Old Made New
Updated: Jun 22, 2022
This week, Mona's Fiction, Poetry and Experimental Forms Editor, Lauren, examines how we can recycle and draw inspiration from the old - texts, voices, ideas - and transform them into pieces that suit our modern world. We share with you Mona Natalie D-Napoleon's poem, 'Axe marks in tree trunks', and the experimental process behind the piece that skilfully keeps the voices of an older generation of new Australians alive.
When we sit down to write, often the aspect of working that plagues us most is whether we have an original idea, something new to say or contribute. Today, I'd like to challenge you to dismiss this immediately, to accept that, as hard as you try, you will never be able to achieve this end. In saying that, we must evaluate why this is our first question and the basis of so much of our self-doubt; why are we fixated on newness, and why do we assume original is best?
'There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope.' Mark Twain
At the heart of the artistic movement of post-modernism is the dismissal of the myth of originality. The late 20th century movement embraced the idea that all of our ideas are recycled, repurposed, refitted and repackaged versions of older ideas, most of them ancient beyond our comprehension. And rather than attempting to hide this intertextuality, obscure the inspiration for a text from the reader, postmodern authors, poets, artists and film makers foregrounded the sources of their ideas. Indeed, one of the techniques most recognisable in this school of art is the pastiche - the 'mish-mash' of existing texts using experimental methods in a range of genres.
What post-modernists opened up was a exciting possibility: no longer were texts isolated pieces in time, but all of a sudden texts could speak to each other across time and cultures, across political systems and institutions. In short, your piece of writing or art is not limited by it's lack of originality, it is enriched by it.
Natalie Damjanovich-Napoleon (D-Napoleon) has done just this with the poem we are showcasing this week. Natalie's interesting and unique method of writing fascinated Mona's editors and reminded us of the recent experiments performed with artificial intelligence, training bots to write poetry. Natalie entered fragments of existing texts into a Markov random text generator and worked with the fragments and her own words to build a poem, like a jigsaw, piece by piece. The process is as much about what is left out as what is included, and she describes the omissions her her poem in part owing to 'the palimpsest of history'.
Natalie, an accomplished and prize-winning writer and musician, brings an interesting background to her writing with her interest in erasure poetry and historic amnesia. Mona has featured erasure poetry frequently, and indeed it has been one of the most enjoyed activities at many of our free writing workshops run for rural women. In its very nature, it repurposes existing texts starting from an existent document, obliterating parts of it to leave a new text, often with a new meaning.
This method, and others like it that use existing texts, raise the concept of co-construction and the ethics that surround it; how do we seek permission to repurpose and remodel existing texts if they, themselves, have been repurposing other texts? Must we consider the sources of all our ideas all the way back to their ancient roots? It makes murky the idea of copyright and the premise behind it - how can we ever individually 'own' a story, when its process is at least a textual conversation, at most a rearrangement?
How can we ever individually 'own' a story, when its process is at least a textual conversation, at most a rearrangement?
Natalie constructed her poem from fragments of interviews with Croatian pioneer women, in an effort to keep their stories and experiences alive for future generations to understand, learn from and empathise with. The history of immigrants and refugees is a chequered one in our country, and Natalie's poem does important work in recycling these voices for a new, modern audience, and in an interesting and condensed form. Natalie's poem goes beyond the experiences of new Australians, though; her interest in women's forgotten stories has led her to publish her second collection of poetry on the silencing of women and writing and recording songs that push the boundaries of women's voices in traditional spaces.
Natalie meticulously sought permission from those whose voices she collected, and the original stories are available to read on the Croatian Women in WA website. She honours their experiences, but the nature of the process used for composition naturally amplifies the emphasis on hardship these women endured in their youth: being overlooked because of their gender, the lost opportunities that came with this prejudice and the exploitation of women's labour in times of financial crisis.
Axe Marks in Tree Trunks*
The Depression had ended for others but not for us until we (my sister and I) started working. For me this started at 10 years of age.
on to chaff
cut grass forms
busy times on the
mainly boy talk—
to talk to—
When I first started going to school I was 9 and I had to walk 5 miles through the bush. On the first day dad marked trees with an axe so that I would be able to find my way home.
all out of sorts
on their way home
scholarship stories lost
We need you at home
axe marks in tree trunks
an old-fashioned chaff cutter, mixed with meat meal and bran
the war effort during school
trees with families who were able to think
the floorboards by day and the filings by dark
…people looked for families who were struggling and asked you to come and polish the floors. This would take you all day all on your knees. They mainly gave you a meal, some promised five shillings, but few kept the promise.
Girls only left home when they married
* This poem has been constructed from fragments of interviews with Croatian pioneer women; Ljube Pavlinovich (nee Lendich), Nada Jujnovich (nee Braovich), Vera Rosich (nee Vladich), and Remy Beus (nee Garbin). These interviews were collated by May Butko and posted publicly on the Croatian Women in WA website: https://croatiansinwa.com.au/2017/02/28/women-in-wa/ Words in italics are direct quotes. Permission was sought and given by The Villa Dalmacia Association (Inc) and historic society to use these quotes in my poems. With hvala to Norm Marinovich and May Butko for keeping our stories alive.
(D-Napoleon) is a writer, songwriter and educator from Fremantle, Australia. She spent the last decade in the United States where she was a Coordinator at a City College Writing Centre. Her work has appeared in Cordite, Meanjin, Australian Poetry Journal and Writer's Digest (U.S). She has won both the Bruce Dawe National Poetry Prize and KSP Poetry Prize. In 2019 Ginninderra Press released Natalie’s debut poetry collection First Blood. In 2021 Natalie completed her second poetry collection on motherhood and the silencing of women's voices. Currently Natalie is teaching writing at ECU while completing a PhD on erasure poetry and historic amnesia.
Have you been inspired by Natalie's work? Read more outstanding writing by rural women in Mona Magazine's Issue 02, on sale now from our website!