Ania Walwicz was a no bullshit sort of a person. She would never harp on things. She’d just say her one or two sentences on a matter, in a slightly inquisitive, curious way, finish it off with a ‘good-o’, and then change the subject with a ‘so…’ She’d move on from a conversation long before I was ready to. I like to analyse, dissect until an answer reveals itself. Ania would plant questions in my mind, send me home with theories, ideas and perspectives to churn over.
We have lost a great creative mind. I always felt like there was more to learn from her. If I knew she was going to leave this world I would have asked her so many questions. Ania taught me poetry back in 2009 at RMIT but even after we became friends, and up until our last walk at the start of September in Fitzroy gardens, I still referred to her as my poetry teacher. We were friends, good friends, but I had so much admiration and respect for her I couldn’t call her anything else.
The Australian arts sector is worse off because Ania is gone. She was a rarity. A kind, gentle soul. But with her body of work on this planet now complete, we have so much to learn from her art, life, and the way she taught art and culture. It is important that we do not forget the artists that shape us. Ania taught poetry at RMIT for over thirty years and has influenced many of country’s writers.
When I met her at RMIT, I eagerly enrolled in her class because I wanted to ‘learn how to be a poet’. I was a repressed, Cypriot married mother, completely naïve, and yet there was always a burning desire in me to express, like a volcano simmering for years, and everyone knows one day, it’s going to blow.
‘Ania!’ I exclaimed to her. ‘I want to be a poet. Teach me the rules!’ I had always written poetry throughout my life, but I never considered it poetry because I thought you had to be a professor at a university to be deemed a poet. I wanted to study art out of high school but my migrant parents didn’t consider it a career, they saw it as the pastime for the lazy. When I met Ania I was still a computer programmer, working part-time.
‘There are no rules,’ Ania responded in her calm yet interested way, like she had traveled long, arduous roads to arrive to this conclusion and was sparing me the same journey. ‘If we all followed the rules we would all sound the same, and how boring would that be?’
Her response blew my mind. She didn’t teach like any other teacher I’d ever had. We would arrange the tables and sit in a circle with her and she would introduce us to a new poet at each class. We would read their work, discuss their style, their influence on society. She introduced us to poets that influenced culture throughout history. Sylvia Plath, Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood, Anne Sexton, poets I’d never heard of. She would pose questions to us, and in hindsight, they were questions designed to expand our thoughts and the way we have been conditioned to perceive the world. She would provide writing prompts that tied into the poet of the week, and then she would give us time to write our own poetry, poetry that was true to our own story and poetic voice. She encouraged the raw, uncensored voice. Then we were given the opportunity to share our poetry with the class. I must have written one hundred poems in Ania’s poetry class.
Her teachings on culture were truly liberating. There was less emphasis on getting published through traditional channels, and more on being true to one’s art at all costs, doing things your way, publishing poetry with zines, starting your own publishing ventures. Ania’s teachings unraveled me, opened my eyes, unveiled truths inside me I was too afraid to broach. Nobody had ever given me permission to listen to myself. All my life I was taught to do what others wanted me to do. I was taught to follow the path set out for me by patriarchy. Ania gave me the permission I sought to listen to not only my own poetic voice but to listen to myself.
Some students found Ania’s teaching style infuriating. She ran her short story class and her myths and symbols class in a similar fashion. They couldn’t handle how she never taught any rules. You were either an Ania lover or an Ania hater. And many times you could see how even the Ania haters eventually become Ania lovers (sometimes the transition took years!). I think she knew she was discussed out of the classroom but she never took it personally.
When I told Ania I had left my marriage in the second year of my course, she suggested we meet for coffee. Initially I thought it was odd, a teacher asking a student for a coffee, but I went along and had a really great time. I always paid for her tea (because I respected her so much as my teacher!) and she took a real interest in my poetry and what I was experiencing with the cultural pressures to return to my marriage. She was very understanding and encouraged me to continue on my own path, creatively and personally. Ania inspired me to be brave enough to publish my own zine, Love and F—k Poems. It became a bestseller in a few indie bookshops so then I started my own publishing company and turned it into a book.
Ania was very pessimistic about culture towards the end of her life. She would often talk about the death of culture. It started with the decimation of the TAFE sector, and now with COVID, it’s got a whole lot worse. If Ania wanted us to learn anything it would be to remain fearless in our artistic practice and not subscribe to the powers-that-be for approval. Doing so can dilute our own voice and what we were put on this planet to say and communicate.
Dr Ania Walwicz is the author of Horse, Palace of Culture, Elegant, Red Roses, Boat and Writing. Her writing has been published in over 200 journals and anthologies. She is a Doctor of Philosophy, Deakin University, 2017 and a graduate of the Victorian College of the Arts. She taught at RMIT for over thirty years. A Facebook group The Ania Walwicz Fan Club : “It’s been ridiculous“ has been established to remember her.
Koraly Dimitraidis is the author of the poetry books Love and F—k Poems and Just Give Me The Pills. www.koralydimitriadis.com