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

By | 1 October 2020

In 2000, I had a secondment with The Listening Room in Sydney where I made a full-length poetry feature on Barry Hill’s ‘Desert Canticles’. I also made what I thought of as a radio ode. ‘On the Hay Plain’ was a ninety-minute lyric celebration of place, made from four days of wandering around the Hay Plain collecting sounds and voices. It was non-linear, free-ranging, slow radio, and used a sound rhyme for a refrain. I noticed that one of the most characteristic sounds of the plain was the doppler effect of large trucks on the Sturt highway approaching, passing, and then disappearing into the wide horizon. That sound seemed to define the wide open space. I also noticed it ‘rhymed’ with the sound of a breath drawn in at length and then let out, which also conveyed a personal sense of space and freedom. This breathing/truck audio rhyme is used as punctuation throughout the program.

While I was working for The Listening Room in 2000 I also made a formal radio poem in tercets, called ‘About Love’. This began as a soundscape for a group art exhibition, in which people with an intellectual disability created artworks in a professional studio space alongside two artists: Bronwyn Platten and John Foubister. To produce the original soundscape, Platten simply asked the participants to talk about love, which they did freely, giving their personal thoughts unmasked.

For the radio poem I then combined these recorded thoughts with music, made from electronically processing an ancient instrument called the lyra, together with sounds drawn from folklore and fairy tales concerning love: footsteps through a snowy forest, a cradle rocking, a spinning wheel, a horse, a sword, a kiss, a nightingale, a flame, a joyful cascade of bells. These elements were assembled into tercets where the ‘lines’ were A sounds, B music, and C voices alternating in a regular pattern: ABC, ABC, ABC. ‘Rhyme’ was achieved between the lines by the harmonic relation of the lyra notes, the storybook feel of the sounds, and the speakers’ focus on what love meant for them. The pattern determined the progress of the work, not any sense of telling a story with a beginning, middle and end. It was a poem, not a documentary.

I dreamed of expanding this experiment with tercets into a radio villanelle of 21 ‘lines’ arranged in a strict pattern with certain refrains. I never achieved it. The space for this kind of work disappeared after the axing of The Listening Room in 2003. I also never found the right material that would bear this kind of translation from written poetry to radio. That is not to say I have given up!


Poetica represented the peak of my progress within the ABC monolith. It was the work I felt I was meant to do – heart work – and since its demise I have not had the same freedom or resources. The Radio Drama department was abolished in 2013 when Michael Mason was head of ABC radio. Poetica survived for two more years by shifting into Features. When the Radio Features department was cut in half in 2015, Poetica ceased being broadcast, but we left a healthy online archive. Thereafter, poetry had a temporary place on the Earshot program, and it appeared in Soundproof (2014-2018, the last official home of audio art on ABC radio) which presented the work of Nick Keys, Amanda Stewart, Alicia Sometimes and others. I have stayed on in the Features unit, mainly making history documentaries, injecting a bit of poetry into the programs where I can.

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