Proud, Black and strong: A conversation with Aboriginal poet, Yvette Holt

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Yvette Holt — 38-year-old descendant of the Bidjara and Wakaman nations of Queensland, mother, lesbian, ex-postal worker, educator, traveller — is a strong advocate for justice and a powerful poet. Anonymous Premonition (2008), her first compilation of works, bears this out. Through her easy-flowing, cleverly-crafted and often playful language, Yvette shows us the many, complex shapes and layers of her experiences, reflections and hopes as an Aboriginal woman and queer. Samuel Wagan Watson, Aboriginal poet, describes this work as “A fledgling collection of poetry that takes flight! Uplifting and revealing: an uncompromised body of verse from an authentic, charismatic Indigenous voice.”

Reading Yvette’s poems, I saw a dynamic feminist who, as an Aboriginal woman, knows her vital place in society – in keeping it alive and together. Through My Eyes highlights this thread, which runs throughout the collection:

Being born Woman is learning about the struggle, being born
Black and Woman is knowing how to survive…

Indigenous Women have carried the weight of oppression on
the strength of their hips, breathing life into our culture and
nurturing our
Grandmother’s Mother’s Mother

When I look at Aboriginal Women today I see history, past,
present and future

I asked Yvette how she sees feminism. She told me what her mother said about feminism’s meaning for her generation of Aboriginal women living in the 1960s: “For your father and I, living in the ’60s was about survival of our family. Making sure our children were not going to be taken from us. There were women marching in Sydney and Melbourne, and women burning their bras in protest in California, but for me it was about keeping our family together and getting paid for work I was doing. You hear about Stolen Generation and Stolen Wages. Well I was living in it…trying to survive.”

Yvette tackles genocide and exposes its global reach. Atlantic Whispers digs below the United States’ charming colonial façade:

The Atlantic Ocean sweeps a disturbing chill across this
tapestry-stained window box
history unveiled beyond talcum picket fences
tales from the past crawling beneath village pine-lacquered floorboards…

a bruising ocean raking the shores
where traditions once roamed…

once more history has sealed
First Nation’s fate

It Takes a Village captures another thread of Yvette’s work — growing up Indigenous. Co-written with Simone Tyson, the poem was performed at Stylin’ Up 2006, the Indigenous Australian hip hop and R ’n B music and dance event in Brisbane.

I search in the distance seeking community
We all plan what our next project of life will be
As a small child, watching and learning,
learning and waiting

Time increases a lot of pain and sorrow
but the good times and laughter are never
left far behind
’cause we just get out of control
we street children like to keep on going

Growing up as a girl meant losing those “Carefree episodes of my best mate and I/In the prime of our childhood.” Yvette writes about her best mate being sexually abused by her uncle, as painfully re-told in The Old School Days. It also brought out resilience, as recalled in The Grandest Final. Left out of playing footy with her big brothers, this “Calamity Jane” wanted so badly to be a player — “In between chopping up my doll’s clothes/ and painting my toenails/With bright red bingo markers.” She looks back on those days of watching her “gladiatorial football heroes,” not with self-pity but with collective pride.

Yvette describes her poetry as observations made through “a window that refuses to shut.” Says Yvette: “I cannot switch off or pull down the shades on matters that permeate or surround my daily life. Currently I am living and working in Alice Springs. Do I see the social and economical impact of the ‘government intervention’? Yes, I do. Do I think that the Northern Territory and Commonwealth have the responsibility to supply local people living in ‘town camps’ adequate housing accommodation? Absolutely.”
Yvette’s poetry carries the deep marks of racism. Primary Education shows its systemic and relentless nature:

In year one I was the quiet native
Two years later the friendly coloured girl
By year five, it was I, the inquisitive aborigine
Entering high school everyone wanted to be indigenous
When I disagreed with conformity, they would whisper, “Is it
because she’s black?”

In A Line in the Sand, a woman from the coast is “on the floor in the cell” — “a saltwater baby in cold foreign storage,” violated by “a man in uniform grabbing his crotch…kneeling beside her/hissing his world in her ear.” She “thinks about home and the mood of the waves/would her beloved ocean welcome her back.”

Yvette also sharply speaks about the romanticism and eroticism of the love from one woman to another in Aotearoa:

I want to smell your breath
Between the hours
Full bodied lips
Pressing against mine

I want to journey back, if only in memory
And hold your rainbow smile
Against this arid heart
Watching the earth kissing
Long white clouds
Together moving sacred land

Yvette is a member of IndigiLez, a Brisbane-based group for Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and South Sea Islander lesbians. Yvette explains that “Indigenous Australian women who are same-sex attracted face two battles almost daily — firstly, racial discrimination against Aboriginality; secondly being socially oppressed because of their sexual preference. I think that like racism, homophobia is a highly contagious disease, and still in the twenty-first century we haven’t discovered a cure for it.”

Yvette’s poetry deals with the deep-down oppression of racism, sexism and homophobia. But she comes out “Proud, Black and strong” (I Am). Her verse is as optimistic as it is defiant. Says Yvette, “When one allows anger to reside within, it seeps into the essence of who we then become…My poetry expresses what has lied beneath me, but I no longer allow for it to percolate within…Writing has been such a cathartic experience, and I have breathed through those ugly episodes of being stereotyped or misplaced by virtue of race, whether it was in the schoolyard or the workplace. I am who I am because I believed in myself. If that makes me an optimist, yes please, I’ll take that!”

There’s an answer to the injustice:

the struggle for justice continues
for the blood of our sisters and brothers
the line in the sand has now been marked

Yvette sees this struggle as the “springboard into…social equality for all.” “For me, social justice is about taking one step at a time. It’s about learning, observing and acknowledging past injustices brought about through the process of colonisation. For many Indigenous Australians, even as far as we’ve come — and we have come a long way since 1788 — we are very much living in a structural, post-colonial society.” She recalls the words of Helen Keller, American socialist and feminist: “Until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice can never be attained.”

Uplifting it is! Yvette’s poetry soars. The best part is: it takes you along.

Anonymous Premonition is available through Queensland University Press:,
PO Box 6042, St Lucia Queensland 4067.
ISBN 978 0 7022 3571 9

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