Review: Lucy Vanon π.O.

Getting Shirty

It’s a classic. It feels good. I’m talking about a poem. And I’m talking about a t-shirt. What’s a t-shirt? A t-shirt is something an Australian poet on an international tour with three others might wear. A t-shirt is something an Australian poet on tour with three others might wear and wash, or refuse to wash; might refuse to stop wearing. I’m talking about π.O.’s tour t-shirt. I’m talking about π.O.’s dirty t-shirt tour, which materialises here, four decades later, as the chronicle-in-verse called The Tour.  

Question: why won’t he change his shirt?  
Answer: he doesn’t want to.  
Answer: he doesn’t have to.  
Answer: the others tell him to: 

Part of me wonders why π.O. didn’t just change his t-shirt. I’m reminded of that strange scene in the John Carpenter film, They Live (1988), where construction worker Frank refuses to wear Johnny Nada’s ‘reality’ sunglasses. The audience is stunned by the dragged-out street brawl. Why does it last so long? Why is he so contrary? Why won’t he wear the glasses? Just put on the bloody glasses! Just change your bloody shirt! (Just change your bloody ideology!)  

America may have invented the dirty t-shirt, but the t-shirt itself has been around since the European Middle Ages (according to what I’ve read in Vogue). It began as an undergarment in a ‘T’ shape and was considered easy to clean. Advances in knitting technology in the nineteenth century meant that the garment could be mass-produced and made to fit tighter to the body. British sailors wore them under their uniforms; by the end of the century, their navy had allowed them to wear the shirts as outerwear while working on deck. The t-shirt as outerwear revolution had begun, with working-class men soon wearing their t-shirts on the weekend (a calendrical designation that was another recent revolution). Half a century later, Hollywood made the t-shirt part of the iconic costume of libidinous, counter-cultural males (A Place in the Sun, The Wild One, Rebel Without a Cause). From the 1960s, screen-printing technologies made the t-shirt a blank slate for slogans and graphics, ranging in theme from the political to the humorous to the advertorial to the abstract (the iconic Smiley ideogram t-shirt springs to mind, as does the I HEART NY tee).  

For the cynic, the pursuit of personal freedom of expression feels a little like the pursuit of a t-shirt. Freedom of expression can seem a received form, a mode prone to marketese and cliché. If everyone dresses like Marlon Brando’s Wild One, who has expressed themselves through dress? Nothing is less free than free verse, to put it another way. For me, the t-shirt also makes me think about freedom of expression, though I’m less concerned with its production-line aspects. What we have in a t-shirt as opposed to, say, a button-up shirt or a three-piece suit, is a thin veil for what is under the shirt. The t-shirt maintains its origin as underwear in its direct contact with the body. One doesn’t need to wear anything under a t-shirt. What is under a t-shirt? All sorts of wonderful things: necklaces, collarbones, breasts, nipples, skin, hair. And under all that, ribs, lungs, a (hopefully) beating heart, guts (hopefully) not too full of shit. I love the ambiguity of the t-shirt: conformist counter-culture one way, with affective resistance, if you don’t wash, coming around the other side. On the other hand: what is comfortable, allowing for relatively free movement of the body as well as relative flattening of socio-economic status offers a site of incredible gentrification. I’m not sure what the most expensive t-shirt in the world is at the moment, but I do know that it’s possible to spend just south of $7,000 dollars on the relaxed-fit printed leather Bottega Veneta tee.  

Yet the t-shirt still bears the capacity to shock and offend. While preparing this review, I heard about a man who was asked to remove his ‘offensive’ Justice for Palestine t-shirt while attempting to board a Virgin Australia flight out of Brisbane. Most especially, as π.O. shows, the t-shirt offends when the body directly marks the t-shirt – when it smells, when it isn’t clean. When it bears grime and stench, material pleasure becomes a sensorium of displeasure for (potential) others, depending, of course, on who one’s fellow travellers might be.  

