Incandescent to apocalyptic: impressions from QPF

In a scintillating talk organised by Express Media (and available on YouTube), the Dharug/Bundjalung poet Evelyn Araluen speaks of the production of literature as historically being a dangerous place for Aboriginal people. I heard her say this around the time I was reading Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s The White Possessive, Penny van Toorn’s Writing Always Arrives Naked and Gomeroi writer Alison Whittaker’s beautiful Lemons in the Chicken Wire. Araluen’s statement occupied my thinking for some months, and not just because I think it’s true. The essential aspect of resisting privilege, which white, middle-aged men like myself have been given in shedloads for free, is that the only way to address it is to continually have humbling experiences. And as we are unlikely to get such things from other white men – humiliation not being the same as being humbled – if we are not seeking out writers like Whittaker, Araluen or Moreton-Robinson, we’re making ourselves even more useless and obstructive than we already are.

I’ve been carrying around Evelyn Araluen’s poetry in my writing bag – sourced from various corners of the internet (including Overland) and printed out and stapled together – among my notebooks and ink cartridges and novella drafts. As far as I know she doesn’t yet have a published book of poetry to her name, but it would be incomprehensible if publishers weren’t hounding her.

At any rate, last month I came across a reference that foreshadowed Araluen talking with Alison Whittaker for the Queensland Poetry Festival. It seemed like an opportunity too good to miss – especially as both poets were also performing and Whittaker was giving a workshop (something that seemed too good to be true) – so I made the long boring drive up the Pacific Highway from Widjabul country in northern NSW to Brisbane, and camped in an Airbnb I found amid the neoliberal nightmare of the suburb of New Farm, in Yuggera-Turrbal country, where the QPF had found a home at the Judith Wright Centre.

And when you walk around New Farm and the adjacent suburb of Fortitude Valley – suburbs for which the term ‘gentrification’ doesn’t come close to describing the rapacious profiteering that has happened there – it’s staggering to think of the amount of money that has been made from stealing the land and sacred sites of the Yuggera-Turrbal peoples. You could stack the banknotes in piles like skyscrapers. They’d throw their shadows across the Brisbane River and the sinister bulk of the Story Bridge, which at night has the look of an armed border crossing.

A writer’s festival is something I would normally run a mile to avoid. But reinforcing my own prejudices, no matter how carefully considered, isn’t an excuse for avoiding an event that might cause you to think.

I should say too, that there was a lot I didn’t get to at the QPF – partly because of time, because I was operating on such little sleep that co-ordinating a timetable was beyond me – so this isn’t a review of the whole event by any means, except to say that it is obviously a good thing, had an urgent and welcome focus on the experiences of black poets, queer poets and poets of colour, went off and was happening, was well-attended and I applaud it. I spent a couple of weeks at the Judith Wright Centre a few years back as a writer-in-residence for some new music events, and I know what a difficult space it is to animate. It’s kind of boxy and corporate and has the feel of a Centrelink office with a bar, if Centrelink offices were mostly painted black. Not that that made any difference to the poets I want to write about. They lit the place up.

I managed to make the poetry ‘Cabaret’ on Friday night, Alison Whittaker’s poetry workshop on Saturday, an amazing event called ‘Kin’ on Saturday night and Araluen and Whittaker’s conversation on Sunday morning, before I had to head home. Each of these events gave me a cuff around the head that was (is always) sorely needed, and illuminated me at the same time, so I have a lot of gratitude for what I experienced, and I just want to speak to that briefly, and why it’s not that important as well.

The Friday ‘Cabaret’ featured both Araluen and Whittaker, and – without wanting to dismiss the other poets who read that night, all overseas visitors – it’s their performances I want to focus on. Araluen was incandescent. Her poetry not only has tremendous power and complexity, but also manages to be both precise and nuanced, while still like having someone come through your screen door with a machete. However, that was nothing in comparison to her performance the following night in ‘Kin’. When Araluen opened her ‘Cabaret’ performance by speaking to the land’s traditional owners saying she was honoured to walk their country, and reminded us that we need to walk lightly on this stolen land, there was something in the intensity of her delivery that jolted me into wakefulness. I felt as if I should be saying, in all sincerity, ‘O fuck, I’m so sorry Evelyn. I didn’t understand. From now on I will always do exactly as you ask’.

Alison Whittaker’s presence was of a different order. Her book Lemons in the Chicken Wire has meant a lot to me and it has been my bedside companion for some months. She ambled on stage and read quietly, almost diffidently, but with such basic humility, that it almost felt like she was offering us the words of someone else, as though she could set her words free of herself and let them stand on their own.

This humility and indeed generosity was fully apparent in her poetry workshop I attended the next day. As I said, I’d usually run a mile from such a thing, and I’m a novelist/essayist of sorts, not a poet. But having been so immersed in Lemons in the Chicken Wire I figured that the workshop would be an event of some power and I could at least sit in a corner and listen and learn how much I didn’t know. Having had less than three hours broken sleep the night before, I thought that was probably all I was up for.

