Icaros Takes Flight

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Most of the Red Room Poetry team are practising poets, and our brilliant and thoughtful Artistic Director, Dr Tamryn Bennett is no exception.

Her latest collection of poetry, Icaros, includes illustrations by Jacqueline Cavallaro, and is described as offering "rituals for remembering nature, what we are made of and in turn what makes us." We had a chat to her about the process of bringing the collection together.

There was some epic journeying that fed into the making of Icaros - where did you travel, and what did you bring back with you or leave where you went?

The poems come from many different experiences, places and encounters with plants and those who know their stories, rituals and medicines. They grew from living in a plant nursery in childhood, years in Mexico visiting deserts, sierras and jungles, and with Marten Bequest supported travel to Kew Botanic Gardens in London and to Yurok Country in California with Jacqueline Suskin and the giant redwoods. Like most exchanges, I think of reciprocity, and it is most often the plants that do the giving, so where I can give back to the earth by tending places, weeding or collecting rubbish or being of service, that’s what I try to return.

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I come from a long line of women named after plants and grew up in a nursery on Dharawal Country. I've always been communing with trees, kindling a curiosity about how our lives are inseparable to those of plants, weeds and fungi.

~ 'Roots', Tamryn Bennett from the introduction to Icaros (p. 14, Vagabond, 2023)

You have been speaking with plants for a long time. What have you learned through this listening, and how has it influenced your work?

Listening to plants shapes my way of being in the world. I’m always interested to learn about the ways we’re connected from breath to books to shelter, bacteria and our very being. Our evolution is entwined with plant life. By being with plants I learn to slow down, they hold such patience through seasons. This interconnection and slowness is something I try to bring into the poems.

The language of plants is magical, and you invoke the names of many different plants from many places. How do you draw inspiration from the language of plants?

From an early age I thought plants could speak. I had hearing difficulties and thought all things that move made sounds — clouds, the sun, trees, water. Later, in learning language, I understood we have different forms of communication but remained fascinated with the languages of other things beyond my human senses. There are so many plants in the world, imagine being able to communicate or hear them all speaking. To go beyond our human language and communicate with other senses and chemicals like insects do. I wish I knew how to speak fluent plant but for now I tune into them in other ways. A lot of the language and categorisation given to plants has been put upon them and is at odds with their essence. I know many of the botanical names given to plants from an identification perspective but feel each plant has its own language far beyond anything we can understand.

There is a sense of the self dissolving or becoming atomised at points. How did you approach the 'I' in your work, and how was your conception of the poetic 'I' shaped by your dialogue with the natural world?

We wouldn’t exist without plants. Seeing the self as one tiny part of nature, absolutely connected to it, helps to dissolve the ‘I’ and any sense of separateness. Growing up surrounded by plants magnified this too. And then understanding the connection and conversation between fungi, plants and animals, the poems are a way of remembering and honouring the life, species and ecosystems on earth that are much older than human existence.

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In what ways does plant time differ from human time, and how has that shaped your work?

We stem from shared ancestors, fungi and animals. This long chain of entanglement dilates time. Sit near an old tree and you can feel it’s patience, it’s stillness through seasons. When we tune into plant time we slow down, returning to the rhythms, sounds, weather patterns of the natural world. We return to being a part of nature, not separate from it. So the work is as much a way of being open to the more-than-human world, tree planting, caring for creatures as it is about writing the poem.

Can you tell us about the structure and title of Icaros?

In Peru the Quechua word ‘icaro’ is connected to plant ceremonies where curanderos and curanderas use plants, song and smoke to heal. The songs can come directly from the plant or be passed along healing lines. These songs and chants have generously been shared as part of my experiences and icaros have always been a healing passage between plants and people, an exchange that brings its existence into being.

Can you speak about your translation of your work onto the page?

Poets that have influenced me often work in very visual or experimental ways — Guillaume Apollinaire, Mary Ellen Solt, Ceclia Vicuña, Unica Zürn, Ntozake Shange, Bianca Stone. I think of words as symbols, another kind of mark making, so placing poems on the page is a really collaborative process with Jackie.

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What role do ritual and elegy play in your work? How do you feel mourning for the human and non-human world may be intertwined?

I see our existence as a long shared strand. There have been different paths taken by fungi, plants, animals, humans but we’re ultimately all connected. The destruction and extinction fuelled by human greed is of the grandest scale. Ritual is a way of remembering the vastness of experiences beyond our human lives and elegy a way of coming to terms with the cycle of loss we are a part of. Understanding that death and decay are essential for new life is also woven within this.

Do you have any writing rituals?

My personal ritual for developing work is to ‘listen’ to the earth, tune in with all senses, curiosity and wonder. Never be afraid to follow where it calls, respect where it doesn’t, give myself over as fully as possible to the experience, whatever that might be. I try to allow plants to lead the way, from climbing a tree where the python is coiled to weeding, they are always speaking to us when we widen our senses.

ICAROS returns to the shared roots of plant, animal and human existence. From the evolution of a single ancestor some four billion years ago, the poems entangle plant and human experience, song, ceremony, medicine and healing.