Who are π.O.’s fellow travellers? A Washington Post reporter meets the group of poets to cover the tour, jointly funded by the Literature Board of the Australian Council and the Guggenheim Foundation. ‘He hadn’t heard of us, or heard any of us read,’ observes the poet, imagining being written up later as ‘just another “Blob of Poets” passing thru’. In the manner of a roman à clef, the verse chronicle names none of the three other poets. They remain an indistinguishable blob, ironing their (presumably collared) shirts and rehearsing their readings, pious and cloistered in the tour’s various hotel rooms. With the Tour Organiser (also unnamed), they blob together admiring Rembrandts and Van Eycks at the Frick Museum, saying ‘“Wow!” what a great / bloke Frick was!’ Realising that Frick was ‘that very same prick who / SHOT all those Workers (outside the factory gate) during / the General Strike in 1892’; a sickened π.O. tells the group he isn’t going to stay. Presumably, the rest of the group remains; the speaker suggests they think he’s ‘far too contraire’.  

In their silly vanities and their colonial reverence for imperialism and the ruling class, π.O. paints this blob crudely, I suppose. But this is a big part of the charm of the book—its retrospective tale of heroism and villainy outlines a classic class war that requires no subtlety. Anglo-Australian bourgeois subtlety is one of the core problems! 

If we understand its overarching rhetorical strategy, we don’t ask the designations in The Tour to aim for historical accuracy. Those seeking the names of the poets, and evidence of their practical distinctions, profoundly miss the point. In his review of the book, Craig Billingham writes that, 

the portrayal of the other poets is unsatisfactory. Not knowing their identity allows Pi O to position them as privileged Anglo-Australians. They are not just bores and boring poets, it is being asserted, but casual and even overt racists. Strong accusations, but done rather weakly. Why not tell us who they are? 

Leaving aside a couple of irritations – including the sense that the accusation of racism is more damaging than the experience of it – the problem with Billingham’s position is that it misapprehends the function of π.O.’s not-telling.  

Not-telling does not weaken the account. Rather, biographical uncertainty strengthens the riddling qualities of the gossipy text, purposively leading the reader to guess, throwing them back into the text in search of clues, keeping the question alive and maintaining the coterie feel of the book. It’s a nice feeling for the reader to be placed inside the rhythm and momentum of gossip; I would argue that the preservation of anonymity only serves to heighten this sense of being in on the story. And something about being ‘in on it’ always – albeit briefly – makes one feel they could live forever: we might remember that fama incorporates gossip, rumour, as well as poetic renown within its ambiguous, semantically inseparable signification. (This is something Gavin Matts touches on in his recent comedy special: ‘I just need a good secret to keep me going. I just need a good secret. It’s like, has anyone ever told you something? You’re like: “Oh, Imma live forever.”’) Romans à clef generally bear a scandal or mystery while, crucially, never securing the identities of its extraliterary characters. What is the mystery of The Tour? The mystery of who is a dickhead? The point is precisely that the question should never be answered. We are saddened, then, to see the allegorical potential of The Tour cut by 25% when Geoff Page outs himself as one of the touring poets. Mystery solved! 

Who would deny the textual pleasure of infinite conjecture? Adding to this critical loss, Page kills the blob another way when he outlines the classificatory logic of the tour – there was a ‘rural conservative’ poet, an ‘ultra-modernist’ poet, a ‘feminist’ poet and, tellingly, what Page calls an ‘ethnic performance’ poet. Mmmmm. Like protagonists in a demented Captain Planet, their ‘powers combine’ to unleash the breadth of Australian talent on a 1980s poetry world. Sounds horrible. The sense that the tour was duty-bound to make Australia look good surely doubled the travail sense of travel. Travelling with others always seems like a good idea when the plans are made and can lead to some great stories afterward. But in between? Oh, I don’t know: a lot of average meals? (‘Eat, eat, eat, eat — that’s / all we seem to do on this plane’). A lot of average meals in average company? 

And between the meals? Collective neuroses, interminable compromise, a lot of walking around, a lot of feeling that one is never doing the thing one would like to do. Sharing rooms with snorers. Sitting in the backseat. A lot of pissing people off, being pissed off, feeling excluded (after a reading at the Australian Consulate in NYC, the group apparently monopolises John Ashbery: ‘no one / told me, or bothered to introduce me’), wanting to exclude oneself. And, at every turn, the demands of the other – rendered in The Tour as change your shirt! – becomes a fascinating instrument of torture. Page observes, ‘[s]adly’, that much of The Tour is concerned with the conflict between the tour organisers and the other poets. ‘It’s hard to see what the point of all this is,’ he frets. I couldn’t agree less.  

