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Obituary

When someone great is gone: remembering Ania Walwicz

We three met Ania in the Diploma of Arts: Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT, where over the course of many short story and poetry classes, we became friends. Benjamin and Clare both went onto work with Ania at RMIT PWE. In recognition of the different relationships we (and everyone) had with the artistic force that was Ania, this reflection attempts to capture some of the different ways we remember her.

Jacinda: There are a few things we definitely know about Ania. She was born in Świdnica in Poland in 1951. Her father was a vet and passed on the talent of animal whispering (this talent often manifested as a secret language Ania cooed to make various creatures come closer). Her grandfather worked in the post office of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, something she mentioned periodically and that resurfaced in Horse – ‘I smoke cigarettes of my grandfather in Vienna in the post office of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I cough and cough now.’

Ania and her family migrated to ‘big ugly’ in 1963. Ania attended VCA. She was a phenomenal poet, visual artist, performer, critic, teacher and philosopher.  She loved cats, particularly Mr Boopy, and literature, art, fashion, storytelling and an audience. She was fascinated by the artistic impulse and process. She authored seven books and collections – Boat won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize in 1990. She also wrote plays.

Her influence as a teacher cannot be overstated: she taught whole generations of students – thousands – across decades and institutions. She taught in universities and schools, she taught in prisons, she ran workshops here and internationally. While having a dedicated audience in Australia, she gained followings in Japan and Poland and wherever she read her poetry. Whenever students or readers encountered her ideas or her work, it changed how they conceived of writing and language and their possibilities.

She had faith in every single person’s ability to create and to write.

It’s hard to say exactly when I started loving Ania Walwicz. I studied her poetry as part of my undergrad literature degree and never imagined that, a few years later, I would become her student – in our first conversation, I asked for her thoughts on the poetry selection for an anthology: ‘have you considered negative editing, where you change nothing and publish everything?’ she asked – and then, her friend. We spent many conversations agreeing about Artaud, arguing about Freud and admiring Duras. She was brilliant, fickle, vague, profound, kind and fanciful, and her creativity and inimitable manner radiated constantly, and that’s why it’s so hard to imagine her not here.

Clare: I enrolled in PWE and took Short Story knowing nothing about the great experimental writer, Ania Walwicz, beyond the selection interview where she had been kind and intimidating in equal measure. And then Short Story 2 and Poetry because I had learned that she was essential to my reinvention as a writer. I was deeply immersed in the ruthless craft of novel-writing and the intricacies of editing: I needed Ania’s art-for-art’s-sake permission to keep up my courage.

Every class with Ania was an experience. We united in awe, and amusement, and deepest respect – or disrespect. Ania polarised her students: they either loved her or she infuriated them. If you were looking for a manual on ‘how to write a short story’ and detailed feedback on your writing, you had come to the wrong place. If you wanted to immerse yourself in the world of short story or poetry or prose-poetics, in the history of the arts and the lives of artists that scaffolded the evolution of the forms up to the end of the twentieth century, and enjoy a teacher’s boundless enthusiasm for your work, then Ania Walwicz was the cat’s pyjamas. My first publication in Overland was a short story I wrote in her class.

She was so proud of everyone who published out of her classes. Proud of the short story and poetry chapbooks made in class. Proud of the youtubes of spoken word. Art was life, and she lived it in every moment, with every breath.

In the hey-day of the friendships that evolved from those days, we attended parties, book launches, poetry recitals, and the theatre (she particularly loved La Mama, and Playback theatre with its focus on story and improvisation) and the occasional movie at her beloved Cinema Nova; but in all that, I never saw anything as extraordinary as Ania Walwicz performing Ania Walwicz as spoken word. Whether it was a public performance at a festival or spoken word event, or an RMIT student event, or the launch of her own work: Palace of Culture at La Mama Courthouse and Horse at RMIT Gallery, she never failed to shock, delight, intrigue and enchant. Her performance with ‘Person or Persons Unknown’ at the 2019 Odyssey Literary festival was one of the highlights of my teacherly life – I blessed her for blowing our minds. She was transgressive, but innocent; searing, but vulnerable; urgent, yet entirely playful and indulgent. Ania broke language, reformed it in her own image, scattered it like wildflower-seeds, used it as a weapon; she drove language and was driven by it. She had no respect for conventions of punctuation or grammar except in her discerning recognition of the excellence of others. She had an abiding love-affair with Kafka, which was charming – and with Freud, which was disturbing. As I write these words, I hear her laugh.

Benjamin: I too first met Ania when I was interviewed by her for the PWE course, when I had aspirations to writing short fictions, which led me to taking short story. I didn’t know that being taught by Ania would completely change the direction of my life.

