John Kinsella believes in the power of protest poetry.

The week after I interviewed one great WA poet — John Kinsella — about activism in poetry, another great WA poet — Fay Zwicky — sent me a poem, out of the blue, lamenting the plight of so-called boat people.

Think of William Blake's "mind-forg'd manacles" and Wordsworth's "We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!"

Think of Maya Angelou's "You may write me down in history/With your bitter, twisted lies,/You may trod me in the very dirt/But still, like dust, I'll rise." Think of Langston Hughes and Wilfred Owen, Seamus Heaney and Walid Khazindar. Think of Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez. Think of John Butler and Missy Higgins.

Activism has a long history in poetry and it's just as vital a component of that most human and humane of artforms today.

"Activist poetry is something I'm very passionate about," says Kinsella, who'll be addressing the topic in his keynote speech at this year's Perth Poetry Festival.

"Poetry isn't about entertainment or consumption," he says. "It's about resistance and jolting awareness. I'm not interested in telling people what to think. I'm interested in poetry being a means to trigger them into considering issues. So in my case they're largely ecological, environmental and pro-indigenous land rights around the world."

A major force in international and Australian poetry with a number of award-winning collections to his name, Kinsella believes there are degrees of activism in poetry.

"A poem might just be a description of a kangaroo paw," he says. "You might say what's activist about that? Well, I would argue that if you can draw a relationship to a plant or an animal or a rock for that matter, then it brings an intensity of awareness to the world and you're more likely to be less damaging to it."

That, he says, is "at the mild end of the activist scale". The other end is the "rants and diatribes".

"I think that's been pushed out of the conception of what poetry is," Kinsella admits.

"That's come about largely because in creative-writing classes the first thing you're taught is not to be didactic. That's fair enough when you're trying to teach people to use figurative language.

"I'm interested in where figurative, metaphoric language is mixed with rhetorical language. So you get a poem in which you paint something intangible. At the same time you get something said. Like, there's going to be a uranium mine near Wiluna: that's s…, that's bad. OK, not necessarily that bluntly. The point is the poem can be about lots of things, and the mixing of these registers is really interesting. It's one of the places poetry can go in an exciting way and with practical outcomes."

Poetry has traditionally thrived where life is hard — for an individual, a family, a town, a city or a country. And yet . . .

"There's so much of the good life in Perth that it's very easy to stop seeing the really appalling things," Kinsella says.

"Anyone who's lived on the street — and I did at various times in my younger years — will tell you this. Anyone who hasn't been made rich by the mining boom, ordinary families who aren't sharing in that wealth and whose lives have been made harder will tell you this.

"When life's good for a lot of us the bad stuff tends to get swept under the carpet and poetry really has to come to the fore in those moments."

The 2014 Perth Poetry Festival will include readings, discussions, a poetry slam, workshops and other activities and events by international and Australian poets such as Tony Curtis, Judith Beveridge, John Kinsella, Liana Joy Christensen and Vivienne Glance. It runs from August 14-17. For full details visit www.wapoets.net.au.

The West Australian

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