Positively Friendly Street

Friendly Street is Australia's longest running community open-poetry reading venue. Started in 1975 by Andrew Taylor, Richard Tipping and Ian Reid, Friendly Street was Adelaide's first regular, open-to-all poetry reading. It has since achieved local and national recognition for its dedication to the nurturing, support and promotion of poetry.

Friendly Street Poets are without a home. Their venue for the past 28 years, a community centre in the south-east corner of Adelaide called the Box Factory, has suddenly closed its doors. The Box Factory has been such a strong part of the Friendly Street identity that I cannot help but wonder how the group will be affected by the closure.

The current Convenor of Friendly Street Poets, David Ades, has mixed feelings. "The Box Factory has been a very significant part of Friendly Street history, so it probably moves us into a period of uncertainty. On the other hand, it is an opportunity to do something different. Friendly Street Poets can’t remain static. I don’t necessarily see the move away from the Box Factory as a bad thing."

The current Friendly Street Committee has its job cut out for it, given the list of criteria they need to consider when looking for a replacement venue - cost, size, availability, car parking, access to public transport, disabled access - amongst others.

For the first meeting of 2004, Friendly Street Poets have gathered in the main conference room at the SA Writers’ Centre in Rundle Street, a temporary home until a replacement for the Box Factory is found. It is about a third of the size of the Box Factory space. A tight squeeze for the sixty or so people filtering through the doors. A queue has formed at the front of the room where people add their names to the list of readers for the night. By starting time there are 46 readers on the list. No-one has been brave enough to claim the number one spot, which means number two on the list, long-time Friendly Street personality, Graham Rowlands, gets to kick off the evening (later on in the night, he will be hilariously, though affectionately, lampooned by another poet, inducing uncontrolled laughter in the back rows). The humour in his poem, a familiar Rowlands political piece, is emphasised by the deadpan delivery and gruff demeanour, generating a ripple of laughter across the audience. After applause and a cheer or two, the poet returns to his seat to make way for the next reader.

The poets and poetry that follow are as diverse as the form itself. In fact, many of the pieces stray outside the form altogether, into areas of performance and prose. There are delicate haikus, impassioned social commentaries, poems about family, war, mobile phones and post-modernism, even a lengthy comic piece about dieting that has much of the audience in an uproar.

There is not only diversity in form and style. Friendly Street’s participants are as varied as the poems they read. First-time readers follow poets with several published collections under their belts. A 10 year old schoolgirl is squeezed between a University student and a poet in her 70s.

I asked David Ades how important this diversity had been to the survival of Friendly Street.

"I think part of its success has been that it is open to all. There has never been any membership criteria. It is a place where people are receptive to poetry. And enthusiastically so.

And if you look at the people we have published over the years, you’ve got all age groups, people from Lithuania, Romania, Greece, people from all over the world. As it should be. Australia is a culture of diversity, and we would want a poetry group like Friendly Street Poets to reflect what is going on in the community."

Along with the monthly meetings, Friendly Street’s publishing program is a core activity. Since 1977, Friendly Street has been publishing the annual Friendly Street Poetry Reader, a collection of the best poetry read each year, as selected by annually appointed editors. In the 28 years to 2004, a total of 435 poets have appeared in the pages of a Friendly Street Poetry Reader.

Since the early 80’s Friendly Street has also been publishing the collections of individual poets, including the first collections of such poets as Mike Ladd, Jeri Kroll, Kate Llewelyn, Steve Evans and Rory Harris.

Perhaps the most important publications, at least in terms of the long-term development of South Australian poetry, have been the New Poets volumes. Produced since 1995, and now up to volume nine, each book in the series contains the first collections of three poets. Of the twenty-seven poets featured in the series thus far, nine (at least) have gone on to publish second or third volumes, while others have gone to produce cds, magazines or mixed-media works.

Steve Evans has been a regular at Friendly Street Poets since the year of its inception. His first collection, Edison Doesn’t Invent The Car, was published by Friendly Street Poets in 1990. He has since published a further five collections, and recently, co-edited the 28th Friendly Street Poetry Reader with his wife, Kate Deller-Evans.

Steve sees the New Poets series as crucial for the ongoing survival of Friendly Street Poets, and believes it might even account for a resurgence of interest in Friendly Street in the last few years.

"Of all the things that Friendly Street has done in recent years I think the New Poets series is the most critical one. It indicates an outlook that generates new writing and marks it off as something separate and valuable. It says that Friendly Street is not just about recording what it has done, but that it also has a mission, a purpose. And that is to develop writers."

Funding for Friendly Street’s publishing program comes primarily from the Government of South Australia, via Arts SA. Having just completed a stint on the Arts SA funding panel, Evans is well placed in assessing the importance of the New Poets series from a funding perspective.

"It is something that Arts SA really respects. That framing of new works isn’t done in music or craft as well or as it is done in literature. The New Poets series is almost as important as the anthology. It is one of Friendly Street’s real strengths."

But Friendly Street’s role in the development of writers doesn’t end in publication. Jude Aquilina, whose first poetry collection, Knifing The Ice, was published by Friendly Street in 2000, acknowledges the many opportunities the group has provided.

"I met so many wonderful writers: Anna Brooks, Yve Louis, Junice Direen, Jeff Guess. And there were other opportunities. At every meeting there were announcements about writing groups, workshops, other readings."

"After the publication of Knifing The Ice I was invited to read at the Independent Arts Foundation, Poets on Popeye, Writers’ Caf and many other venues. And I’ve since run my own workshops at the SA Writers Centre, as well as high schools."