Once I had taken one course with Ania, I needed to take all the courses she was giving, which led me to poetry. In the years since, she continued to support and engage with my work in many ways. She was not one with technology, but would invite me to her classes to proselytise electronic poetry. Ania would always introduce students to a scope of writers from a range of different aesthetic traditions. She allowed students to find their own style and direction, which she would foster, even if wildly different from her own tastes. Over the past few days, I’ve seen countless other students share similar relationships – because the rapport Ania had with her students continued well after you left her classroom.

Email from 2014 (three years since Ania had been my teacher):

hi ben- i am now planning to start a new movement in poetry- online and in real time – an alternative situation (bigger than constructivism!) & as good as degenerate art- i was talking to jess about this- yesterday- would you join me in this?- it is time now for this to happen- we should meet soon- best regards ania

It would be impossible to have Melbourne as a City of Literature without Ania, because of that influence on writing and writers in Melbourne, and indeed, across Australia.

She did despair for the state of arts, and what was happening to culture in Australia – the neoliberalism of culture and the university, and the mainstreaming of right-wing values. When she last visited us, she borrowed Jeff Sparrow’s Fascists Among Us, because she was concerned about Trump and the rise of what he represented. We planned to meet up to discuss it, but then the pandemic hit.

J: That sense of Ania Walwicz as both a public figure – this amazing, avant-garde artist who you hear read once and then can never separate that voice from her words again – and influential teacher perhaps explains the very personal sense of loss and grief that everyone is feeling. Every relationship she had was unique, which is evident in all the public remembrances. She taught generations of writers, influencing the whole literary landscape.

It was an irony that she saw so much talent and potential in her students but had so much despair for the state of culture.

She was very generous: as mentioned, she supported and strengthened each individual aesthetic, from spoken word to free verse to literary experimentation. It’s a great quality from someone whose own practice was so clear, strong and singular.

C: Ania had no internet or computer at home until 2020 and typed up her PhD in the RMIT PWE office in the evenings and on the weekends. Horse is testimony to her genius and I’m so glad it won the Alfred Deakin Medal. It’s most certainly not the children’s book she once thought perhaps it might be, though it does feature dear little Ania, the child. Child of trauma. Child of Central Europe. Child with a searing genius, a wicked sense of humour, a penchant for mischief, a duty to culture, and an abiding love of art and language. She never lost her childlike curiosity, and the firm belief that nothing had existed until the moment she discovered it.

J: I think she was somebody who really embodied her art practice, not unlike Artaud, and as realised in the ficto-critical triumph Horse. Her body of work shows her brilliance – take her poem ‘Australia’, a searing condemnation of white Australia. Take this performance of Horse as another:

B: Coming from an Asian-Australian background, there’s a certain way that I encountered Australian literature that made me feel not part of it, particularly in the ways that it was taught in schools – it’s so nothing. That’s why I wasn’t particularly interested in Australian poetry until I encountered the migrant poets, such as П. O. and Ania, who wrote these exciting, experimental works that used language to build the new. Ania’s work is both an exploration of her personal identity but also an expression of experimentalism. Often these two are seen as polar opposite, but they should be read together.

J: ‘I’ve sometimes thought that when someone you know dies, the moment of their death seems to generate a pulse into the world,’ Stephen Wright wrote in Overland just recently, ‘something you register, a kind of personal shockwave of everything they’ve ever done or said, that lingers for a while in things that were important to them.’

Heartbroken is the adjective I’ve seen mentioned most in relation to the loss of Ania. Like a piece of Melbourne’s heart is missing. I find it hard to separate the personal from the artistic and political of Ania Walwicz, and so wanted to capture something of what she and her work meant to me, and how sad I am.

Ania liked the attention of the performative – to hold forth in classes or during cups of tea. But for a long time, I had worried about how solitary her existence was, something exacerbated by life during the pandemic. I regret not pushing more when I ran into her six weeks ago and she told me she was sick – on not insisting on buying her groceries, or just checking in. But she wasn’t one to accept those kinds of intrusions.

C: I’m not sure why Ania withdrew so completely in the last months of her life, ignoring phone calls, emails, rebuffing visitors and concern. I wonder now if it was because she had lived her life as performance art and knew the theatre was closing at last – lost its funding, borer in the hardwood, or perhaps she did not want her audience to see the effort, the props in the corridors.

I wrote her a letter last month – quill and ink on paper, sealed with sealing wax. I don’t know if she received it before she died and because it was written with the old technology, there is no copy, and I can’t remember exactly what I said. But its purpose was to tell her that I loved her. That at RMIT, we were thinking of her. I hope my old-fashioned snail-mail found its way under the door of her backstage dressing room, and that she picked it up and broke the seal and knew how much she was loved.

