This week, we explore the illuminating work of two award-winning Australian poets: Kirli Saunders and Eileen Chong.
Plant your feet like roots
next to mine.
Bloom alongside me.
Like leaf and vine,
our tangled bodies
will always chase the sun.
Kirli Saunders is a proud Gunai Woman, teacher and artist. An award-winning writer of poetry, plays and picture books, Kirli’s work explores identity, Country and community with a uniquely tender and strong voice. “I’ve been trying to live a poem instead of just putting it on a page,” said Kirli at the 2021 Sydney Writers’ Festival. “And I tell you sometimes she’s a messy first draft – my poem, page, life – and other times it’s something far more eloquent.”
Her poetry collection, Kindred, was shortlisted for the ABIA 2020 Book Awards, and contains “gentle, succinct reminders of the marvel that is our kin, our family, our friends, ourselves” (Wheeler Centre).
"As you read Kindred, your body's rhythms match the beat of Kirli's words,” said Alison Whittaker. “They are unrelenting and nourishing. Saunders takes seriously printed poetry's freshest contemporary impulse to address its reader directly and courageously – without smarm, ego or pretence – and she uses it to urge a commitment to Country and its deep past...Just don't mistake its tenderness for gentleness. Kirli is fierce in her protection of kin and love.”
Her most recent work, Bindi, is a verse novel for young readers that interweaves Gundungurra with English, and is illustrated by Bigambul man, Dub Leffler. It’s about “a young girl Bindi, she is 11, who lives on Gundungurra Country, her adventures with her friends and her lessons from the Elders in her community who teach her about the She-oak and this beautiful spirit bird, the glossy Black Cockatoo,” said Kirli in an interview with National Indigenous Times.
Kirli reshaped the original manuscript of Bindi after the 2019–20 bushfires. “I felt I had a responsibility to talk about the impact of fires,” said Kirli, “not only on community but on caring for Country and culture.”
Kirli’s care for Country and community is paramount in her work and life. She recently launched the Re[ad]generate campaign, which delivers books written and illustrated by First Nations authors and artists to children in bushfire and flood–affected communities.
In 2018, Kirli launched Poetry in First Languages, delivered by Red Room Poetry, which “commissions, publishes and delivers First Nations–led student poetry programs on Country and/or in First Nations community–led locations.”
As part of the project, “We saw children write poems, and they’d never written anything before,” said Kirli at the 2021 Festival. In one program, children planted trees for black cockatoos, which were endangered in the area, and wrote poems about their experience. Now, “their poems fly around town on bus backs and keep cups…” said Kirli.
When you look up the sun’s an egg yolk broken
on the horizon. Long shadows of stacked books
fall across the room like split chopsticks.
An excerpt from 'Elementary Chinese'
Eileen Chong is an Australian poet of Chinese descent. She has eight books published in Australia and the US, and has been shortlisted twice for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award, among others.
Her first book, Burning Rice, was the first single-author collection of poetry by an Asian-Australian to be studied as part of the NSW HSC English syllabus. “I never imagined that it would be possible for me to one day be a writer at all, much less a poet,” said Eileen in an interview for American Microreviews. “No poet I read in English (which is the only language I can read) looked like me, or was writing about the things I knew to be true.”
Eileen’s vivid poetic voice speaks of food, family, migration, love and loss. Always spinning on the bigger questions of what it means to live, to love, to die. “As a poet, I am very interested in patterns,” she said in an interview with the Centre for Stories. “I am a magpie – I am extremely observant, and I feel like my role as a poet is to simply be present, but also to exist on a separate level at any one time as a detached observer...I never stop thinking about what it means to be human.”
One of those things is the necessity of eating. The Uncommon Feast, Eileen’s collection of essays, poems and recipes, explores the special meaning and sustenance offered by both food and poetry, the relationship between them, and how each can illuminate the joyful, painful and ephemeral nature of being alive. “Like food, some poems can be technically very good, almost perfect, with all the right components, but they might lack some essential ingredient. That ingredient, for me, is often heart,” said Eileen. “Let’s strip away the bells and whistles of both food and poetry, and only take into us what nourishes us, body, heart, mind and soul.”
Eileen’s latest collection of poetry, A Thousand Crimson Blooms was published in March this year and has been billed as her most personal and accomplished work yet. “A controlled intensity that has become Eileen Chong’s unmistakable voice burns in these poems that are at once cogent, tender, incandescent, brave and vulnerable, a lyric grace that infuses these searing songs of grief, hurt, wounding, love and healing,” said Boey Kim Cheng. “These are sustaining, necessary poems for our desperate times.”
As much as Eileen’s poems sustain others, so too does poetry sustain her. “Poetry is necessary and urgent for me; each day that I can continue to read and write poetry is a day filled with joy and purpose,” she said. “And I hope to be able to do this until the end of my life.”