Aquilina’s second collection, On a Moon-spiced Night, is due for publication in mid-2004. This time around the book will be published directly by Wakefield Press, bypassing the Friendly Street connection. Jude sees this as vindication of Friendly Street’s support for her as an emerging poet.

"I think this has happened to many writers over the years. Friendly Street publishes the first work. The writer proves their worth, and then an outside publisher, like Wakefield Press, is prepared to take them on."

This is a situation familiar to Steve Evans. Since the initial Friendly Street publication, his collections have been picked up by a number of other publishers. The latest, Taking Shape, has just been launched by Five Islands Press.

"Your first book is a really important occasion. After you’ve written a first book, it is more likely that you will write a second, and a third. Friendly Street enabled its publication and helped change my perspective on what might happen to the poems written afterwards. Suddenly you thought, rightly or wrongly, there could be a second book."

Like Jude Aquilina, Evans recognises the importance of the Friendly Street community, which extends beyond the boundaries of the monthly meetings.

"Yes, there were a lot of people I suspect I wouldn’t have met otherwise, so this was an important part of Friendly Street. It was a meeting place. It became an expected way of keeping in touch with other writers around town: Andrew Taylor, John Bray, Rory Harris, Peter Goldsworthy, Kate Llewellyn. A lot of these people I would not have met otherwise. I still connect to them as Friendly Street people."

According to David Ades, the opportunities these contacts bring is one of Friendly Street’s great attributes. Attesting to the experiences of Steve Evans, he believes the group provides not only performance and publishing opportunities, but also the opportunity to form lasting relationships with other writers.

"I don’t think you can underestimate the sense of community. Opportunities arise from the contacts you make with other poets. Opportunities to work with other poets on their own projects, to produce a cd, or publish a book. Opportunities to promote your work. This is very important to a poet, given the difficulties in finding publishers or an audience for their work. Friendly Street can give you access to all those things."

Meanwhile, at the SA Writers’ Centre, it’s the half-time break, and the air is humming with conversation. Groups of poets have spilled into adjoining rooms and out into the atrium, where there is room to talk and enjoy a drink or two. Just before the break there was the opportunity to announce readings, competitions, workshops. David Ades updated the group on the Friendly Street Committee’s search for a new venue, while the editors of this year’s anthology, Amelia Walker and Shen, reminded people of the volume’s submission requirements. Those not deep in conversation gather around the table at the back of the room, which is littered with fliers promoting various literary functions and publications, along with a selection of books, both Friendly Street’s own volumes and others, brought by poets hopeful for a sale or two.

The absence of a permanent venue doesn’t seem to have dulled the energy and enthusiasm of this particular meeting. There has been humour, passion, politics, good-natured interaction between readers and audience, and a diverse range of poetry and other spoken word material. Given this seemingly healthy state of affairs I see no reason why Friendly Street Poets shouldn’t continue for another 28 years. I asked David Ades to elaborate on the challenges facing Friendly Street in the coming years.

"I think that Friendly Street is, in terms of a cyclical movement, on an upward incline," observes Adès. "There have been a lot of new members - total membership is currently 115. There is great energy at Friendly Street at the moment. A lot of new people are being published. There has been a lot of work done by the current committee to publicize Friendly Street. But we have to work hard to keep the enthusiasm running.

The other challenge is funding. We’ve been able to maintain our publishing program with funding through Arts SA, but it is getting harder. We are putting more and more work into our funding applications, and struggling to maintain the same returns."

Steve Evans believes the key to Friendly Street’s future lies with its ability to promote itself.

"Friendly Street needs to develop a public profile, and not just rely on those already coming, or word of mouth. A bit of outreach. It might mean basic things like sending fliers to University and TAFE students. High Schools. Community writing groups. A bit more "waving the flag."

Like David Ades, Jude Aquilina is concerned about funding, although she is generally positive about Friendly Street’s future.

"The funding of Friendly Street is vital. I don’t know what would happen if funding were to cease. Apart from that I can see Friendly Street going on for as long as people continue to write."

David Ades also sees the life of Friendly Street Poets extending well into the future, although he suggests that the group’s continuation may not be guaranteed simply by a desire for poets to perform and publish their work. Friendly Street is now an established force on the Australian literary scene. Its demise is not something that its many supporters and participants would take lightly.

"I don’t see it ending. I see it continuing, maintaining its core activities for as long as funding continues. If the funding stops, then perhaps, doing other things. Perhaps operating more on the Internet. But that’s all very speculative. At the moment Friendly Street is healthy, numbers are good, there are 40 - 50 people reading each month.

So, I think that, given the investment of a lot of people in Friendly Street over a 28 year period, people would be very anxious to ensure that Friendly Street Poets continues in some form or another."

At the Writers’ Centre, the evening is winding down, having culminated in an eccentric performance by long-time Friendly Street identity, Khalil Jureidini, whose poems are a peculiar fusion of stream-of-conscious surrealism and Marx Brothers wordplay.

As the crowd begins to dissipate I catch the eye of a young couple, one of which braved the Friendly Street audience for the first time tonight, his appearance heralded by a cheer and encouraging applause, the usual welcome for first-time readers. His poems were gentle and observant, uttered with hardly more than a whisper.

"See you next month?" I ask, as I bump into him at the doorway, curious to know whether or not he will be back for a second visit.

"Definitely," he replies with a shy smile. As he leaves I notice a copy of last year’s Friendly Street Poetry Reader tucked under his arm.

The author would like to thank David Ades, Steve Evans and Jude Aquilina for their time and valuable input to this article.