B: It’s still hard coming to terms with a world without her and her conversations and her readings and new poems. In any other period, we’d be remembering her like we did after classes, at the Lincoln, where she would drink San Pellegrino and peel an orange. I’m forever grateful for the path that her extraordinary teaching and writing put me on.

J: I will miss the phone calls – always from a local landline or RMIT, no mobile communication for Ania – and the endless discussions about politics and art and the future of the world and what other artists are working on. There are not enough adjectives to contain her, nor to describe everything she gave to so many other writers and students. To quote a poet friend, ‘And all that we are left with is the mystery of Ania.’

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Ania taught us that art is central to being human. She recognised that to be an artist is also to be a teacher. She wanted to create a community and a movement, and when it suited, that community was also her court.

I’m Louis the Fourteenth, the King of France. I have long curly hair. I stand in white stockings and high heels in Versailles and I sing – I will always be your sweetheart, no matter what you do, oh, oh, oh, Carole, I’m so in love with you!

I’m taking all these cats in a bag to a big grassy field under a sunny sky so I can teach them how to paint. I’m going to teach them how to paint. They want to learn how to paint. I’m going to teach them how to paint.

‘Dream Diary’, Ania Walwicz (1989)

 

Images by Naomi Herzog

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

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Jacinda Woodhead is a writer and editor. She was the first sole woman editor of Overland (2015–2019).

Clare Strahan is a two-time novelist with Allen & Unwin publishers, long-ago contributing editor to Overland, and teaches in the RMIT Professional Writing & Editing Associate Degree.

Benjamin Laird is a Melbourne-based computer programmer and poet. He is currently a PhD candidate at RMIT researching poetry and programming and he is a website producer for Overland literary journal and Cordite Poetry Review.

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Comments

  1. A beautiful & fitting tribute to the unforgettable Ania. Thank you. Walking along a leaf-strewn Cardigan Street after late lectures, the click of her little boots, low speculative conversations, ‘you must come in for a cup of tea’.

  2. Thank you for capturing the essence of Ania. I also was transformed by her short story and poetry classes at PWE. As with so many of us, Ania lives on forever in my heart in all of her technicolor glory.

  3. Thank you, Ania Walwicz, for the way your words named, identified and shattered Anglo-settler Australia’s big ugly. As non-Anglo migrants who experienced the corrosiveness of assimilation, the paternalism of our Anglo superiors and their repeated attempts to shoehorn us into their bloodless English, we found in your words uplift and strength, courage to defy and to laugh. You opened up through your poetry vistas that spoke to us of the vitality of difference and of envisaging the possibility of beauty in the midst of trauma, jagged loss and incomprehension. In the context of our literature classes, the transformative power of your poems to our non-Anglo students was electric: they would beam with recognition. Ania, you have left us with a precious legacy of the big beautiful – Joseph Pugliese and Suvendrini Perera

  4. a brief encounter with Ania’s genius at an Adelaide Writers Week many many years ago has haunted me ever since…GP

  5. Thank you for all these words. Ania was a special teacher. She could see the good in you, and would tell you, with those piercing eyes and wry grin.
    I loved her classes and she’s partly why I write today.

  6. Vale fearless Ania who left her mark on so many. Ania burst into my life in undergraduate studies at Deakin in the early 80s when I encountered her work and that of P.O. In a word – electrifying.

  7. Thank you so much for this obituary for Ania; so moving, it brought me to tears. Never met her (sadly) but so, so love her work. Teach it every year (‘Australia’ and others). Horse is a triumph. Vale, Ania – what a gift to art, and what a loss.

  8. It was a writing project at the Collingwood Migrant Women’s Learning Centre that introduced Ania and me to each other, in 1986. As immigrant girls, Ania and I are linked by the invisible thread of “displacement”. Princes Pier at Port Melbourne, is one of the iconic places her and I frequently drove to after work. When the Pier was still in a state of disrepair, we’d wind down the car windows, and as ships trafficked in and out of the bay, Ania and I unspooled histories of joy and of foreboding. To say right now I’m numb, would be an understatement. I do hope that in the fullness of time,I will be able do justice to Ania’s lacerating humour, and decades of enduring friendship. Once she went on sick leave, I too had a taste of her distancing. But the last time we had a telephone conversation, she sounded up-beat, and said ” I’ll call you with a date for a walk in the Fitzroy Garden”…

  9. Such sad news.
    I will never forget her Short Story classes at RMIT, around 10 years ago now, and yes the wild polarising of her students. But I was all for Ania. To me she represented a true artist, outside commerce or criticism. ‘Who ever made a monument to a critic?’ she would demand and she’d smirk and roll her eyes like Groucho Marx.
    When we read our foetal drafts in her class she said, ‘Now you are published, you have made your work public, right?’ She dared us to dream big but also to celebrate each step, to share with us the secret that art can be all progress and no product.
    We will miss you.

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