Kirli Saunders on poetry and multi-disciplinary practice

Kirli Saunders on poetry and multi-disciplinary practice

Kirli Saunders is a proud Gunai Woman, award-winning author and multidisciplinary artist. Her books include Bindi, Kindred and Returning. Her play, Going Home, is in development, as is her first novel, Yaraman. In 2022 she was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for her contribution to the arts.

Kirli has also spoken on The Garret before about her verse novel Bindi.

Kirli Saunders on poetry and multi-disciplinary practice


ASTRID: Thank you so much for being here today, Kirli. Now we last spoke in 2021, and that was after the release of Bindi, your verse poetry novel for young people. Looking back over what has not been a very pleasant couple of years, how do you reflect on that work? And what has the response been from young people?

KIRLI: Oh, how good was that yarn, by the way?

ASTRID: It was.

KIRLI: Yeah, one of my favorite conversations around Bindi. Bindi is one of the most awarded books in the Magabala, I think it is the most awarded book in the Magabala collection. That is something that I'm really proud of. It is a work that's just taken its wings, it's on the Australian curriculum and being shared in classrooms all around Australia, particularly in communities that were affected by fires, which is what Bindi is all about. Simultaneously while writing Bindi I was creating the work that we're going to be talking about today, so there was this kind of delightful, you know, kid lit area that got to be lit up in me. I’ve got to stay in that nostalgia and work around environmental causes and caring for Country and drawing young people and that audience, while I was also working on this adult body of poetry and visual poetry, called Returning.

ASTRID: I have a niece who has just turned nine. I think that she is old enough to be able to read Bindi by herself and make what she will of it. And honestly, when I visit at Christmas, I cannot wait to give it to her.

KIRLI: Oh, and I still think that's the best thing about this book, people saying, you know, I'm giving this to this little person, particularly people who don't often read. You know, a verse novel really lends itself to short reads, and it allows for language to be contextually woven in in a way that maybe other fiction doesn't in the same way. So yeah, I'm thrilled that it's finding loving homes and hands, and that little people are getting something out of particularly poetry.

ASTRID: Now, we are recording this in late 2023 and you have just released Returning, which is a work of poetry, but it is also a work of visual art. As you just mentioned, you created this over a few years, and there is a little crossover with Bindi. I guess in order for us to talk about Returning in depth today, I wanted to do something that I don't normally ask. I wanted to talk to you about the foreword, the note that you give to the readers at the very beginning, placing this work in context in terms of where you were the time period that you were writing it, and also a bit that was going on in your life, which all combined to make this piece of art.

KIRLI: Yeah, I think you're so right. You know, originally this, Returning, was an exhibition that was shown up on Gunai Country at the shack and was supported by so many incredible people, including what was the Australia Council for the Arts at the time, and Oranges and Sardines Foundation, the Illawarra Women's Health Center and Red Room Poetry and Magabala Books and so many other people. It celebrated or brought me together with 19 other First Nations academics, artists, Elders and community to create the body of work that was the artworks, and so it had this whole other life as an exhibition – filmmaking and possum skin cloak making. The essence of the work was to return myself back to culture through art and through connection to Country and through connection with community.

And so, the forward, I suppose, speaks to that that reality of existing in… Yeah, we were going through the fires. So, the same for Bindi, Pop’s Country, Biripi Country; Gunai country, Nan; Mum’s Yuin Country, where Mum was born and has that line through there through the Hoskins; and then Gunaikurnai Country where I was born and tied in on my Pop’s side. We're all on fire and parts of Dharawal Country too, where I live and I also have ties. So, we had fires, then we had floods, and at the same time there was a lot of gendered violence going on in the political sphere that we were witnessing. We had the death of George Floyd, which gave the Black Lives Matter movement a hashtag. And you know, these are things that we've been fighting for all times. Deaths in custody had a commission. There were incredibly big things happening in the world around us as Mob and as queer people.

And I came out during that time. I left my partner and I started dating a woman and living in a house with her. And so, there were just lots of moving parts, and art and poetry became this real balm to be able to be able to cope with the bigness of life. And yeah, the bigness of life resulted in me being hospitalized at the time and having seizures. And so, this work for me is so vulnerable and raw and real. And it's something I'm really proud of, that I was able to capture these moments almost like journal entries, and take these meditative artworks and poems and share them with people around me. They connected people in that time, and I'm hearing that back now. Gosh, lockdown in Melbourne was so gnarly, thank you all. I was living on the south coast during that time, and we were also marking the scar trees in our community, thank you for marking them with ribbons, or thanks for commenting on that, that yarn about how Scott Morrison had said there's no slavery in Australia, thank you for sharing your poem about being queer. Like there's, there's so many in here that I feel are relatable, and that are just deeply personal, and they feel important to share.

