from the editor's desk

Robert Wood: History and the Poet Cover

Victoria Laurie: Launch speech for Robert Wood’s ‘History & the Poet’

Victoria Laurie’s speech for the launch of ‘History and the Poet’
Centre for Stories, 3rd October 2017

The other day I stood at the foot of the new Perth Stadium and admired the poetry embedded in its walls.

The poem, named ‘Kaya’, meaning hello or yes, is etched into 68 pre-cast concrete panels that circle the perimeter of the podium level of the stadium.

It welcomes people to a sharing place, just as we have been welcomed here tonight, and it reminds visitors that this is Noongar country.

In 11 verses of Noongar prose and six verses of English, ‘Kaya’ invites us to become part of something, to join the richness of being in an empathetic crowd.

‘Come close: these marks you see; This trace of sound, of voice and tongue, These footprints of an echo trailing…’, the poem reads in the English loose translation.

Later it reads: ‘Look. Listen. Or “Hark” they said, in Darker Days; paused and heard a distant crowd, the tread of feet converging.’

The poem is the work of novelist and Curtin University professor Kim Scott, who—Noongar way—consulted the right people to make input into this historic poem. It’s a poem that has already begun to enrich the new Perth Stadium before the siren has even sounded, the footsteps even approached.

The Noongar text should be ‘larger and more flowing’ than the English text, which is almost like subtitles, says Kim. But ideally he wanted the two texts to be ‘literally interweaving.’

Above all, Kim wanted to convey the importance of Noongar language and culture to identity and belonging, and to hint at voices joining together. Kaya is a form of greeting, he says: ‘When someone has read this text, then they are truly welcome.’

The poem reads: ‘Our old people rise from graves of ash, they delight again in contest and in challenge. Shoulder to shoulder we stand, the ancestors and us; We stamp our feet, we beat our palms, we voice a sound that lives; a crowd, reborn. You are welcome on Whadjuk country.’

I love the whole idea of this poem, and I was impressed by the genuine enthusiasm for this cultural feature displayed by the project engineer bloke, the young public art advisor, and the savvy female public relations minder who all showed me around—it felt a bit like a scene from ABC TV’s Utopia comedy series, I have to say, as our conga line trotted about in huge safety boots and hard hats wobbling around on our heads.

It made me think about Robert’s comment in Chapter Five of his book, ‘The Poetics of Daily Life’. That ‘for most of us, poetry is not an everyday encounter and while we may remember that someone said something that rhymed to celebrate a particular moment in time, it is for the most part a marginal cultural artefact.’

Elsewhere Robert has written that ‘we need to re-write Australian poetics through attacking resilient myths of colonialist belonging just as Michael Farrell has done in Writing Australian Unsettlement.’

He’s also commented on ‘a great silence on indigenous languages in the poetry community, not so much a cult of forgetfulness but a willed dismissal of that which is “actually” difficult.’

Maybe I’m naïve and over-optimistic, but the Kim Scott-penned bit of public art I saw does not seem like an incidental or tokenistic artefact; real care has been given to the power of carefully arranged words and the way they are physically embedded in the walls of our most powerful of public shrines, the football stadium.

I was reminded of something else Robert has written in his probing—but I think infectiously upbeat—analysis of what poetry is capable of in Australia. He writes that ‘poetry is not just the things we recognise as poetry, the great lines from Ovid to T. S. Eliot. It could be thought of as noticeable asides even in everyday contexts.’

For me, the incredible poetic sarcasm of Paul Keating springs to mind immediately. Remember his critique of a political foe: ‘He’s like a shiver waiting for a spine to run up.’

Or Keating’s careful crafting of important and serious words. ‘We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from the mothers.’

By the way, Keating originally wrote ‘We took the children from their mothers,’ and then he corrected it by hand, like a piece of poetry. How much more powerful is ‘the mothers’, instead of ‘their mothers’—suddenly we are talking about all mothers, about us.

Today I heard the poet Omar bin Musa talking on the radio about his poetry. I admit I knew nothing about him, a Malaysian-Australian author, rapper and poet from Queanbeyan, Australia.

I found myself madly writing down some of his lines ‘The desert dreams of harvest…the tiger dreams of freedom…’ All lovely, but it was what he wrote about brash young men that struck me forcefully. Like the line ‘The boys whip words into the cake mix, like slut and bitch…’

He explained his poem about boys is about casual misogyny. It absolutely nails for me that sinister throwaway hatred of women that still pervades some sections of my profession. It’s been something I’ve been thinking about a lot even since Channel Seven showed itself as being rife with misogynistic managerial policies.

But then bin Musa said something else that struck a chord on another front. I’ve been furious with the commentary of old white men who claim that traditional values are dead, that the young have no moral compass.

Bin Musa told his interviewer that the young generation is actually exemplary in certain ways—take the way young people have risen to the clarion call of supporting same-sex marriage. Even ten year olds shrug when they hear that some people object to two men kissing or two women marrying. So what, they say? ‘Perhaps there’s a natural sense of evolution inherent in all of us,’ Musa observed. Spot on.

So I think Robert is also ‘spot on’ when he writes in this rich little book of essays that poetry has a role to play in righting wrongs, redefining what it is to be Australian, to be human. He says ‘poetry is about approaching a place but never arriving, suggesting but not saying, showing but not telling.’

I come from a dogmatic form of writing; some event is or isn’t, happened or didn’t, is judged as good by someone or bad by some other commentator.

But in a world that is full of dogma, of absolutes, of madmen who will silence anyone who doesn’t agree with him by using vile Tweets or military-grade machine guns, we need the twilight zone of poetry.

I’m inexpert in this field of poetry, but Robert’s poetic prose has convinced me that poetry has a real purpose and destiny to fulfil in a still-divided Australia captive to old cultures and ways of thinking.

So I am delighted to officially launch History and the Poet, written by an erudite young West Australian with many backgrounds, much scholarship and a self-confessed passion for ‘place, theory and identity’. I hope it will lead him to fame and fortune and us to a better nation. So thank you Robert.

Victoria Laurie is a senior reporter and feature writer in the Perth bureau of The Australian newspaper. A former TV and radio journalist, she has also been a freelance writer for The Bulletin, The Monthly, HQ, Australian Geographic and The Weekend Australian Magazine. She is the author of The Kimberley: Australia’s Last Great Wilderness and The Southwest: Australia’s Biodiversity Hotspot (UWAP).

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