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March-September 2010               

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The sound of one hand typing

Ian Wedde

This will be a somewhat unreliable account of my first encounters with Australian poets and the ‘scene’ in the mid 1970s and through the 1980s – unreliable because my memory is, but also because my understanding of what was going on became better informed over time, and I need to be careful not to edit those first impressions with the dubious wisdom of hindsight. And though we had fun, my memories are not, now, without chagrin. The brashness, reflexivity, and occasional misogyny of those years are not what I feel nostalgic about – but nor do I now resile from what I learned at that time.

This learning was mostly of two kinds. I saw the confidence-building impact of the Australian Literature Board’s reorientation under the Whitlam ALP; and I saw this confidence manifest in poetry that, ‘unruly’ and diverse as it was, seemed to have in common a distinctive vernacular energy. Even then I knew it was risky to attribute this vernacular confidence to some kind of foundational history in balladry or such – itself not necessarily vernacular – let alone to sheet that literary history back to a national one associated with anti-authoritarianism rather than gentrification. Now it feels even riskier and less informed; but my first impressions, uncritical or not, still persist. Somehow, what I encountered in the 1970s in Australia defined qualities that were harder to find in New Zealand at that time.

In 1978 the ever-generous and hospitable Nigel Roberts got me on a mini-bus from Sydney to the Montsalvat Poetry Festival at Eltham out of Melbourne. We drove overnight but mostly didn’t sleep. People read poems and sang. The bus’s collective appetite for reading and listening to poems made me feel shy. Despite there being an active poetry scene in New Zealand at the time, as documented recently in the Big Smoke anthology edited by Alan Brunton, Murray Edmond and Michele Leggott, it was nothing like this. I don’t remember all the people on the bus, but as well as Nigel and myself I think there were Chris Mansell and her boyfriend. Chris recently reminded me that she had exceptionally long hair at the time. I remembered that when she prompted me, and I seem to remember that Chris was the guitar player on the bus as well, but I could be wrong about that. Nigel has reminded me that a truck crashed into our van in a lay-by – I don’t remember that. The fact that my recall of the trip to Montsalvat’s a bit hazy suggests a certain amount of mental impairment at the time, which was probably the case. It’s something that has to be taken into consideration in any account of the poetry scene I encountered in Australia in the 1970s and 80s. Mental impairment and quite vehemently argued cultural ideologies and theories seemed to go together there in my experience.

The Sydney poets dropped me off at a friend’s house in a red brick Melbourne suburb and I spent the day with him and his very young child. We drank wine and ate alphabet pasta soup that Mark made, and talked about Australian writing, while the child threaded the house with unspooling rolls of toilet paper. In the evening Mark’s wife came home exhausted from teaching in a tough high school and was displeased with the toilet-roll festooned state of the house. Mark and I cleaned the place up while his wife, a Labour Party activist, talked knowledgeably about the ALP and its cultural policies, and then they kindly drove me up the hill to Montsalvat. On the way their kid got carsick and threw up on me.
Nigel and the bus-load were already there when we arrived in the middle of the first marathon poetry reading by what seemed like all the young poets in Australia. Nigel had sneaked me into the programme and I read something or other to a mostly sleeping hall of people including my friends and their carsick little boy, in the small hours of the morning. I hadn’t slept for about thirty hours and after the reading crawled off somewhere and lay down on the floor. In the morning I washed myself and my shirt under a garden hose in the grounds of Montsalvat. Gary Snyder and his Japanese companion were doing exercises and meditations in a big outdoors space where the poetry readings were getting underway again. If there was a plan of any sort I don’t remember it now. At one point a mob of us plus Snyder went off to find food in a nearby pub. Snyder was a vegetarian and didn’t drink beer, so he was a bit glum at the pub. When we got back to the festival the poetry was still happening.  My memory is that the readings went on continuously in a haphazard sort of way for two days and nights. I don’t remember how we got back to Sydney, but presumably it was in the same mini-bus.

