‘A poet is a worker in language’: Debris Facility Interviews π.ο.

Image courtesy of Neos Kosmos

By Debris Facility and π. o. | 31 October 2021

π.ο. is a great poet. He was interviewed in Cordite Poetry Review in 2001, so 20 years later we are able to hear his enlivening words again. π.ο came to the attention of Debris Facility during the course of 2021 and his poetics provide a much-needed structure, formula and horizon from which to orient a practice unseparated from life. To forefront the anarchist politics within poetry is to invest in the liberatory potentiality within the agency of reading and writing. We had instantly been drawn to the power of his practice, its function and what information and meanings we were able to be transmitted through it. The collective modes of publishing π.ο. has committed to resonate with Debris Facility’s methods of multiple agencies and voices. We had bought the available back catalogue of π.ο.’s books, picking them up personally, and paying with cash. The material context of this is relevant, though not the most important. This interview was conducted over a week of emails, at the invitation of Autumn Royal. In acknowledgment of the shared work present, our fee will be divided evenly. This conversation is one step towards what is hoped to be a friendship, which accounts for overlapping and divergent practices, but grounded in solidarity.

Debris Facility: To kick us off, maybe we could clarify some of the circumstances of coming across you and your work, and why it’s got such magnetic pull. You had been invited to perform work as part of the ‘Disorganising’ project at ‘Collingwood Yards’, which used to be Collingwood Tech, where you had studied in the past. My colleagues at Liquid Architecture had shared enthusiasm with me, and about the radical publishing activities you’d been part of in the area also. The resonant force of the performance of your poetry which was about the site, your experience and its history is invigorating. There is a utility to the ways in which your work enfolds historical and factual information which is sharp and generous. Witnessing someone with a commitment to experimental practice with political use within a pretty weak cultural landscape reveals a horizon to work towards. Would you be able to share more about your time on Johnston St Fitzroy, if your time at Collingwood Tafe has much relationship to your work with ‘/*’ (slash asterisk) the anarchist publishing project?

π.ο. : The political poetics in my work comes from (1) life experience – from within the class I grew up in and within the suburb that nurtured me. It did not come from ‘with-out’. It did not come from some kind of understanding of poetic or art practice. often, I would do something and then find out that someone else had already done it or someone else had already thought it, and it would excite me. I found it exhilarating. I subscribe to that notion of you are influenced by everything that went before you even if you didn’t think it had affected you directly. (2) my work contains ‘work’ in it – labour – both poetic and actual, in that it was formed and informed by my socio-economic circumstances, and the realisation of the ‘standing’ / ‘class’ – I’m playing for keeps! – and i pay i.e. pull the money out of my pockets (along with my friends and family and lovers) and bankroll poetry – never made any money – or else it’s donated back to the project etc. I made sure that my poetry didn’t rely on or depend on my work (as a Draughtsman, eventually), didn’t put your art where your money is, and you are free to say as many fucks as you want. I have for far too long seen great writers crushed under the weight of bureaucratic bullshit for funding. (3) subverting grammar, language, spelling, was inadvertently my first huge success – my first book Fitzroy Brothel, had ‘FUCK THE SPELLING’ on the back. cos people at work told me i could be a poet cos i couldn’t spell. I was happy to spell properly, only i couldn’t see where the spelling errors were. (4) Collingwood Tech was important to me, in that it showed me this was not where i wanted to be i.e. being streamlined into the workforce as Industrial fodder, from an all-boys school, cos i was some kind of dumb wog – this is NOT over statement. I had to go to Collingwood Tech cos my Primary School teacher said i had to cos i ‘didn’t have the brains’ to go to High School. (5) years later, literally up the street from Tech we opened up an Anarchist Press (that i bankrolled, rent wise cos i had a job). It taught me how to disseminate information – how to get, work on, and get it out there, along with the insider fighting that inevitable goes on in these organisations – but being Anarchists, i was acutely aware of the dangers of too much flag waving and not enough clear speaking and analysis. (6) i became great when (with all the chutzpah) i first began to say I’m brilliant, i’m fantastic, i’m great. NOTE: not I Am The Greatest – it was a statement of ‘worth’ a statement unto myself. I read that poem i wrote, out loud, on top of a rooftop in the City of Melb – bouncing my voice off the clouds, to all the traffic and the curious textile workers who stuck their heads out the window to see what was going on. A SONG FOR MELBOURNE eventually won the BEST DOCUMENTARY of 1980 for Chanel 0-28 which was in essence SBS’s first award. (7) ‘/’ was the name i gave to the Anarchist Press which was earlier called Strawberry Press – cos i was always interested in mathematics, and in 1970 i did a small class (night school) on programming and you ended a Fortran program with a ‘/’ which always sounded to me as ‘slash a wrist’ … which is how i sometimes felt (emotionally) but never ‘actually’ (8) i forgot what i was going to say in this email.