Twenty years ago, as a young man, I thought I ‘got’ poetry. I wrote it, and loved it and even had a bit of success with it. It was the acerbic comments of another poet (a white male, no surprises there) that made me think I didn’t get it at all, and should give it up. Which I did. Alison Whittaker’s workshop unlocked that ancient past and said to me, ‘You did get it. And you can still have it’.

Unbelievably, I read out one of my own (workshop-produced) poems at the workshop, which for someone as paranoically reserved and socially inept as me, who has to spend so much energy pretending he’s neither and hasn’t written a poem in two decades, was nothing short of cataclysmic. Of course, the chances of me becoming a poet of the stature of Whittaker or Araluen (or any of the other astounding poets I heard the next night in ‘Kin’ – Laniyuk Garcon-Mills, Gemma Mahadeo, Eunice Andrada, wāni) are approximately equal to the odds of me getting to the moon on the back of a chicken. Still, the simple exercises that Whittaker put myself and her other students through – and more importantly, the spirit of generosity with which she did it (loading us up with Oreos, chocolate and oranges, patience and robust kindness), and reminding us that not knowing your poetry technics was the least of one’s problems – laid open a road for me that I thought was a ruined and hopeless cul-de-sac.

After Whittaker’s workshop I crashed back at the Airbnb, sleeping for periods in between reading a collection of essays I picked up at the QPF pop-up bookshop, Colouring the Rainbow: Blak Queer and Trans Perspectives. In the other spaces in between the in-betweens of reading and sleeping I thought about poetry; I thought about an essay I wrote for Overland called ‘On setting yourself on fire’, in which I imagined what literature could carry and how I didn’t go nearly far enough; I thought about the fatuous narcissistic behaviour of Australia’s sadistic politicians that has given us seven prime ministers in a decade, each crueller than the last, resulting in yet another serial human rights abuser the right-wing press jocularly call ScoMo, an epithet that automatically resolves itself into ‘Scummo’ in my un-poetic mind.

A few months ago during one of ABC Classic FM’s interminable ‘100 Best Of’ weekends, I heard a brief quote from a young Aboriginal dancer from Bangarra Dance Theatre. I didn’t catch his name, and it being a randomly broadcast soundbite haven’t been able to go back and check it. He spoke about the work Bangarra did as following and continuing 60,000 years of culture. And furthermore, he said, we are preparing for the next 60,000 years. Thinking optimistically on that kind of timescale, blew my tiny white mind. I recapped this to an Aboriginal colleague at my workplace. She threw her head back and laughed uproariously and said, ‘Oh yeah! We’ll still be going in 60,000 years!’ – then a beat – ‘Dunno about you guys though!’

I was still thinking about all this when I went to ‘Kin’, a performance by young black poets and poets of colour. Kin opened without fanfare with an electrifying performance by French/Larrakia/Kungarrakan/Gurindji poet Laniyuk Garcon-Mills. She laid it all out in the first few lines: ‘Imperialism came by boat and infiltrated our minds … Turned our suffering into dollar signs …’ It was very raw and direct stuff, built on a foundation of sophisticated understanding of how white capitalism inhabits and creates its subjects. In retrospect, Garcon-Mills performance was the perfect opening set for the night: unambiguous; alive; razor-sharp; unapologetic; open and inviting. She had to carry a lot as the first person on stage and she did so with tremendous poise and verve.

Garcon-Mills was immediately followed by Gemma Mahadeo, whose QPF bio says ‘completed a Women Writers of Colour commission to write three video game ekphrastic poems’, a trio I’d love to be able to read. Mahadeo contextualised her reading for us when she said, ‘When you have experienced as much trauma as I have …’ Making such a transparent statement requires, at the best of times, immense reserves of courage and self-understanding. Making it to an audience of strangers while reading your own poetry, is on another level again. Mahadeo’s reading embodied a spirit of all the poets who performed  ‘Kin’ I think: an unaffected bravery and transparency and ability to transform that into a wild kind of poetry that reaches out first with its imagery and clouds of associations and then follows you around for the rest of the evening, still tapping you on the shoulder as you hunker down for another night of dreaming with its reminders that someone like Gemma Mahadeo knows more about honesty and poetic invention than I may learn in the next three decades.

Mahadeo created a distinctly reflective space that was ideal for the entry of Evelyn Araluen. Araluen was again in blistering form. Her rage and honesty is something to behold, incredibly moving, and often shattering. And welded to a poetic gift like hers, you understand what poetry can do and why it is needed. If my hair stood on end in awe and terror during her reading, I wouldn’t have been surprised. At the ‘Cabaret’ the previous night, Araluen was dressed entirely in white. At ‘Kin’ she was entirely in black and it seemed like she’d actually grown by another foot. Her delivery was virtuosic, a poet who probably still has yet to come into the height of her powers. Poetically speaking, I thought of the wrathful female buddha, Vajrayogini, who stands enveloped in flames, carries a curved flaying knife and a bowl full of blood and eats your ego because you’re too fucked up and full of privilege to pull yourself together.

