"This is so crazy, I tried to stop it," muttered Marta Mitrovich, contemplating the prospect of the Laguna Poets' "Special Programme for Marta Mitrovich" tonight.
The event, which features nine poets giving short readings in Mitrovich's honor, will begin at 8 p.m. at the Laguna Beach Public Library, although "I've got to (show) up early, of course, to put out the chairs," Mitrovich said.
Mitrovich, who has been involved with the Poets since its 1959 beginnings, became the group's unpaid director in 1976. She has been the main force behind the Poets' expansion into an organization that meets at the library every Friday night and holds three larger poetry festivals each year. (The next festival will feature Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Galway Kinnell on Aug. 27, with three local writers reading Aug. 28.)
"She is the fire and the light and the mission," said Padraic J. Cohee, the group's assistant director. "She has missionary zeal, she has dedication." Tonight's event is "a reading from the poets who have partaken in the life of Laguna Poets," Cohee said. Some of the poets will talk about Mitrovich and the group and read poems related to the event.
"I think it's high time they had something for her," said Terry Kennedy, a poet who lives in Laguna. "Marta is the Laguna Poets. I really admire her. She has tremendous energy."
A slim, athletic woman with silver hair that gently frames an intense, tanned and deeply lined face, Mitrovich is a Yugoslavian-born actress who lived and worked in England and Chile before settling in the United States in 1942. Her voice is still accented, her manner theatrical.
She has lived in Laguna for 36 years, directing a local art gallery, but refuses to state her age. "You know I'm ancient," she laughed.
Some of Mitrovich's work has appeared in local anthologies. These days she doesn't write much, but "when I get very old and don't have much time to run poetry (readings) and sell paintings, I'm going to sit in my seat and write, write, write," she said.
Married once, to "a good man, much older" than she, Mitrovich had a daughter, Sonia, an artist who died recently. Mitrovich's eyes get misty when she talks about Sonia, whose photograph is propped up in a small shrine-like setting inside Mitrovich's home. Mitrovich takes care of her grandson, Paul Harrington, who lives with her.
"I go to bed very tired sometimes, but I replenish in bed. I wake up every morning with my grandson at 6:30. Put that down: 6:30, dammit!" she said. Although tending the Laguna Poets is part of what wears her out, she said she is not bored with the group.
Still, she admits, she may want to relinquish the Poets' directorship in a few years. "I'm very ambivalent about that because I can't see myself stopping it if it dies," she said. "And I don't have a longing to stop it because it's been my baby."
She continues to direct the Poets because "I do think it's terribly important these days, when the pendulum has swung so far on the side of 'money-money-money, power-power-power,' to do a little bit to help the pendulum swing back to the creative side of life, to help writers grow," Mitrovich said.
It is unclear who would direct the Poets next. "Nobody else is going to do all that, forever and ever," Cohee said. Funding for the Poets has always been shaky, with small, annual grants from the city of Laguna Beach, the California Arts Council, a few private donations and ticket sales supplying most of the group's approximately $7,000 yearly budget. Mitrovich has never been paid for her work.
She is supported by the Poets' nine-member board of directors, but board members serve mainly as "resource persons" for Mitrovich, said John Brander, a Long Beach lawyer who is the group's legal adviser.
Brander, who co-directs ongoing poetry readings at the Pacific Symphony Center in Santa Ana, calls the Laguna Poets "probably one of the most viable reading series in Southern California (because) you know it's every week. If you go, you know there'll be something going on.
"Indirectly, Marta has influenced many, many of our lives. I really love that lady. She has a very positive will to really do something, to care for people."
"A Special Programme for Marta Mitrovich" will feature readings by John Brander, Terry Kennedy, Judith Altschule-Lieber, Marcia Cohee, B.H. Fairchild, Allen Freedman, Joe Williams, Nancy Wing and Bart Yoder at 8 p.m. at the Public Library, 363 Glenneyre St., Laguna Beach. $3 donations are requested.