Wednesday, February 2, 2011


I remember a late-night poetry reading at Sydney's Café Labsurd more than twenty years ago. The usual after-hours crowd was there – mainly other poets, and their boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses, as well as a few hangers-on. Nothing very memorable, except that on this particular occasion three old men from the desert – elders of the Pintupi tribe – were part of the audience.

It was the first time I'd read my poetry publicly in front of tribal people which, I confess, made me a little anxious since the stuff I was reading had been drawn from my experiences living in their "country". For four years I had lived and worked among the Pintupi, writing poetry about them and about me with them; trying to make some sense of my place in their world, exploring their world with my language. Now, here I was reading in front of a city audience, and wondering what these old men would think of it all.

They didn't say anything after I'd finished, but later, coming back from a piss, I bumped into Mick Namarrari, the quietest of the three. He stopped me, took hold of my arm and then, leaning very close, whispered in my ear: "When you were talking, I was happy."

To Mick’s way of thinking I had "told it true" – no parntu, no bullshit. Exact. He patted me on the shoulder, "Good ear". It was a great compliment. In the Western Desert, the verb kurlinu means both "to hear" and "to understand".

In the four years I lived at Papunya Settlement, in the Northern Territory, I learned something about the art of storytelling… and a way of writing poetry. For poetry, in a certain sense, is the most succinct form of the story, and some of the greatest storytellers in the world live in central Australia.

But at first I didn’t know if I would be able to write anything at all. I didn’t speak or understand the local language; I knew practically nothing about Pintupi concepts of land or how resources were distributed within the community; or even how the Pintupi had come to be living in a place like Papunya. Then there was the ceremonial life with its various social and economics structures; and traditional Aboriginal law as taught through the Tingarri song cycles. It was rich, formidable, and as complex as any culture I had ever experienced.

Consider the kinship system for example. Socially and ceremonially it determines a whole range of responsibilities and obligations understood by all members of the society. It describes a highly complicated system of social organization that not only assigns roles and relationships to each individual, but to combinations of relatives. Hence, two Tjapaltjarri men (brothers) will be called by the name nyinamparra if addressed by another Tjapaltjarri man; but if addressed by a man from the Tjakamarra sub-section group, they will be referred to as wanarrpirra.

If I was going to write poetry about the Pintupi, I knew I could not ignore their beliefs and values. I had to know something, feel something, about their way of life.

Even at the best of times, it is often difficult to know how to begin to write a poem. Barring moments of inspiration where the poem almost writes itself – at least to first-draft stage – the craft of poetry is a challenging affair. As anyone who has practiced the art of poetry will tell you, there is a very fine line between the prosaic and the overly-poetic. The problems of language are also compounded when you set out using English in an environment where English is not the first language, and where the entire value structure of European culture is peripheral, only vaguely apparent in the form of dole checks, grog, and four-wheel-drives.

Add to this the divergence between black and white lifestyles and expectations, between attitudes and beliefs, and it is easy for the would-be poet to regress into romantic notions of an exotic, noble race, or – at the other extreme – a naïve, quasi-political outrage at the results of white oppression. When poetry becomes a cat-o'-nine-tails in the hands of a self-flagellating poetic masochist, the poetry invariably misses the mark. At best, it is boring; at first it’s a lie.

So where do you start?

In the beginning, I started with the people – listening to them, watching them, asking questions, making my world as accessible as possible. During my first year in Papunya it was not uncommon to have fifteen or twenty people sitting around my lounge room (that’s a living room, in American English), all coming in for air-conditioning and tea. Some would sit quietly on the couch, or in chairs reading Phantom comics; others would come to listen to cassettes or to do their washing.

This was not the way I had lived anywhere else, but Papunya was unlike any other place I’d been… and I wanted to know these people, not so much because of a desire to write about them but because I wanted to learn.  The poem, "Wash Day" reflects this situation:

Monica and Victor come over to my place
to do their laundry
because there's nothing at their place.
They show up on Sunday
with faded dresses, frayed shirts
and dusty blankets,
placing them with great care
into the squat, barrel-chested wringer
(the whites unsorted from the coloreds).
I put a country’n’western record on
while the clothes and blankets squish –
S'fump S'fump S'fump –
turning the water a dull red.

