A Poet’s Progress in the ABC: Reflections on a Life in Radio

By | 1 October 2020

Keith Richards had come back from Europe with a collection of cassette tapes and one he lent me had a big influence. ‘Five Man Humanity’ was a soundwork produced by the Austrian poets Friederike Mayröcker and Ernst Jandl. A Dadaist radio drama, it arranged voices into stanzaic structures and used audio refrains, puns and metaphors. It opened my mind to the possibility that audio itself could use the tropes and structures of poetry.

‘Mike Ladd and the Drum Poets’ gained a bit of attention in Sydney. I was encouraged to produce more programs and I was invited to a workshop given by L’Atelier de Création Radiophonique’s René Farabet and Kaye Mortley when they visited ABC Melbourne. There were further international exchanges with experimental program makers; later I met Harri Huhtamäki, a great feature maker from Finland. I had just produced my first full-length poetry feature, ‘Talking Drum: African sources in performance poetry’, for Radio Helicon. I played it to Harri and he bought it for Finnish radio. Harri was very interested in poetry. He played me his beautiful radio interpretation of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, delivered as fragments of text in long, lonely, natural soundscapes.

In 1986, the Surface Tension team arrived in Adelaide to cover the Festival of Arts, and I was assigned to them as their sound engineer. Surface Tension was an experimental arts program that pushed the boundaries of radio in Australia at that time. It was interventionist in style, interacting with existing artworks to create new radio art. The team consisted of Tony MacGregor, Andrew McLennan, Robyn Ravlich and Martin Harrison. Both Martin and Robyn were published poets, and their radio work was an exciting new influence for an aspiring poetry producer like me.

Martin had me randomly spool interview tapes and play them wherever they happened to stop, live to air, during the Surface Tension broadcast. These were the days of analogue. ‘Fast forward! Stop! Play!’ he commanded in the control room, throwing his hands about like an orchestral conductor. It was the craziest, most random radio I’d ever been involved in. I remember the guys in master control shaking their heads when we walked out of the studio after the broadcast. Nobody at the ABC seems game to do that kind of experimenting anymore.

Not long after this, I heard Martin’s extraordinary production ‘Sea Surface Full of Clouds’, based on Wallace Stevens’ poem of the same name. The original poem is set on a cruise ship off the coast of Mexico, on a still morning; it was written after a voyage Stevens and his wife took in 1923. It’s a very formal poem composed of five sections of six stanzas with three lines each, all in iambic pentameter. The poem is based on a series of returns to the same elements: coast, sea, morning light, clouds, chocolate, umbrellas, blue, a line of French. These elements return in exactly the same order, but seen in a different way or with different adjectives attached. In effect, we get five different seascapes of the same subject, revelling in colour changes, the way Monet did when he painted his different versions of the same haystacks. ‘Sea Surface Full of Clouds’ is not so much about getting the seascape ‘right,’ through the perfect description of that place and time. Instead, the poem becomes a description of the act of describing: a work about the mind’s love of imaginative comparators.

Devised by Arne Goldman and produced by Martin Harrison, the radio adaptation of ‘Sea Surface Full of Clouds’ uses readings of short excerpts from the poem, Stevens’ diary entries and correspondence, and literary criticism; it mixes these with crackly 1920’s music, sea sounds, footsteps on a wooden floor in an empty room, and pages being turned in a book, in a series of refrains. Sometimes the elements are faded in and out, and at other times they are deliberately jump cut and glitched. What we get is not an explanation of the poem, or even a reading of it, but rather a new radio poem in the spirit of Stevens, his aesthetic and imagination.

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