ASTRID: You have now shared them with the world. A moment ago, you made the analogy that Returning is like a journal that you have now chosen to share with the world. That is a different choice to make, then, for example, when you published Bindi, which is you know, a creation that was designed to go out in the world. And I'd like to ask you a question that I ask so many creators, because everybody has a different answer. But what went into the choice to share it with the world for you?

KIRLI: God that's a good question. I think for me, in some ways, Returning, looking back feels like a bit of a roadmap. You know, the end of the foreword and this body of art, the poetry is a work of returning to a truer self, it is a snapshot of moments on the path that is still and will always be unfolding. It's a journal of unsettling and remembering all the ways I know how to come back to old ways, kin, Country, community and through them back to me.

And so, I had the big vulnerability hangover, the part where you like, ‘Oh God, I'm going to turn it into a book’. But I really wanted to share this work, particularly because so much of it is underpinned by decolonization of myself, I was learning from Gen Graves and Dr Lily Brown at the time, and I'm working with them now at Shifting Ground teaching this methodology. I just thought, this is what it looks like, for me, maybe it would benefit somebody else to see a roadmap, see a pathway that some way that other another person who has paved it out, and if that works for them, it could work for me too. So yeah, I don't know, maybe it's just something that people look at and go cool, interesting coffee book, art and poetry book, on my coffee table. And whatever it does, however, it ends up in people's homes, I hope that it brings something to them, when they're when they're flicking through.

ASTRID: I'd like to ask you about the process of moving from an exhibition to a printed book. So for the listeners who don't have a copy of Returning in front of them, this is a work of poetry, the text is designed on the page as the poem demands, as the poem has a form. But also, your artwork is on every page. This is all in color, unless the artwork itself is in black and white. It is on a beautiful, glossy magazine paper, I don't know what the official term for that is. But this is not like a paper book with a few pictures. This is an art book with all of the production values in the printed form. So how do you go from an exhibition with all different types of art that, you know, not the same size, not in the same format, not in the same materials, to putting that in a book with the added layer of involving the text in the artwork itself? Or kind of superimposed on the artwork? In many cases?

KIRLI: Gosh, I know right? Firstly, you work with Magabala, because they're just the gosh, they're absolute gurus. They're still the pinnacle, and in my mind, will always be the pinnacle of Black publishing in Australia, and possibly the world. I'm yet to see an organization, a publishing house that that parallels. I got to work with Rachel Bin Salleh again on this one, and Grace Lucas-Pennington as my editor. And also, Melena, who is the editor, the publishing cadet who has been brought on at Magabala Books. I love seeing that succession plan roll out through a publishing house. It's so powerful. So there's a great team.

Outside of that the exhibition was photographed. There were different photographers who took photos of the physical exhibition themselves, work that could be scanned in. I used a really high quality – I went and invested in myself a high-quality digital scanner and scanned them back and forth. I've got a bit of experience using AI and Procreate and other design tools, so I was going back and forth between those design tools for myself in the examples of where a work maybe has text over the top, so using Adobe Illustrator. I know that's what we call AI in the art world, rather than the AI thing that's popped up and replaced it!

So the examples of those words would be say, ‘Oneness’ or ‘Title’. And ‘Oneness’, I love this work looking at it. The poem itself was inspired by Uncle Anthony McKnight. When he told me, I was feeling lonely in his office, and he's like, ‘Bub, go lean on the window there and look out and you'll see all the trees and you know, there's no way to feel lonely when you're looking at all those old Ancestor spirits’. And that's the poem that closes this book. In the centre of the artwork is a eucalyptus stem cell, which I've drawn and then created a radial of all of the poem text so that it forms the rings of a tree around this eucalyptus stem cell, everything stemming out from this eucalyptus spirit, this old spirit.

