This paper is an assemblage of excerpts from a three-hour interview I conducted with Melbourne poet Π.O. in February 2013 at his home in Preston. Having recently completed a PhD dissertation examining Π.O.’s 1996 epic poem, 24 Hours, I had a number of questions about the 740-page, phonetic meditation on the suburb of Fitzroy. From the original 13,000-word interview transcript, I have chosen to focus on discussions of Π.O.’s methods in writing 24 Hours, his epic-in-progress The Everything Poem, and his sense of identity as an Australian epic poet.
Keywords: epic – poetry – Australia – identity – poetics – Π.O.
Radio National is playing, the tea-towels and plates are covered in poetry (white capitals on cobalt ceramic say ‘FOREST FOR REST’), and full bookshelves cling to the walls. While I read the kitchen, Π.O. makes us a cup of ‘special tea’, boiled water with slices of fresh ginger and lemon juice. He doesn’t drink coffee any more, having had too much in his youth, when he was a regular at twenty-four Melbourne cafés (‘true story!’). It was during the coffee years that Π.O. started writing poetry with phonetic dialogue.
‘What happened was that I was in the shop – we had sly grog gambling shops in Fitzroy – in Gertrude Street and I was typing away and this bloke came up to the counter and he said to me: “What are you writing?” And I said: “I’m writing a poem.” And he said this exactly: “Don’t you tell them truth that doesn’t believe you.”[i] In one sense, for the first time, I heard the clarity of that voice, you know, in that little couplet (well, I made it a couplet). And so, from then on, I kind of had my ear tuned to writing it, so I started looking round to see, you know, where I could get an example of that type of thing.’
That ‘type of thing’ – a phonetic, idiomatic, heteroglossic diction, allowing for a more immediate, authentic representation of the voices Π.O. was hearing – led him to Hugh McDiarmid’s long Scots dialect poem, ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’ (1926). While the technique might have provided a model for Π.O.’s phonetic diction, the sound of McDiarmid’s language was alienating. ‘I thought well, I can’t get my syllables around these words at all! Then I got on to some black writing from America. That revolutionary stuff from the seventies.’ This was easier to relate to. Apart from Langston Hughes, a favourite of Π.’s is Sterling A. Brown.
‘He is just magnificent. The reason I like him is because in the dialect he contains the violence. And that was what attracted me ultimately; inherent in the dialect writing was violence. It was doing violence to the language, and I grew up in a world of violence. And so the parallelism between the language being violent per se, just by its existence, and the violence in my world worked together. Often in my writing you have a lot of violence, an awful lot of violence, whether it’s linguistic or content-wise.’
Later, I pause in my transcription of the interview and, confident of finding this violence, open 24 Hours at random. I am rewarded with a particularly apt example:
his “nose” . . . in a fight!
Know what they did?!
Took abit of “meat” (off his
BIG toe) an’ sewed it back on.
They told him it would “blend in”.
I saw him a couple of months later . . .
It looked “RIDICULOUS”!
from ‘Miz’ibool’ (229)
The linguistic violence of grafting English vocabulary onto Greek or Italian or Magyar or Turkish grammar scars the utterance; it is important that the languages do not simply ‘blend in’. Unlike Aleko’s toe sewn on in place of his nose, the effect of this linguistic grafting is not ‘RIDICULOUS’. It enables stories to be told and characters’ voices to be conveyed in such a way that seamless English (or Greek or Italian or Magyar or Turkish) could not manage. Π.O. describes this inter-linguistic effect as generating a ‘thirdness’ – a language that is neither one nor the other but crucially in-between. He says: ‘It creates a “third space”. Not behoven to one or the other, but unto itself. That’s the kind of space I occupy.’
The liminal space that Π.O. sees himself occupying – on the borders of academia, performance poetry, Melbourne’s Greek communities, not safely within any one scene or culture – is mentioned repeatedly during the interview. In our discussion of his use of multiple dialects violently colliding, Π.O. emphasises that he is not romanticising or fetishising his ethnicity. A lot of writers are, according to Π.O., ‘ethnics’.
‘They are willing to sell whatever they’ve got. And so they’ll sell their grandmother’s pudding and their mother’s apron and their father’s garage, or whatever, to identify themselves as being part of a heroic class. My characters aren’t heroic as such. You know, I don’t write heroism. There’s heroism there at times, but really I don’t endow [the characters] with qualities that really make them stand out.’
