Friendly Street is Australia’s most successful poetry group cum meeting place. It began on November the eleventh 1975, a day more normally remembered for its political significance than its poetic import. Since then, with only minor changes to format (a change from one to two guest readers, from fortnightly to monthly meetings and from the Media Resource Centre to the Box Factory, both in Adelaide) the meetings have continued unabated. During 1976 Richard Tipping, one of the original organizers and christener of the meetings, suggested an anthology of the best of poetry read during that year would be appropriate. He then went on to both edit and convince Adelaide University Union Press to publish The Friendly Street Poetry Reader. Since then there have been Readers published each year with the fourteenth due to be launched at the Adelaide Festival during Writer’s Week. In 1980 Graham Rowlands edited, and Adelaide University Union Press published, Dots Over Lines, an anthology containing generous examples of the work of eighteen Adelaide poets, all of whom had apppeared at Friendly Street meetings. In 1982 the Friendly Street Poets, having taken over the publishing of the Readers in 1980, published four individual collections, all launched during the Writer’s Week of that year’s Adelaide Festival. Friendly Street has launched individual collections at each subsequent festival for a current total of nineteen volumes of poetry.
But what is Friendly Street that it is so succesful? Why does it survive (to now be Australia’s longest running regular poetry reading) where others, with possibly better resources, do not? Answers to these questions lie in both what Friendly Street is and isn’t.
Friendly Street is not a movement. Unlike the Jindyworobaks, the Modernists and the Classicists, all of whom preceded it in South Australia, it has not even the loosest of manifestos or creeds. It is not a cabal of ‘in’ writers who dictate terms to all comers. While various cliques have existed and continue to exist, there influence has never been such as to affect the nature and purpose of the meetings. It is not a workshop. There is no organized or formal response to any poem presented. Readers must make what they will of whatever response the audience provides. Friendly Street is, however, both a venue and a community.
As a venue it provides an audience and a place for poets and poetry in Adelaide. The open readings which constitute the second half of any Friendly Street meeting are an unsurpassed opportunity for poets and poetry, of literally any type and quality, to be presented and heard. To visit Friendly Street is to hear poetry; good, bad and indifferent. To read at Friendly Street is to have an audience predisposed to your work, if only because it is poetry.
As a community it provides a flexibility and a support system which not only encourage writers to continue their writing, but also help protect Friendly Street from the excesses of the various cliques that inevitably spring up around such gatherings of people.
Beyond all this is its location. Friendly Street as it is could not exist in the larger cities of Sydney or Melbourne. In those cities groups equivalent to the Jindyworabaks or the Classicists can gather in great enough numbers to preclude joining together for the sake of venue. In Adelaide the descendants of the Jindyworabaks, the Classicists and the Modernists, both actual and spiritual, are not enough to survive on their own. Along with many others of various poetic ancestry they constitute the diversity and friction which both give Friendly Street its impetus and necessitate its communal aspects. When described as a community aspects of its behaviour as an entity are easier to understand.
Because it is a community it is able to develop unwritten rules of ettiquette. No poet is shouted down by listeners beholden to a different and apparently antithetical artistic manifesto, although poets whose work, in the general consensus of a meeting’s audience, is genuinely awful, have been heckled into silence. No newcomer is judged, publically at least, on anything other than their poetry, the social order imposed by community stifles any racism or (more prominently) sexism in the hearts of the audience. The neutrality of the venue has meant that when various sections of the community are at loggerheads (at one stage at least one faction within Friendly Street was known to be ringing up various members of the Australia Council’s Literature Board and abjuring them not to give any funds to anyone within another faction) the meetings and readings went ahead unchanged. Because it is a community it has survived the disappearance of many of its original organizers, many of whom have gone interstate, some of whom have simply reduced their commitment to that of any attendee.
The most dramatic example of the efficiacy and importance of community in Friendly Street’s continued existence is Friendly Street’s recent near collapse.
During Writer’s Week at the Adelaide Festival of 1988, as has become almost customary, Friendly Street Poets launched four new books of poetry. The only variation on the established format for these books was the inclusion of two collections, “The luminous ocean” by Louise Crisp and “Mad moon alight” by Valery Wilde in one volume entitled In the Half-Light. The launching passed by with no more than the usual comment.
As is also customary in a Festival year the launch of the annual Reader was included in the Writer’s Week programme. This launching brought forth much more than the usual comment. Edited by Jeff Guess and Donna McSkimming with book production by Graham Rowlands and Kevin Pearson the Number Twelve Friendly Street Poetry Reader had a cover which completely overwhelmed its content. The cover consists of various disembodied torsos, breasts, vaginas and penises strung together into an amorphous mass.
