We haven’t seen you around the poetry scene much lately, have you been busy writing?
Ha! I’ve been writing shopping lists, recipes, to-do lists, text messages asking for my husband to buy milk on his way home and pleas for advice to my mothers’ group! In amid the sleep-deprived chaos of the last four years of morning sickness, pregnancy exhaustion, childbirth and rearing two children 21 months apart, I have probably written only a handful of poems. But that’s okay. I am easing back into writing again now that my second baby is fifteen months old and I am gaining a bit of space to breathe.
Have you been able to stay engaged with the Tasmanian poetry scene?
I’ve been disappointed to miss so many book launches, Republic Readings, Oasis women’s poetry workshops and other poetry events in recent years. It seems like in this time most of my original Hobart poetry workshopping group have released their first collections! But although I may have missed most of the launches, I have devoured their books in rare moments of stillness from my couch or breastfeeding chair (including fantastic poetry collections by Megan Schaffner, Lorraine Haig, Liz McQuilkin, Karen Armstrong and Jen Gibson).
I did manage to get to a couple of launches and the first of the new Seasonal Poetry readings at Hadleys which was a nice break from singing nursery rhymes and changing nappies. From the comfort of my couch I also followed Jane Williams' fascinating Bridge Guard Blog born from her residency in Slovakia earlier this year. It’s great to hear that there are now a variety of poetry reading and spoken word events happening around Hobart, and regular workshops targeting younger writers (of which I am not one anymore!) Robyn Mathison and the Fellowship of Tasmanian Writers and the Tasmanian Writer’s Centre have been great at keeping me in the loop with the ever-thriving poetry scene.
What are you most worried about when you think about what the future holds in store for your children?
Climate change of course. I’m one of a great swathe of parents, grandparents and other concerned people who are at least partially aware of the gravity of the situation. As the world keeps spewing out carbon emissions, the temperatures of our air, lands and oceans keep rising and our climate is spiralling into havoc-mode.
A recent report from WWF and the Zoological Society of London has found that global wildlife numbers have more than halved since 1970s. James Cook University just confirmed that most coral in the northern third of the Great Barrier Reef, the section north of Port Douglas, is now dead and there is only a slim chance it can regenerate. This saddens me, not only because my kids won’t be able to be dazzled by these magical worlds under the sea when they are old enough to go on snorkelling trips, but because of the role that reefs play in supporting bio-diversity and a significant chunk of the world’s food supplies. As the climate keeps warming, as more moisture evaporates into the air and as nature unleashes her fury in wilder and more devastating ways, great swathes of people will be further swamped by water, or won’t have enough water to drink or food to eat. We have already seen the impacts of out-of-control, record-breaking bushfires, cyclones, droughts and floods in this region, I dread to think of the world in twenty years’ time if the records keep breaking, as they surely will.
Singer Missy Higgins tapped into this anxiety in early October when she put up a post on Facebook pointing out that “according to the smartest people IN THE WORLD, we are hurtling towards terrifyingly unknown territory as far as environmental disaster goes, that any day now we will reach a tipping point like we could never imagine in our worst nightmares.” She wrote that “For some time I've been intermittently crippled with anxiety about the notion of bringing kids into a world that seems more volatile and more uncertain than ever. Are there any other parents out there that have this anxiety that I have about the unknown, potentially catastrophic future that may be in store for our kids?”
Over one thousand people responded, sharing their anguish about the situation and their thoughts on the merits or not of still bringing new children into such a world. Most people reconciled their decision to have kids by aiming to raise them to be aware and passionate about turning things around, encouraging them to protect instead of ravage the planet. One person, Lara Dalton, wrote “I hold my baby girl every night and whisper a promise of love and humanity … teaching her to love her world and be a caretaker of it … she will go on to fight the good fight and so will many more”. A couple of days later Missy replied with a new post: “Wow, I'm pretty overwhelmed with how many people weighed in to my last post about parenthood and the anxiety of an unknown future. … It gives me heart to read the hope that a lot of you have in the next generation, and also the innate goodness you believe is at the heart of humanity itself, despite what it seems like in the media sometimes. I think we have to be careful not to get paralyzed by the fear and the doom that they feed us. Not to ignore or deny what is going on (because now more than ever we need to not shy away from the urgency of climate change) but to stay positive and keep a flame of hope alive. … apart from anything, I've realised we owe it to our kids, to be strong and optimistic for their sake.”
After weighing it all up, we chose not to sacrifice the joy of having children to our fears for the future, but we will be taking our kids to every climate change rally and action we can and encouraging them to join us in campaigning for and creating a safe climate future.
What gives you hope?
