The following article was published in June 2013 in Australian Poetry’s now-defunct online magazine Sotto.
Recently I saw a podiatrist. As she felt my feet she said, ‘Any plans for the weekend?’
‘I’m teaching poetry workshops,’ I said. ‘Hanging out with friends, too, but mainly I’ll be working.’
I didn’t explain that ‘hanging out with friends’ meant going to Perth’s weekly poetry event Perth Poetry Club, which I instigated in 2009, and probably drinking afterwards with a mob of poets.
Without looking at the website (perthpoetryclub.com) I can’t tell you who’s featuring at Perth Poetry Club this weekend. I don’t go to hear the featured poets. I never have, even though sometimes they’re amazing. I go to hear all the poets — open mikers and features — and enjoy the company of poetry fans.
In 2008 Perth had a small number of monthly readings.
Voicebox (still going strong today) was held on a Thursday night in a hippy cafe. Even though the sound system was lacklustre and so were some of the readers, by 9:30pm I was really starting to relax and get into it. But 9:30pm — maybe 10 on a busy night — was time to go home. For the month.
Walking on Water was held on a Monday night, halfway down a deserted laneway in a tiny upstairs theatre with broken plumbing, a peculiar smell, and questionable photography happening downstairs. During the break those who had managed to find the place and drag their disintegrating bodies up the stairs would stand nibbling an Arnotts and chatting awkwardly over instant coffee. The show would be over at 10:30 and it would be time to go home. For the month.
There was also Poets Corner, held on a Saturday afternoon in the cafe at the State Library, which didn’t allow swear words or anything else that might drown out the noise of the coffee machine. One time the staff had to be reassured because a poet had turned up with a violin.
Attendances at the monthly events were pretty low most of the time: a good turnout meant 20, of which five or eight might be the guest reader’s family.
I remember Glen Phillips telling me that being a poet in Perth was like having sex once a year. Pretty arid the rest of the time, he said. But in Melbourne, particularly at the weekly Dan Poets, I’d seen the way frequent readings in congenial venues brought poets together — poets of different ages, from different backgrounds. The poets cared about each other, hugged one another, gossiped and bitched about one other. It was a community. It felt like home.
For family reasons, I couldn’t move there. Instead I decided to start a weekly reading in Perth, and get it right. ‘Right’ meant the following:
- Accessible to everyone: held in a central, ground-floor venue to which people — including me! — could bring their kids.
- Held in a venue selling food and drink, to encourage people to relax, socialise and stick around afterwards.
- A fast-paced format with lots of brief open-mike slots and two short features. It would have some of the energy of a slam, but without the judging.
- A good long break for socialising.
- At the weekend! Not on a school night!
- Guest poets of all kinds, from slam-style ranters to gently-spoken university professors. I wanted these people to get to know each other, and each other’s writing.
- A hip image and as much publicity as I could manage. I wanted people — not just poets, Muggles1 too 😉 — to come and listen. Think about it: you don’t have to be in a band to go to a concert.
- It would be called ‘Perth Poetry Club’ so that people would know what it was supposed to be. The ‘club’ thing hasn’t really come across: I was thinking jazz club, night club, Bowery Poetry Club… not birdwatching club, not bridge club. Ah well. But ‘Perth’ and ‘Poetry’ are an accidental stroke of genius. I didn’t think about it at the time, but guess what keywords people use when they Google for poetry things in Perth?
I had two kids and a part-time dayjob as well as a literary career, and I was living an hour from the city centre, but I didn’t see why I couldn’t run a reading if I had a helper to share the MCing and being-there. I asked loudly on the poetry grapevine, comic poet Helen Child offered to help, and we proceeded to look for a venue.
Most people said it wouldn’t work, that too few people would want to come weekly… but Allan Boyd, the Antipoet, a veteran of poetry shows and slams, said, ‘Good on ya, mate. I’ll make a website for ya, mate.’ (That’s how he talks.)
‘Why do I need a website?’ I said. ‘I just want to run a reading. Shouldn’t I just put up posters? Maybe run an ad in the street press?’
‘No, ya gotta be online,’ he said. ‘If ya want publicity, if ya want it to be cool.’
‘Oh, all right,’ I said.
‘I’ll do it over the weekend,’ he said.
‘Thanks! Can you design a poster too? Black and white for my laserprinter? Scalable?’
‘No worries,’ he said. And two days later we had a sexy visual brand, a contact form, a blog, everything.
On 28 March 2009 we had our first gig, at the Court Hotel, with Andrew Burke as our feature. At least 30 people turned up for a wildly entertaining afternoon. The venue wouldn’t let us use amplification, so we brought in a cucumber to use as a mike. It’s remarkable how much better people project their voices while holding a cucumber. Seriously.
