World Poetry Day 2020

I have written two World Poetry Day posts before, in 2016 and 2018, so why not again in 2020, particularly given, more than any year, we are probably in need of hearing what poets have to say – of being soothed, inspired, entertained, or yes, even admonished by them. says of World Poetry Day:

Poetry reaffirms our common humanity by revealing to us that individuals, everywhere in the world, share the same questions and feelings. Poetry is the mainstay of oral tradition and, over centuries, can communicate the innermost values of diverse cultures.

In celebrating World Poetry Day, March 21, UNESCO recognizes the unique ability of poetry to capture the creative spirit of the human mind.

They explain that the day was adopted by UNESCO in 1999, and that one of its main objectives is “To support linguistic diversity through poetic expression and to offer endangered languages the opportunity to be heard within their communities.” Observing the day is, they say, also “meant to encourage a return to the oral tradition of poetry recitals, to promote the teaching of poetry, to restore a dialogue between poetry and the other arts such as theatre, dance, music and painting, and to support small publishers and create an attractive image of poetry in the media”. Wonderful goals, all.

UK’s Global Dimension website provides ideas for recognising the day, including, of course, “organising readings of poems from different cultures, including from pupils’ own cultures.” Well, that’s not going to happen now, in the UK or anywhere, is it, with COVID-19 and the cancellation of public events. However, the page points us to the Wikipedia Poetry page as a good starting point for investigating different forms of poetry. They also, and this is just what we need, provide a link to a site called Poetry Station which offers “poems to view on video”. It was established after the English & Media Centre (EMC) was awarded in 2009 a small Arts Council of England grant for a pilot project to create “a freely accessible web-based video channel and portal for poetry”.

What a lovely aspirational site it is – and, it is also available as an app, simply called Poetry Station. For each poem, as well as the videoed performance, there is a link to information about the poet (often from Wikipedia), to suggested activities (for educators) and also a list of related poems which, of course, are linked to performance of this poems. The site also lists the poets, titles and topics for the poems on the site.

And in Australia?

A Google search brings up various cancelled events in Australia, run by organisations like the Geelong Library and Heritage Centre and Gosford Library. As in previous years there are also non-poetry reading activities being promoted or run. Golden Carers has a page of activities on their website (as I also noted in my 2018 post), and Reading Australia, which regularly support the day, is running a World Poetry Day competition for primary and secondary students and teachers, with the support of Red Room Poetry. (I’ve mentioned both organisations here before).

For those interested in Australian poetry, there are many sites and sources of information – many that I’ve mentioned here over the years – but for today, I’m sharing a list of Australian poetry books from the National Library of Australia bookshop.

Finally, not specifically created for World Poetry Day, but unfortunately applicable, is Australian comedian Sammy J’s recent offering, “The ballad of the dunny roll”, which riffs off the classic Australian balladeer Banjo Paterson. I think both Aussies and non-Aussies will appreciate this:

Leonard Cohen, 2009

Leonard Cohen, Bowral, January 2009

I’d love to hear about any poetry you like, or your favourite poets.

Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with what seems a very appropriate line, from Leonard Cohen’s “Dance me to the end of love” (available at the Poetry Station.)

Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in.

Keep safe everyone.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Recovering Australia’s Indigenous languages

In my recent Delicious Descriptions post on Madelaine Dickie’s Red can origami, I referred to last year’s UN International Year of Indigenous Languages. It occurred to me that while I’ve referred to Indigenous Australian languages several times in this blog, I’ve never specifically posted about them. Now seemed a good time, particularly given interest the year generated. As local Canberra newsreader Dan Bourchier wrote last year, ‘to the UN, language is more than a method of communication, it’s a “repository for each person’s unique identity, cultural history, traditions, and memory”.’

Late last year, The Conversation published an article on “the state of Australia’s indigenous languages”. They started with some facts: in 1788 there were between 300 and 700 Indigenous languages spoken across Australia as shown by anthropologist Norman Tindale’s 1974 map, but by the 2016 Census, only around 160 of these languages were reported as being spoken at home, and of these, only 13 traditional Indigenous languages were still spoken by children. The article then lists the languages and the number of speakers recorded in the Census. Do read the article, if you are interested, as it also discusses the challenges involved in obtaining a true picture of the situation. Here, though, I want to move onto the recovery of language – assuming, of course, that readers here agree that recovering language is important, critical, to people and their culture.

Noongar language (Daisy Bates)

Noongar language (recorded by Daisy Bates)

Certainly, it’s clear that Indigenous people want to revive heritage or original languages, and many are doing so “from old recordings and documents, and sometimes from elderly speakers”. In 2017, I wrote a post on Indigenous Australian author, Kim Scott’s Ray Mathew Lecture “A paradox of empowerment” which was about  “how reclaiming Aboriginal language and story may offer a narrative of shared history and contribute to social transformation.” Scott talked about a project he’s involved in to regain and claim Noongar language, and he described how they were doing that. One way is through archival sources, and – Bill (The Australian Legend) will like this – he used a story recorded by Daisy Bates as an example. It shows something that Dickie alludes to in her novel, which is that Indigenous languages, like English, change – so Bates recorded the Noongar people incorporating the the name of the settlement, King George Town, into their language, Kin-joor-town. Book cover

So, there is a quite a lot going on in specific Indigenous communities to revive languages that have died or nearly died (as the Noongar are doing) and to maintain languages that have survived (as the Yolngu are doing). There are indigenous publishers, like Magabala Books and the Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF), who are publishing books in language. (I reviewed the English edition of the ILF’s picture book, I saw we saw, which was first published in language.) There are Indigenous singers, like the late Gurrumul*, who sing in language. Red Room Poetry has a Poetry in First Languages project. And, slowly, Indigenous languages are being taught in schools and universities. Saying all this, though, is not say the job is done. It simply says that things are happening – and, seemingly, increasingly so.