He admits that in many poems in 24 Hours, ‘you walk into the café and nothing much happens. The poem ends, with maybe a little bit of interest, just some people slagging off or talking.’ The lack of heroism or narrative is a deliberate effect, allowing the precisely observed fragments of Fitzroy’s café- and street-life to accumulate and create a more convincing and perhaps honest portrayal of the suburb. A self-confessed meticulous editor and reviser, Π.O.’s method of assembling the poems in 24 Hours was laborious. The 740-page contemporary epic poem began as about 50 handwritten notebooks.
‘I typed them all up (this was on a manual type-writer). And, then I cut up all the snippets and I laid them on the floor and I started doing the edit. I had to close the door and all, ‘cos if the wind came up I was fucked. Honestly, it was going to destroy my life. Even the crack under the door had to be covered up – the whole lot. I had to rearrange the sections. I had river-runs, continuous river-runs. This was one poem; there was another poem. I’d take this bit, and move it across there. And tape them right down the middle, so I could move them around and make sure that sequence was in place.’
Π.O. had multiple criteria for ‘in place’ – sometimes temporal, sometimes to create a portrait of a character. The subjects of these ‘portraits’ were often both aware and proud of their role.
‘What happened was that I would write these portraits of people and they would swear that that’s exactly what they said and exactly what they did. Whereas I know they didn’t! I invented their speech! You know what I mean? And some people were saying to me, Oh, put my real name in! And I thought, No I’m not gonna to do that.’
Π.O. sips his special tea and looks at the Dictaphone lying between us, next to my copies of 24 Hours and Big Numbers.
‘It’s not like you can just sit there with a tape-recorder in the middle of the table, because you’ll get shot! I mean, we’re talking about people whose lives are at stake. Sex, drugs, rock ’n roll – everything’s happening! So it’s not possible to walk around taping people. You know? If there’s a raid or something goes wrong, you’re the first one they look at. And so what I do is scribble down on a piece of paper a thought or a dialect type thing. But when I finished the poem, they’d want the poem to be ascribed to them. But I couldn’t! Because I knew it was only a construction.’
Despite the ‘found’ nature of many of his ‘Fitzroy’ poems, Π.O. owns his work fervently. The acts of transcription and assembly are a mode of construction; the choices he makes are his, and he is often very satisfied with the results.
After participating in SBS’s ‘Song for Melbourne’, a one-hour documentary on Melbourne’s Greek community, made in 1979, Π.O.’s reputation as a poet amongst his family and friends improved. The producer of the program had originally wanted to interview Π.O. in his dad’s café, but Π. refused, predicting how the cameras and microphones would go down with the locals in the front of the shop, whose gambling and drinking would be interrupted. Instead, he suggested they use the rooftop of a building on Market Street in the CBD, an artists’ colony that Π. had visited before. He ended up being filmed performing on the Market Street rooftop his ‘ego poems’ or ‘Π.O.ems’[ii].
‘I got up on top of the roof, near a stink pipe as it turned out, and I screamed out “I’M BRILLIANT, I’M FANTASTIC” and so on. I was bouncing my voice off the low clouds in the city. This was peak hour and you could hardly hear the traffic, I was just bouncing my voice off the clouds and it was echoing as I was saying, “I’m brilliant, I’m fantastic, etc.”, and this crowd at the bottom started to form. And all the women at the textile factory next-door stuck their heads out the windows. But, the stupid idiots who were filming this thing were too petrified to move the camera to show what was going on. They were just fixed on me – I was the star; this mad man is on top of a roof next to stink pipe screaming that he’s brilliant and fantastic!’
‘A Song For Melbourne’ won SBS’s first award: Best Documentary in 1980. The clip that was played during the ceremony was of Π.O.’s rooftop performance. The day after the ceremony screened, Π. went into the shop to make coffee and discovered he had gained a reputation. Everyone had seen him on the television, screaming that he was brilliant, and they believed him. His role as star in the Greek community lasted until the following year, when the National Union of Greek Australian Students (NUGAS) invited him to perform at an end-of-year review at the University of Melbourne.
