Indigenous poet Ali Cobby Eckermann has described her writing as a cure for the enormous grief she has suffered in her life.
“I think I’d be a little bit nuttier without my poetry,” she said.
A Yankunytjatjara woman, she was stolen from her birth mother. Later in life her son was taken from her.
She was a teenage runaway who survived domestic violence, drug and alcohol addiction, unemployment and homelessness to become a world-class poet.
Next month she heads to Yale University to receive the largest financial reward in the poetry world — the $215,000 Windham-Campbell Prize.
Cobby Eckermann credits Terry Whitebeach for getting her creative writing career underway in 2001.
“It was also the year I got my son back so it was an emotional time for me,” she said.
“I’d only met my birth mother four years before, and I was connecting with the traditional people in the deserts outside Alice Springs. So there was sort of like a mountain of stuff to write about and so many emotions.
“I think I’m sort of grateful it was at the time in my life where the drug and alcohol years had run their course. I could focus on the writing, never foreseeing that a career could come out of this journey.”
Meeting her ‘granite boulder’ birth mother
Ali Cobby Eckermann says her birth mother was someone she could be “really proud of”. (Supplied)
Cobby Eckermann was in her 30s before she met her birth mother — then known as Audrey Kinnear, later Ngingali Cullen — a champion for the Stolen Generations and co-chair of the National Sorry Day Committee.
“I just remember the astonishment of being 34 and having someone have the same eyes as me. It was the first time I’d had someone look like me.
“It grounds you,” she said, wiping away tears.
“Mum Audrey was a strong and powerful woman. She’d achieved much in her life. She was a woman I could be really proud of, who achieved so much. A child born naked on traditional country, living a traditional lifestyle, and died high profile in Canberra.”
She dedicated this poem to her in her latest work, Inside My Mother:
My mother is a granite boulder
I can no longer climb nor walk
her weight is a constant reminder
I sit in her shadow
gulls nestle in her eyes
their shadows her epitaph
a pebble of her in my pocket
Racism in school, now an ‘equal’
“Clare High School reaffirmed for me at that time of my life that I was a second-class citizen,” Cobby Eckerman recalled in sadness.
“Half-caste boong dog was written in my maths book. One time some girls that I thought was my friends held me down and painted my face brown with the inside of a texta.
“Having to do that walk of shame up to the office to ask for special soap to clean it off your face and to do it before you had to jump on the bus to go home,” she said shaking in frustration.
At a year 11 school social, Cobby Eckerman walked in on some girls trying to flush her cousin’s head in the toilet.
“It took four years for me to lose my temper, which resulted in me getting expelled and unable to [graduate]. That had a really, really profound negative effect on me.”
Three decades later she returned to her high school reunion.
“That was a bit of a blessing, it was a lot of fun. It brought the happier memories to the fore, and it took 36 years for me to be able to walk back into that arena as an equal.
“It’s a wonderful feeling — to feel equality — and it’s a terrible feeling to feel you’re lesser than your community.”
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander flags now fly outside the school’s entrance.
“I hope the Education Department and the people that fly our flag know how much we love our flag and that it’s not a flippant gesture,” she said.
Poet remains close to adopted sister, mother
Ali Cobby Eckermann works to ensure her poetry does not hurt her adopted family, pictured. (Supplied)
One of four adopted children, Cobby Eckermann maintains close ties with her sister, Karen Eckermann, and her adopted mother, Freda.
She’s determined not to let poetry cause anyone pain.
“I always edit my poetry because I hated my feeling being hurt,” she said. “I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings through my poetry, especially my adopted family. So yeah, I edit through that lens.
“It’s about planting seeds of togetherness, is what I hope my poetry delivers.”
Chatting on the front porch of an old colonial stone house, Ms Eckermann said growing up she never considered herself adopted.
“I never saw you guys as Aboriginal ever, until Christopher said one thing once and I just went errrgh — are they?”
Ms Eckermann said when she was younger, she didn’t understand why her sister was so unsettled.
“You were searching and I wasn’t. And it was maybe only when I found my mum that I understood what it was like for you to find your mum,” she said.
Cobby Eckerman nodded and sipped her tea, replying: “I look back now and I think it’s really important to know … how to recognise the pains and how to promote the healings.
“You don’t get one without the other unfortunately, and I think that’s what I’m trying to do personally with the poetry is to analyse the pain … and articulate it and help it on its way to the healing. I think that’s the process.”