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

Thom the World Poet

An Interview with Thom the World Poet

By Liz Hall-DownsLiz Hall-Downs

Liz Hall-Downs: Thom, you're a very well-known figure in Australia, especially on the Melbourne scene, after 20 years spent running Street Poetry venues. Can you comment on the philosophy behind 'Street Poetry', and say a little about its beginnings and how the movement has impacted (or not) on OzLit?

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 Festival, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London), been featured in slams (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 performer, 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 ROBINS - where everyone gets one poem at a time - and everyone is heard - still inspire me, as does hip-hop improv free flight freeform poesy!

Liz Hall-Downs: You don't edit your work, preferring to 'publish and be damned'. It seems as if your focus is very much on the ephemeral nature of oral poetry. This has left you open to some criticism because of the varying quality of the work you send out into the world. If 'literary excellence' is not what you're striving for, then what is your focus?

Thom: Connection ,clarity and communication in the moment. Poetry, like coral, once out of its element, loses lustre. My poetry is best in the NOW - for a specific audience and a specific moment. I do not claim literary excellence-just the right to be a working poet who can craft specific work for specific occasions. My best poem is my next poem. If you can find deep and abiding meanings in my past work - wonderful! But I am not writing for posterity. In fact, I am not even writing. I am talking to my contemporaries, and we have much to share! Poetry is an oral medium, and an improvising medium and part of a spectra of artforms which work well together - song, dance, mime, art - so, for me - I only ask that you listen once. And remember twice!

Liz Hall-Downs: What about touring? Is it possible to be a performing poet without going on the road? And what does this mean for you as you get older and the vagaries of life on the road become more intense?

Thom: Touring is a hard joy - a way of connecting and keeping the pulse. As I get older, it becomes harder. I used to tour England for 2 months each year, as well as Oz for the same time. Now I can only manage one month (if that!) of either country each year. I have done so many FAREWELL TOURS, it is a running joke. I feel the cold more and need comfort and comforting - luckily, I stay with friends who forgive my limitations. Once, I wanted to just keep touring forever - but this Peter Pan met his Wendy, and now I have a reason to stay at home. I still tour sporadically-but it is a joke even to me!


Biographical Note:

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.

Witness for the Defence

(of the humans, racing)

Eye watch people at bus stops
Zen waiting in singular eternities
For an arrival

Eye watch homeless
Petitioning for small changes

Eye watch people on the street
All going somewhere - else

Eye watch people writing - wondering
What are they really thinking?
Why don't they share what they are writing?

Eye watch traffic sometimes
Sit by roadside like the homeless
Look at drivers, hypnotised by motion
Giving attention only to their destination

Me? Eye am peripheral visions
Looking at and with and for and into
Eye step away from the tele-visions
Wanting only not to be seen -
But to see - anonymously -
One-eyed and watching
Without being ever watched
Witness - for the defence


Those piled rock audiences
These sawdust circuses
They jump though the hoop
In a ring of tight syllables
They all have your name upon them
You were an audience, once
Now, as performing animal
You will complain abut the training
The whip of harsh words
The ring of critiques

(From "Love and Release", Chapbook #80, 2002)

And on the Corner (6th and San Jacinto) 10.43 pm

White as the pale skin of midnight pilgrims
(Snapping shark photographs
Shouting on cell phones)
She stood - as silent as a winged white bird
With a prayer for every donation
Invocation teaching meditation
Standing stock still - one white angel
With her outstretched hands
Petitioning the air.

Talking to the Angel

Some stare - not knowing what to do
With an angel in their midst
Some take photographs
Some just stand - witnesses to a new miracle
Occasionally - one green note descends
She opens her angelic hands in salutation
Opens her eyes and heart and mind
And lets them into her aura
They are most shocked by this - openness
They smile meekly - overpowered by a love
Which responds to their every generosity
It embarrasses them (really)
For they have forgotten they were angels once
With wings and haloes and harps
Now, all they can do is hurry on home
And dare to try to tell others
They have just seen a living angel
On Sixth Street


There is a man who is enamored of my wife
He loves his mother, but must put her aside
He drinks far too much (self-pity/pride)
He promises to build us a fence

Now the fence we have is old but stands
To define us from our neighbors, and
Is adequate for some time - but he wants
To make her admire him

You see - she lost her purse some time ago
He found her things and returned them, so
She has expressed gratitude
And he construes it as he will

There is no talking to lonely men.
They follow their own direction, and
His words become his actions, when
He asks her to cook for him

Now, I am no Freudian analyst
But his one mother is in demise
So I surmise he needs refill
(I am not talking about food, you see)

Life may be lonely as a bridge -
We shall see what fence he builds.

For a Long Time

We talked together - and listened
The more we spoke - the more there was to say
Until we fell asleep
Tongues still walking across the table

I Saw the Famous Poet

Before he died - on stage
Reading his famous poems
I listened - walked away
It has taken me all this time
To remember anything
Of what he said