Poetry Should Not Be Defined

Por: Ali Cobby Eckermann

Special to Prometeo

I cut
I bleed
I merge
my blood is the love between the earth and me

In 1964 the first book of Aboriginal poetry was published in Australia. It featured the writings of Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920 – 1993), selling out in several editions, and ensuring her success as one of Australia’s highest selling poets. For most lovers of poetry around the world this must seem very recent. Aboriginal Australian culture is deemed the oldest cultural continuum in the world. Hence the publication of ‘We Are Going’ by Oodgeroo remains a realistic calendar of the uprising by Aboriginal people, using literature as both expression and protest. Most Aboriginal poetry continues this remonstration. We have become a marginalised people, weighted heavily by the injustice of colonisation, forced to live in a society that shows little value toward the wisdoms of our cultural teachings and skills, that offers the poison chalice of assimilation at every crossroad.  

For me, poetry was a route to understand myself, both in the writing and reading of poetic literature. In my early years of writing poems the process was both cathartic and freeing. My personal journey had been stunted by many accounts of trauma; the trickery of removal as a baby from my mother and immediate family, the confusion of adoption, the relinquishment of my first-born baby, many years spent struggling with addiction and anger, and a very low self-esteem. I found my mother again when I was 34 years of age, and 4 years later found my son. The consequence of these reunions was poetry.

Two of our ‘warrior’ poets that I read and reread are Wiradjuri poet and commentator Kevin Gilbert (1933 – 1993) and Mununjali poet Lionel Fogarty (1957 - ). For me, these two men represent the forefront of Aboriginal poetry in Australia, their poetry raw and unrepentant.  Neither of these men had much schooling. Their poetry rose as a voice of the people, a journalistic affront of the issues that Aboriginal people were facing in Australia. The strength of their words still stands, as issues of land theft, stolen wages, deaths in incarceration, the ongoing removal of children, poverty and inequality are yet to be resolved for many indigenous families today.

Within my own journey I tend to seek the poetry that arises from the hearths of the outsider. I find solace in the insights gained by struggle, both personally and politically. These are not easy readings. Yet I find comfort in these discernments, an actual telling of accounts that is often camouflaged, frauded or forsaken by the mainstream. In my experience, there is an abject honesty that dwells where poverty and the underprivileged reside. In my experience, it is here where the teachings of cultural practice is witnessed. This is a real and tangible world, often one of hardship. Yet I find it is a world of balance. This is the world where all my emotions are at play.

In mainstream Australia society I often feel insecure. I expect to encounter racism on a regular basis and my heart is set to encounter prejudice and to cope with an overwhelming sadness that results from these confrontations. I realise these conflicts are arbitrary. However I do not seek to join the hierarchy of success, as I fear this trend. I fear I risk losing what I most value, an ongoing and deep challenge to grow toward my understanding of well-being and healthy pleasantry. This is the world of oral story-telling that imprints on one’s heart. This is a world that often combines with the natural world. Sitting around the campfire with several generations of my family allows me to feel a universal connection with the present and the past. For me, this is the world where kindness and intuition live, and the world where I feel safest.

Aboriginal poetry in Australia is a rapid and intensely growing art. Today, I believe Aboriginal people have a greater access to literary education, resulting in an exciting population of new writers across the continent. Many Aboriginal writers work tirelessly to improve these opportunities for our youth, travelling to remote regions to deliver workshops and encouragement to new poets and writers. There are indigenous Literature Ambassadors, such as Wiradjuri poet and novelist Anita Heiss (1968 - ), who works diligently with mainstream organisations raising funds that result in books arriving to regional and remote Aboriginal community schools. Biographical work is important to tell our histories. Poetry is essential to broadcast the experience of these and to forecast our hopes for the future.  

In 2008 I established the first Aboriginal Writers Retreat at my home in the mid-north of South Australia. This was my dream to promote the literature of Aboriginal writers whose education was obtained outside the mainstream classrooms. I had little money for this venture. Friendship became the crucial key, for the endless renovations, garden design and maintenance, firewood gathering, the ever-growing library. The retreat became a place of confidence and community. All who entered were treated equally. Everyone took a turn at doing the dishes. Around the campfire in the back yard the most profound poetry I have ever heard was shared. This is the poetry of Australia that remains unpublished. It is poetry that leaves one dumbfounded in its simplicity and wisdom. It is the poetry that cracks open hearts. 

No-one wants to live in poverty. No-one chooses poverty as a lifestyle, despite the undertones of some Australian politicians albeit ex-Prime Minister Tony Abbott ( In my view Aboriginal people are always offered an assimilation pathway to succeed in life. For me, this remains the biggest insult to my people, the lack of recognition to who we are. This is our land. It always was, and always will be. It lives inside us, and defines who we are. We want to live on our land, to tend and care for our land. Our stories are embedded in the land. It is an important teaching to learn these stories, to be able to see the stories and listen. This is the proper place of our Aboriginal poetry. In my view, it will prove to be a global shame if this poetry is ignored, or lost.

In hindsight, my life seems miraculous. I credit my recovery to a life filled with well-being by the adventurous company and tutorage of several Yankunytjatjara / Pitjantjatjara traditional healers, more commonly known as ngangkari. When I was reuniting with my family twenty years ago I spent a decade in the central deserts of Australia, learning from these senior Elders. The desert was the classroom. As healers they taught me how to become aware of my emotions and spirit, and the affect of emotion within our bodies. Emotion can heal us or hurt us, and can manifest to disease and dysfunctional behaviour. Guided by their kindness and knowledge I was given the tools to begin unravelling my traumas from the past. As trauma lessened the poetry flooded in.  Poetry is the blood that connects me to my land.

Ali Cobby Eckermann Yankunytjatjara Aboriginal poet she is the author of seven books, including the verse novel Ruby Moonlight (2012, Flood Editions 2015), and the poetry collections Inside My Mother (Giramondo Publishing, 2015) and the memoir Too Afraid to Cry (Ilura Press, 2013). In 2017 she was awarded Yale University's Windham Campbell Prize in Poetry.

- Poems Poetry Foundation
- Indigenous poet Ali Cobby Eckermann turns life of pain into poetry success Video
- Navayana Annual Lecture 2015 Canal Youtube de Saad Ahmed
- Ali Cobby Eckermann live at QPF2017 Canal Youtube de Queensland Poetry Festival
- Ali Cobby Eckermann reads a poem ABC News

Published on 17.05.2018

Última actualización: 19/01/2024