There’s a line in Fitzroy, the middle book of π.O.’s epic trilogy that reads: ‘[i]f you want an audience, start a fight.’ Working-class audiences know the pleasure of pugilism, which pleases precisely when the stakes are low. And we should agree, for the sake of perspective, and for our own collective literary health, that the stakes are often very low indeed. If you want an audience, start a fight. As an aside, I find myself slightly frustrated by the conventional placement of the comma in this line: an errant comma that comes between the verb and its subject is a gold-standard π.O.ism. The proper π.O. way to render this line – that is, as a sui generis linguistic event – might be: ‘If you want, an audience / start, a fight.’ Back to the main point, I’m sorry that this review will be a positive one given the importance of pugilism to the poet’s career – he is on the record as the least anthologised and most infamous of the poets of his generation (according to Komninos Zervos, author of π.O.’s entry in the reference dictionary, Australian Writers, 1975-2000). If you want an audience among the reading public, start a fight with a major publisher. And, if you want an audience with Penguin – a place at their publishing table, so to speak – start a fight with Penguin. (More on this later.) Finally, if you want an audience with the genteel, repressed, Anglo-upper-middle class world of Australian writing: well, you know what to do. We seem to fight too seldom in this country, knife fights in phone booths notwithstanding.  

The second time π.O.’s dirty t-shirt is raised as a point of contention, the Tour Organiser is prepared. They have a new threat up their sleeve: 

The end of this poem flows into the very poem in question, ‘Vol/Fol’: 

The chronicle format of the collection affords many wonderful swerves into the deeper cuts. There is a wonderful pleasure in reading π.O.’s early 1980s poems within the frame narrative of The Tour, as if we find them in their wild, originary state, as if chronicling their story this way could overcome the transience of those first live occasions. One thinks of the ancient Greek poets and their attempts to master transience.  

The circumstances and occasions that bring about these exhibitions also drive other rich textual encounters. The poet buys many books and records (there is an enviable album of Nikki Giovanni’s poetry). We are tantalised, too, by the near misses – he meets a poet at St. Marks who has just come from an Anti-Apartheid reading where ‘the likes of Sonia Sanchez, June / Jordan, Amiri (and Amina) Baraka, Pedro Pietri, Jayne Cortez, and many others had just performed’. He is ‘soooooo’ pissed off he missed it. He also misses Kenneth Koch, who, though nobody says, is present at the ‘Y’ reading. But in Eugene, Oregon, after reading to the boring ‘rich professors’ who inhabit the University town, π.O. makes a connection when he finds himself in the dorm room of Liz, a beautiful anarchist and reader of poetry. Or rather, he finds himself in the form of his close Melbourne comrade, Jas H. Duke, and the legendary ‘Shit Poem’ that is taped to the door of Liz’s toilet.  

‘— Ffffffffff’aa—uck! Me Dead!’ Duke’s poem had been originally published by 925, edited by π.O., and had just been anthologised in Off the Record, also edited by π.O. The poem was censored by ABC Radio National. It had also travelled halfway across the world, reprinted in an anarchist journal, to be torn out by Liz and pasted to her toilet door.   

What an amazing thought, to think there was any power or point in outing a poet as a public servant, an ‘ordinary worker’ if ever there were one. Supporting self and art through his work as a draughtsman, π.O. had, by the time of the tour, already been a gun in the anarchist, working-class small press scene in Melbourne since the 1970s, with his early editorial in magazines such as Fitzrot, Born to Concrete, and Khasmick Press, leading to the creation of the legendary Melbourne magazine, 925

Photograph courtesy of @minireadinggroup Instagram account.

This is π.O.’s editorial for Issue 2 of 925 (1979). What makes this so quintessentially π.O.? Is it simply the emphatic desire to render working life – which is, for those who must work, where so much of life must be lived – in print? Is it the capacious address, graphically emphasised by the all-caps and underline, ‘HELLO EVERYONE’? Is it the political demand that such an address involves – that ‘everyone’ must mean, well, everyone? I love seeing the call for welders (my dad was one); love, too, the call for ‘Housewives’ (my mum was one), whose situation of diffused alienation is powerfully spliced with that of prisoners and wards of state in a couple of suggestive slashes. By comparison, a perspective capable of such a connection feels emphatically unalienated. Could it be the confluence of ‘everyone’, in political, formal, and typographical senses, that marks this as a π.O. piece of writing? ‘Everyone’ means welders and housewives and fables and jokes and capital letters and underlines and exclamation marks. It’s all heading toward that final imperative: ‘[s]o come on!’ It feels good to be part of everyone. Ok – as I’m invited, I’ll come! The publication was produced by contributors and distributed for free – loose, noble anarchism feels good! 

