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

By | 1 October 2020

Other poets were on staff at the ABC in the 1980s. John Tranter was executive producer of the Radio Helicon program and made several features on poets, including John Forbes. Amanda Stewart made programs on sound poetry, as well as other features, for The Listening Room. But for me, Robyn Ravlich was the poet mentor with whom I had the longest and closest relationship. In her recently published autobiography Skywriting: Making Radio Waves (2019), she describes her approach to radio as ‘skywriting poetry … writing voices and sounds in the ether’ (44). That’s exactly what I wanted to do. Like her, I’m fascinated by the idea of radiophonic combinations of voices and sounds that communicate in a language that we feel first, and understand later.

The distilled imagism of her poetry for the page guided her radio scripts on all manner of topics, and I wanted to emulate that style. Robyn made many programs that were not based on poetry as such, but were nonetheless deeply poetic: features such as ‘The Eternity Enigma’, ‘The Graveyard Gate’ and ‘The Raft of the Medusa’, with their pared narration, repetition, and overlapping and layering of voices and sounds. One of her features that was specifically based on a poem was her interpretation of ‘Deserta Rerum’ by Kate Jennings, first broadcast on Surface Tension in 1987. ‘Deserta Rerum’ means ‘things of the desert,’ and it was assembled from Kate’s poems about her Riverina childhood, letters from her father, and quotations about the region from other sources. For the radio version, Robyn added three readers, environmental sound and commissioned piano music composed by Vineta Lagzdina.

The Listening Room succeeded Surface Tension as ABC radio’s experimental arts program in 1988. Here I heard some extraordinary poetry features such as Tony MacGregor’s program on John Giorno, and Andrew McLennan’s ‘Baby of the Beats’ which included a recording of Michael McClure performing his ‘Ghost Tantras: the Beast Language Poems’ to the lions at the San Francisco Zoo, with the lions joining in live! I was to go on to make several acoustic art features for The Listening Room when Robyn Ravlich was executive producer of the program, and in turn, Robyn made a dozen brilliant features for Poetica when I was co-ordinating producer.

In 1990, I began working as Jaroslav Kovaricek’s sound engineer on his Inner Space program on ABC Classic FM. Inner Space was based around music, poetry and spirituality. Jaroslav had a degree in musicology from Prague’s Charles University, and he brought his musicological training to Inner Space. He used ambient music and natural sound mixed under the words, and bilingual poetry. The approach was meditative and based on psychoacoustic theory, and I picked up some of my ‘slow radio’ style from him.

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