‘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.

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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

New Shoots Poetry Prizes: the winners and highly commended

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CONGRATULATIONS to the winning and highly commended poets in New Shoots Poetry Prizes!

Rochford Street Review, The Red Room Company and the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney are proud to announce and congratulate the winning and highly commended poets for the New Shoots Poetry Prizes. Congratulations to New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016 winner, Stuart Cooke for ‘Fallen Myrtle Trunk’ and Magdalena Ball for the highly commended, ‘Anneslea fragrans’. Congratulations also go to the New Shoots Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney Poetry Prize 2016 winner, John Karl Stokes for ‘Leaving Wilona’ and John Bennett for the highly commended, ‘our primitive lives’.

The four, award winning, plant inspired poems were published today, 1 December in the current issue 20, of Rochford Street Review and on The Red Room Company website. Interviews with the poets discussing their poems will be posted in the next few weeks.

Congratulations also go to one of poets shortlisted for the New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016, Mohammad Ali Maleki, whose poem, ‘Tears of Stone’ has been given, special commendation for extraordinary work in extreme circumstances and published in Rochford Street Review.

The prizes are a joint initiative of The Red Room Company, Rochford Street Review and the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney with the selection panel comprising of the Director of The Red Room Company, Tamryn Bennett and Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review, Zalehah Turner.

The New Shoots Poetry Prizes offered eco warriors to plant loving poets the chance to create poems around The Red Room Company’s plant inspired poetry project for 2016, New Shoots. All submissions will be included in an e-book anthology (forthcoming).

John Stokes, the winner of the New Shoots Royal, Botanic Garden, Sydney Poetry Prize 2016, wished to pass on his “thanks to the organisers and the judges; with a special thanks to [his] fellow writers for making this such a rich and interesting exercise.”

New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016
Winner: 
Stuart Cooke – ‘Fallen Myrtle Trunk
Highly Commended: Magdalena Ball – ‘Anneslea fragrans
*Special Commendation: Mohammad Ali Maleki – ‘Tears of Stone

New Shoots Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney Poetry Prize 2016
Winner:
John Karl Stokes – ‘Leaving Wilona
Highly Commended: John Bennett – ‘our primitive lives

New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016

Winner:Fallen Myrtle Trunk’ by Stuart Cooke

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Stuart Cooke

Stuart Cooke lives on the Gold Coast, where he lectures in creative writing and literary studies at Griffith University. He has published collections of poetry, criticism and translation. His latest book, Opera was published by Five Islands Press in 2016. Stuart Cooke is the winner of the 2016 Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize.

 

 

Highly Commended: Anneslea fragrans’ by Magdalena Ball

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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).

 

 

 

*Special Commendation:Tears of Stone‘ by Mohammad Ali Maleki

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Mohammad Ali Maleki

Mohammad Ali Maleki is an Iranian poet and avid gardener living in detention on Manus Island whose poem, ‘Tears of Stone’ was shortlisted for the New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016. Mohammad Ali Maleki is the featured writer in current issue of Rochford Street Review. His poem, ‘The Strong Sunflower’ was originally published in Verity La’s Discoursing Diaspora project. Mohammad Ali Maleki’s poems are translated from Farsi by Mansoor Shoushtari and edited by Michelle Seminara and Melita Luck. Mohammad Ali Maleki’s poems are emotive tales of life in detention which often employ plants as metaphors. He also enjoys gardening and has planted a beautiful garden behind his room on Manus Island.

 

 

New Shoots Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney Poetry Prize 2016

Winner: Leaving Wilnoa’ by John Stokes

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John Stokes

John Stokes is renowned internationally for his passionate campaign for plain-speaking in literature. He has won, been short-listed, or long-listed for many prizes including, longlisted for both the University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor’s and Montreal International Poetry Prizes in 2014 and 2015, respectively. His third book, Fire in the Afternoon was published in the Poets and Perspectives series by Halstead Press in 2014 and won the ATC Writing and Publishing Awards 2015 for best poetry book of the year.

 

N.B. The judges of the New Shoots Poetry Prizes were unaware that ‘Leaving Wilona’ by John Karl Stokes was previously published in ‘Fire in the Afternoon’ (Halstead Press, 2014) at the time of the selection and announcement.

Highly Commended:our primitive lives’ by John Bennett

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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.

 

 

*Special Commendation was an award that was created after the New Shoots Poetry Prizes submission guidelines were written

Selection panel: Dr Tamryn Bennet, Artistic Director of The Red Room Company and Zalehah Turner, Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review

Plant a seed of inspiration in your mind’s eye and let it grow into a poem.

Submissions to New Shoots Poetry Prizes have closed but the New Shoots online submission form remains open for plant-inspired poems. Poems submitted will be published on the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney website in 2017.

The winning and highly commended poems from the New Shoots Poetry Prizes can also be found on The Red Room Company‘s website.

-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

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

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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

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