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Poetry Scene Takes In Rilke and Elvis Too


It was a Saturday night in Ventura, and the Momentum Gallery was alive with the sounds of poetry.

Poetry and Presley.

"It's alternating-sonnets and Elvis," said George Keenen, founder of the Arcade Poetry Project and organizer of the event earlier this month.

The program was titled "Sonnets to Elvis," and Keenen spoke in the moments before the advertised 8 p.m. starting time.

Behind him sat a boom box bearing an Elvis tape.

In Keenen's hand lay a collection of Rainer Maria Rilke's 55 "Sonnets to Orpheus." Over his shoulder, Keenen held his 10-month-old son, Dylan.

In Simi Valley the same night, local poetry lovers had arranged for a serious evening of reading by three respected Southern California poets.

In Ventura County venues from Ojai to Oxnard, similarly serious poetry readings have emerged as standard features in the cultural landscape.

The Arcade Poetry Project is part of that landscape too.

But on this night, Keenen said, he saw a chance to do something different .

Jeff Kaiser, an avant-garde composer and frequent Keenen collaborator, stood nearby preparing his own contribution to the evening, an homage to Elvis and the composer John Cage.

"I went through this book, 'Is Elvis Alive?'--45 cents at Pic-N-Save--and I looked for letters in other words that would spell out his name. They're called mesostics ," Kaiser said.

" Television is a good one, because his name is right in the middle of that."

Kaiser had recorded a tape of those underlined words from the book, and while it played he would read from a John Cage memoir about cross-country diner-hopping with Merce Cunningham.

Keenen explained to the crowd that the idea of the evening was not to disparage Rilke's work, but "simply to occupy the no-man's-land between Orpheus and Elvis. I'm the first one there. It's really cool."

Kaiser's reading/recording came first, then Keenen's selections from Rilke's "Sonnets to Orpheus" careening into recorded snatches from Elvis favorites, then an aftermath of original work from local poets.

For a sound-bite collector, it was either a ticket to heaven or an excursion, such as that of Orpheus, to Hell.

From Rilke: "Nothing can trouble the dominance of the true image."

From Elvis: "It's now or never."

Arrayed about the gallery were two dozen poetry appreciators and poets, several of whom carried work of their own to read later.

The crowd was mostly 20ish to 40ish, with a few leather jackets and billowing skirts in evidence, and one pair of pink pig boxer shorts pulled over sweat pants.

From Rilke: "Heavy are the mountains, heavy the seas."

From Elvis: "Honey, you lied when you said you loved me."

From a white-haired man in the corner of the gallery: "What a trip!"

From Rilke: "Feel how your breath enlarges all of space."

From Elvis: "Wise men say/ Only fools rush in ..."

During that song, one couple danced and three listeners slipped out the door.

Then it was time for the local poets and a little more seriousness.

The most earnest listeners inclined heads and closed eyes, concentrating on the words.

Randy Ringen, 29, of Ventura lay on the floor to recite "Thoughts to Have While Lying Prone in an Irrigation Ditch," ruminating on insurance, God, tuna and dolphins.

Jim Angle, 30, of Ventura called forth two original poems from memory, each of substantial length.

"I know a man who hides from the sun," said Angle, "for it shows what he holds in his soul."

Ali Liebegott, 19, of Newbury Park began by saying, "This is 'Sex in a Thrift Store,' in two parts."

After several lines of PG-rated lusting, moaning, housewares and plastic forks, Liebegott arrived at her closing line.

" 'And I would crawl into the dryer and wipe the sweat off my body with a 98-cent used wig.' Thank you."

Much applause.

Mikhail Gershovich, 19, of Simi Valley offered one political poem and one relationship poem.

Oren Swain, 22, of Ventura followed with "Television Doesn't Suck," another sort of political poem.

And soon it was 9:15, and the evening was done.

"Thank you all for coming," said George Keenen.

Rilke and Elvis were silent.

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