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READINGS : PEN Hosts Gathering of the Scribes

March 19, 1992|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

In Spain, the tertulias, a kind of communal meeting, goes way back, before there were books, newspapers, radios and TVs. Spaniards felt the need for a mass get-together to discuss the events of the day, both topical and cultural, and would meet in town squares, bars or homes.

Traditionally, the free-for-all debates and dialogues would eventually give way to more aesthetic impulses. Musicians would play, novelists would read and poets would recite; it was up to art to close the rifts that may have been opened during earlier arguments.

PEN Orange County, the local branch for PEN International (the writers organization dedicated to "freedom of speech" and "support for the literary arts" that was started by George Bernard Shaw and D. H. Lawrence in London in the 1920s), has taken the tertulias as both name and inspiration for what it hopes will be regular poetry and prose readings.

The PEN Tertulias at the Bear Street Cafe in Costa Mesa began in February and continues Friday night with bilingual readings from poets Misuye Yamada (reciting in both English and Japanese), Maria Herrera Sobek (English and Spanish), Janet Jue (English and Cantonese), Aura Maria Vidales (English and Spanish) and prose writer Cecilia Manguerra Brainard (English and Spanish).

"The tertulias translates to 'gathering' and has become known as a literary gathering," said Florinda Mintz, the founder and president of PEN Orange County. "It's an old tradition that goes back several centuries. People answered the urge to meet and talk, to let off steam and exchange cultural information.

"It was very cathartic for them. It served the purpose of giving an opportunity to satisfy their need to embrace art and be with other people."

The PEN Tertulias format will reflect that used for many generations in Spain, said Mintz. About 7 p.m., anyone who shows up will have the opportunity to socialize and discuss any subject. Following that, probably from 8 to 9 p.m., the writers will share their work. The evening will close with a report of PEN's domestic and international activities, especially how they relate to freedom of expression, Mintz noted.

Besides the communal environment, Mintz said the tertulias can be the ideal setting for writers to test material and for the public to be exposed to new works. She added that one of the more famous tertulias, held at the La Pluma bookstore in Madrid, was frequently visited by the playwright and poet Federico Garcia Lorca.

"That one, 'La Pluma,' is probably the most celebrated one today," she said. "Garcia Lorca would show up regularly to read his newest poems and plays, as would other of the best writers of the day. Musicians would play. It must have been a very stimulating environment."

As for the PEN Tertulias, Mintz pointed out that the stimulation should come from the nature of the writers and their readings, which both reflect cultural diversity. "This is a multicultural invitation to the community. It allows people to listen to other languages, other lifestyles, in an educational way."

Mintz said that the first program surprised even the most optimistic members of PEN Orange County. Nearly 80 people showed up, leaving standing room only at the Bear Cafe which normally seats about 50. This time, PEN Orange County has made arrangements to accommodate 100.

What: PEN Tertulias at the Bear Street Cafe poetry and prose reading.

When: Friday, March 20, 7 to 10 p.m.

Where: Bear Street Cafe, Crystal Court, 3333 Bear St., Costa Mesa.

Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Bristol Street and head north to Sunflower Avenue. Head west on Sunflower to Bear Street.

Wherewithal: Admission is free.

Where to Call: (714) 964-0212.

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