‘Throughout my life I have turned to the page as a soft place to fall and a wise place to rise.’ For Phantom Billstickers National Poetry Day 2018, poet and children’s book author Courtney Sina Meredith shares her personal discovery of how powerful words can be in expressing your identity, no matter your age.
I have a clear memory of writing a poem at primary school about a group of magical princesses. They each had their own unicorn (of course) and in the final stanza, because the moment took them, they headed to a cafe up the road from my school for a round of hot chocolates. I remember the teacher coming to our table to check on our work. I didn’t expect any feedback. Those were the strict days of ‘C3B4UCME’ (when you’d ask three classmates for help before going to the teacher) after which, all going well, you’d get the tick of approval for ‘publishing’ and if you were lucky enough to have a pen license the final ‘publication’ looked pretty smart.
I turned the page to a sprawling brainstorm (also very of the time) when I realised the teacher was reading over my shoulder. She asked me what I was writing about. I gave her a very vague outline: magical princesses… unicorns… ends at a cafe… She mustered a smile and then proceeded to encourage me to put male characters into my stories and poems. It was, apparently, important for boys to have strong male role models.
When she moved on to the next student I exhaled, grateful as any small child to be out from under the laser focus of an adult. I realised in that moment that all children had their own stories and it was the job of a grown up to help with that story, not the one they wanted you to write. It was important not to forget this precious information, and later, home from school, I unlocked the wee silver heart of my diary and wrote about the experience at length – complete with an illustration of me beside a speech bubble that mused, why should I have to write about boys when I’m a girl?!!!
I realised in that moment that all children had their own stories and it was the job of a grown up to help with that story, not the one they wanted you to write.
That exchange gave me a totally new perspective. I went to school the next day and looked deeply at my teacher while she read to us after lunch. I realised she was not an invincible knower-of-all-things, it turned out she had flaws. It wasn’t just that she didn’t connect with my writing – she didn’t connect with me, and I was the maker of that small but important world.
* * *
I have always had to fight for my voice. Even now, with a fair bit of mahi behind me and a pretty bright future ahead. Fortunately, that struggle has given me a great deal of empathy. At times it feels like a field that stretches on in every direction and this is the meeting place where I stand with many others who have had to fight to be themselves: to begin, to become and continue.
…I stand with many others who have had to fight to be themselves: to begin, to become and continue.
I’ve lectured in Pasifika and world literatures at tertiary level; I’ve given masterclasses on everything from lyricism to professional development to events and arts management. I’ve been the mentor, the tutor, the catcher at the other end of emails receiving the anxiety, the stress amongst the wonder – throwing it all back, simplified and cooled down, with a clear way forward.
My writing has taken me into classrooms and lecture halls all over the world and I never feel more alive or more purposeful than when I am reading the work of a young person. My first thought is always how best to honour their story.
* * *
In a high school in New Orleans in an area that had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina, the teenage girls dotted around the classroom didn’t offer up much. Their male counterparts relaxed with ease, they seemed to be sitting in a different world entirely – one where their bodies could bend in the heat.
I was introduced by their teacher. Almost pleadingly, he shot a strained look to the class: ‘Please listen!’
I paused, wondering if I had any right to share poems in a place that so obviously needed things. How could my verses shelter anybody?
I paused, wondering if I had any right to share poems in a place that so obviously needed things. How could my verses shelter anybody? Words wouldn’t feed their families. I wanted to transform into Oprah – you get a car, you get a car, YOU GET A CAR! But instead I shared a couple of my poems that celebrated what it means to be a strong woman. I couldn’t hide my feelings; the lines came out rich and raw.
After I finished, I looked around the room and noticed the girls sat with straight backs like fresh shoots arching toward the sun.
After I finished, I looked around the room and noticed the girls sat with straight backs like fresh shoots arching toward the sun. At the end of the class, we hung out around the desks that had been all pushed into the centre of the room and took selfies. They liked my hair, they liked my lipstick; they kept their own journals full of their own dreams and desires; they had crushes, some had boyfriends; and how long did it take me to write my poems and did I like my poems more than I liked my stories?
Throughout my life I have turned to the page as a soft place to fall and a wise place to rise.
Throughout my life I have turned to the page as a soft place to fall and a wise place to rise. It has been my greatest travelling companion, there with me through love and loss, catching my tears and revealing my innermost ambitions – a forever garden of endless possibilities. This has always been what I’ve wanted to share with children, teenagers and young adults – not just the transformative power of the written and the spoken word, but the sense of self it grants you.
Courtney Sina Meredith
Courtney Sina Meredith is the author of Tail of the Taniwha (Beatnik 2016) and Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick (Beatnik 2012). She has held various international writing residencies including the prestigious Fall Residency at the University of Iowa where she is an Honorary Fellow in Writing. She published her first children's book Secret World of Butterflies (Allen & Unwin 2018) with her butterfly bestie, Giselle Clarkson.