DF: When we met, you appreciated my name, as I do yours. We’d taken on ‘Debris Facility’ as a way to re-write the practice/identity, a material linguistic ritual to reinscribe the multiplicity of embodiment including gender. I understand that you’d taken π.ο. as a name while a student. What is the process and thinking behind your name, and what has it enabled for you?

π.ο. : Generally i don’t indulge a lot in explaining my name except to say that when i was a Collingwood Tech, i suddenly realised that altho a lot of kids like me couldn’t pass English subjects we were everyone’s equal in Maths classes if not better cos we were the great white hopes of our families and science and mathematics was the way out of the slum/slump. I fell in love with Pythagoras, and still do and am. And then i fell in love with ‘the ratio of the diameter of a circle with the circumference’ and it was given the letter π and it was Greek, and it was me: my initials π right next to the circle O, the most compact of visual signifiers with symbol-mathematical-pretentious, and ½ Greek, ½ English, ½ calculation, ½ visual (later understood as ‘poem’), and ½ mine. No other name was possible for me. I will not allow anyone to ‘re-Write’ me. I alone ‘write’ me. This has its interesting problems, in that no one wanted to accept it – not even POETS for god sake. A poet is a worker in language – this is my material, that’s my work – i didn’t/don’t want to be squashed into the size of a matchbox and filed away into someone’s pocket. This is no arty game – i’m playing for keeps! All or nothing, no translation, transliteration, explanation, histrionics or otherwise – of course, there are those seeking brownie points with ‘exposes’, and ‘insider knowledge’ – i hate clever people. You don’t tell ‘me’ who i am – i tell ‘you’ who i am. The ½ way house (the default) almost everyone goes to is ‘Pi O’, and as such over the years people thought i was that famous Chinese Poet ‘Pi Oh’ – i love how π. ο. is not gendered, i love how you can (and those that do) change their name into who they are – No God! No Church! No Country! in other words – no other explanation necessary, it’s just an ‘is’. As it eventually and gradually became apparent to me, in my trying to hold onto my identity and name, the last bastion of racism in this country was in its alphabet, in its language – hey! That’s my playground your playing in – Get off my cloud!

DF: Your affinity with numbers, measurements, data, code and mathematical language is evident throughout your work, and has a striking and varied effect. Big Numbers uses these tactics heavily and The Number Poems goes further, using a grid of 24 x 11 numbers along with a title as the format throughout the book. There is a certain concrete reality which is evoked by the numerical. The ways in which numbers, measurements and statistics have social, political, historical and affective contours is highlighted and put into use by you. How did numbers come into your writing, and how do you think they operate within it?

