Rebel poets: Shaking up the status quo

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The gruesome experience of reciting “I Love a Sunburnt Country,” coupled with the memory of drinking school milk that had been sitting in the sun for hours are two of the less pleasant memories of my suburban primary school education of the sixties. Despite this, I have come to love poetry — particularly the rebel variety. And Australia is well endowed with radical wordsmiths.

Poets past. Some verse is so well known that it is instantly recognisable, including much of Henry Lawson’s work. While Lawson is generally associated with bush ballads, it’s his other work that resonates with me. In Faces in the Street, Lawson paints a powerful word picture of the beat of weary, scrape of restless, tread of listless and drag of tired feet as a parade of city workers pass by.

And the image of red blood splattered on golden wattle evokes a particularly Australian image of class struggle: We’ll make the tyrants feel the sting/O’ those that they would throttle;/They needn’t say the fault is ours/ If blood should stain the wattle!

Lawson’s legacy is mixed. His nationalism led him to support the White Australia policy, like many in the labour movement of his time. And today, those from both the Right and the Left find inspiration in different pieces of his work.

Other radical poets, such as Bernard O’Dowd, a founding member of the Victorian Socialist Party (VSP), drew different conclusions. In 1912 he denounced the White Australia policy as “unbrotherly, undemocratic and unscientific.” He is best remembered for his pamphlet and lectures, Poetry Militant.

Another local with a radical legacy in verse is Marie Pitt. Born near Bairnsdale in 1869, Pitt was a socialist, feminist, poet and early ecologist. Her passion for nature is reflected in much of her work. She edited the VSP’s journal, The Socialist, and many of her more radical poems were about workers’ rights. In The Keening she characterises capitalists as fat blasphemers / Whose poppet heads mock the sky. She ends the poem with the promise we will come again for our own, referring to the women and children of the men that ye mowed like wheat.

Pitt spent that last 28 years of her life in a defacto relationship with O’Dowd. The pair lived and organised in Northcote and hosted many rebel readings. After Pitt’s death, O’Dowd erected a brass tribute to her that can still be seen at Bairnsdale Library.

Another socialist feminist poet and activist of this era was Lesbia Harford. Harford, who practiced free love, was also initially a member of the VSP, but soon became attracted to the more militant politics of the Industrial Workers of the World. Harford wrote volumes of poetry around the themes of women’s emancipation, sexuality and workers’ rights. Her poem, The Invisible People, is an ode to the labour of working women and men.

On the job. Work provides inspiration for many poets. I was a big fan of 925. The publication, giving exposure to a host of talented performance poets, was popular from 1978 to 1983 with over 3,000 copies distributed each issue. Over the six years, poets wrote about 155 different occupations in the pages of 925.

This piece, Two Types of Waitress, by Caterina Passoni, is a powerful statement on why feminists demand the right of women to enter the public world of work.

I work ten hours for eight hours pay.
“That’s better than double that for none!”
My husband won’t believe I’ve left his employ.
It hurts him I should serve all these tables
Italian food to strange men.
He wonders why I never served him
with such civility.
“Perhaps you have changed.
I want you back.”
He observes my room above my work is dark.
It is dark,
But it’s mine and private.
I have changed. That’s why I won’t go back.

In 1988, the Freedom Socialist Bulletin published Foot Plate Classics, a poem about work by Evelyn Robson that packs a punch. Robson worked as a locomotive assistant, training to be a train driver, and the sexist and homophobic rubbish that she and the other women trainees encountered motivated her to write the poem. Ev / is it true/ you’re a lesso / I’ve heard a rumour / that / all you girls are / you don’t / wear make up / you like / getting your / hands dirty / you want to drive trains / and / you don’t / watch men / walking up / station platform ramps.

Another local worker poet whose performances I love is building worker, George Despard. I encountered Georgie in the 1980s when his union, the Builders’ Labourers Federation, was resisting deregistration by the state Labor government. Georgie’s poem, Bloody Brick Walls, entertained participants at many protests and picket lines. And his Poem for John Cummins, paying tribute to the militant unionist’s leadership, is a history in verse remembering some of the big struggles in the industry, such as the battle against Leighton at 417 St Kilda Road. Epic struggles to improve safety in the building industry also feature in Despard’s ode to Cummo.