But I also wanted to say something about the relevance of all this to non-Indigenous people. Right now, many Indigenous people are not keen for non-Indigenous people to learn their languages – not while their own people are not proficient, as this could easily become a new form of dispossession. However, reconciliation and respect are helped, as many like Scott and Stan Grant believe, by non-indigenous Australians becoming more familiar with Indigenous languages. For some time now, significant Australian sites have returned to their local Indigenous names – Uluru (Ayres Rock), Kata Tjuta (The Olgas), Watarrka (King’s Canyon), Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge), Kati Thanda (Lake Eyre) and Purnululu (The Bungle Bungles) are some examples. This recognises that these places have a history long preceding that contained in the names given them by settlers.

Sign in Arnhem Land

Signage around Australia is increasingly recognising local Indigenous culture. Welcome signs to many towns now include the name of the local Indigenous nation. I have also come across some bi-lingual signs in larger Indigenous communities, though this is rare. You can now buy clothing displaying Indigenous language, such as the t-shirt we bought our grandson. It featured an echidna with the Indigenous label biggi billa. And, excitingly, our Canberra newsreader now starts the evening news bulletin with “Yuma, Good-evening” and closes with “Yarra, Good-night”. We all know greetings like Caio and Au-revoir. Why not Yuma and Yarra? Or, whatever it is, where you live? Indigenous author Tara June Winch said in a conversion I attended last year that it’s a sign of respect to use local words when we travel overseas, so why not the same here? Fluency, she said, isn’t necessary to show such respect.

Book coverFinally, on the subject of authors, Indigenous words are increasingly appearing in contemporary fiction – in, for example, Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip (my review), Tara June Winch’s The yield (a novel about language, in fact), and, yes, Madelaine Dickie’s Red can origami. Just a few words here and there – and being done in a way that doesn’t exoticise language but, rather, assumes it is part of the culture.

Dan Bourchier, in the article linked in the opening paragraph, quotes Stan Grant:

Indigenous languages also present a tantalising opportunity for all the people of Australia to find a deeper sense of belonging. The empty space of terra nullius could be filled with the voices of people of all backgrounds speaking the first languages of this land. It is a space to truly build a nation.

I’m loving all these initiatives. What about you? And do you have any examples to share?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Red Room Poetry Object Competition 2014

Just a quick Monday Musings today but an interesting one I hope.

Red Room Poetry Object is a poetry-writing competition for Australian students in Years 3-10. It was created by The Red Room Company, which is a not-for-profit organisation that was established in 2003. It apparently grew out of the Red Room Radio Show. The company’s aim is to create “unusual and useful poetry projects which transform expectations of, and experiences with, poetry.” They want to make poetry more accessible,  especially to “those who face the greatest barriers to creative opportunities”. They run a wide variety of, mostly, public poetry projects of which the Red Room Poetry Object is just one.

The Red Room Poetry Object was first held, I think, in 2013. It involves young writers and their teachers submitting poems of 20 lines or less about objects that are special to them. What a great idea – it provides some level of structure and framework, while being very open as well. According to the website, the 2013 project involved 72 schools from Australia and New Zealand, and they published 1200 poems by students and teachers. You can read the students’ poems here. The winning poems were exhibited from November 2013 to February 2014 at Customs House in Sydney. Submissions for this year’s project are now open, and poems can be submitted until 19 September.

Can this Snow Gum in the Snowy Mountains be my object?

Can this spirit-moving Snow Gum in the Snowy Mountains be my object?

While, formally, a “talismanic object” is “an object that brings a person protection or good luck” (like coins, a ring or other piece of jewellery), for this project Red Room is looking for objects that are special to individual people, objects that “may not be worth anything to anybody else”,  that may only be precious or important to the writer (like a favourite teddy bear). The winning Secondary Student poem last year was “My book” while the winning Primary Student poem was “Nitro car”. It’s just ten lines, and concludes:

You have an engine in your head,
and wheels in your shoes
that’s why I love you.

(James, Year 6, Holy Saviour School, NSW, Winning Student Poem (Primary), 2013)

“Making the objects sing in a new way” is how one judge apparently described it.

The teacher’s resource book includes exercises for handing out to students. I particularly like the one on “Overcoming clichés and using specific imagery”. It encourages students to think of a clichéd image, such as “as blue as XXX” and to then replace it with a more apposite image. I was only thinking about clichés the other day, about the struggle to find fresh words to use in reviews. So hard … I think I’ll go off now and have a go at that exercise …

PS the Red Room Company ran an event at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year, the culmination of a project, which received funding from the Australia Council, and which they coordinated with ARTAND Australia.