These poems are from Alison’s debut collection, Lemons in the Chicken Wire, and are reproduced in Tincture Journal with thanks to Magabala Books. Interview questions by Stuart Barnes and Daniel Young.
The interview and poems also appear in Issue 13. Check out the full table of contents here and consider supporting our work by buying a copy.
A scalp-scab burnt and straw-haired woman
spoke to me a revolution
that roared within my belly, only once it were ate
after years of pushin’ it round the plate
and when I realised what she knew
and what I missed—O, Eureka!
Nan sliced her finger on a crossword
and wrote with that a dissertation, then she
browning, spoke to me
her contested trinity
the messianic, and the self, and the
blades of grass that pierce the pulp
of weedy toes, that the world should meet you
and wound you as you wound it
made Descartes wrong about that split
the first time I said
a long white theory word
she yarned stiff to impress me
like, with that word
came authority, and with it, fear
that she had been misunderstood
her praxis clumsy or unheard
O, the weaker!
And then, at every drawn goodbye
like a choir, leaning each to the other to hold a clap
my nan clasps my hands and whispers to me
decolonising epistemology, and
critical autonomy, and
And what she says is:
remember yourself, and call me once a week
on which I ruminate
For how long have you been writing poetry, and what or who inspired you to begin?
The answer depends on how we define ‘poetry’, I suppose!
I’ve been writing poetry since I became interested in the kind of meaning-making that went beyond the transfer of information. I have lucid memories of writing structured poetry forms in primary school, and from then on teachers and my family encouraged me to keep going. They added fuel to the fire, and my family often drove me around for kids’ writing competitions. I can recall my parents sitting me in front of a second-hand computer and teaching me how to type when I was about eight. First it was re-typing what was in the catalogues, and then I started to type independently. My mother caught me writing something in a form that I would now describe as poetry. That poem listed my favourite things—with the brutality only a child could muster! I’d compiled a definitive rank, with reasons, of my favourite grandparents, my favourite sister, my favourite cousin, my favourite parent. Suffice to say, that particular afternoon I began my long stumble over the ethical contours of life writing.
When and where was your first poem published, and what was it about?
To answer that, I must come back to the definition of ‘published’; that must be infuriating!
The first poem I wrote that was ‘publicly distributed’ was a collection of poems that were peppered through a surrealist short story I wrote as part of my final year in high school, 2010. Those poems were about bioethics, empathy, corporatism and the great experiment of artificial intelligence—thinking about two theories linking robots and any humanity they might have, Alan Turing’s language test and Masahiro Mori’s Uncanny Valley. It sounds a lot more intellectual than it is—a number of the poems are about, peculiarly now that I think about it, robotic intercourse in a train bathroom. Anyway, my class each printed out our final works and had them cheaply bound as an anthology.
My other ‘first poem published’ was at UTS in 2013, in the local university rag Vertigo. I say ‘rag’ endearingly, of course. Those poems were actually the roots of Lemons’ architecture, and the architecture of my most recent practice of life writing. They investigated cemeteries as community spaces capable of joy and coming together, and also looked closely at generational gaps, life expectancy, and those great poetic inspirations: love and death.
How and where do your poems take shape?
I’m a writing opportunist, so the answer to ‘where’ is: everywhere. How? Also, essentially: however. I have a small book I write my ideas in, and then play with them in any way I can until they either take on flesh or start to stink. I play with them in the usual ways—re-writes, un-writing, editing, aerating. I also mutter them under my breath when I’m physically moving to check them for rhythm and lucidity—train, bus, car, walking. Obviously, I strongly recommend this as a poetic technique, but it’s also a great way to get my fair berth of personal space on public transport!
In an interview with Sydney Time Out in June 2008, Dorothy Porter revealed “Music has been the key for me since I was a teenager … I wanted to tap into that dark potency of rock ‘n’ roll, and I still write to music every day.” Does music influence your poetry? If so, what music influences your poetry? Can/do you write to music? If not, what other art forms influence your own work?
