Our primitive lives: Zalehah Turner interviews John Bennett, highly commended for the New Shoots Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney Poetry Prize 2016

“We forget just how fundamental plants are, especially primitive ones, like mosses and fungi (more animal than plant) for our air, water, soil.”- John Bennett

Zalehah Turner: In your notes you write, “This wall stands as a reminder that there is a story I want to trace.” Is ‘our primitive lives’ that story?

John Bennett: There are many other interconnecting stories: the garden as a Persian hunting park with walls keeping out the wild; botanic gardens arising from trade and empire and the rise of the consumer; the English landscape garden which, with poets and Italian painting (and Whig nationalist politics) helped shape the British idea of nature.
The Eora had no walls. Eden must have had a wall or fence through which we were expelled.
For 99% of human existence, hunter–gathering was the way of life, which has finished. In the last few years, the world population has tipped to urban not rural, and our agriculture has evolved quickly into industrial production. These changes are revolutionary and distance us from the natural processes collapsing through global warming, loss of biodiversity and habitat, the poisoning of the land, waterways and the seas. That’s a story.

Z.T.: You write, “my camera stitches connections”. Why did do you chose the combination of the visual image and prose poetry for ‘our primitive lives’?

J.B.: They complement each other, as well as possibly distracting each other – and we are so easily distracted in our culture. A photograph can reveal beauty or a truth beneath our noses and interrogate a text – not just illustrate. Poetry stitches connections too, an ability at the heart of the art. Poetry can connect the intimate, cosmic, mundane, sublime, thought and feeling. Hopefully the combination can nurture a creative engagement.

Z.T.: What is it about mixed media and ‘Photovoltaic poetry’ that is so essential to your understanding and expression of the world?

J.B.: Our culture has become overwhelmingly visually based, despite music being a vital art. Yet the visual is so powerful. I cannot draw or paint and the environment here is so beautiful. To show the beauty of the natural world is important now that we are distanced from it.
My current project is Eos: text, video and images of predawn when the visual can be sublime. Yet in the fifteen minutes before sunrise, colour fades and other senses come into play. Eos is an opportunity to become intimate with traditional elements – earth, water, air and light – and gain some understanding of our ancestors’ experience of a world before farming, roads or cities; before writing, machines, electrification or algorithms.
At the same time we are creative, playful and curious. We were reliant on machines and now, rely on technology. My art uses word processing and digital photography – I ask in one poem:

…My lens slams light onto an oxidised
silicon semiconductor powered by charged lithium ions
processed by robots and third world labour. Is this appropriate
technology to attempt intimacy with the environment?

Z.T.: ‘Our primitive lives’ takes in history, landscape, ecology, photosynthesis and the beginnings of life. Can you tell me a little about their interconnections in the ‘present’ and specifically in ‘our primitive lives’?

J.B.: Aldo Leopold was one of the first to value historical, cultural and scientific aspects of a place or landscape as part of its aesthetic appreciation, of its presence I would say. We need such understanding to see clearly, or in the words of Arran Gare (1995, p.160), to ‘enable individuals to construct narratives which can relate their own lives to a new grand narrative, the global struggle for an environmentally sustainable civilisation.’ Poetry has a vital role to play. When I was a boy, I thought the wars were coming to an end and progress (a relatively recent idea) was inevitable. There’s a cornucopia of violent conflicts, unfair trade, continuing famines, violence against women, and the ongoing war with nature. A war the NSW Baird Government is continuing, passing a bill last week to weaken land clearing laws. Australia is mostly an urban world deracinated from the natural processes that donate fresh air, clean water and food. How many of us can name any of the eight desert mammals we have sent extinct since invasion?

Z.T.: Why do you turn your attention to the cliff face in Sydney Harbour and away from the Harbour Bridge in ‘our primitive lives’?

