‘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-pic

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

new-shoots-poetry-prizes-no-submission-date___________________________________________________________________________
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

‘Anneslea fragrans’ (the spitting plant): Zalehah Turner interviews Magdalena Ball, highly commended for the New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016

“Walking through a place like the Sydney Botanic Gardens is very much a sensual experience, and I feel that part of what a poet does is to slow down and pay attention to those experiences – to really smell, touch, taste and feel in a very deep way…” – Magdalena Ball

Zalehah Turner: What drew you to Anneleas frangrans, the spitting plant?

Magdalena Ball: As a writer, I tend to be drawn to anthropomorphism. I like the idea of trying to get inside the perspective of something non-human – an animal, a mineral or plant in a way that somehow comes back to the human condition. Trigger plants like Anneslea fragrans are easy to do this with, because plants are usually immobile (at least to human eyes) and making this beautiful, elegant flower, which also smells lovely, actually do something reactive and fast was evocative for me.

Z.T.: Can you tell me about your own experience of the ‘Anneslea fragrans’ in the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney?

M.B.:
It has been quite a few years since I’ve been to the Botanic Garden, Sydney, but being rather verbal and a chronic teacher of my children, sometimes to their dismay, I tend to read every sign aloud. We had the children with us the last time and were doing a self-tour. There was a lot of excitement at the ‘Spitting Plant’, because it smelled and looked good and then did this seemingly un-plant-like thing of reacting when we very gently touched the flower, which was great fun. We spent a lot of time waiting and hoping for an insect to land (that didn’t happen). There’s a kind of mystery in that trigger – is it deliberate? Is it reflex? I sort of filed the plant away in my mind as something I wanted to explore, so when I found out about the competition, it was the natural choice.

Z.T.: In ‘Anneslea fragrans’ you open with “first there is touch”. The poem contains many references to the senses and even the interconnection between them: “most of what we taste is smell”. Why are all five senses so integral to your poem, ‘Anneslea fragrans’?

M.B.: The plant certainly lends itself to that – because it’s a tactile experience, but also because it does stimulate the senses so strongly – with the scent, the look and the feel of it…I also wanted to make that connection with the other senses that are on alert in the garden. Walking through a place like the Sydney Botanic Gardens is very much a sensual experience, and I feel that part of what a poet does is to slow down and pay attention to those experiences – to really smell, touch, taste and feel in a very deep way – not just on the surface of it, but to think about what it means to be smelling this smell, or having a tactile experience – what is the broader implication.

Z.T.: Are you interested in synaesthesia and if so, in what way does it inform your poem?

M.B.: I’m fascinated by synaesthesia. Even for people who operate in the centre of the spectrum, the senses themselves don’t function in isolation. Our sense of smell and taste are intimately connected (as I suggest in the poem) and there’s so much still to learn about, not only the connections between our senses and how we perceive, but the connection between our senses and illnesses or emotional state. I’m not at all certain that the separation of the senses is anything other than a human and perceptual response – it may be an agreed illusion or at least, entirely subjective. In the poem, I’m trying to embed myself a little more elementally into the natural world – to take a different perspective than the human. Of course, I’m limited to my own all-too-human linguistic capabilities, but I want to move a little deeper into empathy and the mixing of senses worked well for this, for me because animals and insects often use smell, colour and sound in ways that are more acute than humans are capable of.

Z.T.: You write in the second person. Who is the ‘you’ in the poem?

M.B.: I like the way poetry allows for multiple points of view simultaneously. So there are a few different versions of “you” that are being referred to at the same time in the poem. One of those is synonymous with ‘one’ – the human, including me. On another level, the ‘you’ is the reader and I like the idea of bringing the reader directly into the poem and making them a very direct participant and referent. The third ‘you’ could potentially be a companion, as well – a kind of single co-conspirator.

Z.T.: Why did you write “there were no bees this year”? Australia has been so far spared from Colony Collapse Disorder but it may well be in our future. Are these lines in reference to a highly possible, near future? What are your thoughts on the world wide bee shortage and its effect on pollination and ecology?

