In both its media and creative guises, the writing life has taken me on some fascinating journeys.
I followed Tasmanian ocean trout from their fish farm to LA and New York restaurants. I played ‘Coke bottle golf’ on a Mumbai cricket ground with actor Stephen Curry. And as a journalist, I journeyed to Shane Warne’s office, before he got skinny, and watched him slap his keys and smokes in front of him and fold his arms: “So [Muppet], what do you wanna know?”
Fascinating journeys each. But none more rollicking or satisfying than riding Bruno Lettieri’s Poetry Bus.
The concept is so crazy, it’s genius. Hire a red double-decker bus and stick two poets on it. Tell punters to catch the bus at 5.30pm on a Friday night at Victoria University West Footscray, BYO their wine and a picnic, and inform them the poets will read to them at various mystery spots on a round tour of Melbourne’s west.
Pocket dynamo and literature-lover Bruno works at VU as both a teacher and coordinator of VU’s Conversations with Australian Writers series. He’s run the Poetry Bus annually for six years and has always sold out the 77 seats. Despite other events featuring luminaries such as Helen Garner, Michael Leunig, Hannie Rayson and Raimond Gaita, the Poetry Bus remains Bruno’s most consistently popular event.
“What other university has a poetry bus?” Bruno laughs as he ushers me aboard. None that I can think of. But it’s not a topic I’ve researched. And there’s no time now because I’m on the bus and need to get a seat.
The next four-and-a-half hours make for a hell of a rhyme – whoops – ride! That’s the type of humour you can get away with only among friends (I’m talking to you GDS readers – friend me here!) and I can quickly get away with it on the Poetry Bus. Bruno works to ensure people who don’t know each other end up becoming friends by night’s end, bonded over a shared love of literature, performance and poetry.
Kristin Henry and I read to the bus riders at the boatsheds on the Maribyrnong River; on the lawns of the Footscray Community Arts Centre on the same river; in the dark on Williamstown Pier; and under the Westgate Bridge. People who find us on our tour and like what’s going on join in. Like Apocalypse Now only friendly. Before Kristin and I read on the Pier, two bus riders sing moon songs for us all to sing along with while another plays a single drum. We’re mistaken for Hari Krishnas. I grab the bus microphone en route to Williamstown for some impromptu karaoke, starting with an a cappella “Leaps and Bounds”. Kristin and I try to bounce off each other’s poems at Footscray Arts Centre. Well, she does the bouncing because I read first. By request of a bus rider who read it out at a relative’s funeral, Kristin recites under the Westgate a moving poem of hers about bridges as metaphors for life change. We both sell out of the books we bring. People want to buy the books we’re reading from. They put in orders. They want to buy our poems before we’ve written them.
They’ve drunk too much wine and eaten too many olives. They applaud Bruno. We all burst into applause when the bus makes its final turn and arrives back at VU West Footscray. People are drunk, and drunk on poetry, art, life and each other. They leave excited, wanting to write, dance, throw a party on a bus, lie down.
To declare my interests, Bruno is a friend, I don’t work at VU, but I have before. The Poetry Bus is meant to be about VU’s community engagement. It does that and a set of steak knives. It’s a poetry celebration that should give VU the best possible name in community engagement. And it does. But, to my absolute non-metaphorical amazement, a VU insider on the tour tells me the uni wants to dump the Poetry Bus.
“Doesn’t make money. But it’s not what the bus is about… The vice-chancellor should come one night and see what happens, it really…”
Shit, I say to my unnamed source. You don’t have to convince me! But I’m staggered by how stupid bean counters can actually be. I mean, I know they’re stupid, but patently dumb? Looks like it. And here’s the evidence.
An activity of a uni actually does what it sets out to do: promote the arts and VU creatively within the community via its staff. But because it costs them a bit to make this happen, they want to cut it. Because, you know, they need to focus on things that make money. But they can’t see that their small promotional spend on the Poetry Bus does more than a million ad campaigns can do. Because, beans, it is proof, not spin, of VU actually doing what it hopes all its advertising says it does. And, bonus, it increases student interest in VU (the ages on the bus ranged from late teens to late 70s), increases parents’ interest in promoting VU to their kids, and generally increases a good vibe towards VU, a historically maligned institution.
The issue is really simple here. One Poetry Bus will beat a dozen marketing campaigns. No wonder Billy Bragg titled an album Talking with the Taxman About Poetry. The image on the cover was of a giant robotic mouth trying to catch flying dollars. A nice, poetic image for a bean counter – and one they should look at before even considering for a second putting the brakes on the Poetry Bus.
By the way, get on board next year. That way Bruno might have to take two buses and make a poetic response to Melbourne’s transport system woes.
Paul Mitchell is a past Going Down Swinging contributor and features in issues #19-#23, #28 and #30. Paul’s books are Dodging the Bull (short fiction), Awake Despite the Hour and Minorphysics (both poetry).