Love Letters to Country

This is an unpopular admission for a writer to make, but for a while, I didn’t like a lot of poetry. Too sentimental, too much obfuscation (accidental and intended), which is weird because I am deeply sentimental and hardly straightforward. I can pinpoint the moments that made me stop resisting poetry and instead come to love it exactly as it is, as something that shape shifts and defies any expectation of what it might be or should do. Being introduced to Blak poetry was one of them. Having a poet-partner was another. Watching Jazz Money on NITV was the last and, seemingly, the one to have left the single greatest impression on me.

Jazz was doing a reading of ‘if I write a poem’, delivered directly to the camera. She was defiant and assured as she told us the reasons she’d write a poem, if she wrote at all. Her performance was so compelling I couldn’t look away, but I wasn’t watching television anymore, either. I was hearing ‘cicadas in chorus’. I was witnessing the rising of the ‘song that boils’ in her chest and the beating of her clapsticks. When Jazz said that if she doesn’t write a word, ‘it’s because I love this Country, and all the ways I love her burns’, I knew what she meant. And I understood that there was just as much story held in the gesture, rhythm and sound of those words as anything committed to other forms of literature I knew well. I realised, too, that the emotional core of poetry connects us so intimately with Country because it appeals, intensely, to the heart.

Jazz is a Wiradjuri artist, poet and author of an award-winning debut collection of poetry, how to make a basket. We caught up to yarn about poetry, language, river desire, Blak humour, and all the ways that writing Country and being on Country keeps us nourished, loved up and burning.

Marika Duczynski: Country speaks so clearly through your writing, Jazz, as it does for many Aboriginal writers. What are you thinking of when you’re writing Country?

Jazz Money: I think everything I write is in some way in dialogue with Country, especially as a Wiradjuri person who’s off Country most of the time and yearning for the place that I feel so responsible and connected to. It’s also important that I recognise my responsibility to the Country that I am on – which so often isn’t my own – wherever I am, wherever I’m calling home, wherever I’m walking, wherever I’m writing. I think one of the great gifts of recognising that responsibility and that connection is that everywhere you go on this continent is a storied place. There’s so much memory, connection, story and song that’s held in every moment on this continent. Even though there’s so much that I will never know or access, it’s important to be constantly challenging what we accept around us as the norm presented by the white colonial society. And I think writing is this really incredible tool to excavate the surface of what we’re living in, and consider all those other stories that are so much richer, that are sitting alongside this kind of mainstream narrative.

MD: Yes, so true. I often think of representations of Country in the early colonial material I’ve come across in some of the collections of museums and libraries. Those accounts of Country are building the dominant narrative you speak about, the lies of the colony, which aimed to legitimise the British Empire’s claim to this place. So writing about Country has historically been, among other things, a colonising tool. It’s interesting, too, the tradition of writing and poetry which tends to refer to ‘the bush’ or ‘the outback’ as this foreboding or harsh or unforgiving place that can disappear people forever if they wander too far into it. I’m not sure if bush mythology ever really sat well with me because it leans so much into this idea of the ‘unknown’. It implies that there were not people who knew and still know every part of these lands. And I think there’s also this false perception that Country is not necessarily here, in cities or in towns. That it’s somehow ‘out there’.

JM: Yeah, I think of people who are like, ‘Oh, I was out on Country on the weekend with someone’s Uncle.’ And it’s like, ‘You didn’t leave Country when you came back to Sydney, babe!’ [laughs].

MD: Right! And then there’s the fact that some state buildings are quite literally constructed from Country. I’m thinking of the State Library of NSW, which is made from sandstone that was quarried at Maroubra. And the brick mortar was made from ground shells taken from nearby middens.

JM: It’s a literal extraction of spirithood from land. To take Country in this way and dislocate it from itself is just the most deeply violent act, while simultaneously erasing our stories.

Jazz Money. £100,000, 2021. Installation view, No Show, 2021. Carriageworks. For Firstdraft Gallery. Photo: Zan Wimberley.

MD: When I think about writing Country, sometimes I think of it as writing a love letter to someone. I mean, I am in love with Gamilaraay Country, and it is such an important part of who I am. But then I think it’s so much more than that. Love can be unrequited, and if you write a love letter, you might not get one back. Our relationship with Country is reciprocal. When we write about it, we maintain our connection even when – especially when – we’re not there. And it’s always laced with this sense of longing and yearning. The feeling permeates a lot of my writing and I think maybe for you as well.