In the lounge room
Monica and Victor sit in green cane chairs
sipping tea and reading comics.
We speak very little to each other.
I don’t want to scare them away –
We are trying very hard.
Our relationship has grown, so slowly –

from nothing to laundry.

"Wash Day" was written after I’d lived in Papunya for nearly two years. It reflects the kind of simple, direct observation of ordinary events that I, as a whitefella, had access to.

As a white writer, you cannot presume anything about black people – what they think, what they believe, what they know and feel. You cannot put yourself in their skin. All you can report is what they say and what they do, and how you feel about what they say and do. And if this is done well, it is enough.

A lot of the poetry I wrote during my first two years in Papunya was composed out of conversations I had with various people. These poems reflected not only what people said (usually to me), but how they said it. Tutama Tjapangarti, a Pintupi elder from south of Lake Hopkins in Western Australia, was always telling me about his country, and about what it had been like in 'olden times' before the whitefellas had moved in. His dreaming was spiney anteater, and he would frequently remind me of this fact, pointing to the bumps on his shoulders – the physical manifestation of spiney anteater dreaming. The following poem is a condensation of numerous hours pent listening to Tutama:

porkupine mine
too much
porkupine mine
porkupine mine
ohhh properly
porkupine mine
too much
porkupine properly
kuka palya!
cook em cook em cook em cook em
porkupine mine
too much!

The original language – Pintupi/Luritja – often crept into these poems because I liked the sound of it, and because it served as an indication of that the source of the text was, indeed, another language. Kuka palya means, literally, 'good meat', but the English translation in this case seemed wrong for the poem.

Poems that relate speech in this manner are nothing new. One of the best known poets of the Jindyworobaks, Roland Robinson, used this method to very good effect in poems like "Captain Cook" (related by Percy Mumbulla), and "Mapooram" (related by Fred Biggs). The use of reported speech is a very effective way of dealing with issues that, ordinarily, would be difficult for a white writer to address, at least in poetic form. Take for example, my poem, "The Promiscuous Old Man", which is based on a Tingarri song cycle, as told by Tutama Tjapangarti:

'It went West!'
The old man laughs as he tells me this.
It’s the end of a story
About an old man who was worried
All the time
For tjiki-tjiki –
‘He liked women.
All the time / all the time;
One night wasn’t good enough.
One woman wasn’t good enough.’
The storyteller grabs my hands
And leans over close to whisper
In my ear: ‘law! Aboriginal law!’
The story’s about this old man
Who liked women;
He loved a different kungka every night.
‘He couldn’t think straight.’
One morning he woke up –
‘karlu wiya, ngaampu wiya’ –
his sexual parts were missing.
‘They’d gone walkabout by themselves.
They couldn’t wait for him anymore!’
He tracked them for days and days,
Over sand-hills and dry lakes.
He tracked them at night
With a firestick in his hand,
But ‘that penis wasn’t going to stop;
Those balls weren’t going to sit down.’
That penis has a long ‘dreaming track’ now.
It goes a long way – West!
The storyteller sticks out his tongue
And scrunches up his nose:
'That old man –
he never did catch up!'

A recurrent theme in a lot of the poetry I wrote during the years I lived at Papunya had to do with the cultural dislocation I often felt. In a place as isolated as Papunya it is often difficult to sustain one's enthusiasm toward one's own cultural heritage. There were, in fact, some whites who carried this lack of enthusiasm to an extreme - or maybe they never had it to begin with. In their need to embrace all things Aboriginal they would indiscriminately deride, criticise and undervalue almost everything European - a case of doing away with the baby as well as the bathwater. The logic went something like this: Aboriginal culture is 40,000 years old, therefore Shakespeare sucks. One should not have to apologise for Shakespeare because his plays are only 400 years old. At any rate, it seemed that those who despised, or pretended to despise, their own culture were the same ones who had the most tenuous links to the culture they had adopted.

