Slovakian poet Milan Salka plays water pipes. Wanda Coleman, Guggenheim fellow, sings the beauties and agonies of growing up black in Los Angeles, while Chicana poet Marisela Norte evokes her East Los Angeles, Mexican and Indian heritage with her readings.
Jean Samuels' pieces are based on her work teaching in California prisons and her youth in the Midwest. Sylvia Rosen, a long-time Valley resident originally from New York, offers poems based on dreams, marriage, children or madness.
Any of them might be seen on the third Friday of almost any month at the Woodland Hills Community Church, where the Valley Contemporary Poets Series has been meeting for five years, making it the longest continuing series of its kind in the San Fernando Valley.
The richly diversified and multicultural series of poetry readings is funded in part by the West Valley Cultural Center and by a $2 donation at the door. Usually two well-known poets are featured and read for half an hour apiece. They are paid an honorarium.
Founder Is Poet Nan Hunt
The founder and director of the series is Nan Hunt, a well-known poet in her own right. Her book, "My Self in Another Skin," was published by Drenan Press in 1980. Her work has appeared in Ms. magazine, and in anthologies such as "Ariadne's Thread," published by Harper & Row, and "Between Ourselves," published by Houghton-Mifflin.
She is also a teacher, now giving private classes in her Woodland Hills home. Previously she taught at The Women's Building and Soutwest and Pierce colleges.
The series of readings, she recalled, "evolved out of one performance I did with Norm Levine, called 'Connecting.' We read our work responsively--that is, I would read a poem, say, about Midwestern life and he would answer with one about city life. We performed at the church for an audience of about 90.
"Frankly, I was tired of getting on the freeway every time I wanted to hear or read poetry. I thought Valley people should have their own center for literary activities. So I started asking poets to come out to the church and read. Some of the early responses were negative, i.e., 'Who would think of going to the Valley for a poetry reading? Who is going to drive clear out to the Valley to hear me read?'
"Some poets did not even return phone calls.
Well-Known Poets Took Part
"But those were really the exceptions," Hunt insisted. "Some really well-known poets like Laurel Ann Bogen, Wanda Coleman and Jack Grapes participated even when all we had to offer was a split of the door take."
How did the series evolve into a paying proposition? "Well, we proved ourselves," Hunt said. "We paid a rental to the church out of that $2 donation." Hunt donated postage, time and supplies. She had no regular help until last year when coordinator Sylvia Rosen, soon to take over as director, began to volunteer her time.
"After we proved we could get an audience, and I could take a list to the Valley Cultural Center to show that all the best Los Angeles poets had read, funding was voted," Hunt said. Audiences average 20 to 25. Some special performances, however, bring in much larger crowds. "We still operate on a shoestring, though," Hunt said.
The first half hour of each evening is reserved for open readings. Six poets sign up on a first-come basis for three minutes of time.
"Poets need a public place to get feedback," Hunt said. "Sometimes we have really inexperienced poets who read 'moon in June,' 'roses are red/violets are blue,' stuff. Usually, after they hear the more advanced poets read, they weed themselves out."
The Valley Contemporary Poets Series is one of the few that still include open readings and what Hunt called a completely democratic format. "I'll never forget my own pain when I signed up to read at Beyond Baroque (in Venice) and they wouldn't call on me because they didn't know me. And they couldn't get to know my work because they wouldn't call on me."
Hunt has since read there.
Her career road has been long.
"I actually started writing poetry in high school," Hunt said, "but there were a lot of breaks--mostly for survival reasons. I married very young, in my sophomore year of college, and had my first daughter a year after. That marriage ended, and I had to support myself and my daughter. I quit school.
Began Writing Seriously
"It was during my second marriage, when my older daughter was a teen-ager and my younger daughter, 4 years old, was able to go to play school for three hours a day, that I was able to set aside the time to write seriously."
She returned to school, at the University of South Florida, for a master's degree. "The experience was wonderful and terrible. At first I found it devastating to have the academic knowledge," Hunt said. "It seemed to me I took greater risks in my poetry when I knew less. Also my male mentors were a mixed blessing, very encouraging and supportive in some ways, but constricting in others.