from the editor's desk

Permission to Write

Kirwan Henry

With the support of the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, and in partnership with the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ CentreWesterly delivered our seventh Writers’ Development Program in 2023. Three talented emerging writers were offered professional guidance and support in developing their work for publication in Westerly. Now, we are delighted to showcase their reflections on the Program here on the Editor’s Desk. If you are intrigued, you can read the feature showcasing their writing in our second issue from 2023, Westerly 68.2. Order your copy here, or subscribe here!

For many years, one of my sisters has been making music. She has been writing songs and performing them as she raises a series of small boys beside a grove of olive trees. A couple of years ago, we had a conversation about why she made music. She told me that, while it wasn’t easy, it was something she needed to do. Her music was her creative expression, a way of quantifying life—of processing the emotion of, not just the everyday, but the events we sometimes struggle to describe. I decided that I needed to make my own music again. My music was poetry.

I had hardly written anything for years. I first began writing poetry with real intent over twenty years ago. While studying teaching at university, I added Creative Writing as an elective. It was, unquestionably, the class I enjoyed the most. It was satisfying, tucking different words between my fingers, like poetry was a game of cards and every clever combination was a private win. I didn’t want to share my poetry, I just liked how it made me feel. Eventually, at my tutor’s recommendation, I offered up my first poem for publication. It was accepted, so I continued to write with reasonable success and my fair share of rejections. However, at some point, life began to get in the way. There was no exact moment that I stopped writing, it was just placed on the shelf and left there. Occasionally, I picked it up and turned it over fondly in my hands. Then I would tell myself it was something I couldn’t quite afford yet and set it back down again. Eventually, I decided that if I didn’t resume my writing soon, I probably never would. The next important step I took was to tell someone. Over coffee, I told a good friend that, once again, I would write poetry.

I began to rediscover poetry I’d written years earlier. One poem was about a miscarriage I’d experienced. This poem was different from all the others I had ever written. My writing had taken on a new meaning with the weight of experience. It was not just a fun, creative outlet, but something that, like my sister, I needed to do. I needed to do justice to the child I had lost and writing a poem was the only way I knew how. Even if no one else saw it, it meant something to me. I had managed to put the emotion of it all onto paper and it made me feel better. I called it ‘Last appointment of the day’. Westerly published this poem in 2021 and it went on to be included in Best Australian Poems for 2022.

This gave me the confidence to apply for Westerly’s Writers’ Development Program. I was surfacing from 2022, a year in which I worked more than I had intended and helped to orchestrate a move from Perth to Melbourne with my family. When I found out I’d been accepted into the program I announced writing poetry was now ‘work’, in the best possible way. I scheduled hours to write, read and research. Now that I had something tangible to work towards, I set myself deadlines. I was unable to attend meetings in person but, even online, participating in conversations with Daniel, Kate and the other members of the Writers’ Development Program, as well as the Mid-Career Fellows, was like sitting with my feet planted in warm sand. I was gifted a group of people already deeply interested in all things writing, all happy to help and share. For someone who was used to writing as a solitary pursuit, it was just what I needed and far more enjoyable than I had anticipated.

Westerly very thoughtfully chose the wonderful Thuy On as my mentor. The first time I met Thuy she told me poems were like bonsai. With care and efficiency, she trimmed my poems with her lead pencil, suggesting ways to clip away words that added nothing and revealing new shapes that threw a stronger, more defined silhouette when held up to the light. I spent the next hour furiously rewriting as I ate my lunch at the restaurant nearest to where we met. Without a doubt, these were the most productive two hours of my writing life. Like a teacher encourages a child to read to become a better writer, Thuy recommended collections of poetry that she thought would resonate with me and aid my practice. She had ushered me into a room of new authors. Further recommendations by both Daniel and Kate meant that I discovered new publications and fascinating forms of writing that I would not have found of my own accord. With the stipend provided by Westerly, I bought books and subscriptions, reading and writing more poetry than I had in years.

Writing remains very frustrating at times. I allot it hours and mental space only to find my ideas, words and feelings have collected themselves into untidy, twittering heaps. On occasion I can untangle them; smooth them into some kind of order. However, they are often like feathers that come away in my hands. I am left holding pieces that I must place down gently and return to later. Then I can endeavour to craft them onto a larger, neater form.

On lucky days, I gather up what lands in front of me. Sights, textures and sounds catch me by surprise and are gratefully received on the run. While tucked away, they sometimes attach themselves to an unlikely friend and serve me a striking combination when I come back to check on them. Sometimes the word or phrase that sparked an entire poem no longer fits as the verses build. I am learning when to persist and when to let go. I don’t think I will ever find writing easy but when I find the right words to make my own music, it’s worth it. I will continue to give it the time and space it deserves. The Writers’ Development Program has given me what I needed the most: the permission to take my writing seriously.

Kirwan Henry grew up in the south west of Western Australia, where she discovered a love for Imagist poetry in high school. It was while completing a Bachelor of Education in Perth that she decided to try classes in creative writing. After being encouraged to submit her poetry for publication, her poems were published in Blue Dog Australian Poetry, Heat and the Best of Australian Poems anthology for 2022.

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