People felt so good about the call of 925 that by Issue 7, the print run had grown to 3,000 copies. In the edition’s editorial, Pi wrote that:  

Photograph courtesy of @minireadinggroup Instagram account.

At feeding time, indeed! Sometime in the early 1980s, between the appearance of Issues 14 and 15 of 925, π.O. contacted a publisher at Penguin to suggest they anthologise the first 20 editions of 925 and call it The Works. Evidently, this was not an acceptable proposal: Issue 15 of 925 appeared with a penguin on the front cover, crossed out in red, and a call from the editor for a ban on Penguin books. Issue 16’s editorial continued the vitriol against mainstream publishing in general and Penguin in particular. But we lose the plot for this conflict soon after; π.O.’s anthology of performance poetry, Off the Record, appeared in 1985, published by Penguin.  

The fight that was momentarily resolved in the publication of Off the Record connects with another significant conflict. In the introduction to the anthology, π.O. makes a claim for the provenance of ‘performance poetry’, suggesting that it was first used in 1978 at the Adelaide Writers’ Week, when, with other members of the newly formed Poets’ Union (PU), he used it to describe poetic activity other than print published work. (At another session, PU heckled David Malouf with cries of ‘bullshit!’ and ‘traitor!’) Zervos queries the historical accuracy of the 1978 location of ‘performance poetry’ but accepts that it is likely that the ‘performance poets’ designation originated at this Adelaide session. Thinking of the poet’s overall career, Zervos credits π.O. with mounting a successful campaign for the acceptance of performance poetry, ‘as a separate yet equally valid form of representation of poetry’. It’s an admirable legacy –but is the biographer sure of the genre’s intrinsic worth? ‘Separate yet equal’? Hmmmmm.  

In his review of The Tour, Page puts the terms ‘own kind’ and ‘own persuasion’ to similar use: ostensibly, these simply intend to designate performance poets, but one tends to feel the racialising logic that underpins literary hierarchies – ethnic performance poet – running right through it. The association between performance and racial exclusion has form, a history with origins locatable in the mid-century Black Liberation movement in the United States. For example, writing of Amiri Baraka’s (formerly LeRoi Jones’) radical reorientation to Black Power and Harlem, which included a concerted effort to root a new poetics in performance, Kenneth Rexroth suggested in With Eye and Ear that Baraka ‘has succumbed to the temptation to become a professional Race Man … His loss to literature is more serious than any literary casualty of the Second War.’ Strangely hyperbolic modes of reproach have often accompanied the presumed page/stage asymmetrical binary (which always sounds absurdly reductive), perpetuating an idea that the high-art calling of poetry is somehow forfeit if the poetry polemically (read: directly) addresses the conditions of how other folk (read: queer writers, writers of colour, women writers, working-class writers) might literally be heard.  

I think π.O. wore the t-shirt throughout the tour because his art demanded it. On tour, the dirty t-shirt became the standard bearer for his poetic project: direct, expressive, full of life, showing so many intimate signs of the vitality of its wearer. It was the clothing of a poetry that worked, in both senses of the word: 

I hope that the loaded question of the ‘value’ of poetry like π.O.’s – which I love, and which I call ‘performance poetry’ only because he does (I see no adequate reason to maintain the page/stage distinction) – is no longer a question we find it necessary to ask, or an asymmetrical distinction we feel it necessary to reproduce.  

As π.O. shows us, Australia has form in lampooning the ‘whole “performance poetry” scene’. Not long after the tour ends, word ‘gets out’ about the trip. People with ‘contacts’ are mad, and the dirty t-shirt tour finds its first retrospective account in the Sydney Morning Herald, where the poet reads of: 

In Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro, Baraka speaks of James Baldwin’s insistence that black writers remember that in African societies, art always served a direct social purpose. It was right and proper, to both writers, that poetry should be a place where we talked about the society in which we live. From this perspective, political, or even polemical, poetry could never be dismissed as snarling dogma (‘“Dogma?”/ / “Doggerel son!”’), or seen as at odds with the core value of poetry. Resistance to the high-art calling of poetry might nurture an ability to live more fully. I think this has been the case for π.O. But this is not to say that π.O.’s project can’t afford to be aesthetically or philosophically serious; such an argument wouldn’t hold for Baldwin (or Baraka) and won’t hold here. Innovation in thought and language are the abiding commitments of π.O.’s revolution.  

