Feminartsy: the power of creative women in Canberra

Pictured: speaking with legends Cait Elizabeth, Ruth O’Brien and Lucy Hutchens! Photos by Siobhan Clair

I wrote this piece recently for a Feminartsy event on the power of creative women in Canberra:

I do poetry, but I also work as an academic/advocate on the NDIS.

I do both part time, and these days frankly work takes up more of my time than my creative pursuits. However, I keep it going despite this.

So why split myself?

I think that the notion of power, and the power of creativity is key to the reason that I split myself between these main pursuits.

Power is shifty. Power is such that you can hold or wield it in some settings and it’s completely useless in others. It’s very context dependent.

For me, the creative space is my chance to be myself without the pressures that capitalism places on us to exchange our labour for money. It’s a chance to explore my own mind, be my own boss, and show others who I am.

But when I ask myself what it means to do something worthwhile with my time, I can’t fully say that it is though creative work. They are both powerful in some spaces, and in others they are completely useless.

So, when we’re meeting with the Department of Social Service and the NDIA, I’m not reading them a poem. Ok, that’s really obvious. Art has little power here. Instead I’m drawing on our research, combining my thoughts with my supervisor Gemma Carey, and trying to put forward a case for the constant consideration of equity in the way that disability support is done at the moment. It’s a really important issue that I couldn’t walk away from.

Similarly, when I’m writing poetry or on a stage performing, I’m not giving a spiel about market theory and inequity in the NDIS. It’s not likely to remind people of a life worth living, which is what I would hope from art.

The power of creative women in Canberra is much the same, in some spaces creative women have power, the power to shift people, to connect emotionally, to challenge ideas creatively, perhaps to give people confidence and offer affirmation to people who don’t always get affirmed. People who have to live with racism, homophobia, misogyny, ableism and so on.

But in other settings that power really won’t shift much. But that’s ok, that is the nature of power, it’s very hard to be powerful in lots of different contexts.

When I reflect on my time as a creative person, I think of the community that I found myself in. The power of a creative life doesn’t have to be realised on stage, or in a creative document (recording, poem, song, CD, painting), it can also be in the form of community.

A few years ago I would meet with some female poets and musicians to share our poems and try to make music that fits them. But it wasn’t just that, we explicitly made the space a space that could support vulnerability and openness.

I give a lot of credit to Emily Fishpool for making that space. By setting up the space as a listening space, and a support space, and drawing on our existing friendships, we were able to share our poems but also our struggles with anxiety and depression, with bad sexual experiences and abuses, with race and whiteness, with alcoholism and domestic violence. The group became a home for sharing vulnerability, for fun, for joy and for support.

We only performed live once at the food co-op, but that hardly matters to me. For me, there was power in being part of a community.

There wasn’t a lot of power in our actions in the grand scheme of civilisation, we didn’t shift any agendas about the NDIS, and frankly art rarely does shift anything in the traditional halls of power, but we did make shifts in our own journeys to have better mental health and richer lives.

I also want to give a shout out to Jacqui Mallins and the Homespun Poets who run Mother Tongue, a night of multilingual poetry where poets can perform in any language they chose. Such a space extends the boundaries of inclusivity in creative communities, meaning that whatever is powerful about being a creative person in Canberra is extended again.

Finally, I think it’s ridiculous to talk about power without talking about privilege, and the way that privilege intersects in each individual.

I’m white, CIS, middle class, employed, university educated, abled, and really the list goes on. But also, some things have not been my privilege, namely that I grew up with domestic violence, and my Mum is the major survivor of that, and this has left an imprint on me in terms of persistent anxiety and insomnia. So, this is just one example of the way that privilege and burdens can intersect in one individual, it is rarely clear cut. But this is the context from which I create.
There is a lot of privilege in being part of a community of creative women in Canberra. You can get together and be mad fucking witches, go on feminist rants, dance to glittorus. I feel the same with the non-women in my creative community, the non-binary, non-gender identifying, trans and men and others who I have the privilege to know. I think there is power in a community that has a nuanced understanding of privilege and oppression and the ways that these intersect even within individuals.

The creative world remains contested, opportunities are still unequal, but it has the potential to be a space for people to express their individuality, to explore their own privileges and their burdens – I think that the power of creativity is to open a space where an individual’s background and thoughts and emotions and interpretations really do matter.

We don’t have to put them aside and pretend that they don’t’ exist as we might have to in the workplace.

Creativity is not a condition of a good existence, but for those who want the opportunity to engage in creative work, the space should be made, even if it’s just a collection of women in a loungeroom sharing their poems.

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