So some of the poems are ekphrastic, so an artwork with a poem is response. Some of them are reverse, a poem has inspired the artwork. But all of them spend many different, mediums. I've got like a possum skin cloak, plant dyed silks. My possum skin from Annie Loretta Parsley, I went through that whole process, twenty hours sitting and yarning with her. She's amazing. And there's two cloakds in here because at a different time we taught ten women about the cloak making process. And then silk dyes I learned from beautiful Stephanie Beau Park, who's a Ngugi woman. And we worked on Country, collected all the eucalyptus leaves, boiled them up and sat yarning and sharing our process. Stephanie, is an incredible artist and is doing her PhD in chemicals and plant dyes. She's amazing. And weaving from Kylie Caldwell, you know, a Biennale artist who's so, so talented from the north coast, a painting from David Cragg. And then I had lots of non-First Nations mentors as well, and then academics like Gen and Lily, and Elders like Aunty Shas Robinson, you know, people teaching me language. So many mob. Yeah, the Timbury boys, the Chapmans, the Websters. Yeah, the Deeds. Lots of lots of important Teos, Longbottoms involved in teaching me this language. And yeah, Ada Webster, too. I've just feel so lucky that this process of capturing poetry and art has been something that's done in collaboration, because that feels really true to the way that kinship moves through our practices in sharing story as mob.

ASTRID: You're a creator, a poet, a writer, an artist, a digital artist, when you are moved to create something, is it a different feeling or impetus or creative urge? Do you first think of words, or do you think this will be done on a computer in terms of artwork, or this needs to be with my hands, making a physical object? What kind of process or urge behind it, I guess, is my question.

KIRLI: I often take… My friends always laugh at me because I've got like a tin of watercolors and some pencils and a sharpener and a pen and a notebook that go places with me. And then when I was traveling, I traveled a lot, actually, surprisingly. I got locked out of my state while writing this, I was locked down in Western Australia, which was such a treat, particularly around Yawuru Country when I went to visit the Magabala mob. And then also in the Central Desert, traveling through incredible communities from Darwin straight down to Katherine, and then all the way to Uluru, where I got to meet Aunty Rene Kulitja. And yeah, so many incredible artists and, and thought leaders and storytellers in communities there.

I also took my iPad, and was drawing without having my watercolors and things, it talks about riding shotgun in the van with my girlfriend at the time, drawing while going there. I do think tech allows us to be able to be inventive in new ways. But I do still love the tangible physical process of sitting there and watching watercolors, particularly, dry or going and collecting the materials on Country and weaving while I'm sitting there. You know, you will never be able to digitally create a possum skin cloak that has the same textural experience, the smell, that holds the story in the same way. So a mix of both has been really paramount. I think poetry, some of these poems are written before the artworks and some of the other way around. I'm learning to trust that process. And Dr. Tamryn Bennett has been such a guide in cultivating visual poetry collection and particularly the first visual poetry collection to my mind of Magabala’s. So yeah, it's uncharted territory, which means there's no rules. So that's a lot of fun.

ASTRID: I don't think there are any rules I was trying to think have I seen anything like Returning published in Australia and I haven't. The closest thing I could think of – and it is not completely similar – is Omar Musa’s work, the lino cuttings and the poetry combined on that page.

KIRLI: It's sitting on my bedside table! I love Omar's work. And I mean there is a huge, there is reading list which is on the website. So if you want to know the other poets and storytellers and academics and thought leaders who inspired this book, there on the website.

ASTRID: We open this conversation talking about Bindi, a verse novel. This is a collection, some of the work’s in here are really quite short, others are as long as the poem requires. This is not a verse novel, a nd I'm asking about, like the form of the whole collection. When you choose poems and art and how they work together to form a collection, how do the individual parts make that whole? Like, did you leave anything out?

KIRLI: I definitely left things out. And they're in another collection called Eclipse, and that's being published with Joan Press. So you'll see that one. Where Kindred was, I think, my learning to find my voice in poetry, and I'm reading back on it looking at Kindred with loving naivety like, oh, gosh, I was afraid to stand and speak with more fire. I think Returning has a lot of fire in it. You know, there's poems in here about going through…

There's one called ‘The System’, where I'm standing in a community in Katherine and experiencing trying to buy alcohol as an out of Towner. And I can buy it, but a local countryman, someone from that community who has a postcode on their license, under the intervention means that they are unable to buy alcohol in their own community. And the whole experience of witnessing that unfold, that kind of systematic oppression or racism in decision making, without acknowledging the truth, that a poison like this was introduced into our communities as a result of intergenerational traumas. Simultaneously, a kid in a paddy wagon in the car park had been taken away who was like 10, or 12, and a mother screaming. So there's this very real visceral honesty, I think, in Returning, that has shaped the way that the collection has been made, in that I've tried to put all of the poems together that talked about First Nations and Queer identity and the intersection of those in ‘Ochre and Eco Glitter’. So that's the first section. The second section is ‘Kin and Country’, and they feel like that process of constantly coming back to the land, constantly coming back to your community to find the strength to go through the things. ‘Rage and Grace’ is that section that has ‘The System’ and a bunch of others in it that look to the reality of experiencing systematic racism or oppression as a result of being colonized people within Australia within this context. And then ‘Healing’ is this softness, which is maybe a remnant of Kindred that talks to the ways that we cope. And also this real fierce Black joy, this wanting to have joy despite living in this experience.

