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The «Streetfare Journal» Story

Australian Art and Poetry on US buses

A brief report on the «Streetfare Journal» project 1993–1995, by John Tranter. This piece is 1,800 words or about 5 printed pages long. It was first submitted to the Literature Board of the Australia Council as a report on the project, in 1996. The Literature Board was a major funding partner to the project.


«Streetfare Journal» is a transport poster project directed and edited for the last decade by US poet George Evans. In mid-1995, it sponsored thousands of copies of six different full-colour posters, each bearing an aboriginal art image and a short poem by an Australian writer. They went up for a six-month period among the advertisements inside buses in sixteen major cities across the USA. The average potential audience for this display of Australian creative material is ten million commuters per day.


I acted as George Evans’ main Australian consultant for the project, which was supported by a substantial grant to cover costs from the Australia Council, in addition to funds from the Lannan Foundation and the Lila Wallace Readers’ Digest Fund in the US, and with the corporate sponsorship of TDI, a US transport advertising space broker firm. The Australia Council has received copies of the posters.

George Evans, San Francisco, 1985. Photo copyright © John Tranter, 1985.

George Evans, San Francisco, 1985. Photo copyright © John Tranter, 1985.


[George Evans told me that he was inspired to begin the «Streetfare Journal» project by the work done by the organisers of Poetry International in Rotterdam, an organisation founded in 1970. Years before, they had begun publishing poems on the sides of Rotterdam municipal garbage trucks, with great success. JT, 2013.]


Over the past decade «Streetfare Journal» has featured the work of artists and photographers such as Ansel Adams, David Hockney, Dorothea Lange, Mary Ellen Mark, Robert Motherwell, Kenneth Noland, Larry Poons, Sebastiao Salgado, Frank Stella and Clyfford Still, and the work of poets such as Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, Paul Celan, Robert Desnos, D.H.Lawrence, Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz. This is distinguished company indeed.


My connection with «Streetfare Journal» began in April 1985, while I was on a reading tour overseas funded partly by the Literature Board of the Australia Council and the Department of Foreign Affairs. While in California that year I arranged to meet George Evans, a US poet who has lived in Japan and travelled in England, Australia and South-east Asia, and who now lives in San Francisco. He started «Streetfare Journal» in 1984. We got on well, and I met George again in 1986, when he attended a poetry reading with local poet Bill Berkson and myself at the San Francisco ‘Intersection for the Arts’. We met many times after that, whenever I was in San Francisco.


I spent time with George on a trip to the US in early 1993 discussing the idea that a special issue of «Streetfare Journal» featuring Australian poetry alongside either Australian photography or art would be worthwhile. George was enthusiastic, and in early 1994 I facilitated discussions between the Australia Council and George Evans, with the result that a grant of $50,000 (Australian dollars) was approved to help fund the project.


Our initial idea for the visual component for the Australian series was to look at either Australian photography, which would show Australian culture in a fresh and direct way, of aboriginal art, which was a special interest for George Evans. With the kind help of Sandra Byron and Penny Mapp at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, I researched and sent to George copies of hundreds of photographs of various Australian subjects over the last fifty years. I also obtained and sent to George dozens of art and photography magazines, exhibition catalogues and art books. As the project developed, we focussed on the work of contemporary photographer Jon Rhodes, and complex negotiations began. Communications were difficult — Mr Rhodes lived in a remote NSW rural community and had no phone or direct mailing address — and some misunderstandings followed. Permission to use some photographs taken in tribal aboriginal areas (images which had been exhibited and reprinted previously) was withdrawn at the last minute. In the end, Mr Rhodes’ arresting images were not able to be used. George Evans then turned to aboriginal art, and communicated directly with the Gabrielle Pizzi Gallery in Melbourne and with Philip Jago from the National Gallery of Victoria. Again misunderstandings occurred. After six images of aboriginal art works had been selected and confirmed for use and production design had begun in California, tribal permission to use some of the images (which had been reprinted before in other media) was withdrawn at the last minute. Finally six striking images were chosen and cleared for use.


