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) 2013 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:
- Bound and Unbound: Sovereign Acts – Decolonising Methodologies of the Lived and Spoken curated by Ali Gumillya Baker, at Fontanelle Gallery;
- Courting Blakness: Recalibrating Knowledge in the Sandstone University curated by Professor Fiona Foley at the University of Queensland;
- Our Mob Contemporary: Behind the Glass curated by Coby Edgar, at the Adelaide Festival Centre;
- Nunga-Odradek, curated by Ali Gamillya Baker at the Australian experimental art foundation (aeaf).
- Arc Poetry Magazine/Tree Reading Series, Master-class Poetry Workshop:
- Arc Poetry Magazine, Australia Canada
- Cordite Poetry Review: Proceaceae, A Chapbook curated by Peter Minter.
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