Blogger in Residence, Chris Kerr, wants you to “forget whatever pale and anaemic associations the word ‘poetry’ brings to mind”, by enlightening you on the fascinating and lively poetry scene in Canberra.
Canberra is blessed with a vibrant and diverse range of poetry scenes. This post is the first of a two-part look at what makes these scenes distinctive, and whether they have anything to teach one another. It’s devoted to bush poetry.
Former ACT Writers Centre Blogger in Residence, Shu-Ling Chua, included a helpful summary of Canberra’s poetry ecosystem in her literary guide to Canberra. To get a fresh perspective on ACT poetry I thought I’d leave the ACT behind temporarily.
Binalong is home to the Binalong Arts Group, formed after the 2013 Binalong Banjo Paterson Bush Poetry event. I interviewed award-winning bush poet Robyn Sykes and she helped me challenge some preconceptions about bush poetry.
CK: How would you describe bush poetry to someone who’s not familiar with the tradition?
RS: The Australian Bush Poets Association (ABPA) defines bush poetry as “metred and rhymed poetry about Australia, Australians and/or the Australian way of life”.
That is a very broad definition because the bush poetry community is a very broad church. Bush poets can be found in the country or the city, equally at home penning rollicking yarns about farming life, lyrical odes to the landscape or sharp social criticism.
Recent serious poems have tackled issues such as domestic violence, child abuse, war and its aftermath, our treatment of asylum seekers, stolen generations and more, often giving a voice to those who do not have one.
CK: Why are competitions, like the Binalong Bush Poetry Prize, an important part of the poetry world?
RS: It’s almost like a big campfire, where people share stories to entertain others. Yes there are prizes, but it is the camaraderie between like-minded individuals that keeps people coming back.
At a bush poetry competition, you can expect to laugh, be challenged, perhaps wipe away a tear… and then laugh again.
CK: Is bush poetry still relevant today? Why?
RS: Bush poetry has seen somewhat of a resurgence in recent years. There are some pockets where it has never gone out of fashion, but the variety of topics canvassed by modern bush poets, plus the timeless themes of some of the old masters, means is it still relevant today.
Good bush poetry is multi-layered, with richly descriptive language and original images.
CK: How important is the performance of a bush poem?
RS: When you hear a good performer, the characters draw breath before your eyes. The stories live. The rivers run. Injustice sears your skin. The performer is your navigator, pilot and steward as you travel through the poem.
CK: How can bush poetry engage new audiences, who might have a fixed perception of poetry as stuffy or elitist?
RS: While it is the humour and promise of ‘a good time’ that attracts many people, they may go away thinking about the more thoughtful ideas that have wriggled into their brains while they were enjoying themselves.
Many people have a ‘set’ on poetry, a legacy of the way poetry was/is sometimes taught in schools. I’ve heard many comments after a performance along the lines of: “I thought I hated poetry but I like THAT”.
Once the ‘set’ on poetry has been broken down, who knows where it might lead?
People usually think of poetry, if they think of it at all, as a solitary pursuit. I’ve set out to encourage Canberra’s poetry-lovers to break out of their comfort zones and collaborate. One way to do that is for all kinds of poets to ask how their work talks to the living tradition of bush poetry and vice versa.
I hope that these articles will provoke conversations among people who already like poetry. Let’s chuck out false dichotomies between country and town, page and performance, past and present, complexity and accessibility. And yes, even rhymed and unrhymed. We might even convert a few poetry-sceptics along the way (because, let’s face it, poetry-lovers are in the minority).
So, forget whatever pale and anaemic associations the word “poetry” brings to mind. Whatever it is, it’s not that, because it’s not any one thing, but a glorious, evolving multiple.
Look out for the second post in this series, where I’ll ask whether “mainstream” and slam poetry (if that’s even its real name …) can ever peacefully coexist. Canberra’s poetic soul is at stake.
You can find out more about bush poetry at www.abpa.org.au