M.B.: I believe there’s some disagreement about whether Australian bees are in decline even if we’ve been spared Colony Collapse so far. The number of bee-keepers has definitely declined and the use of antibiotics in beekeeping and pesticides (neonicotinoids) has dramatically increased here as elsewhere. From an anecdotal point of view, I’ve totally noticed the decline of bees in my own backyard. It’s palpable. Five years ago we had so many bees in Spring, I was worried my kids would get stung swimming and was considering calling in someone to relocate the hives (I didn’t in the end and we learned to co-habit). Now there are only a very few bees. I think that the worldwide bee shortage is a major ecological issue. Bees are critical in the human food chain and their role as pollinators is crucial to food production. Albert Einstein said “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination…no more men”.  Aside from the fact that the loss of any species is tragic, most particularly when it’s man-made, the loss of bees will have a dramatic impact on our own species’ ongoing ability to survive.

Z.T.: You have references throughout the poem to critically endangered species, including a list which ends with a mammal which is not. Humans. “What else is on the way out?” Do you feel that humans are ensuring their own extinction through harming the environment and war?

M.B.: Yes! I don’t want to be a prophet of doom, and in fact, it’s my nature to be positive. I don’t think giving up is a helpful approach, but all indications are that we’re headed for a sixth mass extinction that may well include the human race. Apparently, over the last century, species of vertebrates are dying out up to 114 times faster than they would have without human activity (that stat from Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University). I have no idea if this is reversible – Ehrlich suggests it is. I’m not an expert, but from where I’m sitting, I’m not seeing a trend towards increased conservation amongst worldwide governments.

Z.T.: “A day that might not last”. Why do you feel that?

M.B.: As above. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t make every effort we can to save whatever species we can, and above all, to take notice now of the beauty that surrounds us – to give priority to using less resources, to living in a more sustainable way and lobbying our governments (and vote accordingly) to take climate change seriously. I probably sound a little like an eco-warrior, and I’m not really, and don’t feel art should necessarily be polemical, but I certainly know how precious the natural world is and how little hope we seem to be leaving for our children and grandchildren. Art does seem to me to be an appropriate means of exploring these issues and if nothing else, connecting dots that might not otherwise be connected. We’re not really so different at the end of the day from other animals or the plant world – we have a common goal of survival and well-being.

Z.T.: What are your thoughts on Botanic Gardens, conservation programs, and their efforts to save endangered flora?

M.B.: Utterly important on every level. I’m grateful for programs like the ecological restoration work, and wildlife and plant ecology programs, and support them wholeheartedly. I’m well-aware that these research projects go far beyond the confines of the Botanic gardens site.

Z.T.: Anything you’d like to add?

M.B.: I’m particularly appreciative of the opportunity to explore these themes poetically (and of competitions like New Shoots), because I think that opening a dialogue on conservation issues with the arts community is not only a natural affiliation, but one that can both link the reading population with the scientific population, and explore dystopian impacts in a way that hopefully reaches more people in new ways.

Z.T.: How does it make you feel to have been highly commended for the New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016?

M.B: Being highly commended for the New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016 was a particular honour for me, for a number of reasons. One is that the shortlist was seriously impressive, as were the winning and shortlisted poems. ‘Fallen Myrtle Trunk’ by Stuart Cooke just blew me away, as did Stokes’ ‘Leaving Wilona’ and Bennett’s ‘our primitive lives’, and I felt strong synergies between what we all were striving for as poets.
Another reason this means a lot to me is the ecological nature of this project. I’m not sure I qualify as an ecopoet specifically, but much of my work has an ecological focus and being able to situate myself in this area means a lot to me.
I’ve been following the New Shoots project from its start and have been deeply moved and excited by the work being done by Tamryn Bennett, Eileen Chong, Eric Avery and Mark Tredinnick, and though I didn’t get to see the actual guided poetry walk at the Sydney Writers Festival (wish I had), I have been following it closely online.
Finally, I have a great deal of respect for The Red Room Company and the innovative work they’ve done over the years, from installing poetry on toilet room doors, working with prisoners, working with first nations cultures and lost languages, attempts to map disappearing places, and distributing poetry via carrier pigeon- to name a few of the projects that come to mind. Being associated with The Red Room Company and with Rochford Street Review (another organisation I’ve come to respect greatly) is a kind of prize in itself.