I watched a few minutes of a new quiz show the other night and was surprised and repelled by one of the contestants who declared that her goal in life was to visit every single country and take a photo of their flag. ‘Your goal in life?’ I thought, “how ridiculous”. I know travel can be enriching, unbeatable for enhancing understanding of the diversity and wonders of the world, but so many people seem to be intent on racking up the Frequent Flyer points and ticking boxes to say they have ‘been there’. I guess there is no shortage of privileged people who can afford to have frivolous goals in life just as there are billions of unfortunate, oppressed people whose goals are to survive and enable their families to live a decent life. There are also loads of people, from all walks of life, who dedicate their time to making the world a better place for the people and ecosystems around them. How many people, what proportion of society? Impossible to know, and the numbers would be in constant flux. But these are the people who inspire me and give me hope.
In our country, Aboriginal people who, despite loss of languages, unspeakably high youth suicide rates, apartheid-level incarceration statistics and other ongoing hammers of colonial oppression, continue to organise and stand up for the protection of country. My comrades in the Socialist Alliance who are constantly building new campaign alliances and who keep the flag flying with a vision for a more humane and rational socio-economic system.
Eco-socialists in Cuba, Bolivia and around the world who are acting every day to fight for the “rights of Mother Earth”. The grassroots organisation 350.org is active in 188 countries and has co-ordinated some truly amazing international days of action on climate change. Two of its leaders, Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein, are outstanding advocates for communicating about the issue and mobilising people to join the campaign. All over the world there are people striving to reduce waste, farm sustainably, forge new community co-operatives, push for better public transport and more renewable energy, who are campaigning to save species, prevent deforestation, stop coal mines, oil and gas pipelines and other climate destroying projects. And sometimes they have wins, like the campaign to stop gas fracking in Tasmania which won a moratorium and led to the company withdrawing its exploration permits; like unconventional gas fracking being banned completely in Victoria and like the Keystone XL pipeline being defeated in the USA. But the important thing is that awareness and mobilisations are growing and persisting.
What have you been reading lately and what books would you recommend to people with similar concerns or interests?
The thing about having children is it also opens up a whole new world of reading you want to and need to delve into. First it was guides to pregnancy (it’s amazing how much you need to learn about what is going on with your body and what you need to do to support the process), then it was researching different methods of encouraging sleep, my go-to book “What to expect the first year” with advice on feeding, bathing, dealing with rashes, developmental milestones etc., then books about dealing with picky eating, discipline methods, books like Raising Boys, Mindful Parenting, 365 TV-free activities for toddlers and before long I will be moving on to books about how to mediate healthy relationships with technology, how to encourage respectful interactions with peers etc. Then there are all the hours I spend reading children’s books to my children, who are both skilled at collecting books from the bottom shelves on the bookcase and thrusting them into my hands with a pleading look and an enthusiasm it is impossible to turn away from. But among all that I keep up with news as best I can, mostly via following a few news sites on Facebook, and getting my much-valued Green Left Weekly newspaper in my letterbox each week – a grassroots source of eco-socialist news and analysis that has been going strong for over 25 years.
My enthusiasm for reading cookbooks and trying new recipes also waxes and wanes, especially because with my kids, it seems like the more effort I put into preparing dinner, the less likely it is to get eaten.
I do go through phases and read obsessively about quitting sugar, the Alexander technique or literary memoirs. Not to mention all the interesting articles that people share on Facebook. I only recently found out about the ‘save link’ option on Facebook, which is so useful because it means I can save things I don’t have time to read when I am scrolling through my newsfeed, but it’s also dangerous because, like my emails, I just end up accumulating a massive list of things jostling in the background for my already-limited attention.
I have over 159 books on my “want to read” list on Goodreads, shelves of unread novels and poetry books in my bookcase and when I go back to work, I’ll be back in the mode of reading about different occupational therapy, mental health recovery and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy innovations and approaches. Basically, as we all know, life is too short to read everything you want to.
But back to the question, if I could recommend five books or magazines I have recently read, it would be:
1. Tim Winton’s Island Home – beautiful, evocative writing about place and how we lose connection with it to our peril.
2. Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything – Klein is my favourite non-fiction writer (her “The Shock Doctrine” is also incredible) and in this book she again deftly weaves personal experiences, mind-boggling depths of research and direct interviews into beautifully- written prose. The kind of book you want to quote every third sentence of because each bit is so interesting, so important and so eloquent.
3. Gina Mercer’s Weaving nests with smoke and stone – such a well-crafted poetry collection that explores the intersections between people, birds and so much more.
4. Green Left Weekly – where would we be without left-wing, eco-socialist activists prepared to write, produce and distribute this crucial alternative to the mainstream drivel? I particularly enjoy reading the satirical column by Carlo Sands because if you don’t laugh you would cry at many of the things that pass for politics in this country.
5. Dumbo Feather – a treasured friend gave me a gift subscription to this quarterly magazine “about extraordinary people” which has been published in Melbourne for the last ten years. It is refreshing and inspiring.
