Eyewash, irreverence and a Bruce Springsteen concert: on the road with a pioneering performance poet

November 19, 2023

Poet Pi O's verse diary gives his account of a group of Australian poets travelling through North America in the mid-80s, known as “The Dirty T-Shirt Tour”. Review: The Tour – Pi O (Giramondo)Even before leaving Australia, Pi O is conflicted:so what’s a nice Anarchist Greek Poet like me doing (goingto the States) on Guggenheim money???? It’s a question of soft power, certainly, but also of Pi O’s catapulting energy. Here Pi O’s wit, talent and spiky irreverence are obvious. That seems right, and it seems to validate Pi O’s commitment to poetry’s oral traditions.

Pi O is known for his wit and irreverence. His anarchism, reflexive anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism are all part of the deal.

Poet Pi O's verse diary gives his account of a group of Australian poets travelling through North America in the mid-80s, known as “The Dirty T-Shirt Tour”. Photo: Unsplash/Elimende Inagella.

The Tour is Pi O’s verse diary about a small group of Australian poets who take their wares on the road in North America in the mid-1980s, sponsored by the Literature Board and the Guggenheim Foundation. This came to be known as “The Dirty T-Shirt Tour”, because Pi O’s dress and personal hygiene were questioned by the other members of the group, including the tour organiser.

According to Pi O’s account, the motivating factors in this singling out were race and snobbery, or race-snobbery – compounded by a sneering attitude towards performance poetry, of which Pi O was a pioneer.

Review: The Tour – Pi O (Giramondo)

Even before leaving Australia, Pi O is conflicted:

so what’s a nice Anarchist Greek Poet like me doing (going
to the States) on Guggenheim money????

It’s a question that needed asking.

      When i told Jas about it,
he said it was a two-prong problem: If you…. don’t
make it, all you’re doing, is catering to an Elite i.e. Bohemians… etc
an’ if you do, then you’ve SOLD OUT! Damned if you do
      and damned if you don’t.

      AMERICA: You’re becoming a headache!
          Hope Ronald Reagan dies before i get there!

This is not Pi O’s only pre-tour concern. He needs to apply for a passport, which, when it arrives, does so in an envelope that contains

a pamphlet from the Australian Tourist Commission
entitled: MAKING FRIENDS FOR AUSTRALIA.

I don’t think The Tour nominates the year of the tour for which it is named, but the pamphlet and its contents are straight out of 1984. The propaganda is astonishing:

… it listed all the things i could tell the Americans
e.g. the kinds of facts one absolutely ((((((needs)))))) to know;
that there are 136 million sheep in Australia and 95 million head of
cattle; And on the touchy Question of our 1.2% of
the population (that just happen to be BLACK) i was to say (assuming
anyone was listening) that the “transition from Tribal past
to political and social equality was accelerating”.

Following the result of the Voice referendum on October 15, one suspects that offering such self-appraisals while overseas will be met with derision. The notion that Australians should ((((((trumpet)))))) untruthfulness remains offensive.

To misquote a line from Seinfeld: “that eyewash just ain’t making it”.

Page and stage

Pi O is also worried about the exchange rate. The Australian dollar, floated in 1983, is performing badly against the greenback (it drops “to an all-time low … from 67.45c to 64.1)”, a circumstance with which those travelling from Australia to the United States in 2023 will be familiar.

There are other striking historical coincidences between then and now. Before leaving his beloved Melbourne, first for Sydney and Wellington, and then onwards to Los Angeles, Pi O attends a Bruce Springsteen concert, coming to the realisation that

                                          Ronald Reagan
may have sent Bruce & the Boys over to placate us (over
New Zealand’s anti-Uranium policy and our resistance to the MX
missile project) – Who knows?! – (I wouldn’t put it
past ‘em!)

We recall that Bruce Springsteen was in Australia earlier this year. Was he here as an emissary of Joe Biden’s, sent to placate us over AUKUS? It seems unlikely, ridiculous even, but, as we are all aware, conspiracy theories trip easily from the tongue.

