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FIRST PERSON / REBECCA HOWARD

If Poetry Isn't Therapy, It Certainly Comes Close

September 10, 1993|REBECCA HOWARD | Rebecca Howard is a Canyon Country writer. and

Call us The Timid Poets' Society.

We sat looking at each other, some with journals, others with word-processor printouts, others with works rolled up like burritos in their pockets. We were there to read our poetry in front of an audience, but no one wanted to be first.

As several people finally scrawled their names on the list, I added mine. And in the dimness of Eagles Coffee Pub in North Hollywood, I awaited my turn at the mike. The coffee brewed, the young and the grungy stomped about--socializing, reading or playing board games. I stared at the beak of a plastic eagle on a plaque on the wall and contemplated my fate.

Most of my poetic thoughts are relegated to my journal, never to be read, much less heard, by anyone else. But from observing other open reading nights, I had learned nothing was too personal to unleash. That's really the whole point.

Also, this night brought me a long way from my high-school brushes with poetry, when the entire senior class had to memorize and recite Robert Frost's "Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening." I'm not sure what literary value we took into the real world, except that if, say, at a party someone requests "Stopping By Woods," I'm ready.

But the days of recitation, counting haiku syllables or understanding iambic pentameter are long over. Coffeehouse poetry is free verse, man.

Still, as free as it was, I felt jittery, making at least three or four bathroom visits before the reading began, partly because of nerves and partly because of the coffee I was consuming in a cup so large that one patron--obviously a coffeehouse novice--asked what kind of soup I had.

The first performer, the bold one who'd put his name in the top slot, enacted what was more primal scream than poetry. He wore a leather jacket and closely cropped hair and kept circling the microphone stand screaming "RAGE! RAGE!" amid bits about a former job and a former girlfriend.

The next reader didn't read so much as whine. People seemed to tire of him as he kept driveling on about how no one cared about poetry and no one was listening to anyone. (Especially him.)

He was followed by an Eagles regular wearing a stocking cap and beads who attacked his predecessor by yelling, "It's poetry, not therapy." He stressed that everyone should listen up when others are reading. I had the feeling he meant when he was reading, because he and the whiner went outside to smoke for much of the rest of the evening.

At this point, I contemplated a rewrite. My works seemed too structured, I wasn't angry enough for this crowd. Maybe if I was a smoker, I'd have felt more in touch with their Angst, since complaining about the latest city smoking ordinance seemed to be Topic A.

The next two readers were young women with performances much more subdued. I was thankful it was not necessary to burst a blood vessel to be heard.

As my name was called, I felt that familiar jolt of electricity I used to get in speech class. I was welcomed with a round of applause by those patrons who weren't outside smoking. I was relieved and terrified that there was still some semblance of an audience watching me. I grasped the microphone with one hand and didn't let go the entire time. I think I was afraid of collapsing.

I led my reading with my poem "Aunt Flo," written in the throes of menstrual cramps. I believed it to be my most controversial and shocking piece, even though it was humorously written:

This is how it is when Aunt Flo comes to visit: She arrives, bags bloated, at 4 or 5 a.m. Too late to go back to sleep, too early to do anything but greet her. She is an eternal razor that wakes you, sawing at your stomach.

I heard twitters of laughter in the audience from men and women. As I finished, a few women cheered.

My next work was a ballad of sorts about hanging out at a Denny's restaurant in Santa Clarita, observing the characters who worked and ate there. I think my voice was less rushed, more confident:

I'm served up my share of "Honey, Sweetie, Dear"

By waitresses predestined for this job by the names their parents chose for them . Call her Cora, Flora, Dorrie, Marge .

My last poem, more serious, documented a bout with insomnia:

The month I couldn't sleep

I turned round and round on my mattress

like a chicken on a spit

my bed was a rotisserie

the flames were troubling thoughts

licking at my brain

turning my dreams to smoke

As I finished, one of my co-poets, a quiet young woman with dark hair, smiled with very red lips. "That was good," she said.

I could only mumble "Thank you," and stumble back to bury my head in my cup. It was large enough.

"I don't know if anyone will like my stuff," I had said to a friend prior to my reading.

"The most important thing is that it means something to you," he said. And it was true. The poets at Eagles said as much. Some performers almost bragged of their self-serving attitudes.

"If you can't hear this, so what," one young woman said into the mike with a coy smile. "I didn't write this for you. I wrote it for me. "

I realized my poetry was for me, too, and the most important part about it was getting the thoughts to paper. Taking it to the mike was taking it a step further, and I know that was a self-satisfying step as well, though naively I hoped that maybe some of my words would stick with this audience.

Perhaps over coffee--at Denny's--they would remember.

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