In The Dawn-Breakers, the Bab quotes a well-known Islamic tradition that states, “Treasures lie hidden beneath the throne of God; the key to those treasures is the tongue of poets.” June Perkins’ book of poems, Illuminations, written in honor of the bicentenary anniversaries of the Births of Baha’u’llah and the Bab, seems to meet that description.
Illuminations contains 19 poems, one story, and is accompanied by the art of Ruha and Minaira Fifita. Some of the poems harken back to the days of The Dawn-Breakers and others are timeless in their setting but as a collection, June has deftly sewn them all together: each poem is a jewel, the collection is a well-arranged piece of jewelry.
June tells us all about her book in this interview and we hope you enjoy our conversation:
Baha’i Blog: Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself and your work as a poet?
Poetry has been a lifelong friend, through thick and thin, from my youngest brother’s acquired head injury to living through Cyclone Yasi and its aftermath and encountering the trials and joys of life.
I think of poets as canaries flying into the darkness of human experience to emerge with balls of light. Poetry, as well as being a way to make meaning of experiences, is a powerful way to pay tribute to all we might be grateful in our lives, from people to places, to a sense of the Divine, or a Great Spirit, we may call God.
I began my journey with poetry since early childhood, starting with my Dad reciting AA Milne poems. A friend, who knew me as a child recently told me she vividly remembers me giving her creative notes accompanied by art. I was a big letter writer too, although today I mostly use email and blogs.
The first performance I gave in primary school was a poem about a winged seed dancing its way from my hand to the floor and spinning like a helicopter. My first overseas published poem was in Brilliant Star magazine in the United States when I was ten years old, I think, and it was an illustrated poem about a tree and its shadow.
I was encouraged by my high school English teachers to perform at the Tasmanian Poetry Festival as a teenager and later in my twenties, read alongside Pasifika, and First Nation poets of Australia, including the late Bob Maza, as well as in open readings in the country alongside bush ballad poets and at Baha’i gatherings. I was invited back to the Tasmanian Poetry Festival as a paid guest performing poet one year, which was a special experience. More recently the Queensland Poetry Festival invited me to be part of the Panacea poet’s youtube program.
Poetry has helped me reach out to others to make friends with all cultures and backgrounds. It is the way I make friends when moving to a new town or travelling, and I have special memories of performing poetry in New Zealand to Indigenous writers there. I have come to realise its potential as a community building tool through working in projects where poems appear in galleries and respond to art and poetry installations, of words, photography and art in libraries, environment centres and schools.
Poetry assists me to unpack and understand my own rich diversity of cultures – including that of being a migrant with an Indigenous Pasifika mother, and a Baha’i, both of which are not commonly heard voices in the Australian literary landscape.
Although poetry is my preferred mode of writing, in recent years, I have moved into short non-fiction memoir, short story, blogging, and completed my first novel draft last year. I take poetic techniques into those forms and call myself always a poet at heart.
Baha’i Blog: What was the inspiration behind putting ‘Illuminations’ together? The work is a beautiful tribute to the bicentenary anniversaries of the Births of Baha’u’llah and the Bab but did these works begin long before then?
The impetus for Illuminations was to honour the bicentenaries with a devoted thematic collection of poems. I felt as a poet and Baha’i this could be a personal initiative to express my love for the Bab and Baha’u’llah.
At the outset, I knew I didn’t want to just focus on the heroes and heroines of Baha’i history. I wanted to examine my own personal relationship with the Baha’i teachings and how, just like poetry, they have given me strength and resilience in my life.
The process to complete the writing and editing of the works was further encouraged when I did a Wilmette Institute course in the Arts and the Baha’i Faith and began to keep a journal of meditation followed by daily poetry practice which was focused on finding an aesthetic that bought together faith, craft of poetry and personal and universal experiences of spirituality. This course led to an outpouring of new poems, such as ‘Dear Artist’ and ‘Artist’s Riddle.’
Some of the poems, like ‘The Green Broom’ and ‘First Light, were written long ago for Holy Days and Feasts. And whilst they have been performed, they have never or only recently been published. Others have been hiding in notebooks, never quite finished, or quite ready to share.The bicentenary years, the Wilmette Institute course, and my own confidence in my skills as a poet gave me a motivation to finally edit them and make them publishable.
Another project that inspired this collection was a joint exhibition of art, photography and poetry, and launched with performances, that I gave with Baha’i friends, including two people who went on to become the illustrators for the work, Ruha and Minaira Fifita. Our theme was ‘IIlumine’.
And a surprising event during the production of the poetry collection was the emergence of the Ink of Light Baha’i Writers’ Festival – founded by Ian Hallmond — and I somehow ended up on the organising team for this in its second year, and presented workshops on poetry and community building. Preparing my workshops and being around other creative inspired me to keep going with my project. I read the poem ‘Dust’ at this festival.
During the bicentenary it was so encouraging that many of my poems were accepted to Tokens, a publication of the Baha’is of Philadelphia, which is going from strength to strength.
