Four talented emerging writers were offered professional guidance and support in developing their work for publication in Westerly, both in print and online. We are now delighted to be able to showcase their work here at the Editor’s Desk, while we celebrate the publication of their work in the new Westerly 65.1.
‘For it is not difference which immobilises us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.’—Audre Lorde, from ‘The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action’
I’ve written eight new poems as of July this year.
After three months of lockdown, this feels like failure. Life is going back to normal now, but still I ignore the five library books collecting dust on my bookshelf, the online uni lectures I never got around to watching, the deadlines I barely make at the last minute. Never mind that poems only seem to be getting harder and harder to write.
To be fair, 2020 has been, to use that grating buzzword, ‘unprecedented’. It feels selfish to be writing about myself, and sometimes to be writing at all, amidst a global pandemic and looming economic recession, not to mention everything else going on—funding cuts to the arts, the civil rights movements against systemic racism, uni fees for humanities courses being doubled, continued inaction against climate change, to cite a few things on my mind—that is all valid cause for distraction and/or falling into a pit of despair about the state of our government, our country and the world.
I’ve always believed in the importance of art. Well, belief doesn’t feel like the right word—what I’m trying to say is, I’ve always had a deep sense that making art is innate to living. In her short essay ‘Poetry is not a Luxury’, Audre Lorde writes: ‘Poetry is not only dream and vision, it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundation for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before’ (38).
As the need for change grows increasingly urgent, perhaps now is the time to be writing, to be creating the world we need.
At the start of 2019, I decided I was going to take this writing thing seriously. I haven’t stopped questioning myself since. What kind of impact can my writing have? What difference can I make? Is there a purpose to my poetry beyond the value that I get out of writing it? Am I good enough of a writer to ‘make it’? What does ‘making it’ mean? And does my identity as a queer mixed-race Filipino immigrant woman affect my chances of ‘making it’ as a writer in Australia?
It’s midway through 2020, and I haven’t managed to quiet the voices of self-doubt yet. I don’t know if I ever will. But I do know that in spite of those voices, over the last twelve months I’ve been given opportunities that are helping me to build my career as a writer. Among those are Westerly’s Writers’ Development Program and a Hot Desk Fellowship at the Centre for Stories. Through these programs, I’ve been reminded that creating art is important. I’ve been inspired by my fellow emerging writers, and encouraged by mentors to keep writing, to keep doing the work. In particular, in being mentored by Marcella Polain through the WDP, I was supported by her belief in my poetry, my voice and my potential as a writer.
Perhaps I do have something to offer in my writing. But while external validation always helps, every writer knows rejection is inevitable and comes far more often than its counterpart. I’m still working on my own inner sense of purpose and validation. I know that without it, a career in the arts is unlikely to be sustainable.
Sometimes I curse myself for choosing poetry, of all things, to give my energy to. As a poet, there are certain things I feel are true about poetry: Poetry is not activism. Poetry is unlikely to create meaningful change. Poetry has a reputation for being unpopular, niche and elitist, despite the growing proliferation of spoken word and slam poetry, where I started out. Poetry is whitewashed. Poetry, at times, feels self-serving. Poetry provides no real answers.
If anything, poetry only adds to the questions: Why should I keep making art and poetry? As a queer woman of colour, how do I keep writing poetry in this political climate? Is it more important to do so now than ever? Do I really have a choice?
The more I learn about craft, about my own voice and vision, about intentionality, the harder writing gets. But I find it necessary to acknowledge my personal truths about poetry and the questions that come with that. I do it over and over again, and what I come to, always, consistently, is this: poetry itself is a form of questioning. This questioning is not entirely separate from my own incessant inquiry into writing and selfhood. Poetry is a questioning of language, of convention, of form, of memory, of truth. No matter how much my craft grows and evolves, from performing slam poetry to writing experimental page poetry, from publishing in blogs to appearing in anthologies, that one thing stays the same.
A few days ago, when I was supposed to be writing this reflection, I procrastinated by revising a poem. This particular poem was written during my Hot Desk stint at the Centre for Stories back in October 2019. At the time, the poem didn’t feel cohesive or finished, but I left it to sit for a few months. I usually enjoy editing poems, in a methodical kind of way: feeling out fissures, figuring out what the poem is actually about, cutting out lines and running words through thesaurus.com.
Sometimes editing, like writing, is all work, drawing on the skills and techniques I’ve learned over the years. But this time, the poem pulls me in. I can feel in my gut what the poem wants to be. I cut lines and write new verses and the poem grows. Stylistic choices, pronoun choices, formal choices—I have a reason for them, but not one that I can readily articulate now. I’m simply following where the poem leads. I wonder, in the middle of it, how the poem should end. And then suddenly, a few verses later, I realise I’ve just written the final line. That questioning through poetry has provided a new ending; what was once ‘ritual’ (Lattimore) is now ‘rituals’, to be published in an upcoming anthology.
Excerpt from ‘ritual’ (draft 4)—final verse
i make a habit of beginning.
i ask god what it is
she wants from me:
every year for seven
years the same question.
(to be fair, i was distracted
by the white girls and their rituals
by the god inside my head.)
a sacrifice for the answer:
the crack of my mouth.
instead, i quiet.
Excerpt from ‘rituals’ (draft 5)—final verses
there are no easy answers:
the open crack of my mouth
is a sacrifice i pull and push
towards / against / towards
i circle back to the beginning:
was it always
is it always this
and how does it end?
how does it end?
does it end?
does it end?
It doesn’t always flow this way. This magic feels rare and new each time it happens. When it doesn’t flow, I’ve learned to do the work anyway. But when it does, for a second I forget all my doubts and questions. I remember why I started, and why I keep going—for that jolt of connection to something bigger than myself.
Somewhere along the way, poetry became my way of being in the world. In W. H. Auden’s poem ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, he writes: ‘For poetry makes nothing happen […] / it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth’ (Auden). This is the sound of my voice. I am a queer woman of colour. When I write, I scream. The sound drowns out my fear.
Auden, W. H. “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” Poets.org, https://poets.org/poem/memory-w-b-yeats.
Lattimore, Kaya Ortiz. “‘ritual’ and other poems.” Centre for Stories, https://centreforstories.com/story/ritual-and-other-poems-kaya-ortiz-lattimore/.
Lorde, Audre. “Poetry is Not a Luxury.” Sister Outsider, Crossing Press, 2007, pp. 36–39.
— “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” Sister Outsider, Crossing Press, 2007, pp. 40–44.
Kaya Ortiz Lattimore is an emerging writer and poet from the southern islands of Mindanao and Tasmania. She is interested in diaspora, histories, heritage and language. Her poetry has appeared in Scum, Peril and Verity La, among others. Kaya currently lives in Boorloo/Perth.