The two cultures did, however, produce a curious mix - and one could be excused for experiencing confusion at times. The signs and symbols of white culture, the stuff us whitefellas had grown up with, took on other dimensions, meant something entirely different, were distorted or altered entirely in the context of an Aboriginal world. Two poems may serve to illustrate this:

You Know Magic Man?

the magician who claimed
TV, stage and fame
'the road to Papunya
killed me act.'
- two hundred miles of
dirt and sand
th rabbits died
from th heat

that night
he pulled corpses out of hats.


Sorry Business

(A B C D E F G)

He was attacked with a shovel spear.
They had been drinking.

(Answer Yes or No) Hot day.

Everyone had been drinking.

(Complete the sequence: 8, 10, 11, 13...)

The card game collapsed.
The wound was packed with ash.

(One out of twenty)

The women struck their heads with billy cans.

(Good boy!)

Blood trickled onto print dresses.
Willie Tjapananka is dead.

In the school, behind the fence,
the staff discusses
the problem of attendance.

The various juxtapositions of meaning produced by the mix of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal culture were a constant source of fascination. Life in the settlement swung between extremes - from the absurd to the deadly serious. But perhaps it only seemed this way because I invariably looked at it from the point of view of a poet. Few people, for example, found as much humour as I did in the postage stamp of lawn the whitefella next door had slaved over. On Sunday afternoons he'd come out in his swimming trunks and t-shirt, spread out his beach blanket - almost as large as the grassy patch - and sunbake.

For four years I watched the whitefellas arrive and depart. A lot of them were shocked by what they saw when they first drove in - the brokendown houses, the litter, the deserted cars upended like overgrown insects, the legs pulled off tthem. But Papunya is more than it seems. For awhile I used to think of it as Paris in negative. Here was a community of artists, dancers, actors, shamans, eccentrics, storytellers and political activists, all part of a place the significance of which stretched back to "creation times" - to "the Dreamtime". This was no dying race, but a gigantic family of individuals whose kinship system is among the most complex of human structures ever conceived.

But to say I was in awe of the people does not do them justice; and besides, that is not exactly true. You take people as you find them - some attract you and others you avoid. In this respect, at least, Papunya was the same as any place. The image of the mysterious, all-knowing, almost clairvoyant Aboriginal person is, in its way, as much a threat to the uninitiated whitefella as the stereotyped image of the hostile and unpredicatable primitive. What I tried to do in all my poetry was to emphasise the human condition that appeared common to all of us; and through that, to bring a select group of people - my friends - a little closer to my own life, and - if it worked - to the lives of others. How successful I have been in this enterprise is for others to judge.

Towards the end of my time in Papunya, it began to seem like the gap between white and black was closing - that we shared with each other more than the differences might indicate. This is the subtext that runs through most of the poetry I wrote during my last eighteen months.

Instructions for Honey Ants

Work with the end of your dress
tucked up between your legs.
Speak in whispers; laugh silently;
do not whistle. Whistling, especially,
brings bad luck. Do not be afraid
to feel where you cannot see.
Disappear into the earth
with crowbar and billy can;
go down, maybe ten feet,
If you find them there, it is better
when children are waiting.
This is marangkatja: a gift.
Love what you are after.

The impact Papunya and its people have had on my life is inestimable. It has changed everything. The poems, the work, in a sense are a way of giving back a part of what I received.

"The Dreaming does not end," the old men say; "It is not like the whitefellas' way. What happened once happens again and again. This is the power of the Song. Through the singing," they say, "we keep everything alive; through the Songs," they say, "the spirits keeps us alive."


The copyright of the article "The Power of the Song" - is owned by Billy Marshall Stoneking. To request permission to re-print  "The Power of the Song" please contact the author at Stoneking Seminars  
To read more poems from Billy Marshall Stoneking's
collection of poems from the Western Desert, go  to
 Stoneking's Writings Online

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