New Shoots: Nandi Chinna, Poet and Wanderer

Nandi Chinna is an accomplished poet and research consultant based in Perth, Western Australia. She’s fascinated by how people relate to landscape and place. “As a poet, and as an activist with a deep concern for protecting biodiversity and habitat, my creative work responds to encounters with wild places, whether urban or remote, and the notion of reciprocal responsibility for earth care.” Nandi is one of the poets involved in Red Room Poetry’s New Shoots project, which has woven its words through botanic gardens across Australia over the last few years. In February 2019, New Shoots will be sprouting at Kings Park, Perth. We caught up with Nandi, one of the commissioned poets, to find out more about words, walking the land, and the power of poetry.

Please tell us about you and your life with words? If I had a first memory, it would be of stars, of lying outside on a tarpaulin with the wind percussing in the trees and the small sounds of the night enveloping me as I drifted off to sleep. I spent a lot of my childhood camping rough in wild and inaccessible places. I was taken out into the bush and the desert by my parents even when still a small baby. My siblings and I were allowed an extraordinary amount of freedom to run wild. Camping for us was a pretty sparse affair, pulled off into the bush somewhere, often without tent, just swags, cooking fires and long walks. I think that this kind of experience enters a person on a physical level. As you walk, sit, sleep and awaken in the wall-less sphere of earth, sky, and water, whether consciously or not, you develop a sympathetic communion with the other beings around you.

When I first started writing, it was the landscapes of my childhood – Lake Eyre, the Flinders Ranges, and the desert – that spilled out onto the page.”

Not simply describing the place like a travelogue, but trying to articulate the effect that the country had upon me and to find a language for the particularities of the plants, birds, animals, the soils, skies and rocks that I’d experienced. Part of what I’m attempting in my work is to express a specificity of experience, whether it be the Swan Coastal Plain, the Kimberley or the deserts of South Australia.

The environments I’ve spent time in have affected me. Over the slow time it takes to get to know a place, the place has opened up and allowed me in, and this relationship has become reciprocal. I feel a sense of responsibility to speak up for that which has given me knowledge, solace, adventure and wonder, and to put my voice in the path of any threats. I can’t speak for nature, but I can speak about it. As I see my beloved wilds continue to be threatened and destroyed by human activity the more distress and rage I experience. Walking wild and working with words has become activism.

How can poetry cultivate and deepen our connection to the natural world? There is a deep symbiosis between poetry and the experience you have when you encounter the wild. There is an emotional response and a sense of mystery associated with the natural world, and poetry is able to ‘shoulder the burden of the mystery’ (Edward Hirsch, 1999) as it attempts to speak between world and page. Furthermore, poetry is a slow art that, like the tuart trees, becomes a fuller, more expressive, and more interesting habitat over time.

American poet Jane Hirschfield writes; ‘we feel something stir, shiver, swim its way into the world when a good poem opens its eyes’. To me this comment is analogous with the embodied experience of the open materiality of the living world.

It is the poetry that arises from the physical act of walking wild, from senses enlivened by encounters with birds, plants, animals, and places that has become the basis of my writing practice.”

One of the issues of these times, with loss of biodiversity, increasing animal, bird and plant extinctions, and climate change, is that of connection with the natural world that many people seem to have lost. If you have no contact with the real of nature – with actual plants and animals and ecosystems – caring about what happens to them becomes abstract. The plight of wild places and creatures becomes disconnected from people’s every day experience, and therefore loses priority. Once you have visited a place several times, on foot, you begin to get acquainted with the beings other than human that inhabit it, and begin to appreciate the importance of these beings, not only just in themselves, but in relation to humans. We need beings other than ourselves to understand the incredible wonder of this planet Earth.

In her Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver explains that poetry evolves directly out of the relationship between nature and the body:

‘The natural world has always been the great warehouse of symbolic imagery. Poetry is one of the ancient arts, and it began, as did all the arts, within the original wilderness of the earth. Also, it began through the process of seeing, and feeling, and smelling, and touching, and then remembering – I mean remembering words – what these perceptual experiences were like, while trying to describe the endless invisible fears and desires of our inner lives (Oliver, 1994, p. 106).’

Poet,Nandi Chinna. Image by Tim Grant

Who are some of your favourite poets/writers/creators? I love the work of Stuart Cooke. Stuart writes about the natural world in a way that is almost like jamming with it. His poetry to me is a lot like music. I also love Swiss/German poet Robert Walser. Walser was an ecstatic. He immersed himself in the sensual experience of walking in the fields and forests of his home, and his poetry expresses that simple joy. Walser’s Oppressive Light is one of my favourites at the moment. Others include Gary Snyder, John Mateer, Czeslaw Milosz, Sharon Olds, Denise Levertov, Basho, Lynette Roberts, George Mackay Brown, many others.

Is there a person/place/word that is important in your work? My partner Suzanne Smith is very important in my work as a sounding board, and as a fellow traveller in many of my poetic explorations and adventures in the wild.

Places that are important – the Beeliar Wetlands that I spent 8 years of my life defending and writing about, the banksia woodlands of Perth – filled with incredible biodiversity and wonder. The desert and mallee of my childhood in South Australia, the Kimberly region of WA, the Swan River, Broke Inlet and Deep River. All very special place to me – places that I gain solace from and which feature in my poetry.

In another life what would you be? A park ranger. I would love to be immersed in wild places as a job, helping to care for flora, fauna, country.

If you were a plant, what would you be? I reckon I would be a Banksia littoralis, or western swamp banksia, or swamp oak (Nyoongar name: Pungura). This beauty grows on the Swan Coastal Plain and Darling Range from Jurien Bay to east of Albany like me, and also like me, it loves to be near watercourses, swamps, and winter-wet depressions. It is attractive to birds, bats, possums and bees, and flowers from February to July, which is also when I am most productive.

Eucalyptus macrocarpa in Kings Park. Image by Georgina Reid

Sorrow and Beauty in Equal Measure
Mottlecah – Eucalyptus macrocarpa 

In 1842 a macrocarpa was grown from a seed at Kew Gardens It flowered five years later in 1847. 

In a crucible of fog and damp
mainly green and wildy weedy,
Victorian England turning steam driven,
mass produced, the miracle of sewing machines,
electric light, cars, the sorrow
of work, child labour, smoke haze,
swallowing up forest and farm. 

Curiosity brought macrocarpa here,
by ship from the West Australian Desert.
With sun and wind stored in its seed husk,
older than Albion and its disappeared woods,
mottlecah grows lopsided and gangly in a hothouse at Kew.

As an object of study;
the colour of the flowers
is due to the stamens alone; for petals
(as in the genus) there are none.* 

Extant from its country, it takes
five years of pale skies
to coaxe the flower from its shell;
one wild bright bushy flower burning on the branch like a fire in the desert. 

– Nandi Chinna 2018

Nandi is one of the commissioned poets involved in Red Room’s New Shoots project at Kings Park in 2019.

Created by Red Room Poetry, New Shoots is a poetic project that connects people, plants and place to deepen our cultural and creative connections with nature.

With support from Eucalypt Australia, four Western Australian poets are creating and recording new poems responding to specific mallee species, sites and ecosystems in WA and Kings Park Perth. These new poems will be performed as part of Perth Writers Week in February 2019, published online, in learning resources and embedded in the Park to grow the garden of poems.