Yes. For me, at least, the bodily experience of writing is all about riding a crescendo of heightened senses for as long as I can, or as long as is necessary. Music gets me to that rolling crescendo, but it can’t keep me there and I can’t write with music playing. So much of my work is situated in past-ness, present-ness, so I tap into the top 40 hits of the relevant time to get my head there. Contemporaneously, I listen to Briggs, Leikeli47, and MIA for inspiration—technically excellent poets themselves. Reading poetry that I love and reading tweets I hate also gives me the goosebump-y, pupils-blasted overload I usually need to get poetry on a page. Like Porter, I want to tap into something I don’t naturally have—there’s something potent, drug-like, Dr Jeckyll-esque about it. Through it, you become.
Tell me about ‘O, Eureka!’ and ‘Sharp Tongue’, the poems appearing in this issue of Tincture Journal and also your collection Lemons in the Chicken Wire.
The less I say about them, the better, because each is about the process of making knowledge and making meaning! Those things are best left unsaid by me, so that you can get whatever you need out of them.
‘Sharp Tongue’ follows the format of a receipt for a book I bought in early 2015. I write about re-learning my language as a process of re-birthing traditional knowledges, and convey a sense of urgency for linguistic revival and resistance against cultural death.
In ‘O, Eureka!’, I take aim at institutional devaluation of Aboriginal women’s knowledges and epistemologies through exploring the teachings of my Nan in contrast with those of the academy.
Collectively, these poems make the intellectual visceral and situate thinking and storytelling in a colonial context.
How has your poetry been influenced by others’? By your academic studies? By relocating from north-western New South Wales to Sydney?
A writing degree is at once a clarifying and confusing thing. I have no stronger sense of how poetry is constructed or what poetry is following my degree. What I do have now is a vague sense of how to navigate this big, risky bet we call writing—getting something from my head and body into your head and body. What I also have now, I hope, is some discipline and some basic language to discuss, and be responsive to criticism of, how meaning gets out of my head. That has enduring value.
I’m emboldened by the experimental or political poetry of others, just like I’ve been inspired by friends’ stage-plays, essays, blogs, conversations, social media fights, and memes. Beyond this, dislocating my whole life from the north-west to Sydney makes me anxiously aware of everything around me. Moving from Gomeroi to Gadigal land is like moving across worlds. All this being the case, it’s almost inevitable to take influence from the hidden poetry that’s in all writing and living.
Congratulations on receiving a black&write Indigenous Fellowship for your debut poetry collection Lemons in the Chicken Wire. Tell me about the collection—its forms, rhythms, origins. And we love the title—can you elaborate a bit on that?
Thank you! Lemons took six years to write, from 2010 to 2015. I didn’t know I was writing it until the early parts of 2014. Lemons in the Chicken Wire is about queer Aboriginal women on the rural fringe. It is based on the lives of five or so women, including myself, on either side of the turn of the century. I would say that it is experimental in form—scaffolded to represent and enmesh itself with the invisible poetry people encounter every day. Receipts, conversations, shopping lists, haiku-esque events. I wanted it to mimic the interaction between world and mind, and represent, in some small way, how colonisation dislodges meaning-making, language, self. To that extent Lemons’ rhythm is one that deliberately runs, trips, rolls, but always leaves space for the reader, who ultimately makes a poem what it is.
As for the title, I’m fascinated by the texture of chicken wire, and the plants that grow through it. It’s a very yellow, rural image. Chicken wire is everywhere back home. Lemons, well, that’s some crass slang for lesbians.
What are your thoughts on print vs. digital poetry publication?
My thoughts are: why versus?
Good point! What poets are you reading, what’s your favourite poem at the moment?
Right now I’m working through a pile of books I’ve steadily accrued over the years. Among them is T. S. Elliot’s The Wasteland, Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Inside My Mother and a pile of old literary mags. My favourite today would be Cobby Eckermann’s title poem. I can’t shake it out of my head, I simply cannot get it out of me.
Thanks Alison for your time, your thoughts, and for sharing these poems from your collection with our readers.
Alison Whittaker is a Gomeroi poet and essayist from the floodplain fringe of north-western New South Wales. She now lives in Sydney on Wangal land, studying and working in media law and Aboriginal women’s law and policy. Alison has written for Meanjin, Vertigo and Colouring the Rainbow: Blak Queer and Trans Perspectives. Her debut poetry collection Lemons in the Chicken Wire, winner of the State Library of Queensland’s 2015 black&write! Fellowship, will be released on March 1.