Poetry springs up in the gardens this September

Ryan Prehn and the remnant river red gum, which could be up to 300 years old, according to the Royal Botanic Gardens. Photo: Eddie Jim
Ryan Prehn and the remnant river red gum, which could be up to 300 years old, according to the Royal Botanic Gardens. Photo: Eddie Jim
Melbourne poets Maria Takolander and Ryan Prehn have written pieces inspired by the flora at the Royal Botanical Gardens. 22 August 2017. The Age Arts. Photo: Eddie Jim.

Melbourne poets Maria Takolander and Ryan Prehn have written pieces inspired by the flora at the Royal Botanical Gardens. 22 August 2017. The Age Arts. Photo: Eddie Jim.

It stands some 30 metres tall in the middle of the Royal Botanic Gardens, the precious cavities in its trunk home to cockatoos and other native birds.

Few would realise this river red gum is older than the gardens themselves, or that it was once much nearer the Yarra River - before white settlers diverted it in order to build the gardens.

"There is a story to tell from the tree's perspective," says Ryan Prehn.

He's one of 10 Victorian poets whose poems will appear around the gardens and on the sides of city trams for the New Shoots program, part of the Melbourne Writers Festival, which opens on Friday.

Each of them was invited to respond to a particular plant or area in the gardens. Prehn, whose heritage is from the Worimi people of NSW, says the project helped him reconnect to country after a childhood being uprooted from place to place.

"I was hesitant to be involved," he says. "The concept of a garden is a very British, colonial construct, which troubled me a bit.

"But then once you get inside the gardens and especially see that tree which which has been here since pre-colonial times - that's an inspiration."

In his poem, he uses the original Bunurung words for wattle (muyan), cherry ballart (ballee) and the river red gum (biel) - the three Indigenous plants used for the Wurundjeri Welcome to Country smoking ceremony.

"What the gardens have actually destroyed in their creation is something we - and certainly the gardens [as an institution] - don't shy away from," says Tamryn Bennett, director of Red Room Poetry, the not-for-profit organisation behind the project.

Kuller Kullup, from a more established Indigenous writer, Bruce Pascoe, also delves into the gardens' history; while Maria Takolander??? ponders Guilfoyle's Volcano - a planting of succulents, cacti and other arid species that takes its name from an early director of the gardens, William Guilfoyle.

"I chose it because of its prickliness," says Takolander. "These are plants that are very protective of their secrets and of course this makes their secrets all the more appealing to find out."

Takolander says poets are often drawn to nature because, like poetry, it elicits an emotional response.

"Look around you now - [in the Botanic Gardens] you feel awe, you feel wonder, you feel a sense of peacefulness. You feel a lot of emotions," she says. "Poetry for me is about tapping into not only an intellectual understanding of things but that emotional responsiveness."

Words are often viewed as rational, but can carry strong emotion, she says.

"Cognitive science has shown that the same areas of the brain are activated when we experience thorniness [as in touching something thorny] as when we look at the word 'thorny' ... Poetry is about bringing out that hidden power of words and the way that they can affect us."

The seeds for the New Shoots program were sown last year at Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens in conjunction with the Sydney Writers Festival. Since then the project has "rambled like a garden", says Bennett, with offshoots in Byron Bay; at Arthur Boyd's Bundanon property in NSW; and at Sydney's Olympic Park. There are also events in train for Cairns and South Australia.

This first event in Melbourne is the biggest incarnation yet (as far as the number of poets goes), with Chris Wallace Crabbe, Bonny Cassidy, Autumn Royal, Elena Gomez, Duncan Hose, Carissa Lee Godwin, and Cameron Lowe also involved.

"The poetic community in Melbourne is such a strong one, and this project reflects the diversity of voices in the Melbourne poetry scene," says Bennett.

Throughout September their poems will be "planted" at the same sites in the gardens the poets drew their inspiration from. Some will also appear on the sides of trams, bringing poetry - and a touch of nature - into the concrete playground for everyone to enjoy.

New Shoots is on throughout September at the Royal Botanic Gardens and on city trams, with a free walking tour at the gardens on September 3 at 2.30pm. redroomcompany.org

The Melbourne Writers Festival is on August 25 to September 3. mwf.com.au

This story Poetry springs up in the gardens this September first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.