Guwayu – For All Times: A Collection of First Nations Poems
Commissioned by Red Room Poetry
Edited by Jeanine Leane
Published by Magabala Books
Guwayu features poems by well-known and acclaimed poets such as Ellen van Neerven, Samuel Wagan Watson, Evelyn Araluen, Ali Cobby Eckermann and Bruce Pascoe as well as exciting new voices.
Interview with contributing poet Kirli Saunders
Thank you for speaking with PaperbarkWords, Kirli.
Red Room Poetry, who commissioned the poetry anthology Guwayu, is one of Australia’s pre-eminent poetry organisations. What do you think is its greatest asset or achievement?
Red Room Poetry (RR) aim to make poetry meaningful by engaging poets, partners and communities to create and publish poetry in unusual ways. They’re industry leaders with a range of intuitive projects that have huge social impact.
I had the joy of working with RR for the past 3 years as a cultural liaison and as a leader of the Poetry in First Languages project that aims to celebrate, share and preserve First Nations languages with community on Country.
One of RR’s strengths is their dedication to ensure cultural safety, reciprocity and respect by working with, for and alongside mob, to provide paid employment and development pathways. This intention has been enhanced by working with Magabala to ensure that Guwayu- For All Times was created by First Nations writers, editors, producers and publishers
I’ve loved being along for the journey, commissioning works and mentoring poets who feature within the collection.
Could we find out more about you, Kirli? What is your background and what are you doing now?
I’m a proud Gunai woman with lots of South Coast ties. I was raised on Gundungurra lands and currently live on Dharawal Country. I shifted away from my role at RR earlier this year to pursue full time creative work.
I’m currently writing a play, Going Home with thanks to Playwriting Australia and co-writing Dead Horse Gap, with Merrigong Theatre Co and South East Arts. I’m working on a visual poetry collection, Returning with thanks to Australia Council for the Arts. I’m also developing a sequel to Bindi, my verse novel which won the Daisy Utemorrah Award.
You write across genres and age-groups. What do you write? Could you tell us about some of your books and awards they have received?
I’m a freelance writer of poetry, picture books and plays.
My debut children’s picture book The Incredible Freedom Machines, illustrated by Matt Ottley follows a young girl as she adventures with her newly unearthed freedom machine. It made the CBCA notable list for Picture Book of the Year (2019) and was shortlisted for Speech Pathology Australia’s Indigenous Children Category 2019. It was selected for Bologna Book Fair 2018/19 and has been published in Russian, Western Armenian, Turkish, French and English.
(Kirli is being modest because it was also shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary award.)
My poetry Collection, Kindred was Highly Commended in Black&Write 2018. It was short-listed for ABIA 2020 Small Publishing Adult Book of The Year and FAB Booktopia Book of the Year Awards. Kindred was written over 6 years and focuses healing intergenerational traumas by reconnection to Country, Community and Culture.
Daisy Utemorrah Inaugural winning verse novel, Bindi is the story of an 11-year-old girl living on Gundungurra country, whose year doesn’t quite go to plan when she is lumped with a big art assignment, a drought, broken wrist AND the biggest bushfires her town has ever seen! Told in verse using both Gundungurra and English taught to me by Aunty Trish Levett and Aunty Val Mulcahy, this beautifully crafted junior fiction book for mid-upper primary readers, reflects a young girl’s relationship with her family, her animals, her friends, her Country and her creativity.
Forthcoming are Our Dreaming illustrated by Dub Leffler (Scholastic, 2021); Yana in The Bawa [Walk in the Bush] (Magabala, 2021); Afloat (Hardie Egmont 2021) illustrated by Matt Chun, and Happy Ever After (Scholastic 2022) illustrated by David Cragg and Noni Cragg.
The book title Guwayu is a Wiradjuri word meaning still and yet and for all times. What is the significance of Guwayu to you?
For me, Guwayu explores the timelessness of our Dreaming and the ever presence of our people, cultures, stories, and sacred land. It says we were, are and will always be here.
Who is the intended readership of this book?
Featuring a broad diversity of First Nations writers from a range of communities, ages, genders, sexualities and experiences, this book has a poem for everyone.
As a teacher, I imagine it enriching particularly secondary and tertiary classrooms.
It’s my hope that our First Nations brothers and Sisters reading feel seen, heard and held and that our allies are continually awoken as they witness the magic in these pages.
How has Red Room Poetry, Guwayu editor Jeanine Leane and poets such as yourself collaborated on this anthology?
This collection features commissioned poems from a series of projects delivered by Red Room Poetry over the past decade and beyond centring on a range of themes and experiences.
It was such a privilege to be involved in the original commissioning and curating of the manuscript alongside Dr Jeanine Leane as a project manager for Poetry in First Languages.
Jeanine focused a lot of her attention on mentoring some of the more emerging writers to support professional development and helped us to ensure protocols and honest story telling were honoured in this collection. I learnt so much working with her.
