We found this explosion of an interview – A Brilliant Fantastic Great Interview with Pi O – in the sixth issue of Going Down Swinging, published in Spring 1984. The issue also marked the anarchist poet’s Going Down Swinging debut.
GDS: Why did you start writing and when?
I saw Johnny Cash on TV one day in 1970 and he was tuning his guitar and thought he’d throw out two small poems about the glory of god or something and when he finished, the camera swung to the audience and all these people were standing up and cheering and I thought: Well if that’s poetry, then I’m a genius. So I went and wrote my first poem.
Have you still got it?
No, I tore it up. When you begin to write it’s all so bad and embarrassing.
Who were your early influences?
I’ve got so many influences, I’m saturated.
Well favourite writers then…
Well I’ve got so many of them I’m saturated. I like heaps of poets. My taste in poetry is really very large. I’ve absorbed a hell of a lotta writers, cause I just love to find out where writers are. I love the fighting, the battles of words, what literature is, what poetry is. And I like talking to poets because I wanna get into their heads, see where their minds are, you know?
But I refused to read any poets when I first started writing because I thought writers had to have their own styles and I didn’t wanna be contaminated by other poets so for a year I didn’t read anybody, I just started writing poems altho I did have sneak previews every once in a while. Then when I decided to meet other poets I couldn’t find any so I went to the Age building and read 10 years of poetry in there, you know, the Saturday supplement. And then Geoffrey Eggleston sorta adopted me and we went around the scene checking out all the poets.
I went to one amazing reading held at the Pram Factory I think, where the Cantrills were making a film of that particular poetry generation and Garrie Hutchinson was reading, and prompted by Chris Mann, by his interjections and stuff, told Hutchinson to read his poems with his pants down, so Garrie Hutchinson pulled down his trousers and everybody called out: You gotta drop the underwear too, so he pulled them down and continued reading. So all the period from then on until September 1983 is contained in the Poetry Anthology I’m editing for Penguin at the moment and I’ve written 40 columns about the history of poetry, and it’s a rich history, and it’s exciting and poetry in this country is gonna get better and better and better. This anthology will redress some of the imbalance of previous anthologies which were all poetically aligned and which tried to grab a monopoly on poetry in Australia.
You sound very excited by poetry.
Well I’ve had my head scrambled by poetry and my involvement with it – thinking and living it and dreaming it for about 14 years now and I haven’t taken much of a rest. I used to do a magazine called Free which I used to give away in the city square. And I was editing Fitzrot at the same time and then –
That’s the thing I wanted to ask you about. Your editing…
Yeah well I did a lot of editing during 925. A lot of steering, sort of telling the writer well ok you’re good at this but you lose it there so play with it a bit and see what happens. If it doesn’t work then obviously try something else. I did a lot of editing in its true sense, by having a dialogue with the writer and using logic by looking at the structure of the poem and seeing what makes sense and what doesn’t. And I think a lotta people gotta lotta exercise out of it, ya know? Um… so they’ve learnt something. They’ve learnt how to edit their work, how to objectify the language. I think it’s a helpful thing for an editor to do – nobody’s gonna learn anything if you just send them off a rejection slip.
What kind of poetry do you like?
Well I’m very turned on by left wing poetry, for an incredible amount of reasons. Apart from it’s content: what they try; what the poem does; how the poem behaves. I’m saying it’s Marxist because that’s the modern word we use for getting to the human voice, the human condition, experience and madness. I think poetry hasn’t scratched the surface yet. It’s gonna be fantastic, the poetry of the future – I think it’s gonna be fantastic in Australia too. I think we’ve laid down some amazing foundations and before I die I want copies of my poems slid in between C J Dennis, Henri Lawson, Banjo Patterson. I’m writing an epic that is covering Australia.
Is that the Bonagilla poem?
Well that’s a part of my fabric. You see I go off into an area and investigate it but my final book won’t be the one until I die. So I hope I get cancer so I can write my death poem – it’ll be a fantastic ending. I mean if I get hit by a car, it would be too boring. I may get a chance to scratch a few letters or words on the pavement or the road maybe, but not an oeuvre or something. Yeah, to have some time to contemplate the horror of a slow death. Not for it’s own sake or anything because I’m sure I’m going to be in a lotta pain but if I have to go, I wanna choose my way.
How do you think literature fits into the wider world?
Nobody’s investigated the effect poetry has had on the world. Nobody’s actually worked out how literature affects people. I don’t think they know how to tackle the problem, from what angle. I think there must be some way of testing it. Poetry in places like Russia, is, like Mayakovsky says, like bullets and bayonets, guns and cannons. Poetry moves people and rattles them, insults them, soothes them and gives them information..
