We don’t often stop to think about the landscape of the past, what the ground we’re walking on used to look like, what kind of stories the earth could tell. But Nandi Chinna, writer and environmental activist, was compelled to explore this concept during her PhD at Editch Cowan University, becoming the poetry collection Swamp: Walking the Wetlands of the Swan Coastal Plain.
Chinna spent four years walking the wetlands, discovering the hidden landscape beneath the city of Perth, which informed her poems in Swamp. Margaret Somerville at USYD said of the collection, that ‘I am not aware of any other body of work that is located within an urban space and actually works across this binary opposition. These poems do this with exquisite care and attention.’
Writer’s Edit were lucky enough to speak to Nandi Chinna about her poetry, the loss of the swamps, and the importance of writing about environment.
How did your writing process work with Swamp? When you became inspired did you immediately know that you wanted to write these poems or did you head straight to more research?
The idea for writing Swamp came to me when I was working on another project about the naming of places in WA. When I found the old maps of Perth with the lakes marked in blue, the idea of those vast bodies of water that had been disappeared from the city was so compelling.
The fact that the lakes, although drained and filled in, remain there lurking just under the city in the quaking zone of the water table, really resonated with notions of the colonial project and how it tries to hide or remove traces of its trajectory, remove traces of the country that the city is built upon.
When I visited North and Bibra Lakes in the south metropolitan area and witnessed 400 swans nesting on North Lake, I distinctly remember feeling the idea of the poetic history of Perth’s lakes kick me in the guts and explode into my mind.
I started writing the poems and then conducted further research, as wanted and needed, to find out more about the lakes history, ecology, and biodiversity. So I guess in this case the poems led to the research.
How would you describe your poetry style across Swamp? Is there a particular mood or theme swept by the poems?
The style is mainly free verse with a couple of more formal pieces. The theme of course is the loss of wetlands and the stories, culture and biodiversity that has gone with them. I guess the mood is up to the reader but loss is not an easy subject to immerse yourself in. There are a few lighter pieces in there to try and balance the mood a little.
Why is it important for writers to explore their surroundings in their writing?
I’m not sure if all writers would agree with me, but I think if you are telling a story or writing a poem you need to create a sensory experience in which the reader can feel absorbed into the place of the writing.
Poet, writer and curator John Mateer comments that ‘one of the keys to any place is its literature’. It is in the relationship between the geography of a place and the people of the place that stories often emerge. That is one level of the need to explore the world we live in.
Wallace Stevens writes:
In my room, the world is beyond my understanding; But when I walk I see that it consists of three or four hills and a cloud.
In other words, if the writer sits in their writing room trying to compose poems or stories they will find this very difficult without physical knowledge of the world and its relationships. I think people need to experience the world to write about it. There are exceptions of course, such as Emily Dickinson.
There are many important reasons why as writers, or just as citizens of the world, that we need to take notice of our environment and surroundings; to get to know the hydrology, geography, weather, and plants and animals of the places that we live in. We exist in a symbiotic relation to these things and if we fail to notice what is going on the world around us, what is surviving and what is not, then we ourselves struggle to survive.
This is painfully evident at present with climate change and massive loss of biodiversity worldwide. If we do not notice that our water is polluted and fish and birds are dying, we fail to acknowledge our co-dependence on soil, water and air.
Taking notice is taking responsibility whether we are artists, scientists, politicians, or communities.
A recent example of what I’m talking about are the kelp forests of southern Tasmania. Due to the warming of the oceans and to a lesser extent urban development’s along the coast, 95% of Tasmania’s kelp forests have disappeared. They have either been destroyed or cannot survive the warmer temperatures. These kelp forests are habitat for much of the sea life in the southern waters such as fish, crustaceans etc. Without the kelp forests the other species do not survive and the fisheries collapse. These fisheries are integral to our survival too.
In Perth the polluting, infilling and draining of 90% of our wetlands ignores the fact that wetlands act as ground filters for our underground aquifers, water that we in Perth drink. How we let things like this happen is part of not paying attention to our impact on our vital ecosystems.
This is one of the reasons I practice and teach ‘poepatetics’; the art of walking and writing. To encourage myself and others to get out and walk around and take notice of what is going on in our communities, urban bushlands and wastelands, and to speak about the experience of the walk in our writing.
Our cities and suburbs are full of what landscape architect Helen Armstrong calls ‘spaces of dereliction and beauty’; small wilds where other species are going about their seasonal acts and living their lives. Wandering in these spaces, we can experience extraordinary encounters with birds, lizards, plants, that tell us so much about the real of the places we live in.
What message can readers take away from Swamp?
I don’t like to think that there is one message in Swamp but a collection of intersecting stories and ideas which articulate a particular history; that of the ‘disappearing’ or destruction of Perth’s unique wetlands. I suppose I hope to engage people in this history and to point out the extraordinary beauty and diversity of those wetlands which remain.
I feel strongly that we need to protect the small group of wetlands we have left as most of Perth’s wildlife depends upon these seasonal swamps in one way or another. We are in danger of becoming a placeless place which lacks any of its endemic features. Our endemic wildlife enriches us and we also depend upon its services.
Do you have any advice for new and emerging writers or poets?
Without being too presumptuous of my own abilities I suppose I would advise people starting out on their writing journeys to find good mentors, read a lot, be open to new ideas, and work hard.
Writing takes a lot of hard work and perseverance often for little monetary reward, but if it is reading and writing that inspires you and offers you meaning, what better thing you could you do?
Writer’s Edit would like to thank Nandi Chinna for taking the time to give us greater insights into writing landscape and place, encouraging us to step out of our bounds and pay attention to the world.
You can purchase Chinna’s poetry collection Swamp: Walking the Wetlands of the Swan Coastal Plain from Fremantle Press.