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Riding the Ripple : Poetry Is Breaking Out All Over as Writers Throughout the County Gather to Read and Rhyme


Let us now praise local poets.

In the past two years, Ventura County has quietly come alive with hints of creeping poesy--readings, publications, a rise in rhyme-related sales at the Ventura Bookstore and a host of other clues.

"There's really something kicking in here," said John Landa, co-owner of Island Print & Copy and co-publisher of "X: Ten California Poets."

"Sometimes I think people doing their doctorate theses in 2015 are going to come back and ask me about these people."

"If we were a baseball team, we'd have a strong lineup," said George Keenen, proprietor of the City Bakery and organizer of local publications and readings through the Arcade Poetry Workshop since 1988.

At the Portside Gallery in Oxnard, free verse has taken over the answering machine. "Schools of brine tingling my face/I know this is the way/As whiskers remind me," intoned the recorded voice of gallery owner Michael Racine one recent day. Then came the beep.

At Moorpark College, organizer Jan Straka is still marveling over the laser show that accompanied the reading there Nov. 3. "It was so cool," Straka said. "We had the physics department help us."

And at the Ventura Bookstore, which carries one of the county's largest poetry selections, owner Ed Elrod's records show $8,443 in poetry book sales in 1990--not a king's ransom, but twice the income that poetry brought the year before.

"There has been a proliferation of small-press things," said Elrod, pointing to a shelf of slim volumes near his cash register. But with local publications ranging from the genteel rivertalk (published in Ojai by retired college instructor Joan Raymund) to the high-schoolish Nation of Freaks ("the underground publication that gestures rudely at your elderly relatives"), it's hard to keep track of them all.

"The image that comes to mind is the La Brea tar pits," said Jackson Wheeler, a social worker and poet in Ventura. "You're standing there this long time and nothing happens. And then suddenly these bubbles come to the surface."

"I've written myself for 20 years, but I didn't know about any groups (in Ventura County) until the last two years," said Elizabeth Cain, a teacher who lives in Oak View and reads regularly at the Ojai Art Center's poetry workshop. "It's a real life-changing thing when you can find a group like that."

Dixie Adeniran, the county's director of library services, said she has been "quite amazed at the resurgence of interest in poetry here locally, and throughout the state too. . . . Maybe part of it is just that there are some very interesting local poets writing."

In 19th-Century England, poets had Percy Bysshe Shelley to comfort them with the pronouncement that they were "the unacknowledged legislators of the world." In New England at about the same time, they had Ralph Waldo Emerson to call them "as inevitable as a crop of violets or anemones."

Poets have not always been so prized in Ventura County. And even now, some suggest that the current boom could be spillage from the sudden burst of celebrity poetry in Los Angeles in the last couple of years. Once Justine Bateman took her act from the set of "Family Ties" to the weekly readings at Helena's, one could argue, the world was forever changed.

But most trace this county's advances to the efforts of local poetry pushers such as Keenen and Sandra Smith, until recently the publisher of the poetry quarterly Pangolin.

"When George provided the venue, all these people showed up and met each other," Wheeler said. "And then Sandy showed up with the magazine."

In the east county, the names of Ron Reicheck and Jan Straka arise often. Reicheck, who lives in Simi Valley, publishes the poetry quarterly Verve and stages frequent readings in Simi Valley and the San Fernando Valley.

Straka, from Moorpark, oversees publication of the twice-yearly Irrevocable Void at Moorpark College and collaborates on readings offered through the Portside Gallery in Oxnard.

For their parts, Keenen, Reicheck and Straka are quick to attribute the energetic atmosphere to the bravery of fledgling poets, the volunteerism of printers and the adventurous nature of new poetry audiences.

To be sure, the versifying life in Ventura County is still a scramble against long odds for subtle rewards. Nobody makes a living at it. Pangolin died when Smith moved to Santa Cruz in August, and it has not been replaced. The Thousands Oaks branch of B. Dalton Booksellers stocks just 25 to 30 poetry titles--not enough to fill a long bookshelf but apparently plenty for its clientele. Mona Locke, assistant director of the 10-year-old Simi Valley Poetry Series, confesses that "it's just a battle all the time" to keep people coming.

And Raymund, publisher of rivertalk and leader of the Ojai Art Center's poetry workshop, recently lamented that "poetry--good poetry, that is--is not a part of mass culture. And I doubt very much that it ever will be."

Yet she and dozens of others carry on, pausing regularly to stand and read and sometimes even rhyme.

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