For those workers conscripted to fight in Vietnam, there was no trade union to take up the fight for their safety. But there was resistance on the streets and in verse. Geelong-born poet, Bruce Dawe, is often described as Australia’s anti-war poet. His poem, Homecoming, makes me think of yet another generation dispatched to do the bidding of imperialism in Afghanistan. Dawe wrote: they’re zipping them up in green plastic bags, / they’re tagging them now in Saigon, in the mortuary coolness / they’re giving them names, they’re rolling them out of / the deep-freeze lockers – on the tarmac at Tan Son Nhut / the noble jets are whining like hounds, / they are bringing them home.

No choice but to rebel. Writing about art and literature in 1938, Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, said works that are “a protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic, always forms part of a really creative piece of work. Every new tendency in art has begun with rebellion.” Aboriginal Australians have much to protest about!

One of Australia’s best-loved poets, and certainly one of mine, is Oodgeroo Noonuccal. In the best tradition of rebel poets, Noonuccal was both. She was a pioneering campaigner for Aboriginal rights, playing a key role in the 1967 referendum. In 1970, under her then name of Kathleen Walker, she was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire for services to the community. But she gave her MBE back to protest the upcoming Bicentennial Celebrations. She explained: “Next year, 1988, to me marks 200 years of rape and carnage … without any recognition even of admitted guilt from the parliaments of England.”

Noonuccal’s poetry is inspired by both her home on Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island) and her crushing experience of racism as an Aboriginal woman in Australia.

Her poem, No More Boomerang, which shows the influence of her membership of the Communist Party, has been set to music. The Coloured Stone rendition is a classic protest song. No more boomerang no more spear, /Now all civilised colour bar and beer.

No more sharing what the hunter brings,
Now we work for money and pay it back for things,
Now we track bosses to catch a few bob,
Now we go walkabout on bus to the job.

You’d be hard pressed to find a Aboriginal poet who is not a rebel. The experience of struggle and survival provides a rich source of inspiration for Indigenous poets who are among the most creative contemporary writers.

The work of the late Jack Davis also inspires my activism. Like Noonuccal, he was also an activist as well as a poet and playwright. His first book of poetry, The First Born and Other Poems, was published in 1970. In 1988, when the nation was encouraged to celebrate invasion, Davis’ trilogy, No Sugar, The Dreamers and Barungin (Smell the Wind), packed out Fitzroy Town Hall night after night as audiences flocked to learn about a very different story. You propped me up with Christ, red tape, / Tobacco, grog and fears, /Then disease and lordly rape /Through the brutish years. / Now you primly say you’re justified, / And sing of a nation’s glory, / But I think of people crucified — /The real Australian story.

Every day hundreds of tourists visit the historic Fremantle Prison. A memorial for 16-year-old John Pat, killed in police custody in Roebourne, was erected in September 1994 to honour the memory of all Aboriginal people who have died at the hand of the racist state. The poem, John Pat, by Davis is inscribed on the right hand side of the memorial. Write of life / the pious said/ forget the past / the past is dead./ But all I see / in front of me/ is a concrete floor
/ a cell door / and John Pat.
The poem is dedicated to Maisie Pat and to all mothers who have suffered similar loss.

Queer verse. I have many collections by local lesbian poets on my bookshelf. Luan Danaan’s Journey to the Matrix is inspired by her commitment to the environment, her feminism, her lesbianism and the experience of naming incest and child abuse. Helen Pausacker’s, A Lesbian Ragdoll, is a quirky collection about love and liberation. Mei Tze Is Also My Name is a book by Annie Ling, who says she wrote the poems as a “commitment to living as Chinese lesbian.”

Lee Cataldi, of Italian Australian heritage, describes herself as a socialist, inspired by the ’68 May uprising in France. She published her first book of poems, Invitation to a Marxist lesbian party, in 1978.

Cataldi has worked in Aboriginal communities, and this experience is also an important creative stimulus for her poetry, including this beautiful piece, Tears: your tears / are warm upon my face / would be warmer on my thigh / your tears / undoing / history could stop them / my history.

Cataldi’s poem, Gay Liberation, includes the line that provided the title for an anthology of poems and prose by Australian gay and lesbian writers, titled Edge City on Two Different Plans. Published in 1983 by the Sydney Gay Writers Collective, this is an excellent early collection for those wanting to sample an exciting range of queer writers.

