About 180 people of all types and ages are congregated in an open courtyard, where they have come to sip exotic brew and subject themselves to the spoken words of the wise and the wacko.
A man wearing a moth-eaten sweater and black cord jeans stands before them, clutching a notebook in his right hand and raising his clenched left fist skyward like some hero from a Greek tragedy. His voice rises and wanes with each stanza he dramatically reads from his latest poem. Behind the hanging sheet that serves as a backdrop, another man points two flashlights in various directions that come through as stars bouncing to the poet's reading rhythm.
The gathering is at Deidrich's Coffee in Costa Mesa. And those in attendance have come for poetry and java, as they have every third Monday of each month for the last year, served up in a program called the "Cafe of Dreams." The event is part of a recent Southland trend known as "performance poetry" that has the nation's poets turning their heads west toward this burgeoning literary scene.
Performance poetry weds the spoken word with performance art, sometimes incorporating theatrics, voice dynamics or props. The genre has become so popular that Los Angeles held a poetry festival last month that featured over 200 poets and attracted an audience of about 2,200.
In Orange County, performance poetry is also catching on, with 10 regularly scheduled readings per month and several more scattered throughout the year. The longest-running and most frequent reading in the county--the Laguna Poets--happens every Friday evening, except major holidays, at the Laguna Beach Public Library. Founded by Marta Mitrovich 18 years ago, the group also has a tradition of inviting well-known poets like Allen Ginsburg and Gary Snyder to read as part of the annual Laguna Arts Festival.
Most of the readings follow a similar format, presenting at least two featured readers--who are chosen by the organizers based on their work or reputation--and providing an opportunity for poets to sign up and perform their work to a somewhat captive audience. The latter segment is known as an open reading. The cover charge is always less than the cost of a movie, and sometimes free.
In addition to the readings, poetry journals and specialized poets' groups are becoming established and receiving recognition outside county boundaries.
Poets and followers agree that the popularity of live poetry depends as much on the way words are spoken as it does on the words themselves. "No one wants to sit through an hour of mumble mumble," said poetry enthusiast Michael Logue. "We decided from the beginning not just to get good writers, but good readers."
Logue has become somewhat of a celebrity in Orange County's poetry community since 1988, when he and fiancee Tina Rinaldi co-founded Poets Reading Inc., a Fullerton-based nonprofit organization that holds bimonthly readings at the Fullerton Museum Center, publishes a magazine for poetry and discussion called The Quarterly, and provides scholarships to aspiring poets attending an Orange County university or college.
A writer and computer consultant whose baroque attire reflects his eclectic personality, Logue also donates much of his energy, time and computer equipment to organizing special events featuring renowned writers. British poets Ian Whitcomb and Thomas Gunn and Irish poet James Simmons were invited to read last month as part of the Festival of Britain.
Logue doesn't believe that Poets Reading Inc. should be so closely identified with him, citing the work of Rinaldi and 18 dedicated volunteers. "I certainly don't do this for my health or as a personal glory vehicle," he said. "I do it to promote the literary arts, to provide a forum--both written and oral--for local writers."
Also intent on promoting live poetry is Lee Mallory, a poet and English professor at Rancho Santiago College. He and Jana Kiedrowski have presented the "Factory" the first Monday of each month since late 1988.
Jokingly referred to as "the reading that wouldn't die," its dedicated following has had to relocate several times because of a series of unfortunate circumstances at the restaurants they used. Their first site and namesake, the Chicago Pizza Factory in Santa Ana, went bankrupt, as did their second venue, and the last site burned down. The Factory's latest home, at the Casa Palma Mexican restaurant in Santa Ana, has remained free from catastrophe since May.
Mallory believes a restaurant offers a casual and festive atmosphere conducive to the creative, spontaneous and often shocking works read in Factory gatherings. (Those attending a recent reading also seemed to enjoy the margaritas, chips and salsa.) "We pride ourselves on the 'anything goes that's good' philosophy," he said.