‘I read poems about “I’m brilliant, I’m fantastic, I’m great” – and that went down a hoot. There was one smart-arse in the audience, while I was up on stage – there were about four hundred people, parents, uni students – but there was this one smart-arse in the front who kept saying, “No, you’re not”. So, I walked up to him while I was up on stage and I looked down at him and said, “I’m brilliant, I’m fantastic, I’m great” – I fronted him straight out. Because, you know, the “I’m brilliant, I’m fantastic, I’m great” is not “I am greater than you, I am better than you, I am more brilliant than you”. These are different statements to “I’m brilliant, I’m fantastic, I’m great” – they’re totally different statements, which the audience kind of understood. And then I read some dialect poems and they loved that too. And, I read a poem against Australian nationalism, in particular about Ockers, and they loved that. And then I read a poem against – about – growing up in Fitzroy.’
It was during the following poem that the audience turned against him:
Is not Greek
I remember the ship we came out on.
I remember arriving at a cast-iron gate.
I remember the first day at school (all the kids laughed at me
for my true to life Greek haircut.
I took 2 years accordion lessons, rather than learn Greek.
every Greek I met, told me, I was Greek.
Greek kids like me
hate other Greek kids like me (Athena
my sister, is now like this),
all the time: the Greeks did this, the Greeks did that
the Greeks, the Greeks
FUCK THE GREEKS!!! . whack . !
now wipe your nose and go to sleep
from Big Numbers (149)
‘When I said “Fuck the Greeks”, Jesus Christ, that place exploded! Everybody stood up and started surging towards the stage to get to me, you know, so I never got to read the last line. They had to turn off the lights, and this woman with a torch came up on stage and showed me out the back, and bolted the door, and I found myself in the back lane there, with 400 people inside trying to kill me. It was the most horrendous moment of my life ... And, I didn’t know anyone in Australian history who’d been booed off stage! You know, like, I mean, seriously, from their own class! Because, the people there were trying to show how respectable and respectful they were and how they were patriots to Greece still, and to Australia. I mean, they didn’t mind me bad-mouthing Australia. But when it came to the “Fuck the Greeks”, they lost it. It was serious. It was very, very frightening, having to follow this torch down the back steps.’
When we meet, Π.O. is 400 pages into a new epic project: a history of Australia. He says it is killing him. ‘It’s actually killing me! The amount of research I have to do. Putting the pieces together. And, the Everything Poem is part of the construction.’ The Everything Poem, excerpts of which are included in his 2008 anthology Big Numbers, will be a vast work assembled from manageable fragments, akin in form to 24 Hours. While long, it will certainly not resemble prose. Π.O. expressed his aversion to novels about two minutes into our interview, correcting me on my assumption that he had read and been influenced by Joyce’s Ulysses. I take this opportunity to ask him what it is about novels that he can’t stand.
‘Do you know what I think it is? My rhythm. I grew up in front of a jukebox. So, my rhythms are kind of rock ‘n roll music, the short grab, you know? Whereas the novel is a luxury, where you can afford the time to sit back and imagine your way into imaginary lives.’
While rhythm might contribute to his preference for shorter lines and fragmented scenes, the next story he tells better explains his aversion to novels. At Collingwood Technical College, the teacher-librarian established a rule that each student must borrow and read one novel per week. After trying unsuccessfully to entice Π.O. to read with Biggles and science fiction, the librarian solved the problem. During a religious instruction class, Π.O. was summoned to the library to meet the Penguin representative. All the classics were all laid out on a bench. The librarian asked Π.O. to choose the books the library should stock. Knowing nothing about literature at the time, Π. went for the attractive covers. When he had chosen a pile of books, the librarian told him he would have to read them.
‘I made one rule and that was to read every word. But, I didn’t have a requirement that I had to understand every word. Just had to read it. I worked out that I could read a page in a minute. So, I looked at these 600-page books, and I worked out that I could do it in six weeks. So I read Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Gogol, Zola . . . And, after that I never wanted to see another novel again. Ever. And I’ve got no idea what they were about. But I read every word! Every page! I used to walk around Fitzroy and get my quota per day.’
This anecdote reinforced how wrong I had been to assume that Π.O. had read Ulysses. He has, however, ‘finished’ Finnegans Wake, and concedes that Joyce has been a subliminal influence on his work.