The impression I took away from the event was that there was more poetry in Australia than the place could handle. There wasn’t room for all of it. And it didn’t seem to matter too much if anyone was paying close attention or not – sometimes people were noticing it, and sometimes the poetry was just there, an ambient wordscape, like talkback radio playing in a shopping mall. A lot of the poets seemed to be in the zone of poetry the way other people were in the zones of their working lives. It was what they did with their day, along with others in the same situation. Instead of making poetry feel important in some way – high-profile in the culture, like the Sydney Opera House or the novels of Patrick White – it made it seem like a pervasive aspect of ordinary life.

By and large that was its tone, too – downbeat, vernacular, droll, exactly like a bus-load of people gassing away in high spirits, sharing some drinks and a smoke or two, skiting, telling jokes, having the occasional rave. It was often argumentative, too – poets got on their high horses over the right way to do it, the discussions became extremely sectarian at times, and the very many small magazines and anthologies that appeared and disappeared during the 1970s and 80s were loud with calls to arms, attacks and counter-attacks. Perhaps it got a bit self-reflexive – I remember πo noting that he wrote a poem called ‘Is it Too Late to Talk About Vietnam?’ but that no one wanted to publish it.

I couldn’t believe how many poets were being supported in one way or another at various levels of subsistence. They were reading in schools, various public places like parks and shopping malls, on the radio, to captive audiences on public transport and in jails, and it appeared that they were being paid to do so. As I’ve mentioned, there were a great many small books and poetry magazines, some of which were ‘established’ like Meanjin and Poetry Australia, but most of them seemed to be somewhat ephemeral and deliberately opportunistic. Some years later πo would mordantly observe, in his introduction to the Off the Record anthology, that ‘Magazines and journals survived whether or not there was an audience out there ... All they needed now was a grant!’ – and indeed, at the time, I had the impression that there was a whole lot of support for poetry and for editors and publishers, most of whom were also poets. There was a Poets’ Union. Some thirty years later, researching for a book about the artist Bill Culbert, I encountered an infrastructure and a quality of energy and confidence in the English art world of the 1970s that resembled the contemporaneous poetry scene in Australia – in the UK there was a wide regional network of radical art schools and public galleries, there was an Artists’ Union, and a leftist Arts Council that supported artist-run studio spaces and facilities like St Catharine’s Dock in London and the Artists’ Information Registry. The Thatcher government’s neo-liberal policies did away with most of this through the 1980s – in Australia, many of the cultural policies initiated by Whitlam seemed to survive the 80s in varying degrees and forms.   

It was all somewhat professional, but in a ramshackle, ad hoc, garrulous, disrespectful, sociable, quarrelsome kind of way. No one seemed to be straining too hard to make an impression or a point much beyond the perimeter of the poetry scene itself, least of all a point about the wider importance or value of Australian poetry, or the importance and value of Australian poetry to the nation’s international brand. It had a vernacular confidence, a brashness, and I got the sense that this sheeted back somehow to a generally leftist, anti-establishment history that was rich in folk poetry, ballads, popular songs, and yarn-spinning, rather than to an upper-classy literary tradition. Not that the poetry I was hearing in Australia in the 1970s was folksy in any way. But to my ear it was talkative, often argumentative, and unselfconscious. It made me go a bit quiet, and feel self-conscious. I think it was this reticence that, a few years later, at Nigel’s place in Balmain, provoked Robert Adamson to unleash a withering, nasal attack on New Zealand, in between bouts of accurate vomiting into Nigel’s shower-box. At dawn he sped off in a flash car.

