Zalehah: Hello Liana and Amanda, anything you’d like to say about snakes, poetry and Western Australia by way of an opening?
Liana: Poetry in Western Australian is a lively and diverse ‘ecosystem’, where the poets are likely, on the whole, to welcome serpents! Encounters with snakes in the wild always leave an indelible impression, so it’s not surprising to me that such highly charged moments will find an afterlife in poetry. Without being overly mystic, an encounter with a snake sharpens the moment: life and death are revealed as conjoined.
Amanda: I grew up largely outdoors, due to being in the desert and living in a caravan in the heat, I have barely a memory of being inside. My father in particular made sure I knew a lot about snakes, which ones were poisonous, how to walk slowly in order to encounter them and the need to stand completely still when I saw them. It has left an indelible hyper-sensitivity to them which means I encounter them in my reading as well with that same recognition. Liana has already mentioned, a sharpening, but also a familiarity. There is barely a collection of poetry I have read and loved which doesn’t have a snake or several.
Zalehah: Liana and Amanda, what are your thoughts on endangered species, snakes, and the destruction of their habit through deforestation and urbanisation?
Liana: My thoughts immediately turn to our Biblical heritage. The queen of heaven crushing the serpent; the conflation of the serpent with ‘evil’. These ideas are so powerful in our culture. I see the current, parlous state of deforestation, loss of species, and unchecked urbanisation as directly connected. It has created a world where in many cultures humans view themselves as ‘having dominion’. I think we have much to learn from Indigenous cultures that have a more respectful concept of cohabitation.
Amanda: Recently, a huge tract of land was bulldozed in an area of remnant bushland where I walk regularly. I have rarely walked in there without at least one snake sighting, I found myself grieving for all the terrestrial animals which may not make their way back in there for quite some time. There is something about the spaces inhabited by snakes, the ‘gap in things’ to borrow a line from Luke Davies’ ‘Totem Poem’ that I have had moving around in my head while wandering in there. It speaks to me of wild and untouched space, understories and humus, shrubs and caves, where things go to breed and incubate and generate. When the ground is barren and animals lost, when seeds have nowhere to fall, regeneration is impossible. There is a starkness in the destruction of wild spaces which fosters more starkness, which speaks to me of a terror.
Zalehah: Can you tell me about any experiences with snakes or snake skin that you’ve had? The strongest, most memorable.
Amanda: Of course, the entirety of Snake Like Charms is about my experiences with snakes and even some snake skins. The most memorable was a face-to-face meeting with a tiger snake while walking in an area of Beeliar Wetlands with an anthropologist. We were in a very important sacred site and I was on my knees taking a photograph of a quite large Burton’s legless lizard. As I swivelled away, still on my knees, I found myself directly level with the tongue of a huge snake, its head was flared. I’d never seen one from quite that angle before. Fortunately, my body, in its infinite wisdom, froze. I have no idea how long we were like that, facing each other. It was that meeting and the next couple of days of adrenaline coursing through my system which solidified the conception of Snake Like Charms.
Liana: I have had the privilege of visiting a very special place in the south-west, one that very few people have experienced. It can only be accessed by walking ocean wards from the back of a private property in Walpole. After much flat landscape, the earth opens up in a deep fissure. You realise that the little green shrubs you had thought you saw were, in fact, the tops of jarrah trees. This place, called Lander’s Gully, has a freshwater spring at one end. Although known to few people, it is, naturally enough, known to the wildlife. We were resting on the sandy track down into the gully, when my companion said in one word: ‘damnbloodyhell’. I turned and saw a tiger snake approaching us from behind. We moved to either side of the track and watched the snake make its slow way to the head of the springs and drink its fill. Shades of D.H. Lawrence!
Zalehah: These experiences are life and death. I am pleased that you both managed to survive! Mythological and symbolic references to snakes appear throughout your poetry: the Ouroboros and the headless Medusa. Are these powerful motifs, images and life experiences the reason that you express yourself through poetry or prose? Why poetry in particular? What is about the form that appeals to you?