‘I always accept that I’m influenced by Joyce even if I don’t know him. T. S. Eliot talks about how you’re indebted to every poet that come before, whether you know them or not. So I accept any kind of influence someone might say I have.’
While Π.O. admits that Joyce has indirectly influenced his work, he is adamant that he has invented, or assembled, his own poetics.
‘Not that I was a genius who invented a poetics; I had to find a current, or the currents, really, that interested me. I didn’t know enough literature; I hadn’t been schooled and I didn’t really have any peers who would direct me along these trails, you know? So, assuming consciousness is fraught with danger – to presume that I did this because of something I’d read. Because at times I have, I’m sure. But, a lot was more feeling my way along.’
Writing in dialect in Australia in the 1970s involved a great deal of feeling in the dark.
‘You gotta realise that when I started writing in dialect it was actually totally against the current in society. Because, coming from a migrant background, everyone was trying to assimilate. Then, I come along and I was starting to talk in broken English, which everyone was trying not to talk in. You see what I’m getting at? And, the people in the Greek community were saying to me that I was belittling them by doing that – that I was actually, instead of showing them that, “Hey, we can be just like you and speak proper English, and put our full-stops and capital letters where they’re supposed to be”, I was actually going the other way and that posed a real problem. In one sense it was like keeping them where they were instead of progressing.’
Π.O.’s pioneering use of dialect – his phonetic spelling, idiosyncratic punctuation and willingness to include broken English, Greek, Turkish, Italian and Magyar – makes his work difficult to read on the page. I ask whether he is acknowledging this difficulty in the epigraph that recurs in his collections: ‘For those who can read only’.
‘That is important! That is very important. The first time I did it was in the Fitzroy Poems. And, because we had a sign outside the shop, you know? “Members Only”, but, a lot of people who were illiterate would walk in, because they couldn’t understand what the sign was. We had a lot of illiteracy, you know? And so, I put the notion that that sign was useless if you couldn’t read.’
The epigraph works differently. Those who ‘can’t read’ are automatically locked out of the book; there is no accidental entry. What constitutes being able to read is the real question that the epigraph raises. Π.O. describes it as being ‘also an attack on the academy, as custodians and gatekeepers of what language is and what you’re entitled to use as language, you see? And so, you’re not allowed into this place if you can’t read’.
Describing the book as a club that only members are welcome to enter is ironic; the idea of making poetry, or communication generally, unnecessarily exclusive and inaccessible is anathema to Π. (his sentences are punctuated with ‘you know’ and ‘you see what I’m saying?’ – he is genuinely eager to be understood). However, he does like the metaphor of the café for the book, used by Martin Duwell in his review of 24 Hours in The Weekend Australian.
‘He said that the cover acts like the door to the café. When you’re tired and you want to leave the coffee shop, you close the door. When you want to go in, you open the door. And I thought that was a beautiful hinge – a beautiful metaphor. You can walk in and out. Stay as long as you like – you might not get to the end of the poem because it’s bloody long.’
I ask if 24 Hours is too long, recalling Π.O.’s complaint about novels being designed for those with the luxury of time.
‘Another critic said that the book is too big, but that’s a lie. The book is too small! That’s the truth of the thing. The poems are too small. Because, how can I encapsulate my world if I’m restricted to a two-page poem all the time? It might be okay for their worlds, but it’s not for my world. My world is bigger than that. I’ve got a lot to say, and a lot of things happening.’
If that is the case, I ask, how does one decide to stop – to say, This is the last line about my world; it is ready to be published? His answer is simple. ‘When the money runs out.’
It has been nearly two hours, so we leave the kitchen table and the Dictaphone for a break. I am taken outside to see the backyard, which is in a state of renovation. Π.O. asks whether I can chop wood. I show him the palm of my right hand, a red, peeling figure-eight of two blisters, each the size of fingernails. I had been camping the weekend before, which involved chopping firewood into metre-long pieces; anything larger was in breach of the fire restrictions.
We sit at the shady picnic table and Π.O. explains to me that he and his partner Sandy need more space. They’re planning to build an extension on the back of the house, but first the stubborn palm tree has to go, and the vegetable beds too. ‘Sandy hates the mess, but we need more room, more space.’ At the very back of the garden is Sandy’s studio. Π.O. invites me to have a look. From the low ceilings to the concrete floor it is full of human faces (as full as the kitchen is of words), small, large, baked clay and raw, some glazed, some painted.