Down the years I have published in many spaces, including Baha’i publications, my blogs, newspapers, journals and magazines, etc but in this work I truly wanted to express my great love for Baha’u’llah and His teachings in a way that would make sense to others whatever their background.
Baha’i Blog: How did you put the collection together? There are beautiful echoes from one poem to the next, a lovely continuity of thought and theme throughout and I’d love to know more about how you structured all the work as a collection.
The key to putting the collection together was to combine old and new poems. All the old ones were reworked and edited though. This is because a poem can take a while to fully germinate from a seeded idea.
I reread work, both recent and past, to sort it according to key themes. The key themes of the compositions were what inspires creativity, what is inspiring and uplifting in challenges of everyday life, and what incidents and characters have inspired me in poetry, and in Baha’i history throughout my life.
Once I had a rough order for the works, I trialled reading them and putting them on display to see which people might respond to.
The process was guided by editors and beta readers. I had two editors, one who was a Baha’i, Belinda Belton, and one who was from the wider community and who was my editor for Magic Fish Dreaming, Matilda Elliot, take a look at my sorting of the work and give their feedback. ‘Beta readers’, test readers, of various cultural, spiritual backgrounds let me know which works spoke to them and why and their feedback sometimes led to modifications on the works. The goal was to use their advice to ensure the work was accessible.
Baha’i Blog: Could you tell us a little about the beautiful art and how the illustrations play with, interact or complement the poems?
I have always loved art and used to paint and draw a lot as a child, and later took up photography. However, rather than illustrating my own poetry with my own photography I invited Ruha Fifita to interpret my poems in art.
These doodles on Baha’i Blog attracted me to her work. She is a true creative, who also dances, creates massive ngatu pieces with her community and family, and is involved in community development work for the Baha’is. I wanted to create a Pasifika aesthetic visually for the work and felt Ruha could bring that to the project.
So Ruha and I met about the poetry and discussed the motifs she and I both saw there. Then she sketched some ideas and showed them to me, and I gave her feedback on them.
In our conversations, often accompanied by a social meeting with my family as well, Ruha shared with me motifs she saw in the work and expressed them visually, and which poems or quotations inspired them. I also included quotations from the Baha’i writings within the collection thinking she may like to illustrate those.
Later, Ruha asked if her sister Minaira could come on board to collaborate with her on the art. They had conversations about the works and continued to compose art pieces. They melded their two styles together in a way where they didn’t really want anyone to be able to tell who illustrated what. Ruha and Minaira are part of IVI Designs.
Baha’i Blog: What was something you learned in the process of putting this book together?
Collaboration truly can be a joy. However, it is important to be flexible and problem solve. We did not finish this project by the end of the bicentenary, and only just released it in June 2020. We had challenges of some of the production and creative team moving house, balancing it with our other commitments for work and service, and even at one point the loss of some of the art.
One way in which we dealt with the challenges was for me and others to come up with solutions that I would then consult the team about, and if they were happy, we would then proceed with that solution. As far as I was able, I gave them all a chance to have input and to truly listen to their suggestions. I felt I was listened to also.
Patience is so rewarding, as everyone in the team is so treasured. From the editors, to the designers, beta readers – not to mention Grant Hindin Miller who wrote the foreword for the collection and is another creative I greatly admire, who calls himself a teacher but to me is one of our finest song writers, of Baha’i background.
Another challenge for this project was launching a book during a pandemic. I put together an online launch with the assistance of the Illuminations production team, consisting of videos of interviews on process, as well as readings and a guest reading and performance from Delia Olam.
Baha’i Blog: What words of advice would you offer to anyone thinking of writing poetry inspired by the teachings of the Baha’i Faith?
Don’t be afraid to experiment – this is a faith of unity in diversity. There is a place for poets, of all kinds, creatives of all kinds, and people of all kinds, in the community building process and in individual spiritual empowerment. Whatever you do though, pursue excellence, and a mastery of the craft of poetry and if you have the opportunity find people to be your collaborators and your support team in your writing process. You do not have to be isolated but can reach out to people you trust and respect.
A Baha’i inspired poem, need not just be beautiful and uplifting, it can also be questioning or full of a spirit of search or the search for peace after grief, and other things we all encounter in the challenges of contemporary experience, and everyday life.
Work on your craft, as well as continue to daily deepen and reflect through poetry if that is something you are attracted to do. To assist you with your craft, read and study other poets who move you. However, remember your poetry is your unique voice, and you do not have to try and be like someone else. Together we are forming a sense of what art, informed by spirituality in both content and process can look like, and we need not limit what the possibilities are. Always we can practice unity in diversity, and not set in concrete what the possibilities for Baha’i inspired art can be.
Baha’i Blog: Thank you so much, June, for sharing this with us. Congratulations on creating such a wonderful work of art! You can purchase ‘Illuminations’ here on Amazon. You can find out more about June and her work here gumbootspearlz.org.