This was it. My big initiation into the world of the touring poet. One of my first tasks was to phone Chris Mansell - whom I had never met - to organise where and when Peter Boyle and I would collect her on the first day of the Poets on Wheels Tour. Chris and I chatted about this and that and talked about luggage. She asked me if I would be taking many books along. I hesitated and thought there'd hardly be any time to sleep let alone to read (apart from our own work) and wondered how much difference this would really make to the load in the car! I replied: "Oh, one or two, maybe." Only later when she mentioned the one or two boxes of books she would bring to sell did I realise my ignorance and naivete. She didn't seem to notice yet I was getting worried that I wore my apprentice's badge in a prominent place.
Chris Mansell, Peter Boyle and I had been selected to drive 2000 km plus on the northern route of the tour while three other poets - Meg Dunn, Ron Pretty and Adrian Wiggins - did the same south-west. The Poets' Union organised the tour with funding provided by the NSW Ministry of the Arts and the Australia Council through the NSW Writers' Centre. Both bands of travelling poets did readings, workshops and interviews at a variety of venues such as libraries, cafes, pubs and high schools in many towns along the way - with lots of driving in between. People from regional writers' centres and groups helped organise the readings and advertise the events, most of which also featured a local poet as well as open section.
For us "northerners", we had set out early on the Saturday from Sydney - Peter and I having picked up the hire car near the Cross and Chris at Central Railway Station. Our first reading was a literary dinner that night at The Hog's Breath Cafe in Tamworth. The audience numbers were boosted by a group of women who worked at the local hospital - mostly speech therapists! who were given no choice but to join the one big table. We ate thick steak and curly chips (the dietitian curled her lip!) and talked about many things including poetry. And I had my first introduction to real live bush verse.
The next day we were in Armidale, staying that night as guests of Wright College at the University of New England. The afternoon reading/discussion at the college was relaxed and we three seemed to have only a casual anxiety left about the next performance. During dinner Peter Boyle metnioned his throat was feeling somewhat dry. We reasured him - "don't worry about it, you'll be fine." Peter wasn't fine but he also didn't worry on that Sunday evening in Armidale's Wicklow Hotel even though his voice creaked and cracked. He just kept on sipping/gulping mouthfuls of rum/brandy/whatever to loud applause - for his poems, of course, which fortunately don't need a loud speaking voice to be heard!
Afterwards, we went for a cuppa and a debrief at the home of the featured local poet, Tony Bennett. There, Chris Mansell and I sat and talked with the others and drank tea near the warmth of the pot belly stove while Peter scurried around -busily raiding our hosts' medicine cabinet, kindly assisted by Annie, Tony's partner. Garlic, paracetamol, echinacea, vitamin C, Vick's vaporrub and Vick's inhaler, slippery elm and throat gargle (gargle, gargle in the background) and more! Peter left with a jam jar containing an unidentified assortment of capsules and pills, to be consumed as necessary along the rest of our tour - and they were.
By the next day, Monday, Peter's voice had gone completely. I drove the eternally long and winding, winding road from Tenterfield to Casino and on to Lismore, where we checked into our motel. Chris Mansell drove the next leg on to Byron Bay. We were already late but she kept us focused and in good spirits (no rum or brandy or whatever) by singing Janis Joplin songs. I joined in. Peter wrote notes. We arrived at the CWA Hall to be welcomed by a worried MC - Rod Gibson, and two helpful media people from the local community radio station. They suggested a doctor nearby and Peter went off to have his throat inspected. The small hall was packed, the audience was enthusiastic and there were lots of group sighs. Peter came back after the open section with more tablets. Chris and I read some of Peter's poems on his behalf and I got nearly all the hard words right!!
The next day in Lismore, Peter Boyle met with Peter Barclay from the Northern Rivers Writers' Centre. Peter Barclay had agreed to read Peter Boyle's poems that night at the Lismore Club and took the job seriously. The two Peters spent the morning in a coaching session via notes, of course, while Chris and I went off to the ABC radio studios for an interview. That evening we did our stuff. The arrangement with Peter Barclay worked well, even the bits unrehearsed. He boldly prefaced poems by "I'm so honoured to share this with you" or "I love this next one" or "that's supposed to be the end but I have to read you just one more". Peter Boyle was his usual modest self though I wondered, hopefully, if my voice might go, too! Chris Mansell and I did get to do an encore for the 120 member audience - a great night, smoothly managed by David Hallet, complete with a poetry slam and performances by The Live Poets.
On we drove - to Bellingen. Peter's voice had returned tentatively and Chris Mansell had the honour of someone coming especially because he'd heard her last time she'd travelled through - in 1983!, and then onto Nambucca Heads - where an elderly man told me he loved my poems. I was honoured to think that I'd reached him in his dreams - he was the one who dozed throughout, dribble on chin glistening in the light! At Kempsey we got lost but were treated to morning tea and lunch, did readings at the high school and at TAFE and set off for Wauchope. Les Murray headed the bill and we followed. There was a good crowd though the lights were dimmed (they were out!) over the audience. I worried mid-reading that I was making meaningful eye contact with non-existent people!
Newcastle next - a Friday night - and a reading hosted by "Poetry in the Pub". Afterwards, Peter stayed at his brother's place in the suburbs though he was reluctant to leave Chris and I at our cheap hotel in town - labrynthine corridors, musty food smells from the pizza place and the other take-away shops downstairs, the sign glowing, advertising "vacancies available for half an hour" (just kidding!). We assured him that we had an ensuite so once inside we could just lock the door, which we did.
And so the next day - Katoomba - and the two tours had joined up. The South-West Tour poets told us some of their anecdotes and spoke a lot about the Hay Plain (Ron Pretty had a poem to set the scene and they were very efficient and already had photos!) and about mysterious noises and late comings and goings ... but we hever had any of that! You can't count our trip back to the seventies at Lismore - the "after the gig" party, or the many nights that Chris Mansell and I stayed up late as if at camp - telling all sorts of stories, including the scary ones. And so - in Katoomba - we six touring poets along with Anthony Lawrence did a poem-filled reading at the wonderful Varuna Writers' Centre, followed later by a let loose and drink lots of wine at a Thai restaurant (this was a bit of a Poets' Do, I must confess!!) followed later by a let rip and listen to songs sung by Adrian Wiggins back at Peter Minter's place and we flew in that space that's wired and high and we'd done nearly all of the hard work and were happy.
We finished the tour at the NSW Writers' Centre in Sydney the next day. I stuffed up the last line of my last poem of the tour, already sorting out in my head the mixed up baggage in the car, organising the money, returning the hire cars and unpacking my suitcase. We all said goodbye shakily and said that we'd keep in touch for sure - and we already have. I think each one of us is a little worried whose poems we'll be writing now - we heard so many - but at least Peter Boyle's voice is back. Chris Mansell is off on another writing adventure and I've never been so motivated to get the words out of my head and onto paper. And so the poetry tour hasn't finished at all!