On offer today.1 One of the best ways to sample today’s range of rebel poetry is to attend the many community-based readings. Solidarity Salon has hosted exciting poets, among them, Hidayet Ceylan and Pam Sidney.

Hidayet, who is Alevi, migrated from Turkey in 1997 and has been writing poetry in Turkish since 1999. Hidayet says: “I’m inspired by Alevi rebel poets, especially by Pir Sultan Abdal, who lived in the 16th century and rose up against the unjust rulers of the Ottoman Empire. I’m also inspired by Nazim Hikmet Ran, a rebel socialist Turkish poet who lived in the 20th century and wrote many poems for a just society and equal world.”

Hidayet believes that rebel poetry can help advance social change by “making human beings more aware of our values.” He uses his poetry as a weapon of struggle by having an acute awareness of “the oppression of the oppressor.” Hidayet feels himself “a part of all oppressed groups, including working class people, indigenous people, women, gays and lesbians, minorities and environmental movements.” He says: “I try to reflect the struggle of oppressed groups and environmental issues into my poetry and recite and publish them as much as I can.” When performing, Hidayet recites his work in Turkish and then translates it into English.

Pam Sidney commenced her creative life in theatre and music in 1964. She says: “I had no idea that decades on I’d be writing and performing poetry at most of Melbourne’s poetry venues.”

Pam spent years in music and theatre, including performing in rock operas. She says: “Big theatre soon beckoned. After a few serious auditions, I joined the cast of Irene, a big musical. In 1973, I played the eight-month Sydney season at Her Royal Majesty’s Theatre in the auspicious company of Julie Anthony, Noel Ferrier, Nancy Hayes and others — a very distinguished cast!”

In 1976, Pam headed to London where she worked with a musical theatre company, the BBC and “busked daily in London’s Underground Railway Tube, which unfailingly covered the food and rent.”

Pam sees 1983 as a turning point when, back in Melbourne, her daughter introduced her to Melbourne’s poetry scene. “Almost overnight I was writing poetry, had new friends, was busy performing poetry several nights a week.”

Pam’s writing quickly took on a rebellious character: “an important part of my writing became political: anti-war, social justice, green issues, activism — a passion not always shared by more classical poets, or those who objected to mixing politics with poetry. But there was always a place for stirring consciences, uttering shocking truths, or voicing extreme opinions.”

Pam runs Pam’s Poetry Pitch (www.pamspoetrypitch.com), a website dedicated both to solidarity and a comprehensive Melbourne poetry gig guide. Pam says, “since the invasion of Gaza ‘The Pitch’ has been in solidarity with Gaza. The aim is to give a voice to the Palestinians.” Pam wants her “very loud opposition to the criminal silence in mainstream media and complicit governments” to be heard.

The Freedom Socialist Bulletin is delighted to publish the rebel voices of both Pam Sidney and Hidayet Ceylan in this issue. Enjoy Pam’s Necessary Revolution and the English translation of Hidayet’s We Are All Aussies Now.

We’d also like to hear from you! Who are your favourite rebel poets and why? We’ll publish your responses in the Your Say section of the next issue.

Necessary Revolution

Pamela Sidney, 2000

when the beat poets threw off the shackles
of fifties conservatism they were still conservative
in their own way

but the youth of the 60s grabbed the baton
to shape a new found freedom
we experimented, protested
gathered into collectives
stilled our minds with meditation
practised loving, being
developed cosmic consciousness
realised our bodies as sacred temples
grew organic vegetables
said ‘meat is murder’
Melanie sang
‘I don’t eat animals and animals don’t eat me’

in a vision of the world abroad
we saw flowers ever so gently placed
into the gun barrels of the National Guard
Neil Young sang of ‘four dead in Ohio’ —
Kent State Uni students shot dead
protesting the Vietnam war

our open minds penetrated
into the coming decades
to throw off forever
a kind of ‘post World War II morbidity’

we plunged ourselves
into cauldrons of expression through art
danced in colours, threw off uniforms
of mundane orthodoxy
claimed our place in a world
where once we were invisible, without a voice
but it was our music set the world on fire
and for the next decade
spontaneity ruled

read your history
most of us didn’t become bankers
treasurers, four-wheel-drive-wankers
read your history
then you’ll know we had a war to wage
the ‘happening’ in the 60s and 70s
was a social revolution
and hippies carried the flame

we took the image of Che Guevara
who died in the mountains of Bolivia
shot by the army under CIA orders
Che, who became immortal
adored emblem of social struggle
against capitalist greed —
materialism world wide

