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Each month we celebrate an Australian debut release of fiction or non-fiction in the Kill Your Darlings First Book Club. For October that debut is blackbirds don’t mate with starlings by Janaka Malwatta (UQP)—a superb collection of poetry that directs its imagining towards a just future for the next generation. Ellen Cregan spoke to Janaka over email earlier this month. 

blackbirds don’t mate with starlings was a winner of the Thomas Shapcott Prize. Can you tell me about your experience of winning this prize and the book’s journey to publication more broadly?

It has been a twelve-year journey. I have written poetry on and off since university, but it was when I arrived in Brisbane and enrolled in a workshop run by Emily XYZ under the auspices of the Queensland Writers Centre that I became serious about poetry. The poetry writing group which arose from that workshop and monthly open mic sessions at Speedpoets, run by Graham Nunn, developed my writing skills. I have been aware of the Thomas Shapcott Prize since entering poetry circles in Brisbane. The terrible murder of George Floyd provoked an outpouring of writing which lent itself to a coherent manuscript. I was fortunate that the manuscript won the prize.

There was, to me at least, a surprising amount of work and a surprising number of decisions to be made in developing the manuscript. I was completely unprepared for it. UQP and my editor Felicity Plunkett were very patient and held my hand throughout the process. It was a joy to work with them. Post-publication has been a whole different story. There has been a raft of new experiences, including radio interviews and setting up an Instagram account for this interview. It has all been a lot of fun.

What sort of process do you follow to write your poetry?

Poems always start with an image or a line, which, if I’m lucky, unfurls into the first draft. I try to write the first draft in one hit. It is surprising how often the first line to turn up remains the first line of the poem, even after several drafts. I think that reflects the importance of that first line, that first image, in launching the poem. After that, it is a process of honing the drafts. Rhythm is important in my poetry. I often say each line out loud to get a sense of what it sounds like, and how it fits with the lines around it. That’s the case even with the ‘shaped’ poems.

Poems always start with an image or a line, which, if I’m lucky, unfurls into the first draft.

As an example, there is a poem in this collection called ‘triptych’. The first stanza came to me when reflecting on the Black Lives Matters marches I had seen across the world, the backlash against BLM, and recognising how those events made me feel. When I sat down to write the poem which stemmed from those four lines, a six page poem flowed out of me. That poem was the genesis of and the impetus for the entire collection.

You work with a number of poetic forms over the course of the book. Did you always know you wanted to demonstrate these different poetic forms in the collection?

No, not at all. I’m not sure I have a sufficient awareness of different poetic forms to think in those terms. That said, the more poetry one reads, the greater the variety of poetic forms one is exposed to, the more choices one can make.

I regard myself very much as being at the early stages of my development as a poet. I have been fortunate to have been exposed to very good poets here in Brisbane in workshops and in other fora—Sarah Holland-Batt, Felicity Plunkett, David Stavanger, Vanessa Page—which has been a huge help in the learning process. As for the collection, each poem leant itself to the form it took. It was a question of choosing the poems which suited the collection, rather than the form of each poem. However, it has been rewarding to be able to present different poetic forms in the collection.

There are some wonderful examples of found poetry in this book. Can you tell me about your process for creating found poems?

The found poetry always starts with a theme I would like to explore. In the cases of Boris Johnson and Winston Churchill, I knew I was uncomfortable with comments attributed to them and wanted to find out more. With Churchill in particular, it turned out he was far more reprehensible than I had realised, and was certainly a very different character to that portrayed in our school history books. Boris Johnson made the link between himself, Churchill and Barack Obama for me in a newspaper article. During Obama’s presidency, I was struck by the manner in which his political opponents spoke about him. There was none of the respect for the office of president one had seen observed during previous presidencies. It reminded me very much of the manner in which Julia Gillard’s opponents spoke about her. I wanted to explore that open disrespect to Obama. Blackbirding was another theme I had scant acquaintance with but a desire to explore.

Once a theme has settled in my mind, I embark on a frenzy of reading. There are numerous online resources one can use, and here in Brisbane we are very fortunate to have the State Library of Queensland and the University of Queensland library, both of which are great resources. I do love sitting in a library with a physical book in my hands, and absorbing information. The problem is deciding when to stop chasing material. Writing the found poems then became a process of shaping those poems from the perspectives of content, the sound of the lines, and the appearance on the page. I spent far too long playing with the appearance of the poems. I think I would still be doing it, if there hadn’t been a deadline to meet.

Once a theme has settled in my mind, I embark on a frenzy of reading.