J.B.: I lived in Sydney for thirty-five years and know the Bridge and Opera House; they oil the massive engine of Instagram, flooding 8 million images every day. The wall is a more subtle aesthetic treasure, packed with the marks and deposits of humans and nature – it is a vertical version of Darwin’s ‘tangled bank’.
Cézanne wrote in a letter to his son on 8 September 1906, ‘Here on the bank of the river the motifs multiply, the same subject seen from a different angle offers subject for study of the most powerful interest and so varied that I think I could occupy myself for months without changing place’ (Galenson, 2002, p.52).
The same could apply to this beautiful wall.

Z.T.: When writing about plants, you chose Commelina, moss and fungi, and added that, “the intimacy of slime lives with me”. When focusing on the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney you chose the cliff face. What particularly drew your attention to them, what is their connection and why do you feel so strongly about them?

J.B.: More than half of us are alien, cells that belong to other lives, and even our own cells are powered by mitochondria that were once primitive bacterial cells. We are symbiotic creatures intimately connected to our environment, but are stuck with damaging Platonic, Christian, Cartesian dichotomies: body/mind; reason/emotion; nature/culture. Reason is thought to be fundamental to our species and separating us from other animals, but consciousness is overrated. Much of our feelings, perceptions, attitudes, actions are achievements are hidden from us.

Z.T.: Commelina is known for its short life and referred to commonly as dayflowers. Why is this contrast between the short life span of a dayflower and immense stretch of time since the beginning of life so important to your poetry and ‘our primitive lives’?

J.B.: What will this wall look like in a thousand years? The time span of a politician’s thinking is four years, most of us have even less. Some struggle to survive from day to day, but the vast majority of us in the ‘first world’ have the opportunity to look ahead to what we are leaving our children. We can also remind ourselves that we are about ten billion years old (our materials are star stuff).
We now have responsibilities, have to manage habitats and species or we would lose both. An estimated ten per cent of the 28,000 plants introduced into Australia to feed stock, decorate gardens, or accidental invaders, would take over.

Z.T.: You write, “I think it’s plants that can mend the earth”. Can you elaborate?

J.B.: We forget just how fundamental plants are, especially primitive ones like mosses and fungi (more animal than plant) for our air, water, soil. If only our natural environment was richer worldwide . . . Evidence is increasing from multiple scientific fields that exposure to the natural environment can improve human health and wellness. So it goes back to both natural aesthetics and the fundamentals of healthy ecosystems.
It’s great that Red Room has the energy and ideas to drive poets to further creativity.

Z.T.: Congratulations on being highly commended for the New Shoots Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney Poetry Prize 2016. Is there anything you’d like to say about winning the award for ‘our primitive lives’?

J.B.: I’d like to thank judges for enjoying a poem revelling in discursivity – not that common these days…and congratulations to the Red Room for opening up new challenges for poets and new inventive spaces for poetry to breathe in.

Reference list

Galenson, D. 2002, Painting outside the lines: patterns of creativity in modern art, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, US.

Gare, A. 1995, Postmodernism and the environmental crisis, Routledge, London and New York.

‘our primitive lives’ by John Bennett: highly commended for the New Shoots Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney Poetry Prize 2016
New Shoots Poetry Prizes: the winning and highly commended poets
The winning and highly commended poems from the New Shoots Poetry Prizes can also be found on The Red Room Company’s website.

John Bennett

John Bennett has won the Mattara (now Newcastle) Prize and the David Tribe Prize and is represented in Puncher and Wattmann’s Contemporary Australian Anthology. A documentary on his work was broadcast by ABC Radio National’s Earshot in February 2016. His PhD updates a Defence of Poetry and he now melds poetry and image with Photovoltaic poetry.


-Zalehah Turner

Zalehah Turner is a Sydney based critic, writer and poet currently completing her Bachelor of Arts in Communications majoring in writing and cultural studies at the University of Technology, Sydney. Zalehah is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review: https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/09/welcome-zalehah-turner-rochford-street-review-associate-editor

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