Fremantle Press poets Nandi Chinna and Caitlin Maling show you how to explore land, sea and ecology in class this World Environment Day

Wednesday 5 June marks World Environment Day, which is a celebration of all built and natural environments across the planet. With an increasing focus on climate change, plastic use and sustainability, this is the perfect chance to open discussion on these topics in your classroom.

These poetry exercises by Nandi Chinna and Caitlin Maling use their new poetry collections as inspiration to get kids writing about their natural environments.

About the books

Caitlin Maling’s collection, Fish Song, explores the natural beauty of the Western Australian coastline and how the residents of the state interact with wonders such as the Ningaloo Reef, how fishing affects the life in the ocean and how humanity exists among the amazing wildlife in the water.

Caitlin says, ‘The coastline is what most people think of when they think of WA. Through these poems, I wanted to think about how the coastline is used – by our communities and by our writers. The coastline acts as a kind-of precipice for engaging with issues of global warming, which is definitely one of the key themes of this collection. I was interested in what the coastline could reveal about how the earth is altering – not just the small communities I write of.’

Nandi Chinna’s new poetry collection, The Future Keepers, also explores the relationship between humans and their environment, but focuses on the land rather than the ocean. Poems featured in the book explore ecology and ecosystems in and around urban areas, and how we as humans have a responsibility to be the guardians of these landscapes for our own and future generations.

Try these two activities suggested by Nandi and Caitlin to encourage creativity in the classroom and a better understanding of the environment around you.

Nandi Chinna’s Poepatetics Exercise

Have students conduct an exercise in poepatetics (the poetry of walking). Take a class excursion to a local wetland area and have them record their musings in either written form, through sketches or through photographs. On returning to class, allow them to use this experience of walking amidst nature to create a poem in the style of their favourite pieces from either Nandi Chinna’s The Future Keepers or Caitlin Maling’s Fish Song.

If you don’t have the opportunity to venture that far, stay within the school grounds and conduct the poepatetics exercise among the buildings and any outdoor areas you might have. Encourage the students to look at how the urban environment interacts with the landscape around it, and have them record their responses in written form, through sketches or through photographs. On returning to class have them complete the poetry exercise mentioned above.

Caitlin Maling’s The Place You Know Best Exercise

What makes us believe something in a piece of writing or any creation? What allows us to suspend disbelief – to accept that what we are reading could be true even if it features things fantastical such as dragons and iron thrones? Any ideas?

Beyond plot, or character, what makes something believable in a piece of writing is normally a quality of description. Description is the greatest way you can communicate with an audience – and it is the greatest tool in poetry.

There are two types of description: concrete and figurative. Good writing combines both.

Concrete description

Concrete is the literal description of an object or scene. For example: ‘Cottesloe Beach has almost yellow sand, backing onto the green and brown of the Norfolk Island pines and the grass. Hovering over it all is the Pavilion: a large off-white building with a round front and windows you can’t see in from the sand. Seagulls dive from the top of the building squawking, trying to steal the chips from everyone’s sticky newspaper bundles.’

Create a concrete (literal) description of a location you know well – your back garden, the park, your school oval, the Woollies on the corner. Pay particular attention to the natural features of this place, and identify the animals or other occupants of the place. You have five minutes to do that.

Figurative description

Metaphors or similes are the most basic components of figurative language. In a metaphor, two things are brought to bear on one another. For example, ‘my love is like a red, red, rose’ – in this line love is likened to a rose and this makes sense because the qualities of the rose (bright, sensual, sweet smelling) are like that of love. If I was to say my love is like a dump truck, it’s intriguing but not immediately clear – for example, am I the trash, which makes my husband the truck? The best metaphors are surprising but make a kind of ‘aha’ sense when you hear them.

Take five minutes to practise figurative description using the following sentences, then share with the class:

She bit into the burger like _____________________________.

The bird hovered in the air like _____________________________.

She started to cry as though she were _____________________________.

As he tripped over the kerb, he fell as though he was _____________________________.

The spider in the old man’s beard hung like _____________________________.

Combining concrete and figurative description

Go back to your written description of your well-known place and start inserting a few metaphors. For example, maybe ‘the carpet was stained in a pattern of stars’ or ‘the air-conditioning was up so high in the McDonald’s that it felt like entering the back room at the butchers’. Focus on using all your senses to really immerse your reader in this setting. You have ten minutes to do that.

How does inserting more figurative writing change what’s happening in your piece? You get more emotional content, you get a greater sense of the attitude being taken towards this place and, importantly, your reader is more likely to begin to suspend disbelief towards your piece as they get sucked in by the emotional content.

This has been an example of writing what you know. You could turn this into a poem just by re-lineating it. Take five minutes to rewrite the piece into a poem by focusing on the sound of each line. Look for places where you can take out words that aren’t necessary and where your images might communicate enough without you having to add anything else. Read each line to yourself aloud, just listening to it. Think of how different sounds evoke different emotions, and what emotions you want to conjure.

Fish Song by Caitlin Maling and The Future Keepers by Nandi Chinna are both available at all good bookstores or online at from 1 June.

Share via: