Taking poetry to the people


Benitta Robertson (left) shares a poem with Cafe Poet Sue Fielding.  

What happens when you set up in a popular cafe, with books of poetry scattered around and a little sign that says ‘Cafe Poet’?
Wonderful things. Like catching a man’s keen glance at the books as he passed with his wife. “Do you like poetry?” Sue Fielding asked. He soon let her know how much by reciting in Welsh many stanzas from the work of Dafydd ap Gwilym – “the Shakespeare of Wales”. Tears came to his eyes, Sue recalls, as he described “without any hesitation or self-consciousness why poetry is so necessary in the world”.
On another occasion residents of Flynn Lodge, an aged care home, had been for a walk in the cafe gardens with their carer. Sue asked if they’d like to hear a poem. “Yes, yes,” they said.
She chose “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry: “I come into the peace of wild things / who do not tax their lives with forethought /of grief. I come into the presence of still water. / And I feel above me the day-blind stars /waiting with their light. For a time /I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
And “This Only” by Czeslaw Milosz: “… Once, long ago, in the sun, When the first snow fell, riding this way / He felt joy, strong, without reason, / Joy of the eyes …”
Are you surprised that they want to hear from her again? She’ll visit their care facility next month. “If I was in their situation I know I would love it,” Sue says. “Poetry can transform how you feel – it’s like an elixir, a medicine. I’ll give them some of their favourite poems and throw in a couple of surprises.”
For her Cafe Poet has been part of a six-month immersion in poetry, time that she has given herself to pursue her love of the art. She writes poetry and is starting to be published, but she also wanted to experience poetry as a way of being with people.
Benitta Robertson is one of them. Cafe Poet offered her the chance “to use the words I love – I fancied poetry could make them appear again”.  She searches for an example – “eucalyptus, you can see it, you can smell it, it’s one of our [Australian] words”.
She’s been coming since day one. The garden setting was important for her. The Bean Tree Cafe is situated in the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens, a much-loved community space in Alice Springs: “If school had been out of doors, I might have done better at poetry,” Benitta says.
The poet’s nature was another thing: “Sue immediately endears herself to people, she’s really gentle.”
Twice weekly there has been the opportunity for people to come together to read, write, do exercises in poetry craft, to share and critique work, to talk about poetry in all its rich variety. Mostly it’s been a few people around a table over coffee but there have also been poetry lunches, with up to a dozen people reading and reciting – their own poetry and poems by writers they love.
At right: Billy buttons in flower at Olive Pink Botanic Gardens last month, the perfect cover for a compilation of poems from the Cafe Poet experience. Photo by Sally Hodson.
Cafe Poet also opened the eyes of a local organisation to the value of poetry in the community. Alice WaterSmart commissioned Sue to write a poem to promote water conservation. It is called “Aeon” in reference to the time it takes to collect precious water in the aquifers that supply the town. It’s been published on the Alice WaterSmart website, and Sue has been asked to read it at public events: “A nice spinoff for poetry!”
Sue describes herself as “someone with Learners’ plates on in this field”, although that is humble for somebody who has already been published in national contexts and been offered professional development opportunities. At first she felt anxious about taking on the role but she has loved the stimulus it has given her “to read, research, think about poetry”. There have been days when she’s not felt like doing it but always she’s come away feeling “utterly uplifted”.
Her six months as Cafe Poet are drawing to a close but the period will be remembered in a volume of poetry, In the Pink, poems from the Garden, which will be launched at the cafe on December 8. It brings together the work of 19 writers who have taken part in Cafe Poet, some experienced and published, others who are just starting out, including a 12-year-old.
Perhaps more importantly, poetry will continue in lives where it wasn’t before, or where it had been forgotten. “I’ll definitely continue,” says Benitta.
Until November 22 inclusive, Cafe Poet is at Olive Pink every Tuesday and Thursday, 11am to 1pm. The last session will be a poetry lunch.
Cafe Poet is a national program, auspiced by Australian Poetry. It’s done for love of the art – no money changes hands, only poems.
The go
For Paola and Chris at The Bean Tree café   
They just said yes
no second thoughts
or worried look, no
question asked about the books
or things I’d do.
No need to review.
So something opened,
nothing caught itself.
My mind untied,
and from it words began to fly
like precious birds out
into precious, open sky.
© Sue Fielding, June 2012


  1. A wonderful article that left me with a great sense of hope about the possibilities of poetry, and also a sense of how much I miss this artistic and cultural freedoms of the Alice Springs Community.
    Well done Kieran, beautifully written
    Carmel Williams

  2. I love poetry because it releases my Aboriginal spirit from the day to day genocide of my people. I describe myself as the POETITION from the Murray River. I have written many poems on my laptop and in my head. Story telling is a big part of my culture, it was passed down by my ancestors.


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