JM: I completely agree with that. Particularly considering the last couple of years of being in lockdowns and not being able to get back to homelands. Writing is a way of travelling back there and honouring Country. I’m not a fluent speaker of Wiradjuri, but I’m learning, and being able to speak and write and work with language is a way of existing in a kind of ‘whole’ way; feeling connected to Country because the language is of the land. When you speak the language, you bring that land with you and out of you.

MD: One thing I’ve really loved on social media is seeing mob say that when they go home to Country they get ‘hotter’ [laughs]. They get a ‘glow up’ from being on home Country. And the photos always show mob looking completely radiant. I think it says so much about how important it is for that desire and that yearning to be met, but also how Country nourishes us from the inside out. It doesn’t matter whether we live on Country or don’t. The need to feel connected and nurtured remains the same.

JM: Totally. I also love that ‘home Country glow up’ thing. It feels like a dialogue where I want to be on home Country and I feel like home Country wants me to be there too. So there’s desire in that way. We’re river people, and it feels as if there’s this kind of river pull, river desire, which then flows out. Every time I’m with fresh water and I go and introduce myself, I’m like, ‘You aren’t my river, but I know that you know my river, and so can you just send the word down that everything’s okay?’

MD: Beautiful.

JM: Where my family is from, agriculture has decimated Country on a superficial level. There’s scarring on the land, an agricultural scar, but it still feels possible to get in and feel good and feel right despite that.

MD: It’s the same for Gamilaraay Country. There’s long-established grain and cattle industries in some parts and mining and fossil fuel extraction in others. It’s a ravaged landscape in a lot of ways, but there are still ways ‘in’, as you say. And Gamilaraay are protesting and resisting the poor treatment of Country all the time.

JM: I got really hooked for a little while on writing ‘redaction erasure’ poetry of real estate listings. It started with a listing for this ‘never-before-sold Hawkesbury property’, and I was like, ‘You know why it wasn’t sold? Because it was stolen!’ The real estate listing went through the history of the property, all the way back to the ‘beginning’, around 1830 or something. And it was very radical to me. I was shocked by how violent it was. One of the things that really got me was this artificial billabong they’d built on the property. Billabong is a Wiradjuri word. It’s our word that means, yes – ‘pool of water’ – but it also means ‘the galaxy’, it means ‘the Milky Way’. I hated seeing that word hijacked in among this thing, this artificial galaxy. I really got into going through real estate listings from around Narrandera where my Nan was from and trying to find all the different ways the colony pushes its lies in these modes of sale and transaction. It’s really disturbing, but it’s also kind of funny in the way that blackfullas know how to laugh at it.

MD: Blackfullas always say, ‘You have to laugh or else you’ll cry.’ Humour is a mechanism of survival we’ve always had. It’s an assertion of sovereignty, too, in the sense that the colonists never envisioned us to, well, not only still be here, but to be laughing it up together. I actually really love some of the cheekier parts of how to make a basket.

JM: I’m glad that you read that there was humour in there. Sometimes people think I’m really serious when they read my writing. My writing is serious a lot of the time, but I don’t feel like a particularly serious person. Blackfullas often get the humour straightaway. And then there’s other people who are like, ‘Are you all right?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah. It’s funny!’ [laughs]. When you’re looking at this place, if it wasn’t fact, you would never believe that what happened here happened, right? Like, it’s so absurd. The way that the history of this continent has played out in the last 250 years, when you look at the preceding 100,000 years, I mean, you would think this is a twist beyond anything anyone would have the nerve to come up with [laughs]. I don’t know, it’s too absurd. And so I feel like when you’re working with that as context, it’s pretty hard to avoid leaning into the absurd. I also think working with humour is really disarming. When people expect you to be crying, but you’re laughing and you’re laughing at them, the power shifts. You’re the person in control again because you get the joke. And they can’t take that from you.

MD: That’s so true of the shifting of power, isn’t it? Humour is a reclamation of sorts. There’s a beautiful tradition of Aboriginal authors employing humour in the writing of dark subject matter. Dr Ruby Langford Ginibi and Aunty Kerry Reed-Gilbert are two writers who come to mind who each wrote about their lives and their trauma with a sense of humour and this, sort of, immense and inextinguishable love despite it all.

JM: Yeah, you know, survival is with a smile. There’s joy every day. I think that’s the truest form of resistance because the colony can’t take that away. They can steal our land and do all these other wicked things, but they can’t steal the joy of just … how great it is to be us, you and me, and our community, and be connected to this beautiful land and all its love that goes so far back.

