Skip to content

Centre for Stories

Kirli Saunders

"When I write, I write to heal, to bring awareness to our nation’s history, to find unity."

Between the Lines interviews a diverse selection of Australian writers to uncover the hidden processes, research, and inspiration that goes into the making of a book.

Kirli Saunders is a proud Gunai woman with ties to the Yuin, Gundungurra, Gadigal and Biripi people. Kirli is the Manager of Poetic Learning and Aboriginal Cultural Liaison at Red Room Poetry and founder of the Poetry in First Languages project. She was awarded ‘Worker of the Year 2017’ at the NAIDOC Awards in the Illawarra/Shoalhaven region and was nominated for a national NAIDOC Award in 2018. Her first children’s picture book, The Incredible Freedom Machines, illustrated by Matt Ottley (Scholastic 2018), was selected for the Bologna Children’s Book Fair and is published internationally. Kirli’s poetry has been published by Cordite and Overland and is embedded in infrastructure at Darling Harbour and the Royal Botanical Gardens, Melbourne. Her poem ‘A dance of hands’ was Runner-up in the 2018 Nakata Brophy Prize. Kirli has been a Writer in Residence at Bundanon Trust, Q Station and The Literature Centre, Fremantle for ‘The Sound of Picture Books’.

Kindred – Synopsis
Kirli Saunders’ debut poetry collection, Kindred, is a pleasure to lose yourself in. Kirli has a keen eye for observation, humour and big themes that surround Love/Connection/Loss in an engaging style, complemented by evocative and poignant imagery. Kindred talks to identity, culture, community and the role of Earth as healer. It has the ability to grab hold of the personal in the universal and reflect this back to the reader.

‘Didactic in the best of ways—mob might take Kindred to be an instruction manual for remembering something just out of grasp in a colonised frame. Just don’t mistake it’s tenderness for gentleness. Kirli is fierce in her protection of kin and love.’—Alison WhittakerPhoto of Kirli Saunders standing in front of the ocean

Kindred is such an astounding collection—devastating and triumphant, and utterly powerful. I stopped reading poetry for a period, and I am so glad that I got to reengage with the form again through you, Kirli. Can you tell us about what led you to become a storyteller—as an educator on Country, as an author of children’s books and poetry?

Thanks so much for these kind words. I was really lucky to be surrounded by stories as a little person—Mum was always taking us to the book shop and reading to us at night and Dad told brilliant stories to us in our bunks. My interest in storytelling through picture books was enlivened in late high school and really exploded as I studied Primary Education at the University of Wollongong. Working with children made me want to bring intriguing literary pieces into the classroom. My picture books are born of poems, and my paintings are poems often too (the ones I can’t quite find the words for). My love of poetry was gifted to me by a high school teacher, but it’s been through working at Red Room Poetry and delivering Poetry in First Languages that I’ve found my own voice as a poet.

I imagine that there are a lot of people who are grateful that you found that voice for poetry—especially because this collection feels deeply personal. Beside the poem “Disconnection”, we have “Mother”, which speaks to connecting, or reconnecting. Is this a part of your own story, and how else has your story bled into the collection?

This collection is based entirely on my experiences, Kindred is split into three parts, “Mother” explores my connection with Culture, “Earth Child” with Country and “Lover” with others in my community. It was a daunting experience to make my personal story so accessible through the written word, but the writing of these poems has really served to heal a lot of traumas in my family. We’ve got a strong history of dispossession and relocation and many of the poems explore the disconnection to Culture, Country and Language that stems from these all too common happenings. The poems in the “Earth Child” and “Lover” section are for people that wrapped me up in new ways of seeing, that helped me find myself along the way.

And you dedicate, in part, this collection to these people—these “heartfelt humans” that prompted the poems contained within Kindred. To your mother and father, to Pip and Jess, to Naomi and Lanie and Noo, among others. Besides inciting particular poems, how have your family and friends factored into your work and your achievements as a proud Gunai woman?

So many of the poems in this collection are dedicated to someone—even those without a recognition. I feel really grateful to be surrounded by such supportive and heartful people in my writing and beyond. My family is very much to thank for me becoming a teacher and artist in various forms. A lot of that encouragement comes from my Mum—who was removed as a kid from her family and country. When I write, I write to heal, to bring awareness to our nation’s history, to find unity. The Poetry in First Languages project I founded, delivered by Red Room Poetry, aims to teach First Nations languages across Australia through poetry creation and publication on country with Custodians and Elders—this project stems again from my family and the want to celebrate First Nations culture, Country and identity through the regeneration of language.

