A Common Wealth of Words

I don't think that our society cares 
enough about poetry to get worked up 
about it.
                  - Kath Walker (Oodgeroo Nunuccal)

In the lead up to the 1982 Commonwealth Games, the Commonwealth Writers Festival was held in Brisbane. During the festival Kath Walker (Oodgeroo Nunuccal) was in a panel discussion with other Commonwealth poets: Tom Shapcott, Jack Blight, Rodney Hall and Judith Rodriguez … they were talking about being a poet.

Here is a telling  exchange between the poets:

Tom Shapcott
My emphasis, I think, has changed in relation to words in that I think that words are more politically explosive, that we’re actually handling dynamite in the language and we have to be increasingly conscious of what we are juggling in that way.

Rodney Hall
How come there are so few explosions then?

Judith Rodriguez
The question is, why aren’t there a few poets in prison? I mean you get them in the revolution in the Philippines; you’ve got them in Cuba; you still get them in South America, Korea. Obviously nobody’s able to make words explode politically here or else there isn’t the opposition.

Kath Walker
I don’t think that our society cares enough about poetry to get worked up about it.

Judith Rodriguez
Perhaps people don’t care enough about politics, society, or anything else.

Tom Shapcott
But there are other societies within our cultures like the United States where there are, indeed, strong dissident forces which have a commitment. I think we are really looking now at a much closer Australian regionalism which is a sort of cautious passivity, a wish not to be in the middle of the stream.

Kath Walker’s appearance at the Commonwealth Writers festival was not without controversy, some activists argued that Kath should have boycotted the Writers Festival. Not long after, the 1982 Commonwealth Games protests brought the attention of the whole world to the form of apartheid practiced by the Bjelke-Petersen government in Queensland.

This discussion by the Commonwealth poets is interesting in the light of subsequent events during the 1982 Commonwealth Games. While few were concerned about what poets said at the writers festival, it was a different story when it came to disrupting a sporting event – then, ‘the whole world was watching‘.

Here is historic film of Kath Walker and other aboriginal people speaking about their struggle for land rights.

Ian Curr
13 Dec 2015

commonwealth of words_Page_1A Common Wealth of Words is generously illustrated with photographs of the contributors. In addition, as a special feature to celebrate Festival ’82 and the Brisbane Commonwealth Games, it contains profiles and photographs of some other contributors to the 1982 Commonwealth Writers’ Week-T. C. Lai {Hong Kong}, Graeme Gibson {Canada}, Nancy Cato {Australia}, Allen Curnow {New Zealand }, and Edward Kamau Brathwaite {Barbados}.

A Common Wealth of  Words
Kath Walker
KATH  WALKER,  born  on  3 November
1920, grew up on Stradbroke Island, in Moreton Bay, Queensland, where she now lives. Her father was of the Noonuccal tribe, carpet snake totem; her mother was an inland Aboriginal. At the age of thirteen she left school to work as a domestic for 2/6d a week. Later she joined the army (AWAS), was married, and had two sons, Denis and Vivian.

She began  writing poems in the 1950s and had her first book , We Are Going, published in 1964. It has been reprinted many times.  Her  other works include The Da wn Is At Hand (1966), My People (1970),  Stradbroke Dreamtime (1972), and Father Sky and Mother Earth (1981). She is the subject of the biographical film, Shadow Sister (1978).

Kath  Walker,  Australia’s  first published Aboriginal poet, has served on many committees concerned with Aboriginal affairs. She has been an official Austra lian delegate to conferences in England, Malaysia , Papua New Guinea, Nigeria, and Fiji. Among her awards are the Jessie Litchfield Award, the Mary Gilmore Medal, the Fellowship of Australian Writers’ Award, the M.B.E. (1970), membership of the Black Hall of Fame, and the International Acting Award (1979) .
Since 1972 she has run Mciongalba, an educational and cultural centre on North Stradbroke Island. Among the crafts she practises is textile design.

[Thanks to librarians, Don and Iwona, for finding this book for me.]

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