Jazz Money. Bub, Listen Up, 2021. Installation view, Here:After, 2021. Fairfield City Museum and Gallery. Photo: Kai Wasikowski.

MD: Something I really enjoy in your poetry is the playfulness of form. I read a review of how to make a basket which described the collection as being ‘sculptural’, and I don’t think I had ever come across such a description of a book. But it’s true, your poems shape shift. They tend to embody and mirror their subject matter. They take on natural shapes like rivers, gullies and rising smoke. Or they appear split between two columns which seems to reinforce dichotomies between us/them, ancient/new, natural/ unnatural, or conversations between two people, like mother and child, or between lovers.

JM: Thank you. It was really fun. Initially the formatting came from not being great with grammar, and English being a stupid language full of rules that take the joy out of writing. I don’t care enough about writing English properly to follow the rules of it. I decided that the way I would start writing – which felt most natural to me – was to write the way the poem felt. So if it felt like there needed to be a big space, instead of putting a full stop, I thought, no, this is where you take a deep breath. And this is where the space is. One of the great gifts of getting to make this book was working with my editor, Ellen van Neerven, who is brilliant. With the poem ‘needles’, Ellen was like, ‘This doesn’t feel like it’s doing the thing that you want it to do, it needs to feel more like needles.’ So I went back and reshaped the poem and made it read the way it should feel.

MD: It works. The needling through form.

JM: I guess I was conscious that it’s a privilege to get to make a book that is an object people will have in their hands. It’s an intimate moment with someone, and I don’t want to take that for granted. I wanted to make a book that responded to that relationship and make the most of the book being a three-dimensional object. I have issues with the book publishing industry and how exclusive it is and that there’s all sorts of barriers. But if you’re writing a book, I think if you can make it something that people spin and turn and feel engaged with in terms of its aesthetic value as well as its emotional or intellectual value, that to me is a book worth having.

MD: I also love how much Wiradjuri language is incorporated into the work. One poem, ‘gununga’, is structured to force the reader to slow down and listen to language and all its wisdom. The reader must pause, read the Wiradjuri words, then go back to the English. What’s been your journey with language so far?

JM: It’s been a beautiful journey. I feel fortunate that there’s so much language regeneration work that’s happened around Wiradjuri, which means I can sit here in the city and still learn it and participate in it. It feels like the truest way of being. In terms of writing with language, that’s just a reflection of where I’m at. So often when I’m seeking the right way to say something, the right way is in Wiradjuri. It creates this kind of pervasive poetic entanglement with viewing the world and being in the world. And that spills over into my writing. I’m inviting the audience into a place that maybe isn’t so comfortable because a lot of people who read my book might not speak Wiradjuri. But I think blackfullas get it on a different level. I’m thrilled when I see other people working with their language; even if it’s not a language I know, I can often feel the shape of how those words make sense. I don’t need it to be translated. It’s exciting as a writer to encourage your audience to try and figure it out and get into the shapes of language. Audiences have to shift and think, ‘Oh, English isn’t the language that makes sense here.’ There’s another language that’s more relevant and more real. I hope it invites people to consider, ‘Well, what’s the language where I am?’ If they’re in Australia, it’s not English.

MD: Absolutely.

JM: And Wiradjuri is just a beautiful language. I’ve got a picture on my wall that says giyira, which is our word for ‘womb’, and it’s also our word for ‘the future’. I mean, this is an insight into a whole way of being, a whole way of viewing the world. Responsibility, science, love and interconnectedness is carried in this one word. It’s so much more sophisticated than anything English can do.

MD: Everyday language somehow contains entire universes. I’ve come to see that through learning Gamilaraay, too. Giyira reminds me of words like putuwá which Patyegarang shared with William Dawes. It means ‘to warm one’s hands by the fire and then to squeeze gently the fingers of another person’. There’s tenderness in that sentiment, but it’s so much more. I love the way that placenames can be sort of allegorical too, and that each layer gives so much information about place, like how the site is used, foods that are abundant there, dangers to watch for, or even the way places are connected to much larger networks of knowledge.

JM: I heard such a good placename meaning the other day. Coogee, in Sydney, means ‘smelly water’. I just find that so delightful because there’s so much wealth there. In a place called ‘smelly water’ [laughs].

MD: Funny, hey. And isn’t it because seaweed washes up on Coogee beach, causing the smell?

JM: Yeah! And I just … I love what language can do.

MD: Language is beautiful, isn’t it? [laughs].