It seems to be more dangerous in places and times where censorship exists.
The less censorship there is, the less power poetry has?
No! There are two ways to tackle something if it’s dangerous. Either tackle it head on and throw the poets in prison or you ignore them. Now the answer is not that we’re living in better times, just because we’re in Australia, not in Russia. Virtually anything we say in this country as writers just means nothing. Nobody cares. I can think of two writers who have done it: Dorothy Hewitt when she wrote Rapunzel – that got hit on the head by the myths of society. Then there’s Frank Hardy. There aren’t many poets these days who when they read their poetry, don’t lose their audience in the process.
I think poetry hasn’t scratched the surface yet. It’s gonna be fantastic, the poetry of the future – I think it’s gonna be fantastic in Australia too.
But there are a few who are doing a good job, you know, reading in factories and schools and prisons. People like Eric Beach, Jenny Boult, Joanna Burns, Anna Couani, Nigel Roberts, Rae Desmond Jones, Grant Caldwell, Rory Harris, you know, the list is very big. They’re getting out to people, not just universities, which I think can only be great for literature. I read somewhere that something like 80% of people in America have written poetry in some stage of their lives. That’s a big market. I think there must be a way of getting out there for them to hit us with their stuff and us to hit them with ours.
So what’s the block people seem to have against poetry? Is it because of the poetry we were taught at school and didn’t like?
The education system is to blame for the general block against poetry because they teach poetry backwards. Instead of starting off with language which is rich and alive, they start with a language which is dead. So they start with Chaucer and Shakespeare and end up on Keats by the time the people have to go to the factory. That’s teaching poetry backwards. If you start with the present, say an Australian poet who wrote about working in a factory or something and they hear that, then they can appreciate going backwards and going to Keats and Shelley and Byron; they can go way back if they want to and if they end up on Wordsworth before they’ve left school then they’ve got something out of it.
Also the other thing is, there hasn’t been a poetry of the people, with the people’s voice, very much in Australia. One reason why C J Dennis is so popular is because he talked in a dialect which was either spoken or people aspired to speak, and he wrote in that language and people identified with it. Ditto Lawson and Patterson. But you’ve got very few people after that… you’ve got Bruce Dawe struggling in the 50s more or less alone. I’m not convinced by Les Murray for instance. But I think what we’ve seen since 1967 is a poetry which has started to talk with people’s voices and I think that’s fantastic, you can only build on that, unless something very tragic happens.
Why did you write the brilliant, fantastic poem… what’s it called?
Mayakovsky a la Koch Sort Of. Great title, isn’t it? When I said I’m brilliant, I’m fantastic, my world changed. In the beginning was the word and the words I chose were brilliant, fantastic, great. Now that makes me brilliant, fantastic, great, because I own those words as a writer. When somebody says brilliant great fantastic you’re not going to think of Shakespeare, You’re going to think of me (laughs).
I said those words. I like owning language. I own the word fuck. In the Fuck Poems I own that word and it wasn’t going to be vulgar, the way it’s often used, the way it’s been destroyed. I was restoring it to something very sensuous and very nice. So when I use the word fuck in a love poem I’m not being vulgar at all, and I think they’re the best love poems in Aust. They can’t be beat, in the sense of the structure of them. The use of the language is superb and it’s appreciated at poetry readings because people don’t hear the word fuck used like that. It’s quite a beautiful word in its context.
Did you sit down to write a volume of love poems, or did they evolve out of years of writing?
No, I was at the beginning of a relationship and I was feeling good so I started taking down some notes and it sort of grew from there. In fact, out of the Fuck Poems came 925. I wrote a poem called Vol/Fol which was about how my sexuality was being interfered with by my work and it turned Jeltje onto writing work poems and everybody else started writing work poems and it built up into 925.
So 925 came out of readings did it?
Yeah, we were reading our poems every week at this café in Fitzroy, the Universal, I think and we were running out of poems, you know, new poems, but work poems are something you can write everyday, and Jeltje started doing it.
925 was an exciting magazine…
I think it was the greatest literary experiment in Australia for decades. It showed there’s a wealth of poetry out there done by ordinary people who’ve got something to say and I think it taught a lot of people how to write. We gave 925 our best shot, I mean we got it into factories and union bulletins, over the air and recorded on video and tapes and we gave a lotta money and time and energy to a lotta people. I think Migrant 7 is doing the same thing, you know, like casting another net to see what those kinda people have to say. And it’s great and it’s gonna get greater.