The preface indicates that Jeanine Leane gave great care and consideration to each poem and poet. What was your experience of the editing process with Jeanine?
Jeanine was meticulous with this collection and in doing so ensured that the poems were published with integrity and honesty, attending to cultural protocols with care. I loved watching her connect with each of the writers and support them in feeling confident to have their poems re-published in print.
For most of the emerging writers, this was their first publication in a book. Celebrating this feat for them was one of the biggest joys of this project. It was also really special to see Elders and Custodians honoured for their contributions with language sharing.
I love how the poems are organised around the themes of some Red Room Poetry projects such as Extinction Elegies, New Shoots, Poetic Moments, Poetry Object, The Disappearing, Rhyming the Dead, Unlocked and Poetry in First Languages. Which of these have you worked on or had an affinity with?
I was first introduced to Red Room Poetry’s programs when I was invited to work on their New Shoots project at Bundanon Trust, as writer in residence. New Shoots celebrates and cultivates poems inspired by plants and place to deepen our creative and cultural connections with nature. For this project I was able to connect students to eucalypts to create poems among the trees about their connections. It was a really special project to be a part of and not long after, I left my teaching role took on the Manager of Poetic Learning position at Red Room.
In this role, I managed workshops attached to the RR projects, and supported poets to engage with students and learning communities to create and publish poetry in unusual ways.
One of those projects was Unlocked, which supported imprisoned learning communities to access poets, musicians and artist to create and publish poetry in correctional centres. I then branched this project into Juvenile justice and behavioural intervention spaces with Youth Unlocked, to support incarcerated youth with self-expression. It was confronting but fulfilling work, and I love witnessing the commissioned poems from this project published in Guwayu.
While at Red Room, I started my own First Nations language learning journey which prompted me to create Poetry In First Languages (PIFL), to support other poets to do the same. PIFL is a project that aims to celebrate share and preserve First Nations languages on Country with Community. It supports poets to be partnered with local First Nations communities, Elders and Custodians to create and publish poetry through arts and cultural workshops.
I’m really proud of the integrity of RR, to create safe cultural protocols to engage First Nations communities for these projects and more, and it was a real joy to be able to contribute to the development of these respectful and reciprocal practices.
The curation of poems for this project has been delivered with, for and by First Nations arts workers and communities and I think it’s something that really sets Guwayu apart from other collections. I feel super grateful that I’ve been able to be part of this curatorial process, especially as my journey as a poet really started with Red Room Poetry.
I know it is difficult to single out poems, but could you mention a few in Guwaya that particularly resonate with you?
I love Nick Paton’s Conduit, Aunty Jeanine Leane’s Nginha Gulia Nyiang – These Words and Kaitlen Wellington’s Culbunyas Initiation, Declan Furber Gillick’s Bigger Than School Stuff and Ali Cobby Eckermann’s The Extincion of Kindness.
Could you also give us some insight into your three poems in the anthology?
Disconnection was written on the banks of the Shoalhaven when I was writer in residence, I was becoming deeply aware of my disconnection from language, land and culture as a direct result of my Mum being raised off Country in a children’s home, and my great/Grandparents being raised on reserves and missions. It was hearing Ancestors speak in language for the first time that prompted me to learn language, and which sparked Poetry in First Languages.
This was the first poem I was able to interpret with the language of the land that raised me. Its possibly the most favourite of the poems I’ve ever written.
Hard Learning was written on Arrernte Land when I was working in Alice Springs with Declan Furber Gillick. It was a time of steep learning, and I wanted to pen a poem of appreciation for the Dreaming, which I’d been so lucky to witness. Those times in Alice have stuck with me and shaped the way I move as I work in communities, off Country, I’m really grateful for that time learning from Dec and the Aunties.
I wrote Mother as writer in residence at Bundanon Trust, with Red Room. I felt remembered by the river, and recalled to myself and a truer path. I wrote this poem as a reminder of that homecoming.
Why is it imperative that Australian and international readers know about First Nations people and poems?
So many of our histories have been white washed, edited or omitted. I think it’s really important that as a collective, we begin to attend to the truth. Within Guwayu, are wealth of personal experience and histories, told honestly. Often hauntingly so.
Between the covers, we can find a breadth of Country, Cultures and Languages, told, edited, produced and published by and with First Nations peoples.
It’s a real privilege to sit among these powerful storytellers as a contributor.
It’s even more of a privilege to be an audience member and to witness these oral histories captured on the page, for all times.
Poems like this are not to be taken for granted.
How should readers contact you?
I can be contacted via my website, https://kirlisaunders.com/ or my Instagram @kirli.saunders for opportunities and collaborations.
Is there anything else you would like to add, Kirli?
I just wanted to express my deep gratitude to everyone at Magabala, Red Room Poetry and all of the poets who have been pivotal in the creation of this collection.
Guwayu – For All Times is a ground-breaking book. Your talent enhances this work and is evident in a number of other fields as well, Kirli. Thank you very much for your enlightening and generous responses.