I read somewhere that Araluen said she started to write poetry when she began to learn the Bundjalung language. I hope I’ve got that right. It makes poetic sense anyway, being given birth by the language of your Country and ancestors.

She was followed by the Filipina-Australian poet Eunice Andrada, who after the furnace that was the poetics of Evelyn Araluen offered us something as cool, and deft, as the blade of a knife, her complex meditations on trauma, violence, colonialism. As with the previous poets, I was astounded by her ability to take distressing mind-bending material and transform it into intensely beautiful and apocalyptic poetry. I bought her book Flood Damages first thing the following morning, and I’m very glad I did, because from its first lines it is a reminder that the most interesting, vital and desperate literature in this country is being produced by poets, and poets who aren’t white.

The end of ‘Kin’ was a little blockbuster of a set by the Melbourne-based Congolese poet wāni. If Laniyuk Garcon-Mills was the ideal poet to set the scene for the others, wāni was the ideal poet to pull all the threads of their work together. His performance was poetry of high-impact vulnerability, as if James Baldwin had learned to speak in incantations. It was theatre without theatricality, a pouring forth of narrative saturated with powerful moral imperatives, demands and invitations. It was a fitting summary and conclusion to what had gone before.

On the last morning of the QPF it rained, which felt a little auspicious. I had to run 800 metres through the downpour to get to Araluen and Whittaker’s conversation. It was everything I thought it might be and more. Whittaker said they were ‘just going to talk shit about poetry and colonialism’ as they did socially whenever they met. In short order they went through verticality of white law vs horizontality of Aboriginal law; interrogations of whiteness; the privileging and valorising of white male violence; invitations to academically successful Aboriginal people to collude with oppressive attitudes and practices and a lot more. It was a privilege to listen to them and hear Whittaker’s elegant arguments and subtle reasonings. The previous session went overtime so Araluen and Whittaker started late and it seemed a bizarre programming decision to limit two such significant poets to barely 45 rushed minutes on a Sunday morning.

In what I’ve written above, I don’t mean to situate the work of Araluen or Whittaker as somehow more worthwhile or more sophisticated or powerful than that of the other poets I heard. It’s just that I’ve been reading them both for a while now. It’s a bit like following a band you’ve been listening to with admiration and excitement and finally seeing them live. It can be a make-or-break deal. And if they deliver, you can become even more of a fanboy than you ever were before, as though something has been liberated inside you.

In the end, whether or not I was affected, turned inside out, and completely messed with by the work of the poets I’ve mentioned, doesn’t matter an iota. Whether middle-aged, white men get the poetics of Whittaker, Araluen, Garcon-Mills, Amadeo, Andrada and wāni is beside the point. If capitalism is to go, so do the values and privileges of whiteness and patriarchy. There’s no alternative. In that sense, the insane frothing rantings of Australian shock-jocks, of right-wing politicians and would-be Nazis is what we might expect when the system that has sustained them is crumbling. If real systemic change were underway, this is what it would probably look like: white supremacists shouting about their ‘oppression’, panic-stricken security states ramping up paranoid surveillance of their own citizens, men demanding their ‘rights’. And though it’s nice for me to have my head and heart screwed with because of the work of black poets and poets of colour, that’s just an epiphenomenon of their generosity. What I think and feel doesn’t matter that much. And neither should it. These poets speak to their complex histories because they desperately have to, for all of us, and perhaps even more so for everyone who will come after them who will read them with perfect understanding because their poetics will make an absolute and crystal-clear sense in a world that looks nothing like this one.


Image: Alison Whittaker’s half-time oranges / via Annie Te Whiu’s Twitter 

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

More by Stephen Wright ›

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  1. Steven is right. Poets such as Whittaker and Araluen are blazing new trails in ancient tongues, often using hybrid forms and with exquisitely precise emotional weaponry. He is wrong, though, in suggesting that as a white male Australian his opinion doesn’t matter. The great lesson of Aboriginal lore/Law in this country is that everything matters. All sentient beings have a Law and a Dreaming (known or unknown). Erasing white privilege does not mean erasing white voices. It rather means pulling down the hierarchies of white supremacy which value white male thought while denigrating other positions. This is a process of inclusion, not exclusion, though to white men I’m sure it must often feel otherwise.

    1. Hi Melissa. Thanks for dropping by and taking the time to comment. I’m not objecting to inclusion at all on the scale you are describing, but I think that white male voices can and should find ways to shut up, listen, and make space for others. I suspect that’s how the inclusion will work. And I’m perfectly happy for my own voice to be given less and less value. In the next several decades, either the voices of people like the poets I heard at QPF are culturally foregrounded, or we all die.

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