Photo of Kirli Saunder's poetry collection "Kindred"

It’s wonderful that you’ve been encouraged, in your work as an author and an educator, by your family, and dedicated work to them in turn. You dedicate the second part of your collection to “mother earth, who cradles us all”. Many of your poems engage with her world—of “ants like homicide scene cleaners” and the skeletons of leaves—and there’s this hauntingly beautiful thread through your work that pays homage to her. Has this always culminated in your work, or was it developed, and if so, how?

Mother Earth has a huge influence in my projects, poetry, picture books and art. We were taught from a young age a deep appreciation of the Earth and her creatures. I remember Dad walking us out into the bush and leaving my siblings and I in a clearing—telling us to be home before dark, with the intention that we’d always know how to find our way back home. We knew the bush behind our place like the back of our hands, we played by the creeks and caves well into our teens and we loved her. We would hike most weekends and, now, returning to those waterfalls are some of my most treasured times. I make a conscious effort every day to enjoy the natural landscape—now its surfing and walking my dog, Pax, on the beach—but the sentiment is the same. I spent the last week on Arrernte Country in the Red Centre and was really distressed with being so far from the salt water, it really struck me how pivotal the landscape is in my identity. I can’t wait to be back on the land that knows me, and that I know and love in return.

You can feel that history of your place in this collection, and it’s so interesting exploring what seeps into an artist’s work—consciously or otherwise. So how about your influences? In “Detour” there is, perhaps, a reference to Robert Frost in the line “on the road less travelled,” and the exceptional Alison Whittaker has endorsed Kindred. Which storytellers—authors, artists, musicians or otherwise—have influenced you, for better or worse?

Ali Cobby Eckermann’s work made me laugh and cry, and it healed me and I couldn’t help but write after meeting her last year, so I would say Ali’s work encouraged me in my portrayal of the land and culture with tenderness and honesty. I was also guided in being experimental with the layout of my poems in Kindred by Alison Whittaker’s BlackWork. I felt really blessed to be guided by so many powerful poets at the Red Room office, they’ve definitely influenced my work. Dr Tamryn Bennett’s collection, Phosphene encouraged me to be gentle, and to return to the earth for answers, Lorin Elizabeth’s works remind me that poems are stories reincarnated and thus, I needed to draw the audience in with imagery and word play and heart. Emma Rose Smith was also to thank for honest editing and for the reminder that we have a role as an activist and the healer when writing. Eunice Andrada’s Flood Damages held me in my authenticity as a writer.

A lot of this collection was written listening to Triple J artists on the train while commuting, so Ziggy Alberts, Gang of Youths, King Princess, G Flip, Horrorshow, Thelma Plum, Broods, Thundermentals, Jungle Giants, Tash Sultana, Cubsport, amd Bishop Briggs are all to thank in some way—I find the rhythms and themes, the witty wordplay in music often inspires my work.

Beyond that, I’d say the books and plays of the last few years (the ones I read in whole or part, that I loved or hated) all played a role in helping me. There were too many to reference, but stand outs included: The Dry, Jane Harper; The Handmaids Tail, Margaret Atwood; The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Heather Morris; Jasper Jones, Craid Silvey; Barbara and the Camp Dogs, Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine; and Black is the New White, Nakkiah Lui.

Rattling off some of my favourite musicians there! It’s interesting that you’ve flagged these musicians too, because there’s a melody to your poetry—a beat to your words that made my experience of reading your work entirely enthralling. Although I’m not of the First Nation and certainly found myself caught on your use of First Languages, when caught I found myself trying those words out in my mouth and singing them in my mind and, for me, they became so integral to how I read and responded to your work. What was your process for working with First Languages?

Since leading Poetry in First Languages (PIFL) language has become an integral part of my poetry writing process. PIFL was born out of my want to learn the language of my Grandmother and to support other poets to do the same. PIFL commissions First Nations poets to learn First Nations languages on Country and with Elders, to create and publish poems in language. It also supports poets and Custodians to guide First Nations children to write poems, make art, dance and songs that respond to country and identity in language. We’ll deliver 35 of these workshops on a range of Countries in NT, NSW, QLD and ACT in 2019 and next year, we’ll deliver them across the country. Now that I know a little more language, I think of the earth in that way as I write. It’s given me new words or phrases to describe the land and the Dreaming.

