Modern street poetry in the UK began in London in the early 70's with Street Talk Pete (Peter Baines). Pete had lived in New York among poets of the Greenwich Village scene, and had started there to print up multiple copies of his writings, with sketches, which he sold on the streets of New York, calling his street poetry distribution the "Street Talking Press". He then brought this to Britain, and set up the Street Talking Press in London.
Bongo Mike met Pete in 1972 in Charing Cross Road. They began
distributing poems together - the first one being a joint venture,
which they would distribute on opposite sides of the street.
After a while Bongo Mike, the "Number Two Street Poet" in London as
Pete jokingly called him, started distributing
poems on his own, and between 1972 and 1978 wrote and sold multiple
copies of around seventy illustrated street poems of his own
composition, arranged in several series:- "Moments", "A Solitary Walk", "Motorway",
"Bongo Doodles", "The Death of a Street Poet" and "Breakdown", followed by a final series
called "Living in the Gutter", composed in a student cafeteria in Leuven, Belgium, but never sold on the streets.
Angus Mcgill, writing in the London Evening Standard in 1973,
commented: "For nine months now Bongo Mike has lived solely
from the proceeds of his poetry. Can the Poet Laureate say the same?"
After a while Bongo Mike, the "Number Two Street Poet" in London as Pete jokingly called him, started distributing poems on his own, and between 1972 and 1978 wrote and sold multiple copies of around seventy illustrated street poems of his own composition, arranged in several series:- "Moments", "A Solitary Walk", "Motorway", "Bongo Doodles", "The Death of a Street Poet" and "Breakdown", followed by a final series called "Living in the Gutter", composed in a student cafeteria in Leuven, Belgium, but never sold on the streets.
Angus Mcgill, writing in the London Evening Standard in 1973, commented: "For nine months now Bongo Mike has lived solely from the proceeds of his poetry. Can the Poet Laureate say the same?"
Mike also had numerous exhibitions of "visual poems" in places like Camden Arts Centre, Camden Lock, BIT information, the Japanese Garden in Covent Garden and the Bath Festival of Alternative Arts. The visual poems, which were in colour, comprised poem, sketch and collage, and were successfully exhibited in conventional "white-wall" situations - although Mike, being perhaps over-idealistic in his early days, did not sell the originals of these works, despite receiving some offers.
From the series "A Solitary Walk" (1974)
Bongo Mike began to expand his distribution of street poems, including now a wide range of public places - in addition to his work on streets, he performed and sold poems on mainline railway station concourses, tube station platforms, tube station ticket halls and inside tube trains and buses - and in doing this he became aware of the sheer variety of performance that was required to make a success of all these very different situations. It was only later, however, that he evolved the theory of "situation art" - an attempt to make sense of the uncharted territory of spontaneous performance. .
From the first series "Moments" (1972-73)
Street poetry in its day had an underground image, which was seen as rebellious. After the exhibition at Camden Lock, Bongo Mike stayed in an empty house opposite Bit Information in the Westminster part of Notting Hill Gate. He worked on a series of visual poems called "The Light in the Window", which was then exhibited in the offices of Bit Information.
after a review of this exhibition in a Kensington Newspaper, followed
up by a brief review on television, vandals claiming to be from the
council smashed up his home and his few treasured possessions, and he
was made homeless.
Extremely Frank Jeremy (Jeremy Helm) began working with Bongo Mike in 1974, distributing the street poems in the various performance places that were now developing. He had studied English Literature at Cambridge, and came to London looking to participate in the underground cultural scene... "I was impressed by the idea of this less limited way of presenting poetry, taking it out of the academic context": (quoted in the Evening Standard some years later)..
The price of taking it out of the
academic context became unexpectedly clear when Bongo and Extremely
put in an appearance at the Windsor Free Festival in 1974, only to find
that it had been smashed up by the police,
shortly before Mike was due to perform... Or when Jeremy was prosecuted by the
British Transport Police in 1975 for trespass on the railway while distributing
poems on Paddington Station.
the end of the episode it was for economic reasons that street poetry collapsed -
The Kings Cross Fire
In November 1987 their photo appeared on the front page of the Independent Newspaper, along with an article in the opinion column of the same edition supporting their campaign for the decriminalisation of busking.
Four days later they were present in the ticket office of Kings Cross tube station at the precise moment of the outbreak of the horrendous Kings Cross Fire.
And in the thick murderous smoke, their knowledge of the ticket hall, gained from their years of street poetry distribution on the underground, saved their own lives and that of others who followed them to safety.
After the official inquiry into the fire they were awarded "certificates of appreciation" for their service to the public, by the Chief Constable of the Transport Police.
A few of the poems which Bongo wrote, and they both distributed, demonstrate the inner conflict which was slowly developing in street poetry between the fashion of "accessible art" on one hand, and their developing awareness of "situation art" in their street poetry distribution, on the other hand.
on the Underground
POEMS EXHIBITED ABOVE