Back at the kitchen table, Π.O. describes The Everything Poem as a series of portraits constructed from assembled facts.
‘I started to collect facts and juxtapose them against each other. And, then I challenged myself to construct a portrait using this juxtaposition. So, I did the first one, then a second one and a third one, and I started to try to feel my way through using the material. I realised I was using an awful lot of the facts as metaphor. Facts were turning into metaphor and that gave me an extra kind of reach from the linearity of the fact. I guess I realised that information only makes sense when it’s got a lot of redundancy in it, which is, I think, Shannon’s Law in information theory[iii]. The redundancy inside the poem allows the poem to come out because, even if you drop away – not understand some of it – the message is still going to come through. Whereas, if everything is tight-knit and you miss a bit, then you don’t know what happened. So, it plays with interesting notions of perception. That’s what I’m exploring, and really I’m doing the history of Australia. With Fitzroy as a subset.’
I ask if it’s finishable – the history of Australia. ‘No!’ he says. ‘But no epics are, are they?’ I agree that it’s a futile task, and try to mention Fredric Jameson’s comment about the ‘imperative to fail’ of the modernist epic (specifically Williams’ Paterson), but Π.O. is explaining how The Everything Poem is allowing him to rewrite history. ‘One thing that 24 Hours did is it put in personalities, people, who were not in Australian literature, and they needed to be in there. So, I’m doing that work in a sense.’
One voice that Π.O. believes is too peripheral in Australian literature is his own. To illustrate his point, he refers to a review of Australian epics and verse novels, which did not mention 24 Hours.
‘Now, for all intents and purposes that’s fine, because you’re allowed to select who you want to talk about and that’s not a problem. But what’s really interesting about it is that it quotes a French philosopher[iv] and he says that the long poem or the epic or whatever you want to call it often is a “walk through the city”.’
Π.O. opens to the first page of 24 Hours. He points at the chapter title then stares at me.
‘It is actually called ‘Walk’! I don’t even know this philosopher, right? But what’s interesting about the exercise, and the omission, if you like, is what’s wrong with a lot of academics; they went and swallowed a lot of French literary criticism. They got this stuff, they came over [to Australia], and they said, “Right, you’ll do; you’ll do; you’ll do – I’ll map you onto this philosopher, that philosopher, this philosopher”. That’s not how you do literary criticism! What you do with literary criticism is you take the fucking thing and you try and work out what it’s about. And then, if you need a philosopher to support you, you go out and get him. But what these people do – they’re not looking at what we’ve got! They’re mapping existing ideologies, existing literary criticism onto us. And, that’s the poverty of literary criticism in Australia. I think it was John Docker who once said Australian literary criticism was restricted to tidying up the margins of literary criticism from overseas. And, that’s what we’re doing – tidying up.’
Instead of ‘tidying up the margins’, Π.O. would rather Australian writers and critics were listening more carefully to their country’s languages and dialects.
‘Australia has had problems with its dialect writers from the year dot. You know, it does not want them. As Slessor, our great modernist says, it’s “inadmissible” that the garbo from Woolloomooloo is entitled to talk poetry in his dialect. It’s “inadmissible”! I mean, who the fuck does he think he is? And, C. J. Dennis, of course (and I share the same turf with C. J. Dennis – he was incredible), he’s considered to be a “phenomenon”, which is the equivalent of saying he’s a performance poet. He’s a “phenomenon”! Great to look at on stage! You know?’
Π. doesn’t like to be classed solely as a performance poet; he sees his written poetry as a script for the performance. It interests me that his performance is widely appealing and accessible, yet the ‘script’ is difficult and exclusive. ‘For those who can read only’ comes to mind again; for those who can read well. I ask Π.O. about this and he appears offended.
‘I just don’t hear people saying, “Isn’t it fantastic to hear Joyce read, but Jesus Christ let’s not bother with it on the page!”’ I rephrase the question and ask whether he minds that the script of the performance is harder to understand.
‘I don’t care if you don’t understand! You just have to keep going ... In one sense all languages have the same weight in the book; I don’t privilege one above the other. The odd secret message or aside that is said and supposed to embarrass or distract or whatever — you didn’t understand it initially, and you still won’t understand it at the end, so, you’re no wiser than anyone else in the coffee shop would be.’