Amanda: There is a fantastic essay by James Hillman in his Dream Animals collection titled ‘A Snake is not a Symbol’ where he writes about a workshop exercise he uses, having the group discuss all the snake references which come to mind. So many! Then he asks them to consider the ‘snake-ness’ of an actual snake. The wonder of that, the physical attributes actually bring about its prominence in mythology and in particular creation stories. It is a brilliant meditation on the tempering involved when balancing the motifs and myths with a contemporary context within a poem. Stuart Cooke in his introduction to his translation of George Dyuŋgayan’s The Bulu Line discusses the ‘haze’ in the songs (poems) he is translating, the uncertainty. That same ‘gap in things’ I mentioned earlier, it’s a space we as readers need to sift for meaning which draws me to the form as a writer and a reader. A meeting place within the text as an encounter, where we can bring with us all our points of reference. It would be impossible to think of snakes without bringing the mythos of the snake, especially on Country which was sung into being by serpents.
Liana: Oddly enough, that encounter (and several other close ones) have not evoked mortal terror for me. More a feeling of respectful fascination. I have seen my neighbour’s dog die from dugite venom, so I’m not unaware of the dangers. But in my encounters fear has never been the dominant emotion. It is, of course, not possible to shed all the cultural and mythological scales from our eyes . . . nor is it necessary. I agree with Amanda, though, on the importance of resisting the possibility of cultural overlays obscuring the actual existence of another life. The snake is Saturn, haloed by rings of mythos, no doubt, but centrally and intrinsically itself.
Zalehah: As ‘female, activist poets’ (Liana’s words!)- what do you hope readers will think/ or rethink about their perceptions of the world, wildlife, and precious existence of animals (deadly or not) within it? What do you feel strongly about? What do you hope readers will take away with them after reading your work?
Liana: There is a strong tradition of activist, female poets in Australia – Judith Wright pre-eminent among them. I’ve often pondered this topic as Amanda and I — together with poets, Nandi Chinna and Jennifer Kornberger, among many others — have been involved in direct action campaigns in defence of wild spaces. The most recent of these was a protracted struggle to protect the Beeliar wetlands from a massive road project (think ‘WestConnex’ for a parallel). From time to time we have comforted each other by quoting excerpts from Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poems about trees and wetlands. You can, of course, write about the bush from the city, as Henry Lawson did. However, I think that poets are potentially receptive to nature as more than just a theoretical construct, and some of them are willing to put their bodies — as well as their words — on the line to protect the wild. Poetry is not a didactic art form; however, it can excel at shifting consciousness indirectly. I would hope that both my poetry and prose may cause some such shifts in the reader towards a revaluing of that which is being lost at too rapid a rate. I have been involved in the Animals and Society Study group since its foundation at UWA several years ago. My passion for wildlife and wild places is the heartwood of my life.
Amanda: I’m so grateful Liana brought Nandi Chinna into this conversation. When I read the poetry of Nandi or Liana, or any female poets of this rich heritage we have from Judith Wright, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Dorothy Hewett, and so many more, I find myself yearning for those spaces and encounters found within them. I’m reminded that I need, on a very deep level, to make my way back into bush or desert country and the ‘wild’ encounters I can find there. I would hope that my own poetry at its best, might inspire those same desires. Even more so I would love to think it might feed a sense of urgency in readers to make contact and protect the Country the poems come from.
Liana: Amanda’s poems do exactly that!
Zalehah: I’m interested in your views on ecopoetry. Is it tame?
Amanda: I want to find the opposite of ‘tame’ I look for it as much in what I read as in where I walk. There is some fantastic poetry coming out under the banner of ecopoetry, the best of it has a lot of ‘wild’ in its many definitions.
Liana: Ecopoetry is a broad umbrella that shelters a very diverse array of works. Some of these works may be ‘tame’, as you put it – contemporary versions of the Romantic poets’ nature idylls. I’m inclined to disrupt any binary I happen to encounter, though (to quote from my poem ‘Beastitudes’: Blessed are the carnivores/ reviled for being wild/ Blessed are the companion animals/ reviled for not being wild. I guess I incline to inclusiveness, and feel there is a role for the lyrical as well as the spiky in ecopoetry. My own poetic responses are often to the beauty implicit in scientific accounts of nature.
Zalehah: A few questions about the poems from each of you published in Rochford Street Review:
Zalehah: Amanda, ‘Making a Meal of it’ is skillfully executed and surgically expresses the horror of killing and eating snakes. Can you elaborate?