‘Anneslea fragrans’ by Magdalena Ball: highly commended for the New Shoots 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.

magdelena-ball-pic-enchanced

Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is a novelist, poet, reviewer, interviewer, and the editor of Compulsive Reader. She has been widely published in literary journals, anthologies, and is the author of several books of poetry and fiction. Her most recent work includes, the novel, Black Cow (Bewrite Books), and the collection of poetry, Unmaking Atoms (forthcoming, Ginninderra Press).

-Zalehah Turner

new-shoots-poetry-prizes-no-submission-date

___________________________________________________________________________

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

New Shoots Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney Poetry Prize 2016 highly commended: ‘our primitive lives’ by John Bennett

our primitive lives

1

The Opera House squats on Djubuguli, once a tidal island
facing a sandstone cliff bracing our first farm whose sandy,
tough conditions dealt a pitiful crop of wheat and barley.
Tourists worship the radiant sails and Harbour Bridge ribs,
I focus on the wall. Commelina is fingering the rock, native,
edible, but confused with Tradescantia luminensis (a toxic weed
with white flowers known by a sour alias ‘Wandering Jew’).
The immigrants ate the juicy leaves to limit scurvy, called it
scurvy plant, but knowledge for the Eora was just a way of life.

The bailey is haemorrhaging slime moulds (fungi), algae, moss
and lichen, smears of colour bleed into curdled patterns, moist
voluptuous erosions and exhalations of precarious vocabularies,
hieroglyphs are living low relief. I wonder how it all smells.

My camera stitches connections, less intimate than harvesting moss
and its green simplicity, leaves one-cell thick on simple stems, handy
for bedding, dressing wounds, starting fires, or than vertical gardening,
or botanical exploration with loupes and textbook, but offering insight.

jb-image-1

2

As a child I splashed through puddles, slithered in mud, waste grounds
were playgrounds, dirt was the natural skin and now I celebrate
this neglected landscape of deflated hills, streams, swamp and desert.
What’s a wall to slime and roots but an opportunity?
This surface succours ancestors of all plants, of all 4,000 trees
the Garden wears, including my favourite, a monumental Flooded Gum
bleached by sunlight near Maiden Theatre. Plants have thrived here
for 200 years but figuring the ecology is a modern adventure.

An aesthetic approach to nature’s nooks and crannies threads life,
blurred bands of iron oxide and desert textures onto silicon memory.
This sandstone wall, 200 metres deep, poured from Broken Hill,
laid down and rammed with few collisions and only minor folding.
It’s a piece of art that moulds the marks of men and machine, as new
to the Eora as this perpendicular boundary to the Governor’s Domain,
the wind and rain plucks the grains out one by one.

jb-image-2

3.

The intimacy of slime lives with me. We are more than ‘digital archives
from the African Pliocene’. Just as cyanobacteria infiltrated chloroplasts
donating a one-off miracle to plants (the ‘green fuse’ of photosynthesis)
‘proteobacteria’ developed the engine that mitochondria use to power
our cells from oxygen – and the world slowly filled with life.

We can’t insulate landscape from history, history from prehistory,
biology from botany, life from lives. Through a Port Jackson Fig
the lapis lazuli sky dissolves around bright cockatoos raising their
scratchy voices and sulphur crests. The fig runs roots down fissures
in the rock with primitives clinging on, ferns sprout fractal wings
and grasses love a pinch of soil. What’s left of Darwin’s tangled bank
flowering elegantly from algal scum these last 500 million years
is in retreat, the sheer variety being locked away in seed banks.
I think that it’s plants that can mend the earth.

jb-image-3

Note:
This wall stands as a reminder that there is a story I want to trace. A 1788 sketch by William Dawes and John Hunter, ‘Sydney Cove, Port Jackson’, gives Djubuguli a sharp nose with a bald head. Leseur’s ‘Plan de La Ville de Sydney’ from four years later shows an aerial perspective suggesting a cliff. Neither show a Gadigal gathering place, or the Blackbutts, Red Bloodwoods and Sydney Peppermints towering above echidnas, antechinus and wallabies, or Aborigines hunting geese and duck in the swampy foreshores, drained and filled to enlarge the original farm now the Royal Botanic Garden. Governor Phillip built a brick hut for his kidnapped friend/informant Bennelong, leader of the Wangal clan, on Djubuguli, hence the new name Bennelong Point.

jb-image-4

john-bennett-pic

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‘.

 

 

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

new-shoots-poetry-prizes-no-submission-date