π.ο.: I should point out that my name ‘realisation’ came when i was at school, not when or because i became a poet – in fact when i was at school i hated artists and poets (not that i knew there were such things as live poets), so it wasn’t an issue of me trying to look ‘cool’ or ‘different’ or as they use to say a ‘little pink’ in my left-wingism. My name is a poem. My name is also a mathematical concatenation. My first book of poems Fitzroy Brothel, featured mathematical influences including a concrete poem what was also bilingual and mathematical. It was only natural i guess, since my first love was and still is mathematics. Big Numbers is my selected poems, and in that i showcased my vast range of poetic forms and concerns, including poems about work. In 1978, we started a workers/poetry magazine called 925. we did 20 issues, and it became the biggest poetry magazine in Australia with a print run towards the end of 3000 copies. It was massive. In the process, i came to realise just how ‘numbers’ were being used against the working class. Politicians do it all the time. So i went to the Bureau of Statistics (there was no google in those days) and asked them for ‘one of everything’ – (there’s a poem about it in my book). What i found amazing was that i could use numbers and mathematics not just as ‘information’ but more importantly as ‘image making’ and as ‘metaphors’. Most poets who use numbers or mathematics tend to talk ‘about’ it as a ‘subject’ whereas my practice ‘constructed’ poems out of the very ‘fabric’ (or grammar) of mathematics. In The Number Poems i truly achieved greatness, cos i married concrete poetry to it (as in my first book) in other words you could “see” the image like some kind of extended haiku – and as it was in a grid pattern, it referenced the ‘floppy disc’ or the computer screen (hence its cultural importance to the new millennium). But the ‘image’ creation alone wasn’t what was important what was important was the poem was ‘a number’ and that ‘number’ now had a ‘name’ (as per its poem title), so now i could (for example) add ‘dead cert’ to ‘fat chance’ – or more importantly i could tell you to multiply ‘dead cert’ with ‘fat chance’ and you’d know exactly which numbers to do that with – large corporations in the digital age ‘copyright’ their numbers, cos their numbers represent their programs – i’ll be fucked! – good, now i’m copyrighting MY numbers cos MY numbers are POEMS and if those arseholes land on MY poem i’m going sue GOOGLE something shocking! There’s more to this than what i’ve just said, that includes the movies i made with them, and their ‘streaming’ etc etc. The truth is most people are happy to exercise their ‘literacy’ but rarely do they think it important to exercise their ‘numeracy’. Most people are numerophobic (if there is such a word).

DF: Hearing of the textile workers and the clouds being some audience for your rooftop poetry is great, along with the broadcast of the documentary. I understand that you’ve also done poetry readings in factories, as well as a range of other locations. How have those kinds of events come to be? How does performing in various contexts change your work?

π.ο.: When we did 925 we worked with Unions and people in factories and read to them on shop floors and offices. It also corresponded with our inauguration of “performance poetry” in Australia and very soon after with the establishment of the ‘Poets Union’ – this had a huge impact on Australian poetry and was vehemently derided and dismissed by the establishment – i wrote about it in my anthology with Penguin Books in 1984 called Off The Record – Performance Poetry was important cos it underlined the importance of the ‘utterance’ in poetry, and married ‘sound poetry’ back into the stuff cannon of Australian literature, which it still hasn’t really been able to swallow. Please NOTE i don’t ‘perform’ my poetry ‘i read’ it – i’m NOT an actor – too often the noun ‘performance poetry’ suggests ‘acting’ or else some kind of meta-poetic technique that is ‘alien’ to the rigours of ‘real’ literature. This ignorance is astounding!

DF: I like that you draw out the relationship of code to that of corporate data products, and particularly in regard to copyright. I wonder what your relationship is to copyright and tactics of appropriation both within and outside of cultural production? This seems both heightened and flattened in terms of digital reproduction of works, which is enabled and stifled through those tech corporate giants, so how do you navigate that?

