Over the past 30 years, Adelaide has established itself as a fertile breeding ground for quality poets and poetry. South Australian poets regularly appear in national ‘best of’ anthologies, while the city is home to numerous live poetry venues and at least one quality literary journal.
But Adelaide is also the home of a healthy network of poets who consider themselves at work outside the established poetry scene. One of the principals behind this so-called ‘underground’ poetry movement is Keith Salmon.
‘When most people think of poetry, they think of words, they think of paper, they think of language. What we are trying to do is quite different. When we think of poetry, we think of meat. We think of sausages, steak and pork chops,’ says Salmon passionately.
The Meat Poets have been meeting at a disused sausage factory in the western suburbs for the last three years. Their first anthology, ‘Let’s Talk Pork’, is due for release in the New Year, although it has been ready for some 18 months. Keith identifies the lack of support from local booksellers as the main reason behind the delay.
‘Your average bookseller knows little about poetry. They look at a plate of beef mince and think ‘dinner’. Unfortunately, they’ve refused to stock our anthology until we provide the necessary refrigeration. They don’t want smelly product. Some philistines have even suggested we approach butchers rather than bookshops!’
Dianne Melon, of Poets Without Words, bemoans a similar lack of support for her ‘silent’ poetry. Her first collection, ‘Invisible Verse’, sold out at a prominent Adelaide bookshop within a couple of weeks. At first she was elated, but then discovered that they were selling the collection as a notebook or diary, not a poetry collection. Dianne admits that the lack of words in her collection could be confusing.
‘There’s a tendency in our culture to expect poetry to contain words. Why is this so? I aim to change this expectation.’
Not all underground poetry is as challenging as the Meat Poets or Poets Without Words. The Word Maggots have been writing as a group for six years. They meet underneath a railway bridge in the Adelaide foothills. Unlike the other groups, and as their name suggests, they do work with words. But unlike traditional poets, the Word Maggots do not write with paper and pen, they write with paint, chalk and other substances on a variety of surfaces. Their most infamous work is an epic entitled ‘How Now’ which was written on a herd of cows. Each cow featured only one or two words of the poem. With the animals in constant motion, the poem never read the same way twice.
‘’How Now’ was our masterpiece,’ says Maggot leader, Leon O. ‘Until then, we’d only worked with much smaller creatures – dogs, cats, mice. The sheer size of a cow allowed us to say so much more.’
The owner of the herd was less impressed, and attempted to press charges against the group. It’s this confrontational aspect of the Word Maggots that has seen them labelled as ‘guerrilla’ or ‘terrorist’ poets.
Also based in the Adelaide Hills are the Gumleaf Poets, who perform their work while dressed as marsupials. Until earlier this year their monthly meeting was held in a eucalyptus tree overlooking the South Eastern Freeway. Unfortunately, one of the group fell mid-poem, and was crushed by a semi-trailer. The tragedy was compounded when other drivers, thinking the poet was a native animal, drove over him repeatedly.
The group write traditional rhyming bush verse, and regularly publish in magazines and newspapers, but find they are not taken seriously by the rest of the literary community.
‘They seem to object to the costumes,’ says Gumleaf founder, Norma Devlin. ‘But I think the costumes lend authenticity to the poetry. After all, who better to read a poem about gum trees than a koala!’
One of the most vocal supporters of the poetic fringe is public radio host, Pam Lamb. She regularly features underground poets on her radio show ‘Poetry Tomorrow’ and is trying to organise a festival of such poets to coincide with the next Adelaide Festival of Arts in 2008.
‘There’s such a wealth of poetic talent in this city that is simply not getting the exposure it deserves,’ says Pam. ‘You’ve got the Word Maggots in the Hills, the Meat Poets, the Yo-Yo Collective. People like Colin Crisp, Dorothy Clunder, Ricky Fiddle. And, of course, Poets On A String.’
Apart from her work with ‘Poetry Tomorrow’ Pam Lamb has been heavily involved with fringe group Poets On A String for eight years.
‘At first, there was a reluctance to accept that poetry could be performed by puppets,’ explains Pam.
When Pam first started the group in the late 90s, she only managed to interest two other people, one of which was her aunt, Patsy. But now, as the group enters its ninth year, membership has skyrocketed to seven, while their debut anthology, ‘Sawdust Memories’, released last year by Medium Press, has sold over thirteen copies.
‘I don’t know why we’ve suddenly become so successful,’ admits Pam. ‘I think people are just ready to hear puppets read poetry.’
Underground poetry icon, Ricky Fiddle, agrees that the local literary community has opened up slightly to the idea of alternative poetry in recent years, but doesn’t believe that it’s necessarily linked to an interest in puppetry.
‘I think the public are just getting sick of the same old thing. They’re sick of Shakespeare and Banjo Paterson. They’re sick of reading poetry in books. They want to see poems written on helicopters or watermelons. They want poetry you can eat. Poetry you can throw at a bus.’
Fiddle’s most recent collection ‘Word Wind’ was, in fact, the result of ingesting words written on plastic film, and vomiting them back up. He’s also thrown his poetry from seaside cliffs, set fire to it, and fed it to goats.
‘Poetry is everywhere,’ marvels Fiddle. ‘Next time you go to the toilet, don’t just wipe your arse and leave. Have a look at what you’ve created – that’s poetry!’