Jeff Guess and Donna McSkimming, who were amongst many who disliked the cover, accused Graham Rowlands and Kevin Pearson of choosing a cover that was at the very least innappropriate and, to many people, positively offensive. Graham Rowlands and Kevin Pearson countermanded with the suggestion that neither of the editors had shown the least interest in the book production itself, preferring to hand the manuscript over to them once the editing had been completed.
The absolute truth of claim and counter-claim remain open to at least some question. Undeniable is the enormous, and for the first time, public rift it caused between participants in the Friendly Street meetings. The story made it into Adelaide’s morning newspaper The Advertiser who proceeded to follow the story at least part the way to its bitter end with varying degrees of accuracy and luridness. A special meeting of a number of Friendly Street regulars resulted in the re-publishing and re-launching of the reader. A new edition in a plain brown cover was produced. For those with copies of the offending edition the brown paper cover was available free.
The changes this controversy wrought were minor. All through this period readings went on as normal. The decisions and meetings to make the decisions were announced at Friendly Street, but only during the pre-ordained times for announcements already long in place. Other than this no public discussion of the fight occurred during Friendly Street readings. For myself, far enough away from the dispute that my thoughts, one way or the other, were inconsequential, the only noticable change was a the vague sense of all not being right pervading the meetings for some months. With the re-launch done and The Advertiser no longer interested, even pruriently, the anger became memory and the event folklore. The rules of communal living were unspokenly invoked and Friendly Street survived.
All this, however, was merely prelude to a genuine and potentially fatal crisis. During 1988 it became apparent that Friendly Street’s finances were, putting it mildly, not as they should be. By the end of 1988 it was clear that nearly $13,000 was ‘missing’. Rory Harris, Jeri Kroll and Graham Rowlands, all then members of the management committee, denied any impropriety. Subsequent events confirmed completely the innocence of all three and identified the source of the money’s ‘disappearance’.
For reasons I am not privy to, and in what can only be described as a remarkable example of a community acting resolutely in its own self-interest, no direct action was taken. Friendly Street was re-funded by the South Australian Department for the Arts and the Number Thirteen Friendly Street Poetry Reader was edited by Constance Frazer and Barry Westburg, published by Friendly Street Poets and launched at a Friendly Street meeting early in 1989 as is customary.
Things have in no way returned to normal, however. Differences have not become memory and events have not become folklore. To a lesser degree the changes in Friendly Street can be attributed to the conditions imposed on it by the Department for the Arts as pre-requisites to its being re-funded. Friendly Street Poets now has a constitution, official membership and attendant membership dues and lists, regular conventional committee meetings and regular conventional committee chairholders.
To a much greater degree, however, changes in the atmosphere at Friendly Street meetings are due to the enormous range of often impossibly conflicting responses a community goes through when it faces such a betrayl of trust.
The community that is Friendly Street is currently less concerned with various sub-divisions than it is with simply maintaining itself as a viable and continuing entity. The monthly readings continue to provide as wide and diverse a range of the good, bad and indifferent in Adelaide poetry as ever. The readings, however, are touched by an undercurrent of tension not just the result of pre-performance nerves.
Other changes wrought by the crisis are evident in the planned additions to the Friendly Street list for the 1990 Writer’s Week. Since 1982 Friendly Street has published five or six book, including the reader, every festival. This year, in conjunction with Wakefield Press, it is publishing only three: The Number Fourteen Friendly Street Poetry Reader, edited by Ann Timoney-Jenkins and Neil Paech; Edison Doesn’t Invent the Car by Steve Evans; and The Inner Courtyard: An Anthology of Contemporary South Australian Love Poetry, edited by Anne Brewster and Jeff Guess. The reduced number of books is designed to save money. Publishing in association with Wakefield Press is designed to both save money and improve distribution. It is worth noting that Wakefield Press is also publishing four books of its own this festival. Two of them, Seventy-seven by John Bray and Rites of Arrival by Jeff Guess, are collections by poets long involved with Friendly Street.
To what extent the recent upheavals will affect Friendly Street’s viability is still difficult to predict. If it has been bureaucratised as a result of the upheavals the meetings and venue have nonetheless been left unchanged. One may be able to officially join Friendly Street. It is not, however, a prerequisite for reading at a Friendly Street meeting. If the people now running Friendly Street are new they are no less committed than their predecessors. Traumatic as the changeover may have been it is not the first time new people have suddenly become intimately involved in the running of the readings. Whether the feelings of community so vital to the success of Friendly Street as a venture survive or re-emerge is, even now, difficult to tell.
As this sees print the books will be being launched and Friendly Street will be re-forming once again to begin a new year of readings. If you are in Adelaide for the Festival make a point of seeking out any Friendly Street events being touted. For all its troubles Friendly Street is still Australia’a most successful poetry venue. Every festival writers and readers of poetry come from almost everywhere to take a turn in the spotlight, try and understand the mechanisms that enable it to survive and prosper or just listen to good poetry well read.
This year a lot more than just the poetry is going to be worth listening to.