Michael Brennan: When did you start writing and what motivated you?
Ali Cobby Eckermann: My first poems were published in early primary school, and I believe that I always enjoyed writing. English was by far my favourite subject throughout school. But it was much later in life, in my mid thirties, that I began to carry a journal and pen and scribble my thoughts on a regular basis. I studied Creative Writing in Alice Springs in 2001, at the Bachelor College of Indigenous Tertiary Education. This resulted in mild performance and publication. I loved that classroom of Aboriginal writers, as it was the year that I met my son again; he was eighteen. My life was changing rapidly (I had only met my birth mother four years previous) and poetry was my life line, as were those handful of students and Aboriginal lecturer / poet and author Ms Terry Whitebeach. As my reconnection with family took me further and further into the desert, and back to traditional Yankunytjatjara roots, the poetry sang louder and I began to discover who I was born to be.
I started writing poetry to make sense of my huge emotional shift, when I began to meet my birth family in my mid thirties. It was a time of personal challenge, as I had not met anyone who looked like me before that time. I still remember seeing my mother’s eyes for the first time; they were my eyes that I saw when I looked in the mirror. My journey to meet family continued, leading me further into the central desert of Australia, where I met my traditional Yankunytjatjara and Kokatha families. Years after meeting my mother I found my only son, after an eighteen-year separation. I would say poetry saved my life! – or at least my sanity?
Poetry has also been the tool to assist my adopted family to understand some of the change that occurred deep within myself. I often say “poetry saves lives”.
MB: Who are the writers who first inspired you to write and who are the writers you read now? What’s changed?
Ali Cobby Eckermann: I have always been an avid reader since a very young age. The Aboriginal writers that I met through festivals and workshops were my early inspirations, authors and poets such as Boori Pryor, Lionel Fogarty, Bill Neidje, Eva Johnson, Terry Whitebeach, Kim Scott, Romaine Morton and Alexis Wright. The cultural storytellers around our campfires out bush were also inspirational, teaching my history and the strength of healthy laughter and forgiveness. Later it was other poets such as Robert Adamson, Dorothy Porter, Lorna Crozier, Audrey Lorde, Grace Nichols and Sapphire. Today I read a lot of international poetry. I guess the change is now I can look deeper into a poem, and I also look for structure and style.
MB: How important is ‘everyday life’ to your work?
Ali Cobby Eckermann:In Australia the truth about Aboriginal people seems untold. My everyday existence with my family, especially my traditional families, brought me unknown happiness and healing. Of course some of the social issues are true. But in the context of family love there is a strength I had not felt before. Our culture is still alive, and should be encouraged in our everyday survival. The government seems to have no regard for this. So my poetry allows me a voice, that has been denied my family for the past few generations.
MB: What is the role or place of subjectivity in your poetry?
Ali Cobby Eckermann: I want to use my poetry to educate Australians, to overcome their innate fear of Aboriginal people. Most Australians have never met an Aboriginal person outside school, sport or work. I want to highlight the benefits that Aboriginal people can provide through friendship and equality, and highlight the dangers of racism and judgmentalism. I have been happy with the heartfelt responses from festival audiences, and the new friendships shown to me and my family.
MB: Do you see your work in terms of literary traditions and/or broader cultural or political movements?
Ali Cobby Eckermann: I think it is impossible to be an Aboriginal writer, and be free from a political view. I always use cultural ethics in my writings. Some of my poetry has a unique style, due to my life between my adopted German Lutheran family and my traditional Yankunytjatjara family, who have also adopted the Lutheran religion. I hope my sense of truth becomes my literary tradition!
MB: What aspect of writing poetry and working as a poet is the most challenging?
Ali Cobby Eckermann: For me ,the economics of writing will always be a challenge, as I choose to live in remote or secluded areas of Australia. I need to feel the strength of Aboriginal Land, to be able to write truthfully for myself and my readers. Content is not an issue, as I come from a long line of story tellers. However I am one of few writers of our contemporary stories. So I rely on the internet for my poetic community.
MB: What reading, other than poetry, is important to your work as a poet and why?
Ali Cobby Eckermann: As mentioned earlier, I am an avid reader. I enjoy a great novel, and also enjoy a great movie, especially the script. I have enjoyed reading novels by writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Stieg Larsson and Annie Proulx among others, and the transition of these to the screen. Maybe one day I will attempt this venture?
MB: What is ‘Australian poetry’? Do you see yourself as an ‘Australian’ poet?
Ali Cobby Eckermann: Yes, I am a proud Australian poet, and a proud Aboriginal poet. In this context I want to be respected as both, and want the audience to regard my content and style as authentic. I would rather anger than ‘sympathy’ from any audience, as I would interpret that reaction as a success. I want to challenge the comfort zones of the audience, to a better understanding or dialogue. I believe my literary career is one of hope.
I hope that audiences who hear my words will have a better understanding of Aboriginal life and the emotional impact of past and present (bad) policy, especially the Stolen Generations. If this can be achieved through my poetry and prose, then I can die happy.
MB: Don Anderson once described Australian poetry as Australia’s only ‘blood sport’. More recently critics have seen Australian poetry in terms of a ‘new lyricism’ (David McCooey) and ‘networked language’ (Philip Mead). What is the current state of play in Australian poetry? How do you think Australia poetry and discussions about Australian poetry might best develop in the next ten years?
Ali Cobby Eckermann: My aim is to encourage more grassroots writers, including traditional poets and youth. My belief is so strong I am establishing Australia’s first Aboriginal Writers Retreat in my home in South Australia.
I intend this retreat to provide a safe environment for peoples of different backgrounds and nationalities to share literature through friendship and mentoring. It is a space where everyone is equal, and I hope where everyone departs a little stronger and wiser from their stay. The bigger picture is beyond my grasp, as I choose to live in a secluded location.
MB: How is poetry relevant or valuable to contemporary society and culture in Australia or at an international level?
Ali Cobby Eckermann: Australia is a rapidly changing environment, yet we rarely see much presence of Indigenous, multicultural, disadvantaged or youth at our literary festivals. I feel there is much talk and little change happening in our social psyche. I would love to see grassroots speakers on par with academic writers on festival panels. I think it is a shame if Australian poetry becomes a clique. I believe there is much we can learn from each other! And much we can learn from around the world.