I first met Nigel earlier the same year, 1978, at a more organised and official event, the Adelaide Writers’ Week during the Adelaide Festival, along with a number of other Australian poets. I was there to be on a panel and to give a poetry reading. My wife then, Rose, was involved with the American Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theatre which was there for the Festival; she was having a good time with them making huge birds and stuff for their performance. I wandered around feeling a bit left out until Nigel collared me and introduced me to a bunch of other poets including πo and the American/Australian poet and scriptwriter Billy Marshall Stoneking. I seem to remember Amanda Stewart and Jas Duke as well. Pam Brown probably. Richard Tipping was there, in fact he lived in Adelaide at the time I think, and was the unofficial host of the mob of poets who descended on Writers’ Week under a kind of blanket invitation which the organisers had issued to come along and hang out. Unscheduled poetry readings kept breaking out all over the city.

The South Australian police had a benign attitude to people smoking dope in public, which everyone was doing, but were less forgiving of public swearing. Billy Marshall Stoneking got arrested for reading a poem with the word ‘fuck’ in it. Nothing much came of this, the cops didn’t horsewhip him or anything, but it caused an outbreak of public ‘fuck’ readings across the city. Shelton Lea was there, he’d just been reading his poems in Melbourne’s Pentridge Gaol. There were several reasons why Shelton might have been arrested in Adelaide, but he evaded all of them and later joined us in the little convoy in which we all drove to Melbourne. We drove through huge, screaming flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos which reminded me of the Australian poet flock back in Adelaide. We slept overnight in what seemed like a derelict farm building, though Shelton didn’t – he sucked away at a bottle of wine and read poems to himself. I woke up from time to time and heard his voice. The poetry never seemed to stop.

Back in Adelaide though, at Nigel’s behest, having discharged my official duties for Writers’ Week, I’d participated happily in all this, which seemed to be going on pretty independently from the more serious microphone-and-lectern stuff happening in the Festival writers’ tent. What I began to get the hang of during the week was this model: a more-or-less official literature tent which was relaxed about and even hospitable to a much larger and less organised poetry scene, the latter largely predicated on performance and on unofficial public spaces. I had the feeling that this was in part a strategic ploy on the official tent’s part. If they hadn’t extended the hand of welcome to Australia’s flock of performance poets, they’d have risked an invasion of some sort, some kind of anti-establishment protest – which they more or less averted by making room for the raucous poetic sulphur-crests around the edges of the event.

It strikes me that Australian poetry anthologies are a bit like this. Though in 1978 Les Murray was somewhat the bête noir of the younger poets, being in some sense the unofficial Australian poet laureate, there was still, for me, a sense of Aussie recognition in reading his poem ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’ about a man weeping in Martin Place, Sydney, from his 1969 collection The Weatherboard Cathedral – the book’s title, too, had a certain twang. It was one of many poems I read in anthologies that seemed to sustain a vernacular echo of Adam Lindsay Gordon, Banjo Patterson, Mary Gilmore, and Henry Lawson, a bit later on of Kenneth Slessor’s cityscapes, a bit later still of Bruce Dawe – not as a faux-nationalistic vibration but rather as a kind of speech at home in its history. I’m tempted to say its white history, but that’s another matter. It seemed in some way to sidestep or fend off a more academic tradition represented by AD Hope, Vincent Buckley, Geoffrey Dutton and James McAuley – all of whom were demonised to varying degrees by the young Australian poets I was meeting back then.

There was clearly a buzz around poetry in Australia, in part a somewhat international phenomenon but, over there, as became clear, also the result of cultural policies instigated by the Whitlam ALP administration between 1972-75, which included the re-organisation of the Literature Board, and the instigation of venture funding policies that were subsequently continued in varying degrees by Hawke and Keating from the mid 80s through the early 90s. Frank Moorhouse documented this 70s era in Days of Wine and Rage (1980).

