Sara M. Saleh is the very recent winner of the prestigious 2021 Peter Porter Poetry Prize. “Say it fast as you can,” she jokes when she walks into the Addi Road offices. “The P-eter P-orter P-oetry P-rize.”
Presented by Australian Book Review, the $10,000 prize is one of the most significant literary awards in the country. Her winning poem, ‘A Poetics of Fo(u)rgetting’, emerges like some elusive contest with memory, mapping her Arab-Australian heritage through beautiful-painful images of her mother with “an old injury she does not stop pressing” and her sisters with “desires too big for the lives that consume them”.
We talk about the emotional territory of the poem as we walk through the grounds of Addi Road. She’s proud of what she describes as “the musicality” it has, how alive and unique its form is, mixing prose and poetry together to make unexpected shapes in her mind.
“I was just writing for myself. I never thought I’d submit it for a prize or anything like that. I was having fun. It was really enjoyable to write. And writing is not always as much of a pleasure as writing that was for me.”
Sara says that poetry is something new to her again after years of writing fiction and working as a longtime campaigner for refugee rights and social justice. Having done spoken word poetry for years ‘A Poetics of Fo(u)getting’ was “more for the page than the stage”, but still with her voice alive within it. There’s a faint suggestion of freedom in all this, though not without the weight of experience and life behind it that comes from being a Muslim woman of Palestinian, Egyptian, and Lebanese heritage.
She plans to launch a new book here at Addi Road later this year. A novel. Sara wants to do it in a place where, “I feel like I am a whole person – where all the different parts of me can come together. The communities, the cultures, the people, my history, all the parts of my life. It’s such a beautiful and special place. I am sure other people who come here feel like me,” she says, then she pauses and carefully says, “the same but different.”
She relates being at Addi Road to Bankstown where she is the Bankstown Poetry Slam ‘Slambassador’ among other things. Similar energies and combinations of people. A feeling.
Sara takes up a place standing beside our new #RACISMNOTWELCOME street sign, the first of many being put up all around the Inner West thanks to an anti-racism campaign that Addi Road has developed with the Inner West Multicultural Network. Now the Inner West Council has taken up the idea, erecting some 50 signs around the local government area.
Sara is more than happy to help our cause. It is in accord with her life and work. And surprisingly in tune with her poem and its new music, too. “My poem celebrates both the messiness and completeness of who I am and all I come from,” she says. A feeling – the same but different – that she believes many people can relate to. A sense of “wholeness”, as she puts it, divined and asserted in what we say, in poems, in songs, in messages and signs, and most of all in how we come together as a community through all these things and more.