New Shoots: Kirli Saunders

Kirli Saunders is many things. A proud Gunai woman, an accomplished children’s author, a storyteller and a motorcycle enthusiast. She’s also a leader of the Poetry in First Languages project, a Red Room Poetry initiative that sees First Nations poets create poems in First Nations languages with their Elders. We caught up with Kirli recently to talk about cultivating connections with Country and Mother Earth through the power of words.

Please tell us about you and your life with words? I’ve always been creative, usually drawing or painting as a little tott, with the influence of my Grandfather, a painter, and my Aunt, an artist and writer. I started writing more seriously when I was at university, studying primary education. I found myself being drawn to the picture book section of the library, and became fascinated with the visual literacies. I wrote my first picture book at 19 and sent it to Shaun Tan for feedback, he was generous with his time and that encouragement fuelled my want to be a children’s author. During this time, I also began to create poetry.

My first book was published this year, The Incredible Freedom Machines, Illustrated by Matt Ottley. It’s been 4 years in the making, and explores my love of motorcycles. I’ve got 2 more picture books under contract, Our Dreaming and Happy Ever After (Scholastic) and poetry collection, Kindred (Magabala) on the way as well. These texts explore my connection to Country, community and culture. They share the healing of intergenerational trauma through the Earth. I often write from this place of connection and healing – I enjoy putting these ideas and emotions into words that another might read and feel.

I also lead the Poetry in First Languages Project. This sees First Nations poets create poems in First Nations languages with their Elders. Commissioned poets then lead workshops on country with First Nations students and Elders, to support students to connect to Mother Earth and create poetry celebrating and sharing First Nations languages. We publish their poems in murals, performances, on bus backs and on the Red Room Poetry Website. The project is being researched by Bailey and Yang and UTS, to study the influence that learning languages has on the shaping of cultural identities of our young people.

An Elder reiterated that learning our language supports us to connect to Country and to one another in meaningful ways, I think expressing through writing does the same thing – takes the personal and makes it universal, drawing those of us to write, read or listen together.”

Poet, Kirli Saunders

How can poetry cultivate and deepen our connection to the natural world? The Dreaming as told to me, is underpinned by the inherit belief that we’re born of the Earth and we return to her, that we must care for her as we travel here. It also states that there’s no hierarchy in living things, that we’re all one, all with our own wisdom. The Dreaming suggests that we share our experiences with the other living spirits as we interact with them.

As a writer and child of the Earth, I believe we all benefit from sitting with trees and hearing their stories.”

The New Shoots project was the first program I worked on for Red Room Poetry. It supports students to sit with trees and write poems about them. It’s the perfect example of how poetry can cultivate and deepen our connection with the natural world. I encourage you to read some of the commissioned poems about plants from the New Shoots project and to pen some of your own. Start by bush walking, or finding a great garden, sitting with the Earth, and listening to her stories and poems and then recording your own.

Who are some of your favourite poets/writers/creators? Some of my favourite poets include Ali Cobby Eckermann, Rudi Francisco, Anis Mojgani, Nayyirah Waheed, Eunice Andrada and Jeanine Leanne.

My favourite illustrators include Matt Ottley, Mark Conlan, Mark Martin, Shaun Tan and Freya Blackwood.

My favourite children’s authors are: Danny Parker, Stephen Michael King, Bob Graham, Aaron Blabey, Libby Gleeson and Margaret Wild.

Other favourite writers include: Steven Pressfield, Nakkiah Lui, Rosalie Ham, Craig Silvey, Jane Harper, Don Miguel Ruiz and Jojo Moyes.

My favourite street artists: Reko Rennie, adnate, Banksy, Fintan Magee, Lucas Grogan and Scott Marsh.

Is there a person/place/word that is important in your work? I’ve been writer in residence at Bundanon Trust twice now, there’s all sorts of magic in the earth there. My Pop used to paint with Arthur on the property before he passed away, so it’s a special place in our family.

Poetry in First Languages was born at Bundanon, on the banks of the Shoalhaven River – I could hear the sounds of ancestors singing in language and wanted to create a project that would connect poets and young people with First Nations communities to learn languages and create poems in those languages about the earth.”

I’ve taught Poetry in First languages workshops and New Shoots workshops at Bundanon, kids love listening to the secrets of ancient gumtrees and responding through poetry and art to the landscape and its stories.

While at Bundanon, I also wrote Our Dreaming, to be released by Scholastic in 2019. This book arose from conversations with one of their educators trying to understand The Dreaming from a First Nations perspective. Mother Speaks explores the language of the earth, it’s under consideration for publication with a company at the moment and was written while writer in residence at Bundanon this year.

In another life what would you be? So many things. A yogi, motorcycle mechanic, a florist, a pastry chef, an artist, a horticulturalist, a parks and wildlife ranger, a politician, a nomad –  perhaps I’d be more analytically minded, I admire people who can think in numbers, so often my mind is all words and pictures.

If you were a plant, what would you be? This is a tricky question, I love the intricacy and beauty of orchids, they’re enchanting. I’m also drawn to the significance of the waratah back home – one of our totems. I like the stoic wisdom of flowering gumtrees too, though I don’t know if I could just sit still and look pretty, or carry all that power, or stand tall for so long. So, perhaps I’d be wisteria – another of my favourite plants, they’re wild and expansive, they’re creative and they fall down sometimes too, they flow with the seasons. I like that they’re always growing and moving, that they’re beautiful in bloom, with foliage and when they’re pared back in winter too.

Transplant – From Kindred, Magabala Books 2019

I travel home
to press my feet to the earth
we were raised on,
to ground myself in familiarity,
to grieve you.

I pull the sprouts that you’d sewn in me
like weeds,
fumble for the root of it all
and grasp at the depths.

With prickled skin,
I lift,
and then transplant,

carefully, I tend with the hope
that they might flourish
with transcendent flowers,
might nourish with
ripening fruit,

That they will go to seed,
and remain in the place
that we once grew,

And that one day
we might return to find a garden
alive with all that we were,
thriving on a love
that we knew.

– Kirli Saunders