In that vein, I’d like to know what Pi O thinks of Taylor Swift’s impending tour, or if not thinks exactly, then what fun and truth he could make of it. It’s a question of soft power, certainly, but also of Pi O’s catapulting energy.

Which brings me to “page” and “stage” poetry, and the extent to which a distinction might obtain, or be thought to persist.

It’s clear that for Pi O, the “page” poets with whom he was on tour in the mid-1980s are largely bores. Their poetry is “lousy”, he tells us. On more than one occasion, he is called upon to “wake up” their unfortunate audiences with one of his “magic” performances. Rather cartoonishly, Pi O comes on and saves the day.

But the portrayal of the other poets is unsatisfactory. Not knowing their identity allows Pi O to position them as privileged Anglo-Australians. They are not just bores and boring poets, it is being asserted, but casual and even overt racists. Strong accusations, but done rather weakly. Why not tell us who they are?

Claims of boring poetry prove ironic given how much dull, lineated prose The Tour contains. The following is representative:

                        On the wharf, there were
lots of street stalls, selling bags, beads, chic
paintings, and SAN FRANCISCO T-shirts.
I bought some badges with pictures of “cats” on them
to send back to Olga, in Melbourne (Karen’s friend).

There are many sections like this one and they contrast poorly with quotations from Pi O’s “actual” poems – that is, the ones we’re told he reads at the readings.

                        Ockers
                                    Australia
                        [in the 1970s] had the
                                                “Libido” of a gang-bang
                                    the
                        brains of a “Bunyip”
                                    &
                                    “the finesse of a rugby-team
                                                booze Up”
                        it
                        lived on:
                                    tomato sauce,
the “Sporting Globe”, terrace houses,
                        galvanized-iron
                                    bushfires
                                                &
                                                               a cyclone.

Here Pi O’s wit, talent and spiky irreverence are obvious. “Ockers” works on the page, just as surely as it would in performance. The poem is rich with the more conventional qualities of poetry – sound patterning, rhythm, compression, enjambment – and its visual arrangement on the page teaches us how to read, which is to say, “hear” it. In short, the formal qualities of the poem carry the sardonic commentary; it’s a triumph.

On the basis of these quoted poems and fragments, one hopes for another Selected Poems, preferably with an accompanying record. (Pi O spends much time and money while on the tour buying poetry records; I’d buy his.)

Happenings

Pi O’s self-acclaim is amusing, but not unserious. For instance, when he hands out his “Famous Poet” cards, which read

i wish to hell
i was born 100 years
from now
to read myself

we assume that he means it, but mostly doesn’t. There are few occasions to laugh out loud when reading poetry, but this is one.

Pi O establishes himself as entertainer, raconteur, performer, of which the anarchism and reflexive anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism are part and parcel. He is “ogre” and “villain” to his fellow touring poets, he suggests, but a hero to those who “get it”.

It’s a simplistic, binary world: whose side are you on? Are you down with it, man? Such bromides are commonplace in our adversarial political system, but when poetry goes there without its formal qualities, it gets dull rather quickly.

Guess what, it says to readers who are already converted to the cause: racism is bad! Poorly read poems are … also bad. Naughty naughty capitalism! It isn’t that these sentiments are wrong, but one senses they are being prosecuted in an insulated cell; their urgency is elsewhere.

Australia “has her madness and her weather still”, as Auden writes of Ireland in his great poem, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”. The poem continues with these famous lines:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

That seems right, and it seems to validate Pi O’s commitment to poetry’s oral traditions. Poetry readings, book launches, slam poetry, performance poetry: events are happening all around us, in small and larger venues, affording opportunities to work on our snobbery. Mine remains a work in progress. (“My name is Craig Billingham, and I’m a page poet. Boring? How very dare you.”)

If you know an executive, and preferably an executive with children, or in fact any person whom you suspect has not recently or ever engaged with poetry, why not make arrangements to go along?

Craig Billingham, Lecturer, Creative Writing, UNSW Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The source of this news is from University of New South Wales

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