Thursday, January 5, 2012


(Above) Dinny Nolan Tjampitjinpa and Paddy Carroll Tjungarrayi at Papunya NT

"I can’t see what possible interest Aborigines or Australian poetry could have for Americans," the project officer said flatly. It almost sounded rehearsed. A tour of California and the American southwest by three Australian performance poets and two Aboriginal songmen? How would this benefit Australian taxpayers? How was this going to enrich Australia’s cultural life?

The idea for an exchange had first been suggested in Sydney in 1992, during a late-night conversation over a few bottles of Australian wine. Two American theatre directors – Dave and Ellen Purdy – had been listening to Nigel Roberts and myself read our poetry. "Your stuff’d go down great over there," they said. "Come to the States."

Tours to America by Australian poets were a rarity. In the mid-80s, PiO had gone over with Geoff Page, Joanne Burns and others, reading his poems on what became the legendary "PiO T-shirt Tour". There had also been visits by Les Murray and John Tranter. But nothing to write home about.

Tours to Australia by American poets, on the other hand, were not uncommon. Ginsberg had come in the 70s, as had Robert Duncan and Bob Creeley, Galway Kinnell and Philip Levine. More recently, there had been visits by Gary Snyder and Sterling Plumpp. Americans were out there, on the hustings, taking their poetry everywhere. By comparison, Australia was producing a group of stay-at-home poets whose work, one guessed, had no relevance outside Australia. Australians knew about American poetry, for sure, but Americans with few exceptions didn’t have a clue about what was happening Down Under.

Dave Purdy poured himself another glass of red, then, in a booming voice, declared: "Why don’t we do an exchange! The world ain’t that big!"

In March, 1993, at the insistence of Dave and Ellen, three West Coast American poets – Morton Marcus, Anita Wilkins and Joe Stroud – came to Australia to do a series of readings and workshops in New South Wales, that had been organised by Nigel Roberts and myself. Acting as their hosts, Nigel and I organized readings at the Harold Park Hotel, the Evening Star, and The Resistance Centre. At the University of Newcastle the visitors discussed contemporary American poetry with staff and students. On two or three other occasions they were joined by other Australian and British poets, including PiO, Brian Patten and Roger McGough. Morton Marcus, having a particular interest in film, was also invited to present two guest lectures at the prestigious Australian Film, Television and Radio School. The success of their visit, as anticipated, led to the creation and organization of what came to be known as "The American Walkabout Tour".

The Tour – comprised of three performance poets (Nigel Roberts, Terry Whitebeach and myself) and two, tribal Aboriginal songmen/painters (Dinny Nolan Tjampitjinpa and Paddy Carroll Tjungurrayi) – was billed by the Americans as a "30,000 year continuum of Australian performance art". From ancient song cycles to modern jazz poems, from goanna dreamings to talking blues, the oldest and the newest of oral traditions would be on show. Right from the start, it was an experiment in cultural and social interaction.

(Above) Nigel Roberts performing his poetry

The flight to America was scheduled to leave Sydney on a Friday. Dinny and Paddy arrived the previous Tuesday with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. No suitcases, no money, no passports and no birth certificates. "What are birth certificates?"

The men were over sixty and had never been out of the desert till now; had never seen a "whitefella" until they were well into their forties, and had never heard of a birth certificate, let alone a passport. The Sydney Morning Herald covered the story. The men’s seemingly impossible quest for that little piece of proof, without which they wouldn’t be leaving Australia, made the front page. The Director of Immigration nearly had a breakdown. "In twenty years," he said despairingly, "I never thought I’d have to ask an Aborigine to prove he was Australian." The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs got involved, as did the head of the Finance Committee in Washington, D.C. Finally, with the help of a secondhand book of primitive Australian art – which featured not only Dinny's and Paddy’s work, but also their photographs – Nigel and I managed to convince the bureaucrats that the men were the genuine articles.

(Director of Immigration, Sydney: "I couldn’t get to sleep last night wondering if I’d done the right thing.")

(U.S. Congressman to American Consulate in Sydney: "You make damn sure those men get their visas or heads are gonna roll.")

For the next five weeks - accompanied by the Australian filmmaker, Lindsay Frazer - we journeyed through California and the American southwest. The scope of the tour was phenomenal. From a gold-rush theatre and a garden party in Sonora, California, to a Miwak Indian village and ceremony during a snowstorm in Yosemite. Then onto readings and workshops in San Jose and Santa Cruz; and a cold water flat in San Francisco. In Columbia, California, Dinny and Paddy supervised painting workshops during the day, enlisting the help of over a  hundred whitefellas who eagerly assisted them in finishing two, very large dot paintings. The Americans went crazy. "You guys have changed my life!" one woman enthused. Others wrote poems which they gave as gifts. "This is worth a million bucks of great PR," a travel agent said.

After the first week, the pattern was set: dot painting workshops from nine to five; live performances of poems and song cycles in the evenings. Whenever possible, an hour or two was set aside so that Dinny and Paddy (left)  could raid the local secondhand clothing stores where they bought dresses, shirts, coats, blouses, belts, and ties for their wives, daughters, sons, grandchildren and cousins. They had come to America with nothing, and after the first week were lugging round a half a dozen suitcases each.

Collectively, we traveled to America to entertain and exchange information with poets and Native Americans – to sing, paint, tell stories and perform poetry. Individually, however, the agendas were much more diverse.