ASTRID: One of your poems is written entirely in language and I wanted to ask, poetry is such an expression of an idea and a feeling and a view. What do you have access to, you know, in a language that is, you know, not the colonized language, not the language that we are speaking here? Do you find that you can express yourself differently? Are you a different person in that language?

ASTRID: Yeah, absolutely. The Black Cockatoos are singing while you ask that question, and that makes me so happy. Because the brother boy who taught me this language Ado Webster, he definitely has a real affinity with those beautiful, beautiful birds. So thank you Ado. I sat with him at the time, and I was like, ‘Ado, I need to sing someone home. How do I do that?’ And he's like, ‘Oh, that's, that's some clever stuff’. And I'm like, ‘Well, how do I? How can I make the intention, to know to come back to Country for myself, and all of those things’. And I spoke to him at the time, too, before I left on this great big trip, ‘please, sing me home. Make sure I come home in August, because I need to be back for some work, you know, make sure I come back’. So it was inspired by that conversation with him. And it's a work that's since been of it adapted for Going Home, which is the play that I'm writing. And I hear it also as song, it sounds like song when I hear it. Yeah, it sounds like it's got this beautiful rhythm to it.

And so I'm speaking the language of… you see similarities with other languages and Dhurga as well. So there's these calls to home within the language itself. I'm being sung home myself when I speak it, and when I write it down, and when I revisit it. And I don't think I can do that in the same way in English. It's my hope that people reading a poem like this will be inspired to sit with themselves and ask themselves about how they can respectfully learn language and what opportunity there are to speak the language, because it is such a decolonial act, to awaken language in a place where the language has been taken away. And I hope that you know, a non-First Nations person found doing that also respect the process that goes with that, because there has been such a disruption to language learning in Australia. You know, my great aunt who taught me Gunaikurnai, supported by her and Aunty Shaz, they were told not to speak language on the mission, they weren't allowed. And so, to hand it down and for us to be fluent, has a great time and complexity that goes into it. And for our non-First Nations allies to be able to learn it, they have to learn it at a lesser pace! We want to be able to learn it more, we want to be able to uphold it. But simultaneously, we don't want to be the only ones speaking it, it's so lonely being one of the only people to speak language. Say on Gunaikurnai Country where I was born… I'm one of the only speakers of language up there alongside say Aunty Shaz and a few others in our community. So being able to speak that language feels more pertinent now than it ever has before, and I'm sure our elders said that.

ASTRID: I am, you know, a settler on stolen land, and I can't read that poem. I don't understand the words. But I want to buy books in Australia with all different languages.

At the back of Returning you mention that you're working on a novel, Yarraman. You have also in this conversation mentioned that you are publishing a poetry collection with Joan Press, which is an amazingly cool new press, by the way, everybody, which I did not know about. And you have referred to the fact that you are writing a play. I would like to ask you about all of the above. What can you talk about?

KIRLI: I guess I could probably talk about all of them in some ways! Going Home has been supported by Playwrighting Australia and Merrigong Theatre. And it went through development last year with Shari Sebbens Elaine Crombie, Matilida Brown and Jeremy Ambrum. So, we got everybody together in the room, and beautiful Leland Kean, my dramaturg, my ally friend, he was like, ‘Kirls, I’ve got to get you in the room with other writers, and we'll figure out what that looks like’. I thought it was so nice to write with other people and to hear the sounds of these stories, these characters come to life in the voices of someone else and in the minds of somebody else. And what happened on the day, you know, informed what was happening in the story too. So yeah, there was this moment of poor racism that poor Jez had experienced, and I was like, ‘that's going in, you know, when that kid called you that awful N word, and you just wanted to throw your iced tea at them, that that's going into play. It's going in’.

