How a rowdy pub became an unexpected haven for Melbourne poets

Georgeff writes: “The Albion was in love. There were heavy drinkers and thinkers and painters and musicians, and there were gangsters and blacks and fights…they drank pots of warm white wine and the women drank tequila and pineapple juice.”

But Shelton could always hold a crowd: his trick was not to shout over the noise, but to deliver poems softly and softly with his hoarse, booze- and smoke-filled voice.

Ken Smeaton in action.Credit:Brendan Bonsack

The seven episodes History of Melbourne Poets Venues, 1970s to 2021 is enriched by street poetry and interviews with those involved in a movement that continues to provide poets, writers and editors with touchstones and gems.

Smeaton, who has hosted more than 2,000 poetry events in Melbourne, browsed archives of street poetry, video footage and event posters before interviewing event organizers and poets to produce a documentary as raw and vernacular as the literary movement profiled in it.

Smeaton said Melbourne’s street poetry movement was inspired by Thom Woodruff, aka Tom the Poet, who, along with a group of street poets, distributed thousands of home-printed poetry posters every day in the 1970s. “It created a poetry presence in Melbourne that helped promote poetry events,” Smeaton said.

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By the late 1970s, poets had occupied Melbourne’s pubs and cafes, hosting open mics on open stages that also hosted paid feature films. Important early venues included Café Jammin, the Outpost Inn and the Commune and later The Dan O’Connell (for 26 years), The Rochester Castle and the Perseverance Poets, along with festivals such as the Montsalvat Poetry and Song Festival and the Festival of Surrealisms. The oral poetry scene spawned important magazines of new writing, with the Collected Works Bookshop providing a meeting place and venue for lectures.

From the beginning, street poetry and spoken word performances rebelled against the formalism of traditional academic and some modernist poetry canons. Early street poets and performance poets were influenced by social realism, beat poetry, anarchism and Dadaism, with an almost anti-intellectual love for “the sound of breaking the rules”, to quote a poem by Smeaton.

Komninos Zervos, whose Tsakpina Café above Lonsdale Street hosted the anarchist poets of poet and magazine publisher πo and Tom’s Street Poets in the late 1970s, said: “Performance poetry continues to attract people as a form of personal revolution, as a way of changing people as well as themselves.” as anything. Performance poetry is political on a very personal level.”

Spoken-word events also enhance the verbal and gestural elements, the rhythms and silences, which enrich the poetry. “The gestural component of utterance is present when reading poetry, but can be lost on the page,” πo noted. “Pronunciation lets you convert the body back into language.”

πo said Jas H Duke helped introduce the Melbourne underground to spoken word, Dadaist, concrete and conceptual poetry. πo, together with members of the Melbourne Poets Union, founded in 1977, organized poetry readings in factories, prisons and psychiatric hospitals.

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In Melbourne’s post-punk era, poets took the mic between bands in pubs, but soon organized their own gigs and were sometimes joined by stand-up comedians at open mic events.

During the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s there were poetry events in Melbourne every night of the week. It was an open church that welcomed all genders and ethnicities from the start and created a community for isolated writers, many of whom later went on to pursue careers as writers and editors.

Subsequent episodes of the documentary series continue to profile in Melbourne, including The P Word Sessions, Passionate Tongues, Poetryspective, the Cherry Tree Poets, and the quarterly La Mama Poetica, which began in 1967.

One-Hour Episodes of the History of Melbourne Poets Venues screen at the Cherry Tree Hotel in Richmond on the first Saturday of each month, with the 1980s episode on August 6 at 1 p.m. Episodes will be available on YouTube at the end of September.

August is Poetry Month. The Victorian Gala is on August 4 – for tickets and a guide to other events, visit redroompoetry.org.

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