I had returned to the land of my birth, seeking some kind of homecoming, only to realize that nothing much was left of my childhood except for Tootsie Rolls and Dr Pepper.

Nigel Roberts, orbiting in on a pilgrimage to Kerouac and Ginsberg, landed in the middle of the "New Age" and discovered that the old Australian custom of smoking a cigarette was practically a capital offense. Terry Whitebeach, the part-Aboriginal performance poet from Tasmania, explored her own identity and sense of self in the broken mirror of Native American culture.

As for Dinny and Paddy… in the eyes of some, they were the mystic elders, the carriers of ancient wisdom, the connection with a deep, spiritual past so many Americans craved. But was this really a spiritual odyssey through the land of the eagle, or merely a hunt for kuka (steak), beer and singing and painting money for their families?

(Re-birther from Santa Cruz: "Hey, last week we had the Dalai Lama through here! Great to see you guys!")

From small fringe theatres in Santa Cruz and San Francisco to huge auditoriums in San Jose and San Diego, thousands turned out; platoons of poetry lovers, brigades of New-Agers, armies of curiosity seekers. Bill Clinton's America was in a celebratory mood.

Following the trail of the early pioneers, we traveled east on the Super Chief (the old Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway), across the desert to the trendy New Age world of multi-millionaire Texas oil barons, patrons of the arts, sheltering in the virtual tax haven of PC (politically correct) Santa Fe.

(Aware citizen: "Did you guys know that Santa Fe is on the harmonic energy grid and is built on a huge crystal? By the way, Shirley Maclaine lives near here.")

In the Southwest, the artists and poets visited Native American people at Tesuque and Santa Clara Pueblo, travelling with traditional owners to Abiqui (Georgia O’Keefe’s old stomping grounds) and to the Puye Cliff Ruins, mysteriously deserted in 1300 AD.

As the Tour passed through Navaho and Hopi country, the emphasis changed from readings and painting workshops to sweat lodges, earth blessing ceremonies and lectures about Native American culture. The Aboriginal men didn’t want to know about the sweat lodges, and ended up sleeping through several rather erudite lectures about multi-culturalism delivered by Navaho PhDs.

The cultural exchange between the two tribal people never really eventuated. Paddy and Dinny couldn’t understand why the earth needed blessing – it was already blessed as far as they were concerned.

At Rough Rock, Arizona, a Navaho medicine man accused the old men of being fakes and phonies on account of their refusal to participate in a sweat-lodge ceremony. It was sad. Old Alfred, the medicine man, had been working single-handedly trying to instill within the younger Navaho students some appreciation of the "old ways", and had looked to Dinny and Paddy to lend their support. But the men's ignorance of Indian business made them uncertain. They weren’t prepared to be part of something that might compromise their own law. "That’s their business. We can’t run that game," Paddy said. Paddy and Dinny – whose own culture is still pretty much intact – wanted only to do their paintings and sing their songs.

Alfred’s disappointment turned to rage at their unwillingness, but was quelled once their feelings had been explained to him. Nevertheless, the damage was done. Dinny and Paddy wanted to leave at once. "I’m sorry," Alfred said, "I didn't understand." He sprinkled corn meal over both of men, blessing them and wishing them a safe journey.

As the Walkabout Tour proceeded from the weirdnesses of California consciousness to the arroyos of Arizona and New Mexico, the enthusiasm of discovery started giving way to the rigors of the one-night stand. Do a painitng workshop, do a show, answer questions, sleep, grab a bite, travel a hundred and fifty miles, do another painting workshop... and no days off. A seemingly endless expedition into homes, cultural centers, universities, and Indian reservations.

In California, the Tour had performed for elementary school children in neighborhoods where state-funded programs were attempting to drive out the crack dealers. In San Francisco, Nigel and I spent a Sunday morning roaming the streets where homeless people begged meals in the Land of the Free. Terry, seeking refuge from the Tour and five men, retreated to the security of Anita Wilkins’ house outside Santa Cruz for a couple of nights.

Near Second Mesa, Arizona (above), the poets and songmen spent the afternoon at a Hopi high school, set in some of the most beautiful country in the world. Ironically, the place had no windows.

(Art teacher: "This is a first for this school. You people got these kids outside. Do you know I’m the fifth art teacher this year.")

After a while, performance and life began to merge. What happened on the stage, more a back-play to the sequence of events: Paddy and Dinny ringing Papunya Settlement to see if their families were all right; endless meetings in under-lit corridors; college kids trying to bargain the men down to nothing for their paintings; fevered shopping excursions through K-Mart; the never-ending raids on secondhand clothing stores; and the constant “interfacing” with the American public.

(Numerous Californians: "Thank you so much for sharing with us.")

If nothing else, the Tour proved that Australian culture can travel and does translate. It seemed that we were able to say things to the Americans that Americans were not able to say to themselves. The poetry and the songs and the paintings were not part of American life as Americans knew it, but they still made sense. Perhaps all good art does, but to actually witness it happening, to see that Australian art can have an impact outside Australia was worth all the miles of bland hotels and takeaway dinners. The Tour certainly put to rest the prejudice expressed by the Australian arts bureaucrat who had turned down our request for assistance because she couldn’t see what possible interest Aborigines or Australian poetry could have for Americans.

"I wish I had five dollars," Nigel Roberts said later, "for every American who came up to me and said, 'It’s so good to see that something else in happening in Australia besides Crocodile Dundee'."

(ABOVE) Shiprock - joined by an ancient dreaming track to a site in Central Australia (Eagle dreaming)