And also, later this year Karen Maree is going to do another magazine called Ward 666 which is concerned with hospital stories and in particular she wants a whole lotta women to write, because a lotta women have had horrific experiences in hospitals which have never been documented, so that will be another net cast and it’s gonna be an amazing mirror of our society.
The education system is to blame for the general block against poetry because they teach poetry backwards. Instead of starting off with language which is rich and alive, they start with a language which is dead.
So ultimately I see all this as being an epic poem in its true sense – this fantastic collective poem. 925 went for five years and we gave it away free. It was the biggest poetry magazine in the country. We printed 3000 copies for about 14 issues, and we did it 4 times a year without fail; we were out on the streets every 3 months and we didn’t get one literary critic which was amazing. Nobody dared to say it wasn’t literature and nobody dared say it was. There was lots of media coverage, but nobody looked at the poetry to examine it. I don’t think they knew how to analyse it, they didn’t know how to look at a text. There are no critics in this country. I’m probably the best critic in Australia and that’s poor.
Do you mainly look at poetry as poetry to be performed?
I believe in writing poetry as a script so that when someone else comes along, they knowhow to read it. I want poetry to be people, somehow. But I hate the idea of people coming on stage with puppets, you know, or like a cabaret act. I don’t see myself as being a cabaret act, I wanna talk, I wanna say something.
When you go to people’s houses and have a meal with them, they will gladly put on a record but you try to read a poem and it’s invariably no! or stop being egotistical or something. There’re about 20 houses I know of in Australia where I can go for a meal and people will gladly read and listen to poetry. That’s why I reckon writers like each other, whether they hate each other or not, because they have the chance to read their work at readings and it can be exciting. It’s talking still, you know?
You used to read a lot but lately you’ve kept away from most public readings. Why is that?
Because my mother is very sick and Thalia has tenosynovitis now so I’ve had to take over some of the chores she used to do in the house. So I have to plan my time out these days, I’m not as spontaneous as I used to be. But I try to get out whenever I can, altho there are some places where I’d never read because I can’t be bored with where their heads are at. I just haven’t got the time to go there. The point is that I may not have been going to upfront readings but I’ve been reading consistently on television, Channel 2, channel 0/28, ABC radio, community radio…
What response do you get from your work? It seems to me that people either love you or complain about you.
Yeah, I think that’s pretty true of my writing.
Do they complain about the language you use?
After somebody’s read 2 or 3 poems of mine the language question is usually dropped. By then they’ve found something else to object to. You know, first it’s harsh on the ears for them, you know too fast, too loud, too everything, but I love swamping people in poetry, literally bathing them in it. I don’t care too much if they don’t understand every word I’m saying, I just like to go: “Listen to this: BANG!! Paint, picture, sound, everything happening!” I like the dynamic of a reading. It’s very exciting.
Your poetry has changed recently, becoming more statistical and historical.
Yeah, I’ve always loved facts and figures. I started to realise the potential of facts, started to understand how to use them as images; I mean, facts were first used in the realm of poetry, Homer in The Iliad is a historical document and it’s full of facts and people and names, incidents, so what I’ve done is when I bump into a fact or a fact bumps into me, I try to use it. I spend 6 months of my long service leave researching material for Bonagilla.
There’re about 20 houses I know of in Australia where I can go for a meal and people will gladly read and listen to poetry. That’s why I reckon writers like each other, whether they hate each other or not, because they have the chance to read their work at readings and it can be exciting.
I’ve always been interested in facts and finding out how I can use them so that they make sense. Too many politicians and academics throw them out at you and you don’t understand what they’re talking about, but I use them so that they make sense, so people can like listening to them, enjoy hearing more information. The Ocker Poem is a documentary of the 70s and it took me 3 years to write. I flipped thru 10 years of newspapers and magazine gathering facts which I could manipulate and wrangle into a structure. There’s a lot of history in that poem and a lot of lying too. I mean if you’re using facts and figures you lie too like a politician would if you want your image to be perfect – you know, poetic licence, that’s the licence we use to say what we wanna say.
Can you say something about our method of writing a poem?
I only have one method and that’s editing. I edit language, I edit reality. What I often do is go to a body of work which has a lot of language in it: for instance if I wanted to write about horse racing, I’d take the language out of the racing forms and work on that as a bank of language. So I do a montage and get speech patterns going thru it, which would perhaps have to be researched by my involvement at a racecourse. I get the language required to talk about that ideal. Not every poem actually starts off with an idea, sometimes it just begins with language and ends up as an idea.