My approach to publicity for the first year or so was, to be honest, aggressive.
I created a Facebook group — a novelty to most poets in early 2009. I spent hours researching journalists, literary organisations and Cultural Studies professors. I wrote down all the avenues of publicity I could think of. I wrote grabby headlines and constructed blurbs to make the featured poets sound quirky and interesting — not that hard, most of the time. Every week I wrote a blog, shared on Facebook, and emailed about 300 people.
I ran off flyers on my laserprinter and distributed them at every literary event I could get to. I would tape them to walls, leave them on chairs, and walk around handing them out with a cheeky smile.
I carried posters wherever I went to put up in cafes, bookshops, libraries, record shops, and the dressing rooms of vintage clothing shops.
And people came. 20 or 30 people turned up most Saturdays. On 23 May 2009, when our guest poet was Steve Smart from Melbourne, the crowd overflowed into the adjoining room. After that the venue, a gay bar, moved us into an internal room with weird disco lighting. But still no amplification. This room was less comfortable, and as winter came on, attendances dropped. One unfortunate guest poet had an audience of 6.
But we bloody-mindedly kept at it, and sure enough, more people started to appear. New people, people who hadn’t even known Perth had a poetry scene. People who gladly offered when I asked for help. Elio Novello became the treasurer. Neil J Pattinson and Coral Carter offered to help with the MCing. (Coral now runs a small press and publishes Perth Poetry Club’s annual zine Recoil.)
In October 2009 we moved to The Moon, a scruffy, arty cafe. Apart from being rather hot in summer, The Moon is the perfect poetry venue. Its owners are part of the local community of artists and musicians. It has its own PA, and house sound engineer Ben Hoare (aka beat producer Sibalance) turns up faithfully every week to do the mixing for ‘mates rates’. (We think he secretly loves it.)
After the move things really took off. The Moon, which makes most of its money from wine-drinking late-night diners, had to get more coffee cups. Now, four years later, 30 or 40 poetry folks gather most Saturdays to read, recite and listen. They’re elderly, middle-aged and young. Gay and straight. Slammers and sonneteers. Male, female and indeterminate. Pink, brown and yellow. (More brown and yellow people would be welcome, though).
The publicity is not so aggressive now, but word has spread. A few weeks ago I went to a country town to do some workshops. Looking for dinner on the desolate main street, I got talking to a young artist. We exchanged names and genres. ‘You’re a poet?’ she said. ‘Do you know the readings at The Moon? When I was in Perth my sister took me.’ She had no idea that I had anything to do with it.
I smiled to myself. Contrary to what some have suggested, I didn’t start Perth Poetry Club to get attention! I really just wanted a weekly reading I could go to.
I couldn’t resist telling her about it, though. It’s a good story.
Speaking of stories, for a while during 2010 some of the mainstream media decided poetry was flavour of the month. A glossy magazine doing a feature on Perth cultural events rang me from Sydney at 7am, forgetting about the time difference. On another day I was interviewed (and recited a poem!) on commercial talk radio. I talked to them by phone during a lunchbreak, sitting on a milk crate next to a garbage skip.
But I can’t tell you who’s featuring this Saturday. A year ago that would have been unthinkable, but now I’m no longer involved. In dreams begin responsibilities, as Yeats said, but I’m the kind of person who, once things are going well, gets restless for new adventures. So, having gradually handed over the work, last September I stepped out of the organising crew completely.
Having no voluntary community role is a rare thing for me. I’ve always been an Act-Belong-Commit poster child. After all, as Luna Lovegood says, the meetings are like having friends.2
Seriously, though, I get ideas. And quite often I end up being the one who implements them. After saying for years that Western Australia should have another online poetry magazine to complement WA Poets Inc’s Creatrix, in February I started publishing Uneven Floor (watch your step) at unevenfloorpoetry.blogspot.com. Eventually I hope to involve a co-editor — to share the work, and so the magazine doesn’t die when I get the urge to move on — but for now it’s just me. There’s a monthly featured poet and, when I have time, a couple of individual poems each week. Readers can comment on the poems and share and tweet them.
Having few community responsibilities has given me more time to focus on my own work. People have often said I should do a spoken word album, so I recorded one. If the production process goes smoothly I expect to release The right metaphor later this year. I’ve been writing more non-fiction and have been pleasantly surprised by the reception of my blog Raw Text. For me, though, the most exciting project has been my second full-length poetry book lemon oil (Mulla Mulla Press, May 2013).
I’ve found more time and energy for teaching, too, and not just at weekends. On Wednesdays I run a critiquing and writing workshop, Poetry Kitchen. This is held in… my kitchen, and involves homemade snacks. Instant coffee and Arnotts are not featured.