New Shoots: Tamryn Bennett
Dr Tamryn Bennett speaks in poems, looks like Björk, and floats through spaces with an otherworldly grace. She and I are sitting in the dreamy, sunken landscape of Cooper Park in Sydney’s east and I’m excited – my curiosity about the woman, her new planty project, and her ideas about poetry are about to be sated.
‘Poems have been a way back to plants for me’ says Tamryn, as we discuss her childhood in the small south coast NSW town of Vincentia. ‘When I was young I never thought I would end up writing poetry. I always thought I’d be doing something with plants. My parents had a plant nursery so I spent a lot of time there. I thought that would be my life.’
Poetry, prose, and plants had always filled Tamryn’s head but wasn’t until early in her university degree that her creative world busted open and her approach to her art began to develop. She had a teacher whose first class involved a video of a group of students with trout in shopping trollies moving through a crowd and playing harps. ‘I thought wow, people made this work and other people watch this work!’ she says. ‘At that moment, people started walking out, saying things like ‘this isn’t writing’, ‘this isn’t art’, ‘this isn’t anything’, and I thought, ‘this is the best thing I’ve seen.’’
The experience set her off on the path of ‘wanting to find people who were doing things differently, and seeing the world differently through poetry’. Following an undergraduate degree in creative writing, a PhD in literature, and a bunch of experimental multidisciplinary art projects like recording a plant symphony, Tamryn is now the executive director of The Red Room Company, a poetry organisation based in Sydney.
Red Room’s stated aim is to make poetry a meaningful part of everyday life through pushing boundaries and constantly challenging what poetry can be. This broad approach clearly suits Tamryn.
There’s no single definition of poetry,’ she says. ‘I think that’s why I love it. Nobody can say what it is or isn’t – there’s absolutely no right or wrong.’
Tamryn’s most recent project at Red Room has bought her full circle, back to plants via poetry. It’s called New Shoots and is a poetic partnership with the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, Sydney Olympic Park and Bundanon Trust. The project celebrates and cultivates poems inspired by plants and place. ‘As well as writing in response to environment, the project is also about encouraging people to go into natural places and spaces and experience them through a poetic lens,’ Tamryn says.
The project is multi-stemmed and ever-growing. Poets Eileen Chong, Eric Avery and Mark Tredinnick have been commissioned to create poems in response to sites in the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney. These will be installed as ‘poetic pathways’ through the garden. At Sydney Olympic Park, poet Lorna Munro is creating poems to be embedded into the Badu Mangrove Boardwalk.
In addition to commissioning new poetry, New Shoots is also about encouraging people to submit their own poems inspired by plants and place. These will be published on a dedicated website hosted by the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney. The engagement of non-poets with the project is something I’m particularly interested in as poetry is regularly perceived as inaccessible, or remembered as boring rhymes from high school. It’s an incredibly important, yet undervalued, artform and I ask Tamryn how people today can be encouraged to engage with it.
'For me, it’s always about pushing the boundaries of what poetry can be. I’m really interested in how it can help people to express themselves in whatever language they have,’ she says.
‘Whether it’s through the written or spoken word, or whether their expression is entirely a collaboration with nature – like lining up sticks in a mandala. That’s a poetic offering, and absolutely a poem.’
There’s no clear end in sight for New Shoots. Tamryn’s hope is that it will continue to grow – with tendrils weaving words and expanding minds – and be picked up in other botanic gardens and cultural institutions throughout Australia. It’s already branched out to Bundanon Trust – where there’ll be a series of poetry workshops focusing on the eucalyptus trees on the property. ABC Radio National is producing a documentary on the project, and will also be broadcasting a listening event later this year.
Tamryn and I meander towards the end of our conversation under the cool, green canopy of the park. I ask the big question – why poetry? ‘Poetry has the power to unlock something within you,’ says Tamryn in response. ‘When you read a poem that resonates with you it shows you a way of seeing the world that’s entirely new and different. There are a whole bunch of metaphors found within the combination of plants and poetry that can break open all sorts of new ideas and connections.’
‘It’s about inviting people to imagine what poetry might be and suddenly their world opens up. It’s not rhyme or rhythm, it’s the raindrops on the windows, and it’s the smoke from burnouts of cars. It’s the bite you take into the fruit and the piece you leave behind. It’s anything. That’s really exciting for me, when people realise they’re living a poem.’
Plants matter. Poetry matters. The practical nature of our relationship with plants is easy enough to comprehend – our ongoing existence depends on them, and the trees, the fungus, the animals, and the rocks. Why poetry matters is harder to define but this doesn’t mean it’s any less important. We need the physical and metaphysical, art and food, stories and shelter. Poetry has the power to help us comprehend the depths of our humanity. It speaks the unspeakable, it touches the untouchable, and it’s more real than we realise. Life, according to Tamryn Bennett, is a poem.
The New Shoots project is launching with a guided poetry walk through the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney on May 21, as part of the Sydney Writers Festival. Join poets Mark Tredinnick, Eileen Chong, Eric Avery, Tamryn Bennett and myself for poems and conversation. It’ll be wonderful. For more information and bookings head here.