Pleasure is fully integrated into the political goals of the project, and we see the poet in The Tour committed to listening to music, looking at art, meeting people and sharing good food with them, those chosen fellow travellers for whom life is for the living. Readers are in for a good time – in part because when we redirect our bodies toward pleasure (and away from the labour market, information technology systems, and other alienated formations), we might place ourselves on a path to liberation. Readers are in for a bit of razzamatazz, but these good-time razzamatazzes are possible precisely because the lines are so disciplined in their craft, so cleanly observed, even when the life they follow gets a little scruffy. The graphic possibilities of typography are keenly pursued – π.O.’s concrete poetry equals his performance poetry – and game recognises game when he comes across this t-shirt at Portland Airport, copyright of ‘someone called Laurie’, and reproduces it in his book, forty years later, halfway around the world: 

It’s worth remembering that π.O. was a draughtsman throughout his working years (as was Duke). Drawing is the discipline that marries his working life with his life in poetry; in many ways, drawing is what the book is about. The Tour includes several drawings, both prosaic (baffling street signs) and abstract (notations for a jazz ensemble). There’s even a drawing of another drawing, Wayne Thiebaud’s ‘Towelling Off’ (1968), which the poet describes making: 

As a raw recording device, drawing can seem the most straightforward of the arts. But thinking of drawing quickly leads itself to paradox, ‘drawing’ out the art form’s constitutive fragility. Thinking of drawing in relation to Wallace Stevens’ poem, ‘Description without a Place’, Alain Badiou writes in The Age of the Poets that: 

In one sense, the paper exists, as a material support, as a closed totality; and the marks, or the lines, do not exist by themselves: they have to compose something upon the paper. But in another and more crucial sense, the paper as a background does not exist, because it is created as such, as an open surface, by the marks. It is that sort of movable reciprocity between existence and nonexistence that constitutes the essence of drawing. 

Drawing’s fragility is a ‘very intense fragility’, according to Badiou; it is ‘nothing else than the existence of the thing in a world’. This understanding of drawing reminds me to consider the significance of π.O.’s nominal auto-determinism. What is p, the longest number in nature and probably the most potent, if not, in the desire to describe the circle, the desire to approximate the hidden complexities of the ordinary world? 

Draw a line from Melbourne to San Francisco. Draw a circle around this line. The circle is the paradoxical essence bringing together being and appearing in the world – Badiou modifies Hamlet to describe drawing as the question of ‘to be and not to be’. When we travel, we distribute unto our destinations somewhat spurious representations of ourselves, though I believe these ersatz versions tell others everything they need to know about our desires, neuroses, and hang-ups. Call this distribution PR or call it drawing. The Tour Organiser wanted to represent Australia in a certain light: respectable, talented, meaningful, worthy. π.O. brought another picture of Australian poetry to the tour: bombastic, anarchic, entertaining, and unassimilable. By his account, this singular performance was the better representation at the time: who would deny the immodest pleasures of his authorial perversion?  

What makes The Tour the achievement of π.O.’s life, however, is that it actively bears the burden of the orders and disorders of our national poetry. This permits a reflection that was not available at the time, and aids a rescue – not simply of π.O.’s own experience on tour, but of the conditions in which Australian poetry has been written and lived, in our lifetimes and since it first began (with the inventor of Australia’s terra nullius, Barron Field). To quote Edward Said’s book on Conrad (I think a lot about Said right now), we have been living in ‘an atmosphere that exudes the feeling of something wrong, which has to be examined or recollected or relived or worked out’. Read from today’s perspective, π.O. functions as the symptom-bearer for an uncritically ‘representative’ mode of Australian poetry, often ludicrously unaware of the wrongness it exudes. The Tour shows us how our poetry might work otherwise in its brilliant chronicle of refusal (‘Who are THEY / to tell me to CHANGE my T-shirt?!!!’). Who are they, indeed? Find out at feeding time, I guess. 

I saw π.O. the other day at a reading. He read last, without getting on stage and without the microphone. He was wonderful: rhythmically assailing, still loud, still unassimilable. He was wearing a suit. He pressed the latest copy of Unusual Work into my hands, forgiving me, I think, for carelessly putting the audience to sleep when I read my poem earlier. It felt good.