This week reports emerged of New South Wales HSC students harassing and racially abusing poet Ellen van Neerven on social media after her poem Mango, from the collection Comfort Food, was included in the English exam. Poet and Indigenous literature academic Tony Birch spoke to Crikey about the events.

On racist abuse in the public sphere

“I was devastated, but I shouldn’t be. As much as the comments were terrible, it’s nothing new to Aboriginal people. It’s nothing new to people confronted by racism in the country all the time.

“I’ve been targeted on social media in a similar way and the anonymity makes you powerless. In the past, racism had to be spoken to you directly or printed in a paper or a letter, so there’s more chance you would know the person or have the chance to respond.”

On educating students about poetry

“There’s a relationship between this incident and students confusing an intellectual comment to a personal response. I’ve taught creative writing for 15 years at a top sandstone university and I was often surprised at the base level of commentary on poetry. I don’t think that’s because they didn’t know how to engage. They’re confusing having to do hard work, thinking work with having an opinion. They’ve conflated the two issues.”

On perceived elitism 

“I’m disappointed as an educator. I’m sure there are many many good students, and some students who responded against this vitriol and they themselves were targeted. I’m not saying this is endemic or common to all students and we know that it would be a fairly ill considered minority of people.

“I’ve heard people say ‘they’re just kids’ but these students should be held accountable. I’ve taught in prisons, I’ve taught in juvenile detention centers, I’ve taught out of St Kilda library teaching homeless people and people living largely in rooming houses. 

In any of those groups, I had informed, interested, generous, considered people.

“I’ve taught kids with no education in juvenile detention who barely get to high school who have more consideration for other people than [the students who attacked van Neerven]. That really disappoints me and to be honest, again as an educator, I would have liked the opportunity to be in a room with those people. I would actually see the challenge as an educator and get them to think about what they’ve done and get them to consider who they are and who they’re hurting.”

On the exam question ‘explain how the poet conveys the delight of discovery’

“It seems like a stupid question actually. Just on that initial reading the question didn’t make sense to me at all. Having said that, a lot of HSC students are coached extensively in that year. I would be surprised that the students wouldn’t know what to expect.”