This interview was conducted by email, June 17, 2002.
To email Thom.
Liz's feature on Queensland poetry in Spring 2002.
Liz's interview with the political activist Willy Bach
Liz is a Contributing Editor for The Drunken Boat
An Interview with Thom the World Poet
By Liz Hall-Downs
Thom: Street Poetry is premised upon the idea that poetry belongs to EVERYBODY-that poetry is a living, breathing art form and not just a museum of antiquities - and that access to poetry can and should be universal and a positive experience for all who choose it. In terms of impact-open mikes still flourish in Melbourne more than in any other Australian city - and independent publishing is acknowledged as a solution to the impasse of publishers who spend time NOT publishing poetry! Certain Street Poets are still active - Bridh Hancock, Ken Smeaton, Pamela Sidney - and a new generation of feral poets are simmering in Melbourne coffee shops and even inner city pubs. Street Poetry had theatres (Living Room Theatre, Carringbush Theatre), Coffee Shops (e.g. Parachute, Raglan Cafe, New Commune, Cafe Jammin), and even pubs (e.g. Rochester Castle, Provincial, Albion), although we were always more an ALL AGES, ALL SEXES, ALL COMERS phenomenon - with outreach to Bendigo, Daylesford, New England (Tamworth), Sydney, Adelaide , Geelong and anywhere Street Poetry was possible. Certain heroes are remembered: Zonk! (who joined the Krishnas - "better food, more money"); Dr Rod Bretherton (RU486 advocate), Stuart MacDonald (Geelong Street Poets); Alicia Stammers (Women's Street Poetry), Anita Sinclair (Workhouse Theatre). Some have died or moved on to other pursuits-poetry was always a joy rather than a crusade-and Street Poetry remains largely a memory for the participants (and those touched by their work!) Those sheets of Street Poetry in the LaTrobe library (Victoria) under Ephemeralia (500 sheets of poetry distributed daily at the corner of Swanston and Flinders) and later 3000 at lunchtime in the Bourke Street Mall - and many many given out at rock concerts - all remembered by those who choose to.
Liz Hall-Downs: You left Australia some 12 years ago, how have your activities as a poet changed as a result? Any comparisons between the Australian and American scenes?
Thom: America - specifically Austin,Texas - has allowed me to initiate many Festivals and new venues - as well as move on from broadsheets to books of independently published poetry. I have been able to tour many English and Australian poets through America, and keep open readings alive in Austin. I have toured England every year for 12 years ,and returned to Oz for the Brisbane and Sydney Poetry Festivals - as well as many independent gigs organised by friends. At present I have 85 books of poetry, 7 CDs and 35 tapes - largely Improvised, with music. I have supported Russell Crowe's band in Austin, Bob Dylan in Kansas City, Big Brother and the Holding Company in San Francisco and Roy Harpur in Cleveland - as well as Hawkwind in the same city. There are several marked contrasts between Australian and American poetry scenes - Australia has much more governmental support for poetry, yet still clings to pubs as venues. America has enthusiasm but no financial support for poetry, and the scene revolves around coffee shops.
Liz Hall-Downs: You're very much a poet in the oral tradition, and in recent years have moved further and further into improvisation. Can you speak a little about this, why you do it, its advantages and disadvantages, and how improvisation differs from work that's produced specifically for the page? What do you think of 'poetry slams'?
Thom: IMPROVISATION is how I started poetry - at Nimbin, in the Buttery in 1973-and how I stay fresh each moment. (Nimbin is a small dairying town in northern New South Wales that became the hub of Australia's 'alternative lifestyle' movement in the early 1970s, kicked off by the 1973 'Aquarius Festival.) I work with many musicians around the world - and we all make it up as we go along. Much of this work is best on tape, radio and CD - the page reveals a thinness and shallowness not conducive to repeated readings - but often multiple listenings. The devaluation of the oral tradition needs to be remedied, and memory and improvisation are traditional folk tools - for all art forms, but especially poetry! Bards were expected to be able to improvise as well as remember epics. Attention spans need to be extended. BRING BACK RADIO!
Regarding slams. I have started slams (e.g. at the Glastonbury
at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London), been featured in
(Farrago Slam in London, Cheltenham Literature Festival Slam, Berkeley
Slam), have won slams (at the Electric Lounge and
Planet Theater in Austin), and staged slams at my own Austin
International Poetry Festival. Over time, I see serious faults in the
model - rewarding not the best poet or poem - rather the best
and being based upon sports models and competition models. I choose a
JAM MODEL - a circle of co-operative, risk-taking individuals - all of
whom are acknowledged for their contribution to the moment! ROUND
- where everyone gets one poem at a time - and everyone is heard -
still inspire me, as does hip-hop improv free flight freeform poesy!
Thom the World Poet has published 85 books, 7 CDs, 35 poetry tapes. He considers himself a classical improviser in the bardic tradition, and, as a troubadour at large, has traveled between his native Australia, adopted Texas and lovable England
itinerantly. Thom has been Writer In Residence at Kansas City School of Performing Arts
ARTS(1995), Charles Sturt University (New South Wales, Australia, 1997), and
Dickinson University New Jersey (2000).
Co-founder of the Austin International Poetry Festival, Thom has been featured at Paddington International Poetry Festival (2000-2001), the Cheltenham Literature Festival and Voices Off Festivals
(1996-2002), the Glastonbury Festival (1996), London Jazz Festival (1996), Bradford Festival(1998) and toured by the Arts Council of Wales (1995-6) and
Yorkshire Library Service (1996-8). Thom has performed in schools in Yorkshire, Cornwall, Wales, and all over
England. He has toured English poets for the past 10 years through Texas.
To email Thom.