Found poetry is a powerful way of telling a story because you can tell the story in the words of the protagonists. Although the writer is choosing which material to present to the reader, the writer is not interposing themselves between the subject and the reader as much as in other forms of writing. The reader is able to absorb and assess what people said, what they thought. There’s no hiding from that.

The centrepiece of this collection is a long found poem about Jack Johnson coming to Australia to compete for Heavyweight Championship of the World. Why did you want to write about Johnson and his career?

The Jack Johnson story intrigued me from the first moment I came to know that a Black man had been heavyweight champion of the world in the early 1900s, a time of entrenched racism and the open denial of opportunities to people of colour because of their colour. This was the era of Jim Crow, segregation and lynchings. Johnson was literally risking his life by competing in the ring with white men. During the second fight in Reno against the previous undefeated champion Jim Jeffries, the man who, it was hoped, would ‘prove by battering this African upstart into insensibility that culture, morality, gentleness, intelligence and all the finer qualities still entitle the white man to rule the black’, the crowd was searched for weapons, as there were threats to kill Johnson if he had the temerity to win the fight. It is astonishing that he won and survived.

Subsequently, I came across some of Johnson’s descriptions of his fights, and was struck by the beauty of his writing. He had little formal schooling, but educated himself well enough to publish his autobiography in French in a Paris magazine and write like an absolute dream in English. He was the trailblazer for Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali and every Black heavyweight since. His is an irresistible story, as numerous books and films attest.

The story has clear resonance with the theme of the book in that it was, in large part, a battle against racial injustice. His victory shook the British Empire and the United States government, both of which banned films of his fights on the grounds that Johnson’s victory would embolden those ‘races which we have been calling inferior’ which ‘have been kept in subjection by a recognition on their part of physical and mental inferiority’ to rise up against their oppressors. The Jack Johnson story is a potent demonstration of the way in which people of colour are treated, and a reminder that, although many things have changed for the better since Jack Johnson’s time, many issues still remain. His story is still relevant, and Jack Johnson is still referenced by contemporary artists, such as the UK grime MC Kano in his song This is England.

In several of the poems in the book, you quote racist aggressors and you don’t censor slurs. Often you are quoting slurs from historical media. Why did you decide to make such toxic language a feature of your poetry?

The toxic language is a feature of the toxic sentiments expressed in racist encounters. One of the aims of the book is to demonstrate to people who have been fortunate enough not to have experienced acts of racist aggression exactly what those acts entail. It is important to render a faithful depiction of these events, precisely to portray their ugliness. A bowdlerised account would be profoundly damaging to the impact I’m trying to make, as it would make these acts of racist aggression seem less harmful than they actually are. There is also the additional responsibility to honour the suffering of past generations at the hands of racist practices and policies. Hiding the appalling language used would not only be dishonest, it would be deeply disrespectful to those past generations. And who would benefit from such censorship? The abusers and their apologists would benefit, not the abused.

Your depictions of racism – contemporary and historical – are harsh but realistic. Do you think poetry has the potential to change people’s attitudes towards racism?

I think all story-telling can have an impact, whatever the topic. Good writing can open people’s eyes to a world they were unaware of, and take them to a different place, hopefully to a new understanding. Mirandi Riwoe’s novella Fish Girl is a case in point. She tells the story of a Malay village girl caught up in a colonial power imbalance which transforms and destroys her life. The story is a push back against Somerset Maugham’s portrayal of the same young girl as the ‘Malay trollope’ in his short story  ‘The Four Dutchmen’. In Riwoe’s story, we are entirely on the side of the fish girl. Riwoe has subverted Maugham portrayal, delivered a powerful anti-colonial message, and done so in such beautiful prose that you don’t even notice that is what she has done. I am not sure I have Mirandi’s subtlety, but I certainly aim to present a different narrative to the one-sided narrative we are taught in school. From comments I have received at readings, I know it has made a few people think again about race, which is a start. I’m not sure one can change the attitude of dyed-in-the-wool racists, but one might change perspectives within wider society, which would be helpful.

Good writing can open people’s eyes to a world they were unaware of, and take them to a different place.

While a lot of the subject matter in the book is quite heavy, there is a delicacy and brightness to your verse. How do you approach writing so beautifully about terrible things?

That’s very kind of you to say so. My approach to writing does not change with the subject matter. This is the only way I know how to write. This subject matter is a part of my daily life. I don’t view it as something remote and distanced from me, which I visit to find material to write about. This subject matter is all around me, and always has been.

What impact do you hope your book will have on its readers?

I hope the book will make people aware of the historic racial injustices which have shaped our society, and still shape our lives. I hope the book will open people’s eyes to the racism that exists in our society. If the book encourages people to speak out if they see something untoward unfold in front of them, it really will have achieved something.