What do racing pigeons, truckies, botanists, inmates, maps and developers have in common?

Poetry, and more specifically, Red Room Poetry.

Established in 2003 by poet Johanna Featherstone, Red Room Poetry looks to make and present poetry in everyday places and spaces, often where it is neither obvious nor expected. Its approach is imaginative and innovative, with a focus on building a wider appreciation of poetry, affirming its place in regular contemporary culture, as enjoyable, accessible and memorable.

Poetry uses language in aesthetic and expressive ways. It has the potential to expand awareness and to connect us in more meaningful and insightful ways to our sense of place, space, culture, community and self. It can be written, spoken, sung, rapped or slammed, installed and/ or performed. It can be a solo endeavour and experience, or one which engages a bigger community. Red Room encourages the lot, through a bold and vibrant blending of innovative workshops, publishing and competition programs: inserting a poetic moment into our everyday lives.

There are no rules where poetry can or cannot be placed. Red Room’s Poetic Moments program puts poetry on trains, planes, banners, murals and/or public sculpture installations – not as gratuitous gestures, but as thoughtful expressions which reflect and resonate with the communities and individuals from which they arise.

Poetic moments have found their way onto coffee Keep Cups, into prisons and on the road with truckies. The Dust Poems (2009) project partnered poets with truckies to write their personal stories reflecting on lives on the road, which were then published in truckie-logbook style. What surprised the organisers was that many truckies were already writing poetry and that the collaboration with Red Room raised their poetic prowess to the next level.

The Unlocked program was designed to unleash the creative potential of prison inmates through poetry, as a means to assist them to reconnect with self, families and community. In collaboration with poets, musicians and educational staff from NSW Correctional Centres, inmates are encouraged to express their own stories through poetry, together with other creative means, which can then be performed or published. Over 250 inmates have embraced the Unlocked program since it began in 2010.

Red Room worked with developers Mirvac to engage the community of the large scale Green Square development, to devise a project which instilled a sense of ownership and relevance for locals. The result was the poetry mural by poet Lachlan Brown and artist Amy Roser in The Social Corner Café, a central hub which provides a welcoming workspace for the local community.

There is The Disappearing, an online interactive map which uses poetry to commemorate those points and places of interest which no longer exist. The online map of poems recalling histories, memories and impressions, is gradually reclaiming those almost forgotten places. Included in the map is poem by David Prater in which he remembers The Oceanic Cafe on Elizabeth St Surry Hills, a neighbourhood institution, which opened in the 1920s and ran until the death of its owner in 2014.

It is not unexpected to come across poetry in galleries, museums or public gardens. It is how it is presented that can surprise. Punchlines: Poets Play is a partnership with the Art Gallery of NSW for the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Six poets were invited to respond to specific artworks by avant-gardist Marcel Duchamp in the exhibition The Essential Duchamp, on show at the Gallery (until 11 August). As an artist, Duchamp was interested in ideas, playing with words, meanings and concepts, more so than the aesthetic nature of the object itself. The Australian poets’ responses sit as wall labels to the Duchamp artworks, offering poetic rather than didactic interpretations that are provocative, absurdist and playful – everything Duchamp admired.

Nature is an obvious source of inspiration for poets. Red Room’s New Shoots program leads you down the paths of many public gardens around Australia. New Shoots poetry explores themes around sustainability, ecosystems, plants and histories, becoming installed as permanent features. You’ll come across New Shoots poetry in gardens and landscapes such as the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, at Bundanon Trust, the Badu Mangroves boardwalk at Sydney Olympic Park, and the Blue Mountains Botanic Gardens in Mount Tomah.

Other Poetic Moments include those on the back of toilet doors in participating public places, for quiet, private enjoyment; on Keep Cups, as a project with Lend Lease to celebrate Reconciliation Week 2018; on light installation columns in Tumbalong Park Darling Harbour and, in 2008, bridging sport and poetry, attached to homing pigeons, which raced down the NSW south coast to deliver their poetic messages. One never made it to the finish line. We can only imagine it is still out there, spreading its poetic offerings far and wide.

Whilst these line-ups of poetic displays may seem quirky, the quality of the poetry is sound. Teaching people, be they young or old, how to create poetry of lasting integrity is the objective of Red Room’s Poetic Learnings. Mirvac (together with Landcom) supported workshops at nearby Alexandria Community School, bringing poet Gabrielle Jones to work with local school kids, to introduce them to poetry-writing and performance, to encourage a positive approach to literacy and self-expression.

LendLease and First Nations poems on light boxes at Darling Square and Harbour. Image supplied.

There is Poetry Object, a national poetry competition for school students; the Red Room Poetry Fellowship to nurture the creative and professional development of a recognised Australian poet; and Poetry in First Languages, a major priority in the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages, which celebrates and preserves First Nations languages and culture.

Devised by leading Indigenous Gunai poet Kirli Saunders, this timely program encourages and supports First Nations students to write poetry in their own Indigenous languages. They are paired with First Nations poets, Elders and Language Custodians in a series of workshops, to enhance their own language skills and connections to Country and culture.

Robotics analyst and poet Joel Davison is a Gadigal/ Dunghutti man who has tasked himself with revitalising the languages of his own ancestors. There are few still alive who can pass on language, so Davison relies on old recordings to teach himself. He shares what he is learning, through his own writing and public workshops, such as those presented recently during the Sydney Festival. His poetry weaves English and Gadigal languages together, evoking different stories and cultural perspectives in a fresh and inclusive way. For Davison, language is the key to promoting a deeper understanding of Indigenous people, culture and histories.

Red Room Poetry is a non-profit organisation based in Sydney. It relies on Government grants and private donations to run what are ambitious, imaginative and successful programs. Check out its comprehensive website for further information on its activities and how you can become involved. You may be delighted to find the poet within.

Visit the Red Room Poetry website for more information.

 

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