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Poetic Places : Poetry Readings in Southland Cafes, Bookstores and Coffeehouses Serve Up a Powerful Brew of Words and Ideas


Sunday afternoon shoppers breezed along Melrose Avenue, passing the plate-glass windows of the Gasoline Alley cafe.

The passers-by served as unwitting, temporary backdrops to poets Starr Goode and Cecilia Woloch, who read their work for those who sipped espresso and iced cappuccino inside.

Occasionally a passer-by paused to peer in, as if wondering what new trend was being set. A few times, unwitting would-be customers pushed through the front door before stopping cold and backing out. "I have to confess that I am guilty of sloth. Like many artists and writers, I like to stay up late and sleep in late," Goode said to a wave of sympathetic laughter from the 40 people packed into the small cafe. Then she read a poem called "Sleeping Past Noon."

Switching gears, Goode read a number of poems that brought the concepts of ancient gods and goddesses into a 20th-Century context. Then Woloch--her wild, red-hennaed hair standing out vividly against her black tank top and short, black leather skirt--read from a manuscript-in-progress of poems addressed to a mythical "contessa."

Gasoline Alley, which offers free and free-wheeling entertainment most Sunday afternoons (the next reading will be this Sunday), is currently one of Southern California's hottest poetry-reading venues.

It's the brainchild of Harry Northup, a Hollywood poet-actor who's published four books and appeared in 26 movies.

"A writer from Venice told me, 'I knew it would take Harry Northup to make poetry chic,' " Northup recalled, looking gloomy. "Well, that wasn't my intention. . . . I try to get the best poets I can. The purpose (of the series) is to encourage and promote good poetry."

These days poets of all kinds are turning up all over Southern California to read their work out loud in front of audiences. If you haven't glanced at a poem since Shakespeare was droned at you in school, you may be surprised at the entertainment value of contemporary poetry read aloud.

Sometimes, the readers are taken by surprise.

Silver Lake poet Eloise Klein Healy still remembers how, at her first reading years ago, "I read with Wanda Coleman and Sylvia Rosen. Sylvia read dreams and Wanda jumped off her chair, got down on her knees on the floor and was barking like a dog, and I thought, 'What have I gotten into? My God, these people are crazy!' "

Today you can find readings in a wide variety of settings, from public libraries to theaters, eating places, colleges and universities, bookstores, record stores, art galleries, museums and private homes.

Held on Weekends

Most readings are held on weekends, but a few take place during the week. Monday night, for instance, Los Angeles poets Kate Braverman and Bowerbird Intelligentleman performed their work as part of the Goat Hill Readings series at the Good Earth restaurant in Santa Ana.

About 20 people sipped coffee and herbal tea and munched on salads while Intelligentleman (a UCLA social-psychology doctoral candidate and computer consultant also known as Bruce Morasch) started things off.

"I'm a REST-less, RECK-less, poet from Los Angeles," he chanted rapidly, while a strobe light flickered over his long hair, sweat shirt and jeans. " . . . Fruits and nuts and nuts and bolts and lots of loose screws. . . . " In between verses, he drummed syncopation on his chest and stomach and greeted the crowd's laughter and applause with a sweetly mischievous smile.

Throughout Intelligentleman's mostly rhythmic, high-energy recitation, one male listener calmly sketched his woman companion, who leaned back and stared at the performing poet. Smoke spiraled upward from a few cigarettes, dissipating in the room's air conditioning. A friend, Darlene Allen, stood beside him and translated many of his poems into sign language. (No hearing-impaired people were in the audience, but Allen and the poet say they hope to stage future readings specifically for the hearing-impaired.)

"I thought that was wonderful," Orange fiction writer Julie Hall said afterward. "It's the kind of thing that if you read it, you would never get it . . . (or) you'd get something different. Putting expression into (the poetry) makes it three-dimensional. You get all the punctuation."

Braverman, elegant and slightly wicked-looking in an off-the-shoulder black dress and heels, her eyes heavily shadowed and her mouth outlined in scarlet, smoked cigarettes and read poems from her new book, "Hurricane Warnings" (Illuminati Press). "Some women are born/to sin./It's a calling,/like the cloth/or politics. . . ."

She moved a little, tensely, in place, her voice sometimes rising almost to a shout. The audience paid close attention, giggling at some of her lines: "And you're saying/I get drunk and restless,/drive my car too fast./Don't give me promises./Just show up with cash. . . ."

Perhaps because of the dramatic surprises many poets offer in their performances, sponsors of the events say readings are gaining in popularity even among "poetry-haters."

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