Stralian Stories: Billy Marshall-Stoneking
by Neil Boyack
Singing the Snake & Cultural Competence
Rarely is a collection of poems and vignettes so complete in its form with regards to cultural breadth, style, content, political shade and vigour. When I first read Singing the Snake, I read it again. It was hard to believe it was considered an Australian work. Sharp, tough, loving, amusing, spiritually revealing and offering an intriguing, domestic side of life within a remote community, it’s release gave Australian poetry resonance, encouragement and badly needed positive press. It also raised age-old questions around paternalism and white people “living” in Aboriginal communities, for research, artistic, or other purposes. Whilst I love this work, and believe that Billy Marshall-Stoneking had good and positive intentions, Australian history, alongside a multitude of contemporary career paths, is riddled with the motivation of whites to be “placed” in remote communities, to experience community living for their own journey, to take pictures, no matter how supportive and benevolent the plan.
The Seasons of Fire (From Singing the Snake)
There is Law for Fire,
singing for Fire,
dancing for Fire-
You have been there, you have seen it.
You know all the names of Fire:
Signal fires, hunting fires,
sleeping fires, fires for light,
fires for cooking, for ceremonies,
healing fires of eucalyptus leaves –
Fire is medicine, magic.
Fire gave Crow a voice,
flying away in pain.
An American national, Marshall-Stoneking has lived, taught and written in Australia for many years. His writing extends from poetry to film, and he is an active social media blogger and writer. Billy Marshall-Stoneking was born in Orlando, Florida, and he is the second child of Charles and Florence Marshall. Born William Randolph Marshall on 31 August 1947 (his sister, Barbara, named him ‘Randolph’ after her favorite movie actor, Randolph Scott. The name “Stoneking” derives from his paternal great-grandfather, Reuben Stoneking. Stoneking’s early years were spent growing up on military bases around the United States, including Randolph Field in Texas, Fort Slocum, New York. Marshall- Stoneking’s time at the remote community of Pupunya (1978-1983) creates the beautiful subject matter produced in Singing the Snake. His son, the guitarist and entertainer CW Stoneking, was born in Katherine, NT, in 1974.
A poem of Ayers Rock (From Singing the Snake)
And when the snake stirred
(“if the singing was strong and true”)
It would push the water out
From its rockhole on top-
From that danger place, the place where
Every river in the world begins
Singing the Snake is important for a number a reasons. It offers a basic and clear cultural bridge. It also offers a dynamic connection and cultural filter facilitating numerous perspectives and realities: black/white, spiritual/physical, traditional/contemporary, artistic/ relational, tangible/aspirational. These are all concepts a poet of worth and substance should be looking to stretch and flex and mash and disprove. This work also sits easily in the traditional Australian narrative occupying the “romance of the bush”. I would argue that most Australian readers would resonate with this work, even if unaware of the deeper layers contained within the subtext and myth. Whilst in Papunya, the author was an anthropologist of sorts (no offence intended), collecting and recording cultural information, experiences and stories. Luckily for us and Australian literature he had the artistic sensibility and acumen to shape this work in a way that was respectful to the people from which it was derived, enlightening the Australian readership. Singing the Snake breaks down cultural barriers through Marshall-Stoneking’s simplicity of language. Assisted by Tutama Tjapangarti, Nosepeg Tjupurulla, and many others from Papunya and Kintore communities, the writer has moulded his wonderful experiences, into attractive and engaging poems that delight, haunt and fire the imagination.
Matches (From Singing the Snake)
Tutama asks for a cigarette &
Takes two –
He bites them off just below
“Kala anyway,” he says
Waving my offer of a match away
“can’t drink smoke!”
As for cultural competence and the sometimes strong white desire to live, temporarily, in remote communities to attain same, this concept is a corporate invention found in the genealogy of political correctness and government compliance, applicable to the corporate, pen-pushing world. Australia and the Torres Strait contain at least 250 different Aboriginal language groups, and dialects within these.
Here we find different mythologies, stories for pivotal landmarks, animals, trees, creek beds, rivers, mountain ranges; different stories for the creation of the elements and life forces. To even think that a finite outcome is possible with relation to “cultural competence” is a mistake. Thus we need to acknowledge cultural competency as an ongoing, ever-changing beast that needs regular updates, a mandatory political and artistic black-white interface, and Aboriginal control over an Aboriginal narrative (history/the Intervention/modern life/economic independence/poverty eradication). Aboriginal colleagues have often stated that “some organisations” feel they are culturally competent after walking through a “co-op” for twenty minutes, and “ticking a box” for corporate compliance sake. Other Aboriginal thinkers have stated that they would not wish for the mainstream to be “too culturally competent” as this may undermine Aboriginal efforts in supporting Aboriginal communities, and may threaten the notion of self-determination. In any case Marshall-Stoneking’s work is a great example of Australian work occupying a very sweet spot within the black-white interface, and it raises delicious questions around cultural competence for me: the motivation, the process, the means, the future.
Instructions for Honey Ants (from Singing the Snake)
Work with the end of your dress
tucked up between your legs.
Speak in whispers; laugh silently;
do not whistle. Whistling especially,
brings bad luck. Do not be afraid
to feel where you cannot see
Disappear into earth
With crowbar and billy can;
Go down, maybe ten feet.
If you find them, it is better
When children are waiting.
This is marangkatja: a gift.
Love what you are after.
A background to the landscape in which Marshall-Stoneking took his notes and created his work is as follows. Papunya is in the land of the Pintubi people, 240 kilometres north west of Alice Springs. It is now home to a number of displaced Aboriginal people, mainly from Pintubi and Luritja tribal groups. Pintubi and Luritja people were forced off their traditional country in the 1930s and moved into Hermannsburg and Haasts Bluff where there were government ration depots. The Australian government built a water bore and some basic housing at Papunya in the 1950s to provide room for the increasing populations of people in the already-established Aboriginal communities and reserves. The community grew to over a thousand people in the early 1970s and was plagued by poor living conditions, health problems, and tensions between various tribal and linguistic groups. These festering problems led many people, especially the Pintupi, to move further west, closer to their traditional country. After settling in a series of outstations, with little or no support from the government, the new community of Kintore was established about 250 km west of Papunya in the early 1980s. During the 1970s a striking new art style emerged in Papunya, which by the 1980s began to attract national and then international attention as a significant art movement. Leading exponents of the style included Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri, Pansy Napangardi and many more. In 2008, Marshall-Stoneking’s poem The Seasons of Fire (from Singing the Snake) was chosen by Australian poet, Les Murray, as “one of the 10 best Australian poems ever written.
Neil Boyack is a writer, poet, welfare manager and founder and director of the Newstead Short Story Tattoo (www.newsteadtattoo.org). His poems and stories have been published widely. You can find his work at www.neilboyack.com