Vietnam — never before
was a war protested

in such numbers
in Melbourne alone
one quarter of a million people
— led by Dr Cairns —
lay down on tram tracks
in Bourke St
from the Post Office
to Spring St and beyond.

we said ‘no’ to conscription
aboriginals got the vote
black activism flourished
Charles Perkins
Kath Walker’s poetry
‘black is beautiful’ movements arose
the Green Movement began
greenies and ferals
alerted the world to the ecology crisis
urged all to consider alternatives
sun & wind to oil and coal
Unions placed green bans
greenies were loved by the socially aware
despised by conservatives and rightists
but still they carry the flame
of truth into the future

we demanded freedom of speech
the long quest — equality of women —
had its beginning
sexual liberation began here

it was announced that music
dance, poetry, painting and love
were more important than money
proclaimed marriage is not for everyone
to face ridicule and hysteria

the medical profession was forced
to open conservative eyes
Acupuncture, Shiatsu
Homeopathy, Naturopathy
alternative healing had arrived

this social movement was not planned
led or directed by anyone
it was spontaneous
a true people movement, a zeitgeist
a collective conscious and unconscious
impulse that had to happen

the 40s and 50s were rigid, concrete grey
a conservative time when free speech
was under threat (as now)

the politics of McCarthy (McCarthyism)
had reached Australia via America
a time ruled politically here
by Robert Menzies — who tried to ban
the Communist Party and failed —
a man not unlike John Howard

radio played America — Bing Crosby
big swing bands, Sinatra, Hollywood crooners
conservatism such as this
could not be tolerated and was not
it was swept away in part
by the sheer energy of rock’n’roll
and the protest folk movement

the revolution began like little wild-fires
breaking out in every direction
along with rock’n’roll and protest
came aware-nesses
social justice, universal human rights
the anti-war, anti-nuclear movements
artistic movements — Pram Factory
La Mama Theatre, La Mama Poetica
political and social justice art
blossomed in poetry
realist theatre and music

be thankful the 60s happened.
those times were more than dope, LSD
mushrooms and stoned hippies —
it was much, much more than that

Australia then as now took
the best and the worst from America
US and UK protest songs liberated us:
Dylan, Donavan, Lennon, Melanie, Joan Baez
they sang
‘make love not war’
‘a working class hero is something to be’
‘give peace a chance’.

we dared to wear psychedelic colours
threw out pastels
our ‘just another brick in the wall’ boring beige
dressed our own way, followed no fashion
said no to designer labels (except Levi)
except our statement — blue jeans
the very spirit of revolution and freedom

we explored new spiritualities
became Zen, Sufi, Taoist
Pagan, Wiccan, witch
turned our backs on dogmatic
organised one-god religion

we took the long march
with Martin Luther King
and on the way
carried the dreams
of all those still in chains
of a black and white racist world

the generation shaped by the sixties
was seduced by a powerful ideal
convinced the world could be a better place
proud to be called hippies, dissenters, lefties, ferals
activists, anarchists and greenies

decades on some of us
still continue the spirit of those times
when there was a revolution to be waged
against conservatives, fascists
gun-loving red-necks
war-mongers, rampant greed
no different to now
some things never change
so pass the flame
let the revolution continue

We Are All Aussies Now

Hidayet Ceylan, May 2003

Our bodies are here
I wonder where our souls are
Both of them are mixed up
We are all Aussies Now

We run for money
We give up humanity
We live unaware
We are all Aussies Now

Imported bride and bridegroom
Expect that there’s a “Better Life” here
They are scolded over and over
We are all Aussies Now

We are all suppressed here
But always boasting
When we’re back there
We are all Aussies Now

Some of us became Sam
Some of us became Pam
We have all been assimilated
We are all Aussies Now
Children’s faces don’t smile
Since they don’t know what they are
Not knowing they’re converted
We are all Aussies Now

We hardly see indigenous people
We say “It’s not my business”
We oppress them all together
We are all Aussies Now

We never ask “What is Australian?”
We don’t think about it much
We don’t resist even though we know
We are all Aussies Now

Hidayet said all this
This isn’t gossip
After seeing the fire of the innerself
We are not Aussies now
We are the song of humanity now

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