychnine-waterholes 
     to choke your breath

              I am falling  
              I am falling

     in fields of grief 
     I trip on your bones
     trace your flesh
     catch your last breath

     I search for your baskets
     to carry your hearts 
     gather what’s left
     before they burn

3.   blood from my grandmother’s womb
     feeds my babies
     they kick to survival songs 
     before they swallow the air

             rise up
             rise up

     burn the old blankets 
     the old-ration-stations
     track down the waterholes 
     cleanse them with your dreams

     prepare new reeds 
     let your ancestors guide 
     weave them their story 
     with poetry and love 

     weave them strong to carry
     the weight of our truth 
     then thread them with hope 
     to lighten your load 

             it’s time
             it’s time.

(I finished this poem after hearing about the death of Gough Whitlam when I first arrived in Ottawa, Canada, 2014)

White Picket Fence

don’t border protect me advance australia fair me cultural cliché me through white hetero-centred normality don’t try make me straight to open the gate don’t white picket fence me in…don’t nuclear power me salt water shower me thicken my air with war and despair don’t concrete my earth medical model my birth don’t white picket fence me in don’t censor my media with small minded trivia or colonise the space to put me in my place don’t judge my choice silence my voice don’t white picket fence me in…don’t dig up the sand of My Grandmother’s Land to pour a foundation meant for my salvation to cement me in tight make me nice and polite then deny me my right to protest and fight but this cannot stop me from thinking….oh black-pink-green-red alliance be clever in defiance of conservative leaders who oppress diverse thinkers who shout reconciliation through cultural assimilation who value individual wealth through black bloodshed and stealth who choke out debate with their security gate to white picket fence us in …

We’re Here! (… a little something for Anthony Mundine)

we are your …
         doctors 	     artists      poets      teachers 
         lawyers       IT-experts       cleaners
         musicians       actors      corner-shop-servers
         bus-drivers       builders       non-wage-earners
         your NAIDOC-committee-members
         school-volunteers      your money-lenders  
         nurses        kitchen-tea-pot-toppers
         housing-workers       local-coppers
         your soldiers         sporting-heroes        legends
         we Represent        in all professions
         we buy      we sell       we save       we spend
             we’re here! 
             until your bitter-end
                   we’re here until 
                         your bitter-end

we are your …  
         nieces       nephews      sisters       brothers
         kids’ care-givers      fathers      mothers 
         cousins       aunties       uncles       sons
         daughters      friends       your everyones
         your next-door-neighbours        taxi-drivers 
         your ex-lovers         old-admirers
         we fight      we dream      we love       we pray 
         Sistergirl       Lesbian       Bisexual       Gay
         we laugh       we cry       we bleed       we mend
         from our ancestors        we descend 
             we’re here! 
             until your bitter-end
                we’re here until 
                      your bitter-end

we are your …
         song-writers        black-rights-campaigners 
         night-club-DJs         daisy-chainers
         your elder-carers        coffee-baristas
         your damper-bakers       camp-fire-sitters
         bikies      tour-guides      opera-singers
         freedom-fighters        church-bell-ringers
         this minority       within        minority
         this glittering-ball        diversity
             floored by the count of ten
             we’re here! 
             until your knockout end
                   we’re here until 
                      your bitter-end

             blood-memory      stories      language      land
             flag flies high      tall we stand
             desert     mountains      rivers      sea
             with grace we move       dignity
             honour our humanity 
             our difference       our normality
             always was       always will be
                     we’re here!
                     we’re here!


Who are you reading now and why do they turn you on?

My pile of bedside books includes Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko, Post Me to the Prime Minister by Romaine Moreton, A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid, Walking with Ghosts by Qwo-Li Driskill, X by Shane Rhodes, and The Cushion in the Road by Alice Walker – all brave, clever, compassionate writers who offer hope, love and humour in this era driven by a politics of fear, greed and (in Australia particularly) a warped kind of government-sanctioned bigotry.