As a freelancer during the 1980s I was also coming across an extremely active and theoretically fractious academic world in Australia, which included people like Meaghan Morris, Stephen Mueke, Ross Gibson and, a bit later on, Gary Warner and others associated with film and what was then called ‘new media’. During the 80s and early 90s, there always seemed to be well-supported, esteemed squads of Australian artists, writers and intellectuals turning up at major international events, conferences, and exhibitions. The Sydney Biennale became a major international event in its own right. So, later on, did the Asia-Pacific Triennial in Brisbane. I went as a journalist to the Sydney Biennale in 1986 and heard Paul Keating, then Bob Hawke’s sidekick in the ALP, open the exhibition to another crowd of raucous sulphur-crests, the art crowd in this case. What was striking about Keating’s speech, almost inaudible over the yelling crowd, was its straightforward confidence that the importance of the Biennale was self-evident – the vehicle didn’t need to get its tyres pumped up by a nationalistic politician, let alone by a politician over-anxious to demonstrate his commitment to international brand-Australia. The fact that the performance group from the Torres Strait Islands had drinks tipped on them by pissed journalists was another issue.

Whitlam in particular placed significant emphasis on culture as a driver of national confidence. Australian television and film, the international emergence of Australian art, publishing, new media, theory-driven departments of cultural studies in universities and technical institutes, a surge in the writing of revisionist Australian histories, outback TV and radio, and the early and highly optimistic broadband reports, all benefitted from the ALP’s cultural policies. Out of these policies – both enabled by them, and resisting their hegemonic tendencies – emerged landmark works such as Eric Michaels’s Bad Aboriginal Art, Meaghan Morris’s The Pirate’s Fiancée, Adrian Martin’s Phantasms, and Scott McQuire’s early essays on television. Poetry’s share of this cultural boosting resulted in benefit-based support for poets prepared to read and talk in public, and widespread support for magazines and poetry festivals. Like the model of the Adelaide Writers’ Week, this support had a wide and porous perimeter. Billy Marshall Stoneking, for example, went on to set up a ‘literature production’ programme at Papunya which in theory would enable Aboriginal people there to read and write in Pintupi. He wrote a book about the place. Amanda Stewart worked for ABC radio as a producer and later founded Machine for Making Sense with Chris Mann. πo was producing the poetry magazine 925, whose ironic title nonetheless conveyed much about the subversive everydayness of poetry in Australia.

An aside: it occurred to me back then, and still seems plausible, that Australia was always about a generation’s time-span ahead of us in New Zealand. As well as having a stauncher, more disputatious, less ‘liberal’ leftist tradition of political discourse, Australians began writing national histories about a generation before we did – and therefore began writing revisionist histories about the time we were generating foundational ones.

It’s instructive to read the bios of poets included in Off the Record,the anthology of performance poets πo produced for Penguin Australia in 1985. Many of them contribute to a collective mantra that repeats the Poets’ Union, Writers’ Radio on 3CR, the ABC, performance across genres including music, film and theatre, assorted federal and state literature grants, and assorted residencies and writer-in-the-community gigs with libraries and suchlike. The book’s blurb is also instructive. When I read it again fifteen years later in the course of preparing these notes, my impression was more of a good-natured party than an earnest manifesto, though the intro also documents the many sectarian battles that raged across the Australian poetry-scape in those years. These days most of us will recognise the blurb’s optimism or even utopianism and, I hope, not react with too much self-important, know-better-now eye-rolling. The moment was the moment and, for me, a good and enlightening one. Here’s πo’s blurb:

At the Adelaide Arts Festival in 1978 a new poetry burst on to unsuspecting audiences – poetry to be performed, poetry that probed the ordinary worlds of work and home, and confronted social and political questions of our times. It was the public debut of a movement that had started much earlier, when some poets of the 60s started taking poetry into the streets. This anthology goes ‘off the record’ to tell an alternative story of Australian poetry from the 1960s to the 1980s ... To these poets, poetry is ‘the politics of the imagination’, ‘the language of the new age’, and ‘the only portable art form’. For all those who hated poetry at school, this book’s message is that everyone can be a poet.