Do you classify yourself as a Migrant Writer?
That’s a hard one. Of course I’m a migrant writer because I’m, well I’m a migrant. The migrant issue is one aspect of the whole mosaic that I’m writing about. There was a lot of pain and suffering in the migrant experience after the 2nd World War. A lot of people were done over badly to the benefit of Australians and I think that has to be introduced into the history of this country.
Have you read much of Ania Walwicz?
Yeah, I think she’s fantastic and that she’ll continue to write well for a very long time. She’s a migrant writer, altho I don’t know how to describe her style. Gertrude Stein to a point, but it also comes close to Anna Couani’s stuff, not that she’s in any way an imitator or anything like that. It’s a nice style, a nice form. But I don’t know about this term ‘Migrant Writer’. Where’s the dividing line between a migrant and somebody who’s been here for a while? The issue becomes very complicated and I think it’s just beginning to be explored in magazines like Migrant 7, which is articulating a language for it.
What’s your involvement with Migrant 7?
I do the layout and contribute and give Jeltje advice when she asks for it. Jeltje’s the editor and the final say is hers. I also help distribute it. The print run is up to a thousand an issue and we’re not selling them all at this stage, but that’s alright, it took 925 six issues before it took off. Migrant 7 will gain more and more energy as more writers decide to put their stuff in.
Have you written much prose?
I do not read novels or plays ever, unless forced to. The short story I have a liking for but I don’t indulge in that kind of writing at all, altho some of my poetry tends towards prose.
The Ocker Poem is getting some interesting responses…
The Ocker Poem took me 3 years to write and Darc from the ABC heard some of it and said he wanted it performed on ‘Saturday Guest’, a 15 minute program on 3AR at 7.15 on Saturday night. So I did, and because it’s got a lot of fucks and cunts and cocks and words like that in it, they sliced them and reversed them on the tape so that the word is mumbled but it still had an echo of the meaning and the switchboards in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney were jammed with people either complaining about the program or praising it and the score was 5-1 against. So Monday morning Darc gets a ‘please explain’ from his boss.
Meanwhile, Darc gets a memo from Sydney from the top boss there saying it’s a fantastic program, so he overrode everyone. Then I got a 60 year old woman who was listening to the radio, saying she couldn’t believe her ears and that it was the best thing she’d heard on the ABC ever…
I read the Ocker Poem in Adelaide in this pub and there were about 60 people there and when I finished they all stood up and cheered. It was a blast!
Melbourne is probably the performance poetry capital of Australia. Who started it?
Well there were about 8 of us. Eric Beach was one of them.
Did it come from America?
No, that’s the beauty of it. 925, the Poets Union, performance poetry, wasn’t imported.
But Eric uses the blues as his basic style…
Yeah well, that’s what he’s using but—
That’s what the Americans were using too. Take the beat poets—
Yeah but he wasn’t reading beats, he was listening to music, and writing music in his head. They rhymed, they really rang, they celebrated. That style is not only blues, it’s Mayakovsky too. (Eric’s committed to Mayakovksy like I am.)
Well why did the performance poets start in Melbourne do you think?
It’s all in the Anthology – The Penguin Anthology. You’ll have to wait till it comes out. Penguin Books are costing it at the moment. I wanna have a record in it, you know, a flexi-disc, or something. It’s gonna be the best anthology since Kate Jennings’ Mother I’m Rooted and Tom Shapcott’s Australian Poetry Now.
How did you get Penguin interested?
Well when we were doing 925 we put a boycott on Penguin because they wouldn’t publish The Works. So I thought how am I gonna get these people interested, and I thought I’d insult them, you know, because it’s worked in the past. So I sat down and drew a penguin logo on 925 number 16 and got heavy texta coloured pens and gotta whole lotta people together to cross out 3,000 penguins and Brian Johns from Penguin bought his copy from Readings Bookshop and thought it was fantastic. So we got together and a few people like Thomas Shapcott and Barrie Reid thought I should be the editor of the next good poetry anthology so I put it to him and he agreed. It’s going to give credit to some people who have been writing poetry for a while but who haven’t received the proper recognition. It’s gonna be great, it’s gonna be in schools and everywhere and no poet in Australia is gonna be without one I reckon.
The anthology’s gonna be fantastic, it’s gonna do great things for our poetry, now and in the future.
First published in Going Down Swinging No. 6 (Spring, 1984)