Poetry and plants come together in a public arts project at Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens this Sunday.
While roses and daffodils lend themselves easily to poetic inspiration, it’s the prickles and thorns of cacti and succulents that intrigue poet Maria Takolander.
The Deakin University Associate Professor of Writing and Literature was commissioned by Red Room Poetry to research and write a suite of poems inspired by sites and plants at the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria (RBGV) as part of an event for this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival.
Taking the poetic inspiration of plants and place as a starting point, “New Shoots – a Garden of Poems” is a walking tour of the Gardens with a difference.
Ten Australian poets, including Associate Professor Takolander, fellow Deakin poet and academic Dr Cameron Lowe, Deakin Writing and Literature PhD student Autumn Royal, Bruce Pascoe, Elena Gomez and Bonny Cassidy, will recite their poetry to groups of visitors on a special tour of the RGBV on 3 September.
Associate Professor Takolander, who earlier this year represented Australia at the International Poetry Festival of Medellin in Columbia, said that, as a lyric poet, the opportunity to join the “long and strong tradition of nature poetry” was both daunting and irresistible.
“I’d never written about nature or the natural world as a subject, I think in part because that long and strong tradition of nature poetry made me wonder how I could contribute anything original to the field,” she explained.
“Then I received this really exciting and challenging commission to write about the environment and one of the ways I got around the problem was to choose the area of the Gardens called ‘Guilfoyle’s Volcano’ because it features arid climate plants that haven’t had a lot of attention given to them by poets traditionally.
“I could think of lots of poems about lush or sublime landscapes, but I couldn’t think of anything that had been written about these kinds of prickly, thorny plants,” she said.
“They were plants that, as a kid, I would see in neglected gardens. They weren’t viewed as anything special, or anything with an aesthetic value in and of themselves, which all seemed worth challenging, especially given their dramatic presentation at Guilfoyle’s Volcano.”
Guilfoyle’s Volcano – a water reservoir in the shape of a volcano designed by the second director of the Gardens, William R Guilfoyle – was originally inspired by a Vanuatuan volcano and featured lush tropical plants.
Built in 1876, the reservoir fell into disrepair by the 20th century, before being rehabilitated as a 21st century garden showcasing drought-tolerant plants from Australia and around the world.
As she began researching the plants behind the poems, Associate Professor Takolander discovered that the plants of Guilfoyle’s Volcano are indeed special, with many of the exotic species holding special meaning in the cultures of their homelands.
“The sacred ceiba” of Associate Professor Takolander’s poem “Guilfoyle’s Volcano” is significant in Mayan beliefs, while the Golden Barrel Cactus is endangered in its native environment on Mexico’s volcanic plains. Many of the plants also have medicinal or industrial uses.
“The plant world is so complex and fascinating, because there are so many facets to it,” Associate Professor Takolander said.
“There are the plants themselves and the way that they grow, but there are also the layers of meaning that have been imposed on them by different cultures and then there are the uses we put them to.
“These plants have such long histories, and they have survived all kinds of challenges and migrations to take root in all of these different parts of the world. It’s almost magical when you think about it.”
Despite her initial doubts about her ability to contribute to the nature poetry canon, Associate Professor Takolander is in fact a keen gardener and avid bushwalker.
“I’ve always had a strong feeling for the environment and being outdoors, as a lot of people do,” she said.
“I think that we have these strong, one might say primal feelings, when we’re in the environment and we feel very powerfully towards the natural world. Part of poetry, and part of art generally, is trying to capture those strong and mysterious feelings that we have towards the world outside.”
Associate Professor Takolander created 10 poems for the “New Shoots” project, including eight haikus about individual plant species in Guilfoyle’s Volcano.
“While the haikus were fantastic to write, they were also the hardest, because of the discipline of the form – having only those 17 syllables to work with – and also because the haiku isn’t traditionally applied to these kinds of plants either,” Associate Professor Takolander said.
“It is a form of nature writing, but not normally used for this kind of natural landscape so I was being a bit cheeky, I suppose, in appropriating its association with a more traditional environmental aesthetic for my poems.”
She said an important part of the project lay in honouring the work the RBGV and other Botanic gardens around Australia and the world do in preserving plants that are being destroyed in their natural environments.
“There is a strong element of humans wanting to triumph over nature and I think this project represents the opposite of that,” Associate Professor Takolander said.
“You enter the world of plants and you start to see things you didn’t see before, and begin understanding more about these plants that we share the world with and yet don’t really think about.
“Thinking of the environmental problems we have, I do see this project as a form of activism, of trying to awaken people to the plants that are around them, even in these seemingly unattractive forms, because there is wonder in every single plant,” she said.
While Sunday’s walking tours are already fully booked, the “New Shoots” project will continue throughout September, with the poems being installed at their respective sites around the RBGV.
Lines from Associate Professor Takolander’s and Bonny Cassidy’s poems are also currently exhibited as banners on Melbourne’s iconic trams, including “how the stars settle on the sacred trees” from Associate Professor Takolander’s “Guilfoyle’s Volcano,” and are expected to reach an audience of 700,000.
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Associate Professor of Writing and Literature Maria Takolander is involved in a unique poetry event for the Melbourne Writers Festival.