π.ο.: What distinguishes The Number Poems from a lot of other poetry is that it is a poetry that has jumped ‘inside’ the machine (the computer), as opposed to what i call ‘screen gloss’ – when computers came in all of a sudden everyone had their own personal advertising agent at their fingertips to do their ‘surface’ bidding, which may have been of interest for “artists”, but for poets it merely represented a kind of ‘photocopying’ exercise, a ‘pdf’, write it, and slap it up on the screen, whereas the real poetics was what was happening within the ‘language’ inside the computer and its various ‘number’ codes, and ‘bases’. Shat pissed me off no end was how the computer big noted itself with its ability to ‘hypertext’ – it seemed to say it owned this ‘new’ technique, but poets have been ‘hypertexting’ since the beginning of time on earth, it’s what we poets call ‘metaphor’ – this isn’t here, it’s ‘there’, and it has an umbilical cord. I hate what the computer is doing to us. Now to the copyright question…as an Anarchist i hate that we have to connect ‘money’ to ‘art’ to ‘poetry’, but it does represent my ‘labour’ so where ‘labour’ is paid to others, i expect to be paid also – but because i made sure i separated my art from my work world, i didn’t have to ‘compromise’ it – you get nothing from me by upping the ante on how much you will ‘pay’ me (i’ve got enough coffee money), but i’m happy to put in, or even give it away free (which tends to be often) cos i’m ‘excited’ by a project or idea. With respect to appropriation, it’s very much more complex in that they are so context based, and as Pythagoras put it all a matter of ‘proportion’ – how much was taken, for what, when, and maybe even (as a political animal) why! I think the computer has dumbed down creativity (definitely poetry) i can’t tell you how many exhibitions of artists i’ve been to that are just plain banal and boring with their ‘digital’ masterpieces (and/or language use). I’m happy to talk on computer, but rarely supply it with ‘poetry’ – i don’t care how many clicks they get by being up there – its changed and changing our ‘reading’ habits into ‘scanning’ and ‘scans’ FUCK EM!

DF: Through much of your books Heidi and Fitzroy: the biography you bring in a huge amount of historical detail, especially in terms of early colonial impact and violence. This resonates through with other immigrant stories of appalling treatment by this country’s government. It’s an important task you’re taking on by positioning yourself within these colonial systems, and sharply critiquing them. There is such a sense of the heavy and senseless violence which is ever present. How do you approach this history, and how do you try and survive the colony’s current violent form?

π.ο.: Violence, is something most people don’t understand. They think it’s a one size fits all proposition. Its not. Violence is in the main a State run monopoly. Both the Left and the Right is the violence of the ‘disenfranchised’ classes as a bargaining chip to extract concessions to ostensibly install ‘themselves’ as their representatives, under the threat of unleashing said violence. I understand violence, tho i don’t always endorse it. I understand lashing-back, to make room for oneself. When it comes to poetry, it is a vital force essential to great writing. My basic neglect in poetry over the years has been precisely due to that linguistic violence: dialect poetry, fuck poems, number poems, information poetry, workers poetry, visual poetry, sound poetry – and even my name – seems nothing will satisfy them, but unless i do that ‘damage’ to the language there is no way that there is a space for me. Even 24 Hours (730 pages), and Fitzroy: the biography (740 pages) which i had to bring out myself, publishers balked at, that is until Giramondo (Ivor Indyk + Evelyn Juers) published Heide (554 pages) – total courage (may i add). I can imagine what the publishers who i sent those manuscripts to thought at my proposal i.e. ‘I’ve got a great book. And it’s all poetry. And it’s 730 pages!’ – their first thoughts are obvious – this bloke’s got tickets on himself. Yes, I did / I do. But not because i’m into self-aggrandizement, cos i got rid of that very early in my writing days, when i said I’m brilliant, i’m, fantastic, i’m great – after that i didn’t need the ‘i’ i could look at something else i.e. all those other things around me. Yes, this is a kind of violence to the very fabric of artistic ‘genius’, so be it. I’m happy to be a conduit filtering all the facts and figures of my world – am I original? Yes, but only because i aint.

*Σχετικός σύνδεσμος: http://cordite.org.au/interviews/facility-o/

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