‘For Ania, With Love’ was written by student Melissa Fulton in November 2020. The image was taken by Naomi Herzog.
In our first class Ania Walwicz told us we were dangerous people, corruptors of language. ‘You cannot be held responsible for anything you say in this room!’ she proclaimed, one pompous finger raised. This thrilled and terrified me.
Poetry, from the Greek poesis, making meaning through images.
Before I knew her, I admired her. In her writing and in life, Ania had style. Proper style, like rules to live by. She strolled the inner north and the corridors of the university like a flâneuse, in tailored pants cropped at the ankle, stripey shirts and blazers. Her feet were so small, like bread rolls, impeccably held in lace-up shoes. Coloured socks. That scribble of hair, that insouciant pout. Chin up, eyes shining, like a child. Later, I found out she bought her backpacks in bulk because they were the kind she liked – English racing green, worn high on her back, full of books.
I went to the movies with her once. She told the attendant the row and the seats she wanted – third from the front, in the middle – using letters from the alphabet. She told her twice. Sometimes Ania would forget that what she wanted was not the only thing. She found $5 on the ground and put it in her pocket. At the café afterwards a well-meaning young bloke fussed over her, complimented her beret.
She asked me how tall I was, how old I was, what my parents were like, did I drink or smoke, did I want kids. ‘Don’t have kids,’ she told me. ‘And you will have a creative life. Do you have cats?’
You’d see her in the streets – at book launches and readings, in cafes, at the cinema. The Victoria Market, where she did her shopping. A friend spotted her peering through the window of a Carlton terrace once. ‘Ania, what are you doing?’ ‘I’m staring inside this house.’ ‘Why?’ ‘To see its inner workings.’
I took all of her classes because I had to. I needed to be around her.
She was often late to class. She would stride in, place her cup of tea – bag in – on the table, get her books out. ‘Good-o.’ Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, Patti Smith, Dr Seuss, Ginsberg. ‘What dreams have you been having?’ ‘This has a spontaneous quality; do you think he made it up on the spot?’ ‘Did you know he worked in advertising?’ ‘Shall we experiment with the nursery rhyme?’ ‘Who would like to read?’ ‘Interesting!’
She’d pluck what we were reading from the table, photocopy it during the break, then we’d read and discuss it. She was democratic like that, interested in what we liked. Someone in our class was into rap. He played her a track. ‘“Hoochie Mama Freak”?’ she asked, open-faced. ‘Who is that?’
She delighted in the logic of children. She told us a joke a primary school kid had taught her: ‘What would Australia be if everyone had a pink car? A pink car nation!’
Every expression was valid, and every interpretation. Ania would frustrate people by refusing to tell them the rules. For her, there were none. Instead, she offered herself up as an example of a life that we might like to lead, a life devoted solely to ideas. She gave me something I desperately needed: permission.
From ‘Coming To’, from her first book Writing: ‘Then my face was all set. To go places. My right arm. It followed along. All tingly and lovely. Felt so good. First. Top head. Hair alive. My face easy and well. My neck. All lively. Got down to. Lower then. My chest. Breathes.’
Most people in class had a whimpering terror of sharing their work, but Ania wouldn’t abide it. She would stare at you with her powers. I read everything I wrote and became giddy with it, like a dare. In her company I was bold. She, of course, read aloud better than anyone.
‘People will ask you all the time what your INTENTION is for a piece of writing,’ she announced one day. ‘How strange. My intention is for you to read it. Now!’
Ania’s work itself danced and cut across the page. My writing friends and I would read it aloud, late into the night, over and over again. Drunk with it. You cannot read her work without hearing her.
From Helen Garner’s Yellow Notebook: ‘I kept thinking of Ania Walwicz’s broken sentences, the shock and wit of them.’
Ania had a friend that she spoke to exclusively in rhyming verse.
Once, after a performance at ACMI, she lost her beard. She called the theatre, asked them to check under the seats. It was near the front row where they found it. What does a fake beard look like without a person attached to it? A little mouse? These are the kinds of questions I would ponder in her classes.
My books are full of depraved, sparky verbs. I had fun.
Another time, she wore the beard to a fancy-dress party. Her intention was to dress as Dostoyevsky. Guests kept asking her if she was a terrorist. ‘How strange!’ she said, but you could tell she got a kick out of it.
She could be fickle, and she had favourites. I wanted to be one of them. To be seen by Ania Walwicz!
‘Where’s she gone?’ Ania asked after a student who was due to give their presentation disappeared. ‘To the bathroom,’ we said. ‘But that’s no place to submit!’
Everybody says this, but really, she wasn’t like anyone else.
When she discovered something, it was as if she had invented it. Like The Internet. Perhaps a whole-class YouTube video of us each performing our poetry might make us famous? She hired AV equipment from some pimply undergrads and bossed them around when they came to set it up. We were in a classroom with no natural light, no opening windows, like a Centrelink building. I imagined her with one of those Madonna head-set microphones on. I recited a poem about genital warts. Someone coughed and she scowled at them, asked me to begin again. When the photography and design students loitered in the halls outside for their classes, she shushed them. In her hostile hand, she wrote a sign that said ‘Be quiet! Recording in progress!’ The video was perfunctory, but the act of recording, Ania in her full-flighted magic, was performance art.
Her comments on my work energised me. She never tried to make anything better.
A year ago, we organised a literary festival at The Capitol Theatre for a class we were taking. The events were striving, earnest, a little dull. Most people seemed mildly embarrassed to take up space on stage. Not Ania. She closed the festival with a 20-minute spoken word piece set to improvised jazz music by Person or Persons Unknown. In silver brogues, she was electrifying. When she performed it was an ancient truth.
The last time I talked to her was tough. The pandemic did not suit her. She had lived her life in a world that no longer existed. It felt violent. She feared for the arts, for ideas and freedoms. In hindsight, she was sick. I was too caught up in my own stuff to deal with it. She needed an audience, and I wasn’t a good one. ‘Why haven’t you read my book?’ she said. I’m sorry, Ania. I loved you, really.
I didn’t think she would ever die. And if she did I thought maybe she’d be shot out of a cannon. I hope that she was not lonely, and that she did not suffer, and that perhaps she could take a moment to look around inside her death and be curious about it, interested. I know that I’ll spend my days asking what would Ania Walwicz do?