Paul Mitchell reflects on his experience running Australian Poetry-sponsored workshops with the Aboriginal community at Lake Tyers, Victoria.

I’m standing on the balcony of the Lake Tyers Indigenous Training Centre, with a view to the water. It’s a grey day, but the lake I can see through the gums still sparkles and glows. This land is ‘Bung Yarnda’, home to the Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust where two hundred Aboriginal people live. Bung Yarnda was an Aboriginal mission for more than one hundred years until it was handed back in 1970 to its original owners, the Gunai/Kurnai people, and descendants of other Aboriginal people forcibly moved to the mission.

White fellas don’t get invited here often. I’m with Aboriginal writer, Bruce Pascoe, running Australian Poetry-sponsored workshops. Bruce is with me on the balcony, stern-faced. It’s been a tough morning as we’ve tried to win the participants’ trust. And tried to help people, one of whom is a painter, to see how poetry could be a vehicle for the stories they want to tell.

“Ah, there’s Bunjil,” Bruce says, pointing at an eagle soaring above the gums. “Good of him to be here…” His implication is that he hopes the creator deity has shown up to get the participants’ creative juices flowing. Later, I’m on the same balcony with Leanne, one of the participants. The painter. She’s struggling to figure out how this poetry thing works. Several pelicans flap over the gums and on across the lake. “Hey, that’s lucky,” she says, giving the birds their name from her language. “You don’t see that many together often.”

She heads inside to grapple again with my poetry exercise. Her pelican spotting – and Bruce’s of the eagle – has brought home to me again what I’ve experienced as the major point that divides Aboriginal Australians from the rest of us: they are, by a Western definition, nature-mystics. We white/African/Asian/European/Middle Eastern Australians can repeat to ourselves as much as we like what Aboriginal people say about themselves – that they belong to the country – but we cannot hope to understand it. Especially while our activity on this land continues to focus on the opposite: the land belonging to us.

I go back to our teaching room, this site of differing worldviews. I’ve worked with Aboriginal communities before, but never teaching poetry. And I’ve taught poetry often, but never to people who are skeptical about what it might have to offer. The Lake Tyers’ participants have taken this project on because they’re interested, not because they’re fans of T.S. Eliot. Or even of Oodgeroo. You want us to write this poetry stuff, you show us why we should.

Maybe it’s Bunjil’s influence, but I come out with words for them about poetry’s similarities with painting, some other ramble about story and snapshot and the sharp view of a moment poetry can offer. I might even have said something about how poetry can have colour and movement. I don’t remember. But I felt inspired.

Leanne has an ah-ha moment. Bruce has already given her and the other participants powerful speeches about the need for Aboriginal stories, how there are parts of their peoples’ histories, Australia’s history, that only they can tell. Leanne’s ah-ha moment becomes a poem. Her debut in verse.

“I didn’t know I could do this.”

She’s a single mum with two adolescent sons. The youngest of whom is watching his mum make her discovery. He looks up from the graffiti art he’s sketching on a notepad. He goes back to it, but I reckon it’s with more purpose.

“That made sense, what you said,” Leanne smiles, and she shows me her poem about the difficulty Aboriginal people experience trying to overcome the pain of the past. The phrasing is original; the words heartfelt. Later, this woman who didn’t think she could write a poem records herself reading it with her eldest son backing her on guitar.

Over three days, participants tell difficult, tragic, bright and hopeful stories in poetry. I hear about purpose-built shelters that saved kids from getting a beating from rampaging, drunk white fellas. Poems about how participants’ animal totems revealed themselves to them in the wild, and others about a yearning for lost culture. Some lines imagine looking at earth from the moon, swimming with sharks, days when trees should be allowed to be pink. But always there’s the revelation of how Aboriginal culture cannot die, and how the Dreamtime, like the Christian view of the Kingdom of God, is both now and forever.

The workshops end and I’m on the highway back to Melbourne. I know that through Bruce’s and my efforts some Aboriginal people have learnt, to their amazement, they could write poetry. They had giant stories to tell that fitted neatly into just a few lines on a page. But, as always, I’ve learnt more from these people than I’ve taught them. Through my car window, I’m seeing rivers as living creatures, clouds and birds as messengers, and hearing the heartbeat in sunsets. The participants – and Bruce –  have woken in me again a poetry that has nothing to do with pages, words, rhymes or Western understandings of meaning.

Paul Mitchell is a past Going Down Swinging contributor and features in issues No. 19No. 23, No. 28 and No. 30. Paul’s books are Dodging the Bull (short fiction), Awake Despite the Hour and Minorphysics (both poetry).