I get asked from many angles
if I appear at a rare poetry gig
or face another poet in the street.
My answer is brief – not really, too busy!
But one day I stop, tap this into my phone
when I pull up outside home in the car.
Have you been doing any writing?
Yes! I've been writing shopping lists
as we run out of Cruskits, cream cheese and sultanas.
Yes! I've been writing text messages to my husband;
"Please don't be late, Kate is driving me crazy
with her tantrums and she didn't sleep",
or "Can you please buy milk on your way home?"
Yes, I've been writing questions and responses to my mothers' group
via Facebook Messenger,
started after we first circled at the child health centre
with our six-week-old babies in arms.
Yesterday I asked when they switched from formula to cows’ milk
and what sippy cups could they recommend?
Yes, I've been writing - lists of things to do -
the naive part of me keeps making them anew
when really I could just slap a poster on the fridge
as almost everything reoccurs, never-ends:
change and wash sheets, clean bathroom, vacuum, mop,
order groceries, cook some more,
cut everybody's nails,
send cards, book jabs, return books,
organise park play dates
and the things I occasionally add to the bottom of the list
but rarely cross off:
Yes I've been writing! A list of movies I've seen,
since nine months after baby two I put on a clean top,
ventured to a fundraiser film screening
then ten minutes in, realised I'd watched it already three months prior,
downloaded from iTunes but forgotten in the fog of night-feeds.
Yes I've been writing! Circles, squares and rectangles,
and giraffes with wonky necks
because I can't draw well
but a two-year-old makes do with the talent or lack-of that sits beside them.
Yes I've been writing … the names Kate and Rory
on pieces of masking tape slapped on water bottles and snack containers
for carting to the pool crèche.
I leave them there while I swim up and back
immersed in forty minutes of haggard, luxurious freedom.
Yes I've been writing! Other labels too,
for all the leftovers that my two-year-old refuses to eat,
forging a freezer supply of minestrone, quiches and curries.
And labels for all the puréed casseroles
I spoon into ice cream trays and freeze for baby,
easing the five-o'clock dinner mayhem by a fraction.
Yes, I write down recipes for low-sugar meals and snacks,
many of which line the recycle bin
because coconut oil made the fritters too coconutty,
the chocolate beetroot cake was mush on my tongue
and the walnut banana cake crumbled to the cut.
Yes I've been writing! A diary of milestones,
cataloguing when the kids roll, sit up, clap,
of how Kate’s whys assume a steady rhythm
and how Rory is happiest eating dirt
or rolling rocks in his gob while he staggers around the house
gripping my index finger with one hand.
I record how they commenced squealing competitions at dinner time,
Kate in her booster chair facing Rory in his highchair,
both striving for the highest pitch,
chuckling as I cringe.
When it's just me there, I let them go for a few minutes,
exploring the reach of their voices.
Ok I have not been writing enough.
I have not been taking enough photos or videos.
I have not been relaying to others the joy I get
from reading books to an almost-three year old who wants to know
why Goldilocks ate the porridge and what happened to Jack's giant when he fell.
Instead of conveying how heart-warming it is to have a baby son
who loves to cuddle when I'm on the rocking chair, in bed, supine on the floor
or crouching down to vacuum under the couch,
I whinge about the non-stop bugs we catch,
how wasted I am,
how hard it is to be needed at once by two different little ones who don’t know patience.
I don't write enough about how Kate wakes with frizzy, matted hair
since migrating to her big-girl's bed,
how she explodes with delight when she sights the moon,
how she loves to peel, separate and serve mandarins
but won't let them anywhere near her own lips.
I don't write enough about how Rory gives me little pats on the back
when I'm poised to lay him in his cot,
or how he makes an excited buzzing noise when he tries to tickle me
by jabbing at my tummy,
and how his hand fits all the way inside the hole between the abdominals
his growing body cleaved apart.
I haven't been doing much real writing
but I've been on repeat wiping noses, bottoms, high chair trays and floors,
making play dough snakes,
"eating" sand porridge,
inventing stories crouched beside the toilet,
pulling bodysuit sleeves through the arms of wonder suits,
scrubbing blueberry stains off long-sleeved tops,
answering "is this the right shoe?"
and serving up meal after meal after meal.
I've been writing my love in a myriad of ways
on the hearts of these precious two
as I help craft their early years the best way I know how.
If I have had any writing project lately it has been them.
They have left lasting memos on my body
and I have birthed them with their own hidden scripts inside.
I am present
as they begin to write their own stories
and this means more than any sonnet I could write.
Susan Austin is a poet, mental health occupational therapist and ecosocialist activist. She grew up in Queensland and now lives in Hobart with her husband and two small children. Her first poetry book Undertow was published by Walleah Press in 2012.