Amanda: In regard to eating snakes further, I think I revere them too much to do it. I couldn’t when I have had the opportunity and can’t envisage myself doing so.
Zalehah: Amanda, in ‘Snake Skin, Roe Swamp’ you describe yourself or the narrator of the poem as coming across a snake skin only to put it on. In ‘Locus’ you are belly down and snake-like only to then wish you were the water around the krait. The boundaries blur. Do you feel that there is a deep connection between the snake and yourself, a longing and an incredibly strong link or perhaps even, no division between yourself and nature/ the wildness?
Amanda: I have a mild fascination with the limbic portion of the brain, that part which we share so closely in its purpose with all creatures: the way it maps bodies through landscapes externally and encounters, and in turn, maps the way bodies respond internally. There is something in the mutual understanding I was writing of in the tiger snake encounter, the way in those meetings you have to overcome the ‘fight or flight’ and freeze or one of you will come off the worse. I suppose this is what you are questioning when you ask about the connection or longing between myself and the snake in ‘Snake Skin, Roe Swamp’ and ‘Locus’. I believe it is the same longing I am indulging when I immerse myself in readings of ecopoetry or eco-feminist literature, not merely a ‘something I can relate to’. More the ‘strangeness’ of the snake, the impossibility of closeness, that ‘gap in things’ again. That’s wilderness – what could be untouched, in the natural world, physically, but also by ideas.
Zalehah: Liana, in ‘Crunching the numbers’ you expressed that you ‘drew a line in the sand’ at eating endangered species and poetically laid down the maths of humans eating other species, asking the reader to crunch the numbers themselves. Can explain you explain your views in relation to eating snakes further?
Liana: ‘Crunching the Numbers’ shows that by playing with mathematical concepts. The poem had its genesis in a trip I took to China that caused me to revise my thinking about what we consume. Like many in the West, I find the notion of eating snakes, insects or anything outside a very small range to be a challenge. I cannot imagine taking up eating snakes. However, I did see quite clearly that eating a much broader span of animal species does, at least ‘spread the load’.
Zalehah: Liana, in ‘Hey Kekule’ you reference Kekulé’s Ouroboros dream and reverse snake charming to ‘charming snake’. What are your feelings on the tradition of snake charming and the mythology of life and death within the snake eating his/ her tail?
Liana: Ouroboros has always been a compelling symbol for me (I have been known to quote at length a passage from Pynchon that directly connects the symbol to a non-linear, self-contained natural world). I think it’s a significant metaphor for those of us who desire a more ecocentric world view. ‘Hey Kekule’ also references the tantric tradition which speaks of the serpent coiled at the base of the spine that with esoteric training can be ‘charmed’ into rising up through the chakras. Wildness is, as Amanda so beautifully explains, not reducible. It is both potent and dangerous and requires the containment of respect.
Zalehah: Liana, in ‘Cohabitation 2’ you make you views clear leaving the reader with ‘snakes known to exist in this area’. The title appears to express your views. Would you like to elaborate?
Liana: As for Snakes known to exist in this area – it is, of course, a reverse reading of the intended meaning of the sign, which was meant to serve as a warning. For me there is no such thing as a ‘paradise’ without snakes. Whether or not I see them – the continuous hum of other life forces, the homeliness of cohabitation is deeply precious. I celebrate all beings known to exist in this area!
Zalehah: Liana, Wild Familiars and Deadly Beautiful. Your interest and experience with wildlife and scientific journalism attracted you not just to snakes, ‘a matter of scale’, but deadly animals. What’s the attraction and intrigue?
Liana: As I mentioned above, my response is not restricted to dangerous or deadly animals. I grew up near Fremantle, and spent a lot of my childhood in the local bushland. It formed me in significant ways, including a responsive joy to wildlife, both plant and animal. My first professional job was as the editor of Landscope magazine, which was much concerned with wildlife and science. Since then I’ve done a lot of science writing and also found myself having poetic responses to the science I was reading. I like to wander back and forth across those territories. I was approached by Exisle Publisher and they asked if I want to write a book on ‘dangerous animals of Australia’. Once I ascertained that it was not a schlock-horror theme, but a conservation one, I readily agreed. However, somewhere between my agreement and the writing, they decided that they wanted ‘deadly animals of the world’. Gulp! However, I found that cold-emailing scientists in other places often resulted in very warm and helpful responses. The process also had some poetic outcomes. In my research for the book, for instance, I came across the fact that scorpions fluoresce under ultraviolet light. This had to be a poem (‘Scorpionism’ was published in Unusual Work.) Years ago, I was putting in a paper for the inaugural Animals and Society conference at the University of Western Australia. I mentioned to an artist friend, Kati Thamo, that she should submit some of her prints to be part of the conference exhibition. Then I promptly felt jealous that she would have the fun of a creative response while I was stuck with an academic paper. This inspired me to write some poems and enter them as part of an art exhibition with Kati. Later I wrote some more, and collected them together for Wild Familiars. Kati Thamo’s exquisite work ‘The Embrace’ adorns the cover.
