‘Through literature, one can experience more than is available in one life. One can be other people.’1

On 29 September, the Victorian literary community lost one of its own, with the death of much-loved poet, performance artist and creative writing teacher, Ania Walwicz.

Photo of Ania Walwicz against a dark background. There are lit candles in the backgroundAnia Walwicz. Photo by Nicholas Walton-Healey; H2014.1099/10

Ania was just twelve when her family emigrated to Australia (‘the big ugly’2) from Poland. The resultant culture shock and loss of identity informed much of Ania’s early work:

We were so big there and could do everything. When you have lots you know it. Lucky and lucky and money. My father was the tallest man in the world. Here we were nothing. There vet in the district and respect. The head of the returned soldiers and medals. Here washed floors in the serum laboratory. Shrinking man. I grow smaller every day. The world gets too big for me. We were too small for this big country. We were so little. We were nothing.

(Excerpt from 'so little')
i sew me i get a packet of needles i’m a needle now i’m sharp tip with a little eye i go right in i make me better i make me i sew me needles and pins 

(Excerpt from 'Needle')

Ania attended the Victorian College of the Arts, and started her career as a visual artist, before branching out into the written form. Her first book of poems, Writing, was published in 1982, and established her fragmented and unconventional style.

Covers of two of Ania's early works: Writing and BoatTwo of Ania’s early works: Writing (1982) and Boat (1989)

The ensuing plaudits were not universal. Some found Ania’s use of language jarring, her style too experimental, or ‘in bad taste.’ 3

‘Perhaps this relates to the fact that I come from a different culture,’ Ania mused at the time, ‘where the act of revealing oneself, emotional behaviour, is more accepted than in Anglo-Saxon culture.’ 4

Photo of Ania Walwicz performing on stage with musicians at the Odyssey Festival Ania Walwicz and Person or Persons Unknown performing at The Odyssey Festival, RMIT Capitol Theatre, 15th October 2019. Photo by Fiona Scott-Norman 

Australia was a conventional place, and Ania was anything but conventional. Never one to compromise on her art, Ania kept writing, and her second book of poetry, Boat, won the 1990 Victorian Premier’s Award for new writing.  

Many more works followed, including Red roses (1992), Elegant (2013), Palace of Culture (2014) and Horse (2018).

Poster advertising launch of Ania Walwicz's work 'Horse'. Ania is pictured wearing a beardPoster advertising launch of Ania’s fictocritical work, Horse, at RMIT in 2018. Photo by Naomi Herzog

Today, Ania’s poetry and prose is represented in well over two hundred literary anthologies. Her brilliant, scathing poem: ‘Australia’ has become something of a classic, and remains a common fixture on education curricula:

You big ugly. You too empty. You desert with your nothing nothing nothing. You scorched suntanned. Old too quickly. Acres of suburbs watching the telly. You bore me. Freckle silly children. You nothing much. With your big sea. Beach beach beach.

(Excerpt from 'Australia' 5)

Ania’s feminist rewriting of the fairytale, ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ has also been widely anthologised:

I always had such a good time, good time, good time girl. Each and every day from morning to night. Each and every twenty-four hours I wanted to wake up, wake up. I was so lively, so livewire tense, such a highly pitched little. I was red, so red so red. I was a tomato. I was on the lookout for the wolf. Want some sweeties, mister? I bought a red dress myself. I bought the wolf. Want some sweeties, mister? I bought a red dress for myself. I bought a hood for myself. Get me a hood. I bought a knife.

(Little Red Riding Hood, Writing, p. 7)

Ania Walwicz reading from a book into a microphoneAnia Walwicz reading aloud from RMIT journal: Visible Ink #29, at RMIT University. Photo courtesy of Clare Strahan

Ania’s work was bold and subversive. She eschewed traditional language forms and conventions, exposing language itself as a societal construct: a product of the dominant culture:

i break     i don't connect      i just wait    and     i wait
i          wait     i wait    there is this
          white space      this white
(Excerpt from ‘Pauses’, Writing, p. 40)

The voices Ania adopted in her work were often those rendered small by our society: migrants, women, children, and others who have been exiled or marginalised:

i no speak english sorry i where is john street where it is where please ticket and sixpence name what is dog what is house mary has a dog and a house has

(Excerpt from 'no speak', Writing, p. 34)

And yet these choices were not deliberately political. Ania believed that “[o]ne writes for oneself first,’ and likened the experience of being classified by the literary establishment to being ‘processed, a salami sausage’:

‘Does one plan one’s position, the writerly position? Is it, “Look at me Ma – I’m going to be a marginal writer?”‘6

In addition to being a writer, Ania was a natural performer. ‘I’m…coming from a tradition of electronic music, John Cage, language as sound composition as well,’ she told D.J.Huppatz in an interview in March, 1996.

She performed her work both locally, at venues such as La Mama Theatre in Carlton, as well as internationally, in countries including Switzerland, England and France.

Ania Walwicz, Horse

I had the great privilege of being taught by Ania at RMIT in 2018 and 2019, and like many others, fell in love with her wit and intelligence, and her indomitable creative spirit. She and I often spoke about our mutual love for the State Library, where I was a librarian, and where she spent many fruitful hours, researching and writing.

Ania was a rebel with a cause and her cause was her art. She was like no other teacher I have ever known – plucky and unconventional, hilarious and wise. Her ‘Myths and Archetypes’ class was ‘the bomb’. She read us Russian fairytales and showed us Ingmar Bergman films, encouraged us to keep dream diaries and read our futures in her tarot cards.

Ania helped us to see the magic that is all around us — to draw connections between the mythic and the ordinary — the familiar and the strange. What a privilege it was to be in her orbit. How we will miss her now she has gone.

Photo of Ania Walwicz in a black hat, holding an award for excellence in teaching Ania Walwicz poses with her Vice-Chancellor’s award for Excellence in Teaching at RMIT University, 2017. Photo by Clare Renner

You can find Ania’s works: Boat, Palace of culture and Horse: a psychodramatic enactment of a fairytale, in the Poetry & Drama lounge of The Ian Potter Queens Hall. Ania’s works are also held in Rare books, in onsite storage, and in over 200 anthologies and literary journals.

With special thanks to Ellie Brady and Clare Strahan from RMIT University

Further reading

The Ania Walwicz Fan Club – “It’s been ridiculous!”

‘Language can multiply itself and form secret and unusual patterns’: Andrew Pascoe Interviews Ania Walwicz

When someone great is gone: remembering Ania Walwicz

Footnotes

  1. Walwicz, Ania, 1982, ‘Interviewing: Ania Walwicz,’ Going Down Swinging, (5), p. 44
  2. Walwicz, Ania, 1982, ‘Australia.’ In Hampton, S., & Llewellyn, K. (eds), 1986, ‘Australia,’ The Penguin book of Australian women poets, Penguin, Ringwood, Victoria, pp. 230-231
  3. Walwicz, Ania, 1982, ‘Interviewing: Ania Walwicz,’ Going Down Swinging, (5), p. 43
  4. As above
  5. Walwicz, Ania, 1982, 'Australia.' In Hampton, S., & Llewellyn, K. (eds), 1986, The Penguin book of Australian women poets, Penguin, Ringwood, Victoria, pp. 230-231
  6. Walwicz, Ania, 1996, ‘Look at me, Ma – I’m going to be a marginal writer!’ Southerly, 56(1), p. 58-61

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