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

By | 1 October 2020

That same year, working with sound engineer Stuart Hall (he and Tom Henry were my long-time collaborators), I made a feature for Radio Helicon called ‘Cries and Calls’. It was the result of seven years of collecting voices: street hawkers, rag and bone men, newspaper sellers, bingo callers, auctioneers, market spruikers, and soap box orators. I was interested in people who used their voices in public in musical or performative ways, but who were not formally musicians or poets. What resulted was a kind of sound poetry of streets, shops and parks. I worked with Sarah Depasquale (violin), Bernard Depasquale (piano) and Steven Fleming (double bass), and we created a series of instrumental compositions drawn directly from the vocal material.

‘Last News’ – excerpt from ‘Cries and Calls’


Concurrently with my radio work, I was continuing to write poetry for the page, as well as for live performance in a succession of groups: The Drum Poets, newaural net and Max Mo. My radio work resulted in an increased focus on sound and sound imagery, and the use of other voices, in my poems. For example, my third book Close to Home has a section called ‘Voice Inserts’ which uses other voices in much the same way as interview excerpts in radio features. Another example is the later poem ‘Audio Couplets’ where the influence of working with sound effects in radio dramas and features can be clearly seen:

A Vespa moaning in a distant street,
orgasms filtered through the wall.

Warm applause in a concert hall,
pissing down all bloody week.

High-heeled footsteps across the floor,
hammering roofing nails into a log.

The calls of a green tree frog,
transits through a squeaky door.

Cicadas in the noon day heat,
edge trimmers marking us from them. 

An ambulance rives the city’s hem,
all the dogs howling in the street. (145)

The traditional word rhymes are displaced out of the couplets into an ABBA CDDC pattern. But the true couplets, AA, BB, and CC, are found in imagining the sounds described. Thus a Vespa sounds like an orgasm, applause like rain, cicadas like edge trimmers, etc. What the poem has to say, beyond simply being playful, is: ‘notice sounds in the world, and how unlike things may sound alike – there’s a beautiful strangeness to this.’

When Keith Richards retired in 1993, I was eventually appointed to replace him as a producer in the Radio Drama department in Adelaide, and given the role of national poetry co-ordinator. It had taken me a decade to move from technician to producer. My colleagues in Adelaide were Jaroslav Kovaricek and Krystyna Kubiak, and we worked on dramas, book readings, short stories and poetry. We made features for The Box Seat poetry program, and then in 1997 we established Poetica. I’m not going to go into enormous detail about Poetica, since much has already been written about it; see for example Prithvi Varatharajan’s interview with me in Southerly in 2017.

Let me just say we lasted for 18 years on air, made over 900 broadcasts, and employed many poets here in Australia and overseas. We reached a peak audience of 90,000 listeners per week. I was given great support by producers from within the Radio Drama department: Libby Douglas, Justine Sloane-Lees, Anna Messariti, Jane Ulman, Christopher Williams, Anne Wynter and Krystyna Kubiak. We also employed freelance producers such as Robert de Young, Fiona Croall and the poet Varatharajan.

We had a very broad brief that gave me almost complete editorial freedom, and we were able to experiment with radio forms and ideas. Poetica commissioned original music, and new poetry. Some of our projects were large scale – Vikram Seth’s verse novel The Golden Gate was four hours long, employed 18 actors, and used Vikram himself as narrator. The authentic sound effects were recorded in San Francisco and we commissioned Elena Kats Chernin to compose original music. The project was expensive, but with co-funding from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation it worked out to be affordable.

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