I love Kincaid’s carefully crafted stream-of-consciousness rant that packs a poetic-punch in every sentence.  She details a history of colonialism in Antigua, her island home turned tourist-destination for Westerners escaping to an imagined-authentic-paradise in the Caribbean.  She exposes a history of oppression and exploitation that remains largely unaccountable and unrecognised by the West.  Canadian poet Shane Rhodes’ book X, is a wild, experimental journey through first contact history in Canada, using language from Treaty documents and other colonial records.  This book can be read in multiple ways and directions, where text is shaped and layered with images offering a series of narratives, and juxtaposed with fragments of his own non-Native family story.

Kincaid’s book has been my long-term constant, and Rhodes’ was a recent gift.  Both make visible the ongoing violence from the so-called ‘legal’ acquisition of un-ceded lands by the British, and comment on the unresolved relationships that remain.  Their global contributions resonate with our story here in Australia, and I particularly love their engagement with state colonial archives.

How often do you write? Do you have a writing practice?

I try to write most days, either for my thesis or for work, and usually after the kids go to sleep, but the concept ‘routine’ feels illusive these days. I don’t write poetry so well on demand, but it comes easily in response to issues that are important to me and my family, usually around racism and homophobia or current government policies that are oppressive and inhumane.  This poetic-purge can be all-consuming, where emotion (usually rage!) drives the writing.  My thesis is an ‘archival-poetics’ which is a practice informed by blood-memory, haunting, the violence of the colonial-archive and grandmother stories.

When you think of Australian poetry, do you see an elephant in the room? If so, what is it?

Despite the arts sector providing an incredible platform to tell our stories, I think the old elephant in the ‘literature/poetry’ room is rather stuck and well fed.  Indigenous writers in Australia are often on the margins despite their awards and international acclaim and, sadly, Australians are ignorant of the depth, intellect, sophistication and scope of Indigenous literature in this country.  I’m in awe of our poets and writers who work beyond the desire to simply publish, but also to improve Indigenous literacy and contribute to transforming the social and political landscape through education, recognition and understanding.  They disrupt old imagined-racialised ideas and representations of Aboriginality, and they write us onto the record in critical ways.  They also tell great stories!  Anyone influenced by the recent debate and absurd notion that the impact of Indigenous people in Australian literature ‘has been minimal’, are ignorant of the extensive Austlit BlackWords database, the First Nations Australia Writers Network, and the prolific award-winning work by poets and authors such as Ali Cobby-Eckermann, Sam Wagan-Watson, Alexis Wright, Melissa Lucashenko, Tony Birch, Bruce Pascoe, Kevin Gilbert, Oodgeroo Nunnuccal, Lisa Belear, Anita Heiss, Romaine Moreton, Ellen Van Neervan, Kerry Reid-Gilbert, Yvette Holt, Jared Thomas, Kim Scott, Lionel Fogarty, Jack Davis, Dylan Coleman, Jeanine Leane … to name just a few!

A small collection of web links to your other work

I’m interested in how text can be transformed with images and objects, or projected in new places.  My words have been exhibited in text-object-video projections, wallpapering, paste-ups, words on glass and linen, and with other related objects including a basket I wove from my nanna and great-grandmother’s letters found in the State Aboriginal archives.  Some work includes:

  1. Bound and Unbound: Sovereign Acts – Decolonising Methodologies of the Lived and Spoken curated by Ali Gumillya Baker, at Fontanelle Gallery;
  2. Courting Blakness: Recalibrating Knowledge in the Sandstone University curated by Professor Fiona Foley at the University of Queensland;
  3. Our Mob Contemporary: Behind the Glass curated by Coby Edgar, at the Adelaide Festival Centre;
  4. Nunga-Odradek, curated by Ali Gamillya Baker at the Australian experimental art foundation (aeaf).
  5. Arc Poetry Magazine/Tree Reading Series, Master-class Poetry Workshop:
  6. Arc Poetry Magazine, Australia Canada
  7. Cordite Poetry Review: Proceaceae, A Chapbook curated by Peter Minter.

Peter Minter

Peter Minter is a leading Australian poet and writer on poetry and poetics, and Overland’s outgoing poetry editor.

More by Peter Minter ›

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