Jeanine Leane

Photo: Supplied

Jeanine Leane challenges the perception of poetry as we know it

"The kind of poetry we’re all used to being exposed to was pretty toxic, really, and I wanted to flip that on its head."

It probably won’t surprise you that as an author, editor-in-chief and host of a podcast about books, I read A LOT. All kinds of things from novels to essay collections and everything in between. With all of that in mind, it’s my belief that Gawimarra Gathering by proud Wiradjuri woman, writer, poet and academic Jeanine Leane is one of the most affecting things I’ve ever read.

It made me angry, it made me sad, it made me think and it made me work in ways I don’t often get to as a reader (more on that later). It reinforced for me something I have learned over and over again recently; the scars of colonial trauma run deep but are also closer to the surface than many of us could ever imagine.

As a poetry collection, Gawimarra Gathering is unflinching in its exploration of so many threads of colonialism from the loss and fight to regain ownership of language; a journey Jeanine and her family are on now, slowly learning the Wiradjuri that should have always been theirs to wield, to the impact of performative allyship and presentations of Indigenous culture through a white lens (think museum exhibits). 

It’s deeply personal and doesn’t hold back so I was curious to know how her community and family felt about the openness. Were they comfortable with it? With the idea that if done well, this would probably transcend their community and be examined, criticised and analysed by the very sorts of people who reinforce and uphold structural racism every day?

“They weren’t bothered by it at all. In fact it was really my family who encouraged me to write in the first place, the aunties who would be storytellers and just encourage me to always journal, so much so that I feel like I’ve filled up hundreds of them over the years," she tells me. "They wanted these stories out there. My family’s history. My family’s pain. It’s important to own it, if only Australia could do the same.”

Gawimarra Gathering by Jeanine Leane

Photo: Supplied/UQP

With all that in mind, I ask if poetry was her natural choice for the form in which these stories would exist and be passed around, especially given the extremely narrow view that the public (as potential readers) have of what poetry could be – ie flowery language and from the perspectives of predominantly old white men. In that sense, I think high school English in this country has a lot to answer for. Jeanine seems surprised by the question about poetry, but eager to explain. 

“I do write a lot of poetry, but I toyed with a lot of ideas about how to put all of this together because I do write a lot of other things, essays and prose. But ultimately, I decided on poetry because you know, the kind of poetry we’re all used to being exposed to was pretty toxic, really, and I wanted to flip that on its head," she says. "I wanted to write about these intergenerational micro histories, because I think a lot of people maybe do understand colonialism on a big scale, a big picture. But I think that idea of micro-colonialism and what we survived and what we have achieved as First Nations peoples, particularly women, I think it's still largely underrated in this nation.”

Some of the hardest-hitting poems in the collection are indeed about the very specific intergenerational trauma held in the bodies, hearts and minds of the women and female ancestors in Jeanine’s family. She talks of discovering these secrets in places she wasn’t supposed to go, on papers buried in boxes and shoved under beds. Words so clinical, degrading and thankfully lost to time, I had to look them up. Every word Jeanine uses in her work is precise and intentional, including the words she doesn’t translate from Wiradjuri language.

“I refuse to apologise for the language that was always meant to be mine. And I refuse to apologise for not making it easier on people who want to engage with my work," she says. "I don’t want to exclude anyone from reading it, but it felt very important to leave those words alone.” 

Personally, I loved the challenge of trying to work out what the words meant, finding them like a puzzle that took patience, time and intention to solve. The kind of thing that left me wondering why the names of things had ever been lost in the first place. Would it have really been so hard to learn the Indigenous words for things alongside the English? I don’t think so.

Jeanine says she’s had “hope before that was viciously dashed, namely in the 90’s” around things improving for Indigenous people in this country and felt similarly bereft in the immediate aftermath of last year’s referendum. But if anything, she’s a “resilient optimist who has to believe the tide will turn eventually.” Hopefully her poetry will form part of the conversation that gets us there.