Art, Lifestyle

Performance Poetry: Melbourne’s No-Rules History

February 18, 2017

Steve Smart, Smarty to his friends, seems to know everyone who has touched a pen. He’s seen every beautiful and beastly face of Melbourne’s poetry scene. That’s why I asked him for his favourite memories.

Smarty was a founder of the Overload Poetry Festival, which covered Melbourne in poems and performances for a decade until 2011. He says the early days were wild, especially at a Fitzroy gig named Babble.

“There was a great absence of pants on the open mic at Babble.

“Some guy wouldn’t read his own poems, he would get someone to read his poem for him while he took his clothes off.

“All performers would get as much beer and wine as they wanted.”

One poet named Crazy Elf stood out for his nudity.

“Crazy Elf, Joey, just loved taking his clothes off anywhere, any time.”

Crazy Elf was at the launch of a journal called Going Down Swinging while legendary Australian poet Pi O recited.

“Pi O was reading his piece while [behind him] Joey takes off his clothes.

“Pi O is not gonna look behind himself, he’s not, he’s just gonna f***ing read his thing.

“So Joey gets down to his boxers. And we’re like, f***, he’s gonna do it. He’s saying I’m not gonna do it, not gonna do it. Then the boxers come off.”

“Joey [is] standing behind Pi O with Going Down Swinging held over his genitals.”

“The room is very wide … half the room just gets a whole flash of Joey.”

Pi O wrote 24 Hours, a 700-page novel about Fitzroy which critics call the Australian Ulysses. He helped found the Melbourne Poets’ Union. Smarty is the Union’s current president.

On the corner of Brunswick St and Argyle St, a statue of a man sits up high on a podium. He was Adrian “Mr Poetry” Rawlins and Smarty knew him well.

Rawlins was one of Australia’s first music journalists. He seems to have been a follower of Hindu spirituality and loved telling people about the times he met Bob Dylan.

“Certainly Adrian Rawlins was king of the hippies,” Smarty says. “Not saying that didn’t make him a giant jackarse.

“Someone made a comparative documentary between the bikie scene and the hippie scene.

“The bikies were really kinda lovely and Adrian was such a c***hole.”

Rawlins mellowed with time, though.

“My Adrian was a lot more pleasant and genteel and still loved the young men, but was respectful.

“Watching that stuff when he was king of the hippies, where he’s like oh, you’re my acolyte. Is that what you thought the hippie movement was, you f***ing f***?”

Smarty expects the statue to age over centuries. He wants it that way and he says so does the sculptor, Peter Corlett.

“[Yarra Council] tried to rust proof the statue and the guy who made it, his wife is a lawyer. And [she] went, you get that s*** off it.

“They had to strip all the f****ing rust proof off him. I like to think he would have found the whole thing hilarious. And very touched that so much attention was being paid to himself. And that people were rubbing him a lot.

“Eventually the laughing fat man will rust. And rust he will and rust it should. I don’t mean that in a mean way, I just like the idea of him being indicative of life.

“He was my friend … Adrian brought a lot of people together.”

Smarty uses his decades of talent to run open mics at Club Tago Mago in Thornbury every other Thursday. The main event is called Blame Smarty and it has an intimate, rowdy crowd. They make enough noise for a packed house and drink enough to destroy the millennia-old beer industry.

“Poets drink like pigs,” he keeps saying.

Spoken word is verbal graffiti. In a world of art that outlasts civilisations, these artists know their work will disappear right away. At the same time it feels like this craft has been around forever and will never die. It just collects more history.

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Image Credit: Brendan Bonsack

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