It’s really beautiful that your process has involved teaching, especially because you published with Magabala Books who, I would argue, are teaching other publishers in this country how to work with Indigneous authors by setting remarkable standards. Can you tell us about your experience with Magabala, how it affected the book, and how it differed from your experience with non-Indigenous publishers?

I’ve LOVED working with Magabala to deliver this book—every element was handled with care and kindness and each step was celebrated along the way. My editor was a First Nations woman, Grace Lucas Pennington, and I felt so grateful to work on the editing of this collection with someone who could hold space for the work that needed to be done, in a culturally responsible way. It’s changed the way we work at Red Room Poetry and I think Magabala is really setting the standard for First Nations publishing in Australia. I can’t imagine publishing Kindred anywhere else. Magabala is the perfect home.

That care is so evident. Alison Whittaker probably said it best—you’re poetry is tender but fierce. I was particularly arrested by lines like “pine in place of eucalypt” in “Dharawal Country”, along with the repetition of “there is trauma here,” and your response to the dispossession of First Nation people and the erosion of culture throughout your work. It discomforted me, and rightly so. Your book confronts a white Australia that eagerly forgets their invasion, who ask First Nation people to assuage their white guilt rather than tackling the suffering caused by colonisation. But you’re writing in a country with a literary industry that is predominantly white. What difficulties does this entail?

That poem was penned near a massacre site, on Dharawal Country—in a space that is often visited by unknowing tourists. It’s a really beautiful part of the earth and I find it unsettling that the history of the land is almost forgotten for its beauty. In writing this poem and many of the others in the book, I wanted to bring awareness to those undercurrent narratives, to our colonial history, to the ugliness of the truth—ironically, with eloquent language—with beauty, through poetry. It’s tricky writing the truth, it’s hard to be honest and to package our past in a way that doesn’t deter a reader, that welcomes them into a discussion, and that openly acknowledges where we’ve been—so we don’t ever step into that territory again. But it’s necessary. It’s important that our kids have real history available to them inside the classroom—I wasn’t blessed with that kind of realness when accessing literature and education.

I didn’t get First Nation history lessons in my school either—space wasn’t made for it. But Indigenous authors are taking the space that they deserve—on pages, stages, and elsewhere. This has caused a crises among a white Australia that refuses to acknowledge they’re in crises. Alison Whittaker brilliantly discusses its effect in the publishing industry—in funding, literary awards, and development programs. What advice can you offer to emerging First Nation authors given this climate?

Bless the Alison Whittakers of the world, those brave enough to be honest in the faces of the privileged that won’t acknowledge hard truths. I think these conversations are really necessary and I thank you for allowing me to add to this one. For emerging writers, I’d say be true to you, to your Ancestors, to our future Elders—who will read your work and find home in it. I’d say keep writing, write through the ache, write until the past is healed, write until we’re not shrouded in the shadows of bureaucracy. I’d say speak, step out with the confidence and knowledge that you’re not alone in feeling the weight of whiteness in the arts. I’d say question every element of the system. All that truth speaking, is bound to carry us forward, to decolonise, to pave the way for the emerging First Nations writers that follow in your footsteps.

Powerfully said Kirli—thank you. And lastly, out of curiosity: when I read your poem for Noo (“New Years Wish Part II”) I cried because it felt like something I wished for someone close to me, and something I hope someone close to me wishes for me. I was wondering what was behind it?

I love this poem. My boy Nicky Noo—a proud Ngunawal Man, a brother and very dear friend was on the journey to uncovering his Aboriginality and I messaged him this poem as an encouragement to carry on with courage and as a note of gratitude for all that he is. He’s since quit his education job and is undertaking Aboriginal Studies at SCU and writing for Koori Mail. Keep an eye out for his magic.

You can purchase Kindred from Magabala Books.

Jay Anderson is a professional writer and editor, with a background in Literary and Cultural Studies. He’s currently completing an Honours of creative writing at Curtin University—where he is the Chief Editor of the campus’ student publication, Grok Magazine.

This interview was originally published on 22 May 2019. 

Back to Top