The Australian voices I heard at Adelaide and Montsalvat, and over the next few years, were socially confident, droll, laconic and garrulous at the same time, at ease with the ‘spoken word’, and with access to a vein of self-deprecating humour. They were also, as John Tranter and Philip Mead pointed out in the Introduction to their 1991 Penguin anthology, ‘diverse and literally unruly’ in the many ways they contributed to a ‘live tradition’. There was room, as in the case of Michael Dransfield for example, for a kind of high romantic or Gothic excess:

In my father’s house are many cobwebs.
I prefer not to live there – the ghosts
disturb me.
(‘Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man’)

 ... as well as for the Okker O’Hara-ishness of John Forbes:

don’t bother telling me about the programs
describe what your set is like the casing the
curved screen its strip of white stillness like
beach sand at pools where the animals come
down to drink and a native hunter hides his
muscles, poised with a fire sharpened spear

 ... the Gertrude Steinish prose poems of Ania Walwicz:

I always had such a good time, good time, good time girl. Each and every day from morning to night.  Each and every twenty-four hours I wanted to wake up, wake up.
(‘Little Red Riding Hood’)

 ... or Anna Couani:

What a man, what a moon, what a fish, what a chip, what a block, what a mind, what a tool, what a drive, what a car, what a tent, what a pitch ...
(‘What a Man, What a Moon’)

 ... for Gig Ryan’s punkish lyrics:

I’d shoot the man who pulled up slowly in his hot car this morning
I’d shoot the man who whistled from his balcony
I’d shoot the man with things dangling over his creepy chest
(‘If I Had a Gun’)

Gig, incidentally, seemed to me to be that quintessential Australian phenomenon, a poet who also plays in a band (Driving Past) and edits the poetry page of a newspaper (The Age) as her day job. Australian poets sometimes seemed to have more of these unruly, confidentqualities than their Kiwi counterparts who, by comparison, sounded (or read) more literary. Was my perception then, and does my memory of it now, merely reinforce some familiar stereotypes? After all, two of the poets I saw most of over those years (Nigel Roberts and Eric Beach) were originally from New Zealand.

In 1987 I drove up to northern New South Wales to visit Les Murray on his farm. He had an apple crate next to his desk, into which he dropped various bits of paper – the drafts of poems, letters, bills, doodles. When the box got full, he told me, he’d put it in the car and drive over to Canberra where he’d take it to the national archives. There he’d be given a substantial cheque. This arrangement had pertained for some years. Of course I was jealous – who wouldn’t be? But then I’m also jealous of the fact that Australia has a huge poetry prize for best very long poem – the Newcastle Poetry Prize. This has to be based on the assumptions that long poems are a good thing, and that people read them. I’m jealous of the fact that my dear mate Barry Hill keeps on writing wonderful long poems and getting them published in books, and that in 1994 he won the Kenneth Slessor Award for one of these long poems, ‘Ghosting William Buckley’. Sometimes, poetry in Australia can seem not only unruly, but also expansive. I’m jealous of that expansiveness, too, I confess. I wish we had more of it here.

One more memory: at Montsalvat in 1978 a reading by an Australian poet took the following form. A Festival assistant brought out a cassette tape-recorder and, having placed it on a table in front of the outdoor audience, pressed the on button. There ensued the hesitant sound of someone typing. This went on for some minutes. Then the same assistant came out and turned the recording off. The performance concluded with the same person announcing that this had been the sound of a New Zealand poet at work.

I took that one on the chin. Earlier in the day I’d read a long poem, ‘Pathway to the Sea’, which had never felt longer, and which, despite Australia’s thing with long poems, was greeted with a kind of incredulity by the Montsalvat audience. Maybe this is why I’ve reinforced some stereotypes. I don’t know who the piss-taking Australian poet was – I think it might have been John Jenkins, a terrific poet and founding member of the ‘Generation of ’68’, and later a close collaborator with Ken Bolton. At any rate, it’s the sound of that hesitant typewriter at Montsalvat that I find I sometimes want to return to, as a key to some learning I was able to do over there in Australia in the late 70s and through the 80s, and as a reminder of the optimism and generous hospitality of the scene for which Nigel Roberts was a kind of ex-officio den mother in Balmain, Sydney.

Last updated 21 November, 2010