Zalehah: Amanda, congratulations again on winning the Peter Porter Prize in 2016 for ‘Tailings’. I love that blue tongue lizards, cockatoos and a man looking for a hookup on Grindr all appear in your poem. You’ve written a wonderful, contemporary, Australian poem that takes in the landscape from a very intimate and personal perspective. Take me through ‘Tailings’: your thoughts, inspirations, and your poetry collection, Snake Like Charms.
Amanda: Thanks, Zalehah. A friend recently posted a photo on Facebook of a swamp beneath a highway overpass, filled with litter jettisoned from vehicles passing over. The overpass was supposedly a way of preserving what was underneath. I held the picture in my mind’s eye a lot over the past few months and what it conveyed was a lot of what gave urgency to publishing Snake Like Charms and writing ‘Tailings’. Since the industrial age, there has been a fear of swampland and these spaces which necessitate ‘discomfort’ in the settled parts of us. Here in Perth vast areas have been filled in for housing and roads, what is left accumulates marginalised wildlife and all manner of what is pushed aside. As a child, when we came to Perth I spent a lot of my time finding those places, even climbing out of my bedroom windows at night to get to the river and swamp. I suppose that’s why if I write them, I write them in as I find them and as I found/ find myself in them. They are the places which hold memories of a marginalised and lonely childhood in many ways and are still the places I go to find my solitude as well as all manner of other solitudes driven to the margins by suburbia. ‘Tailings’, by one definition, are the unusable detritus left over from mining or industrial activities. I found it a potent metaphor for many of the inspirations behind the poem.
Zalehah: Lastly, any insights you’d like to share about each other’s work or your own? Comments or even questions for one another?
Liana: Having had the privilege of sharing creative space with Amanda during the time she was writing Snake Like Charms (we are part of a small group of women poets convened by Jennifer Kornberger), of course I looked forward to reading the finished collection. The collective impact of the works was even greater than I expected. I found the poems to be sinewy as well as sinuous. Familiar with fear and yet deeply unafraid. I learned a lot from paying them close attention.
Amanda: My gratitude for Liana’s work lies in part to the forensic listening, looking and research which I know is contained within its form. The greater conversation it contributes to is omnipresent, nature and science, animals and human society, domestic and wild spaces are given voice in a unique and enlightening way. Her writing is always vital and surprising and I deeply admire her unique blend. I have to say here also that Deadly Beautiful has been gifted to almost all my nearest and dearest over the past few years!
Zalehah: Wonderful to be in such a writing group!
Liana: Oh yes, it’s a small, highly supportive and productive group. We all find it very useful. 🙂
Zalehah: Liana and Amanda, just to clarify, I do not think ecopoetry is necessarily tame by any means. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the e-interview with both of you. Thanks so much for your time. You’re both incredibly inspiring and have given my readers and myself much to think about.
Liana and Amanda: Hi Zalehah, thank you. It’s been a most enjoyable conversation. We have no problem with ‘tame’!
Amanda Joy was born and raised in the Kimberley and Pilbara regions of Western Australia. Her first full-length book, Snake Like Charms, is part of the UWAP Poetry series. Her poem ‘Tailings’ won the 2016 Peter Porter Poetry Prize. She is the author of two chapbooks, Not Enough to Fold and Orchid Poems.
Liana Joy Christensen is an ophidiophile, as well as a writer and poet. She is the author of Deadly Beautiful, and Wild Familiars, prose and poetry, respectively. Her work is widely published and she was shortlisted for the Newcastle Poetry Prize in 2014.
Purchase Deadly Beautiful by Liana Joy Christensen