Π.O. has a knack for letting readers feel like they are sitting in the coffee shop, eavesdropping, giving them a visceral sense of the alienation and danger of not understanding every word. Π.O. believes his poetry is sometimes too authentic for the tastes of contemporary poetry journals and other publishers. That is one reason for Unusual Work, the journal of which he is founding editor. It is a place for more controversial content.
‘In the second to last issue ago [of Unusual Work], I published a poem called ‘Mean Cunts’. Now, that is a 24 Hours poem. And for twelve or fifteen years, I’ve been trying to get it published, and I couldn’t, so I published it myself. Everybody said the language was not the issue, yet, it couldn’t get published anywhere. It’s a great poem; it’s about twelve pages long. And, it would fit within most magazines – I mean, you know, they publish short stories that go for a boring fifty pages and it’s just crap. But that poem there is about the boys in Carlton, who are all being shot at the moment. You know, the Underbelly stuff.’
In Π.O.’s opinion, Underbelly isn’t gritty enough. ‘They say “fuck”,’ he complains. ‘Why? That’s not how they talk! That’s because “fuck” now is acceptable, and our gangsters now say “fuck”, right? Once it used to be “bloody”, now it’s “fuck”. Right? This poem [‘Mean Cunts’] is about the goings-on of those boys that were happening out there.’
He tells me that the writer and director of the 2000 film Chopper, about legendary Melbourne criminal Mark ‘Chopper’ Read, asked him to write the screenplay.
‘I had a meeting with the director, Andrew or whatever-his-name-was [Andrew Dominik]. And he bought me a coffee and he said, “Look, we’re doing this Chopper Read movie; we’d like you to do some of the screenplay with us.” I couldn’t do it. There was my Hollywood chance, gone! Because I knew all the boys in Carlton! And Chopper Read in one of his books had a thing about going into Lygon Street with a flame-thrower. He called it Operation Wog Fry, and he was going to burn all the gangsters in Lygon Street. Now, can you imagine them coming to the movies to see Chopper Read and my name up in lights after that! I mean, I’m sorry! I’d get the writing right – I’d get the dialect right; I’d get it all working, but I’d be a dead man! So I thought to myself, there goes Hollywood now. I can’t do Hollywood, can’t do this, can’t do that. I keep falling into all these gaps all the time, which is pretty amazing. I can’t understand why I haven’t been kind of adopted or allowed to have my space within the culture. Why do I always have to try to create my own space in the culture?’
Despite ‘falling into gaps’ between cultures, literary communities and the ivory towers, Π.O. is not simply ‘trying’ to create his own place in Australian poetry, but succeeding. Instead of being silently, ignorably marginal, Π.O. appears to me to be a central agitator, whose peripheral position provides crucial privileges: an unusual perspective and sufficient space to continue assembling an epic portrait of Australia.
[i] This scene is recorded in the last poem of Panash (Collective Effort Press, 1978).
[ii] The ego poems are also published in Panash (1978).
[iii] Shannon’s redundancy theory is explained in his 1948 paper ‘A Mathematical Theory of Communication’.
[iv] The philosopher in question is Michel de Certeau, specifically his essay ‘Walking in the City’ (1984).
Brown, S A 1996 The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown, Illinois: Northwestern University Press
de Certeau, M 1984 ‘Walking in the City’ in The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall, California: University of California Press
Duwell, M 1996 ‘Suburban Sprawl’, review in The Weekend Australian, 26 May, 9
Hughes, L 1994 The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, New York: Vintage Classic
Jameson, F 2007 The Modernist Papers, London: Verso
McDiarmid, H 1993 Selected Poetry, intro Eliot Weinberger, New York: New Directions Publishing Corp
Shannon, C 1948 ‘A Mathematical Theory of Communication’, in The Bell System Technical Journal 27, 379–423, 623–656
Williams, W C 1995 Paterson, New York: New Directions Publishing Corp
Π.O. 1978 Panash, Shepparton: Collective Effort Press
--- 1996 24 Hours, Melbourne: Collective Effort Pres
--- 2008 Big Numbers: new and selected poems, Melbourne: Collective Effort Press