The poetry was a less complex process. I had planned to research and send to George about a hundred poems from which George would choose the required half-dozen. Getting a balanced selection that worked within the constraints of the venue was not easy, however. The poems had to be short, obviously. There were other considerations. From a letter to me from George Evans: ‘As you know, we do not publish rhyming poetry, excessively formal poetry, or poetry with literary or personal references not accessible to the general [North American] reader. It’s additionally important to note that we only publish poems that are in print … the ideal Australian series would reflect as broad a range as possible regarding the use of work by poets of all backgrounds … Also, as you know, though I consider this to be a highly cooperative joint effort, all final editorial decisions for «Streetfare Journal», for both poetry and art, must remain with me.’ Gender balance turned out to be a particular difficulty, and both George and I regret that we were not able to find more high quality poems by women that also fitted the demanding requirements of the venue. We tried; I must have read thousands of pieces, and in the end nearly two hundred poems were sent.

Post-Display publicity


I discussed with Jonathan Thompson at the Australia Council (and later with George Evans) the desirability of some further publicity for the series once it was up and running, as it were. I approached Michael Braziller, a New York publisher with a liking for and a familiarity with Australia whom I have met in New York and at my house in Sydney, and Penguin books, who published the Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry (ed. John Tranter and Philip Mead). In the end there seems to be little chance of bringing out a related book or pamphlet in the US. As George Evans himself points out, nothing can remotely equal the impact of ten million potential readers per day, and that’s what the poster project itself delivers, right across America, day in and day out, for six months.


I have ensured that Penny Amberg from the Australian Embassy in Washington is in contact with the project, though. Selma Shapiro in New York is also liaising closely with George Evans. Selma is retained by the Literature Board specifically to promote Australian writing in North America, and I hope that good things will emerge from her recent meeting with George in New York. The US-based journalist Susan Wyndham has written a piece on the posters which gained local coverage in the Australian newspaper in September this year. I enclose a copy with this report.


The Australia Council can feel especially proud of its support for this project, which has such a wide public effect. I have already had cards and letters from poets, editors and other friends in different parts of the USA, from L.A. to New York, surprised to see such an intriguing image of Australia on their buses. Our poetry has never before had such a large or more widely-spread potential readership; aboriginal art has never been seen by so many people in the one venue. I think we can all be pleased that Australian art and poetry is reaching such a broad cross-section of the American public — not tucked away in a museum or in a small-circulation poetry magazine, but taking its place among the noise and bustle of the daily lives of millions of ordinary people.


I should like to express my personal gratitude to George Evans for his enthusiasm and support. Despite the dozens of difficulties we encountered, George guided the project surely and steadily towards its conclusion. And I am delighted that a meeting between two poets, five thousand miles away and ten years ago, has resulted in such a positive and valuable outcome.

John Tranter, Balmain, Monday, 20 November, 1995


Copies sent to — Mark Stapleton, Strategy and Communications, Marion Halligan, Chair, Literature Board; Sandra Forbes, Director, Literature Board; Jose Borghino, Literature Board.


Please copy to — Anne Sanders, Strategy and Communication; Lydia Miller, Head, Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islanders Arts Unit; Ian Weir, Visual Arts Board.


The poems used in the project were: ‘Bobingah’ by David Campbell, ‘Goanna Hibernating’ by Robert Churnside (Ngarluma), ‘The Mysteries’ by Laurie Duggan, ‘The Orchardist’ by John Kinsella, ‘Gifts’ by Oodgeroo from the Tribe Noonuccal (formerly Kath Walker), and ‘A Fit’ by John Tranter.


The artworks used in the project were ‘Tingari Dreaming at Yaru Yaru’ by Pinta Pinta Tjapanangka, ‘Yarumayi Jukurrpa (Dreaming)’ by Jeannie Nungarrayi Egan,‘Pamapardu Jukurrpa (Dreaming)’ by Clarise Nampinjinpa Poulson, ‘Wandjina’ by Alec Mingelmanganu, ‘Kandakidj, Antilopine Kangaroo’ by Curly Bardkadubbu, and ‘Namarrkon, the Lightning Spirit’ by Mick Kubarkku.

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