‘Songlines are our poems, they are the maps of our journeys’

PIFL back of bus with young poet, Victoria. Photo by Tad Souden.

A First Nations poetry program is teaching the younger generation to create poetry in language, liberate ideas of identity and culture, and learn about the environment.

Red Room Poetry’s ‘Poetry in First Language (PIFL)’ program was the vision of the organisation’s Poetic Learning Manager and Gunai woman, Kirli Saunders.

It was a vision born on the banks of the NSW Shoalhaven River.

“I could hear some ancestors singing and I wanted to know what they were saying. So, I called up my aunty and she said, ‘Well that’s what they’re saying—they want you to go and learn language’,” Ms Saunders said.

This prompted Ms Saunders to lead a program in which First Nations poets are commissioned to write in language and teach on country, alongside elders and custodians.

In mid-March, to celebrate World Poetry Day, Red Room Poetry partnered with Wingecarribee Shire Council and the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) to bring a three-day poetry workshop to First Nations students on Gundungurra country, in south-east NSW.

One of the workshop’s aims, was to highlight the responsibility and role of students in conserving environment and heritage—with a specific focus on the protection of the region’s glossy-black cockatoos and koalas.

“The black cockatoo is a really special creature for me, so this project has been close to my heart. I remember seeing them as a kid, but now they’re a threatened species. We work with the Office of Environment and Heritage to connect kids with that cause and so they can learn more about them,” Ms Saunders said.

Simon Tedder, Community Engagement Officer for the Office of Environment & Heritage NSW said the partnership is important to foster the exchange of intergenerational cultural knowledge.

“We are working alongside Gundungurra elders and First Nations writers to provide an opportunity for young Indigenous students to re-connect with country and iconic species like koalas and glossy-black cockatoos, ultimately building their capacity to achieve great environmental and heritage outcomes into the future,” Mr Tedder said.

Another key focus of the program, was to help the students form ideas about cultural identity that might challenge stereotypes they’d previously encountered.

“I think the ideas of our identities start to form when we are really young … When I was a kid, I was taught about the noble savage—photos of people with spears, that typical stereotype of Aboriginal culture. I wanted to unpack that and say, ‘Hey, it is so much deeper than that! You already have a connection to this … Every time you walk by a river, you are connected, you feel something. Every time you sit with another First Nations person you feel connected. That’s what we’re talking about, that’s Aboriginality, that’s cultural identity, and that’s belonging’,” Ms Saunders said.

“For the senior kids, it goes a little further. There’s a lot of decolonising to do around their identity and it’s a lot of unpacking around shame. You know, the reason you feel shame is because the ideas of our identities has been told to us. They’re situated inside this political, historical sphere. But it’s not that—actually, you get to decide what it is, and we’re going to help by providing other ideas of what it could be.”

Ms Saunders said learning language and poetry enables students to connect with important aspects of Aboriginal culture.

“Songlines are our poems, they are the maps of our journeys, they are places of belonging on country … There’s evidence that poetry has always been there for us—when we reconnect kids back to that idea, they feel an immediate kinship with the notion of poetry.”

“Our languages are very poetic in the way they sound, they are very melodic – unpacking all of those things, there’s a real synergy between poetry and language learning. When they come together, it’s really beautiful,” she said.

This year, the PIFL program will be extended into the ACT, the NT and QLD with workshops planned on Arrernte, Gumea Dharawal and Barkindji country. To date, it has engaged more than 350 First Nations students, 500 community members and 1,500 non-First Nations young people.

The project has been funded by the Australia Council for the Arts, Create NSW, UNESCO, Oranges & Sardines Foundation, Nelson Meers Foundation, Graeme Wood Foundation and the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.

By Rachael Knowles

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