So Going Home is about my Mum. She was born in a shed on the River Road down at Bega. And it belonged to this bean and pea farm owner. And a few years ago, Mum told me about the shed, she told us about a shed for all times, and it used to be used as this cheeky, like, ‘Well, be more grateful, because I grew up in a shed with dirt floors’. And we'd be like, ‘Mum, we're still not picking up our clothes’. I went down, I tried to find the shed and I called her on FaceTime, ‘Mum, is that the shed? Is that the shed? Is that the shed?’ after googling all these land holdings, and eventually I found this shed that had belonged to Mum that had been in her family 50 years ago. And I went and found her name in charcoal on the wall of the shed. I wanted to take that story and simultaneously weave in the experience of intergenerational trauma, that means that Mum only came home for Sorry Business, and what it means for us to come home as the children of someone who was taken, because Mum was forcibly removed as a kid. It's a work that talks about that wrapped up in this story of a single query single Mumm, who's coming home with her baby or baby-to-be, and she is trying to get all of her family to come on this on this journey with her. So one of them, Jetta, you can read in First Nations Monologues with Currency Press, one of the monologues from the from that work and the rest of it, you're just going to have to wait. But it's a slow unfolding. I'm kind of honoring that process of things going slowly.

Yeah. And Yaraman. I was just shortlisted for the Blake Beckett, with the hopes to hopefully have that work developed again next year and have the time and energy to keep writing a novel, because novels take much longer than you think they're going to! But it’s a Black queer romance story set on Yuin Country, where one comes home, and she's healing from something, she's got something going on in Sydney, one of her friends has gone missing. She's at home working on her uncle's farm, and Archie, one of the kids in a juvenile justice intervention program, keeps getting herself wrapped up in things, but he believes that if they just caught all the horses off the Kozie mountains, the Kosciusko Mountains, you know, all of these horses off his family Sacred Country that he'd break them in. He’d have a job and have something to do and they'd be off Country so not ruining the land. So, as a part of the process of writing that book, I've gone and broken in a Brumby, which has been wild.

ASTRID: That is what you were doing before we spoke today. I don't even have the words to say how truly skillful even thinking that you can attempt to do that is. I don't know what else to say, but I am so darn impressed. KIRLI: Yeah, the Australian Brumby Project. I mean, Anna is just yeah, she's pretty brilliant. Yeah.

ASTRID: And since you've mentioned the Blake Beckett scholarship, I've just googled who you are shortlisted with. That is a pretty good list. There's Emily Bitto, Kate Mildenhall, and Michael Winkler, and you. Amazing.

KIRLI: I definitely pinch myself when I read that short list. But I mean, this is my first time writing long form fiction, and it's like pulling teeth. It's so hard to switch my brain out of the concise magic of poetry and into something that has more padding around it. And so, something that Leland said when I was writing a play, when I was doing Going Home, you know, starting the first development of that he was like, ‘Write poetry’. I said, ‘But this is the theatre’. He said, ‘Write poetry. Stay true to what you know’. And so I'm trying to just do that, to stay really true to what I know. I guess I'm reading people like Tara June Winch and Melissa Lukashenko and Tony Birch, you know, people who when I pick up they feel like the poets, but they're writing fiction. And, yeah, just stay true, and allow the time that it needs.

ASTRID: I have a final question for you. And that is about the other work that you mentioned, Eclipse the poetry collection with Joan Press, joint presses, new joint press is overseen by Nakiah Lui. It is part of Allen and Unwin, am I remembering that correctly?

KIRLI: Yeah, that's right. And there's only two books out so far. You're not even on the website. This is hot, hot news.

KIRLI: Probably broken an embargo. Sorry, sorry. No, I don't know. I like I mean, for me, it's really exciting. It's the first time that I've gone with a larger publishing press, a larger publishing arm for poetry. And that's something that… Australian poetry is so rich, there's so much magic in Australian poetry and companies like Red Room Poetry, and Giramondo and Cordite, they're all doing brilliant things across brilliant spaces, and Magabala, especially in Black poetry. But it's not very often that we see First Nations poets publish in that larger kind of majority publishing house, and so I really ummed and ahhed about it, but when I saw Sis up there and the other titles that they have by First Nations writers that are coming out, keep your eye on it. Oh my gosh, it's going to be great. I got really Yeah, I got excited about the possibility of working with them. So yeah, big fan too.

ASTRID: I don't often a fan girl, but I am working up the courage to ask Nakiah Lui for an interview about Joan Press.

KIRLI: Go get her. She's amazing. What an incredible, incredible everything.

ASTRID: Kirli, I want to thank you for sharing Returning with the world, and Bindi, which I still love, and I'm going to let you know how my little almost nine-year-old niece goes with it.

KIRLI: Thank you so much for having me. It's been such a treat to yarn with you. And yeah, I hope Returning finds its way into your home and heart, and that it finds especially its way into Black homes. This is a work that predominantly has been written for my people, for my sisters and my brothers and aunts and uncles and their kids. I want people to pick up a collection like this, something published by beautiful Magabala, and be reminded that storytelling is so vast and varied and many, and that there is a way to tell stories that feel true for who you are.