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The Soul of a Poet : Champion of verse Lee Mallory of Newport Beach is a college teacher by day and an intense creative spirit by night.

January 26, 1994|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Lee Mallory alert! Lee Mallory alert!"

These are words that can shoot BBs of dread into the gut of journalists in local newsrooms. It means a writer has just had a call from the poet Lee Mallory. The poet Lee Mallory is like a relentless insect intent on boring into someone's brain. The poet Lee Mallory will keep calling every extension until he finds satisfaction.

Hi, come to our reading. Hey, I just ran the L.A. Marathon for poetry. Listen, here's a poet you should come hear. We're presenting surf poetry--maybe Sports would be interested. Hey, Jim, aren't I fixated on poetry?

It's reached a point where we have to either write about him or shoot him. I, for one, am not willing to do prison time because, should Mallory survive, he'd doubtless get around to starting a poetry program there.

So, here meet the poet, the fixated, Lee Mallory.

We joined him last Wednesday evening as he addressed a group of black-T-shirted poetry club members and other students in the auditorium of Brea Junior High School. He had already begun his lecture and seemed to be going to extremes to show the teens that he's not an ordinary teacher, but an unruly poet.

"We're going to break all the old rules," he was saying, pantomiming snapping yardsticks across his knee. "But the poet does it to heighten his message," he continued, illustrating that with awkward Atlas poses.

Mallory prowled the front of the hall. "When I write I want to adventure . We want to get a little crazy . If you have a poem about the earthquake, I want to feel this shake "--he jiggled a blackboard--"I want to know the sweet taste of blood in your mouth. "

If, during Mickey Rourke's steady career descent, you happened to see him playing the Charles Bukowski-like poet in the Bukowski-penned film "Barfly," you might recall his affected speech pattern, which seemed heavily based on the cartoon cat Snagglepuss, of " Exit , stage righhhht " fame. Mallory's speech is a bit like that, making a lingering emphasis on anything resembling a key word.

"The poet has to be in touch with his world more than any other person . What color is the sticker on the license plate of your dad' s car ? What letter is not on the telephone dial ? You guys are not paying attention to the world. You're not checking details that can make your poem fly , to make your writing solid or make a reader soar ."

One small detail Mallory himself seemed to miss was that when he'd hurl his chalk at the blackboard for dramatic effect, it sometimes went ricocheting into kids in the front row. Maybe they can write a poem about it.

At one point Mallory asked a student what poetry meant to her. She responded, "Death."

"OK, if she says 'death,' " he said, turning to another student, "what word does that make you think of?"

"Cool!"

*

Later, in a restaurant, over light beers, the 48-year-old Mallory was still tirelessly promoting poetry. Divorced since 1989, he lives on Newport Peninsula's 33rd Street--"the biggest party street there is." His explanation why--and of why he rides the bus every day to his teaching job at Santa Ana's Rancho Santiago College--had the emphatic tone of Harry Dean Stanton reciting the Repo Man Code:

"I like the action. Poet's gotta be where the action is. Poet's gotta be taking the pulse of everything going on around him . Poet's gotta stay in touch. You don't wall yourself out."

(I'll be turning up the "italics filter" from now on, so that only the words Mallory really, really emphasized will get through.)

Mallory says he teaches 60 hours a week and often stays up all night grading papers. Still, he finds time for all those poetry-related phone calls and flyers. In the past 25 years he has logged 3,500 pages of journal entries. He has had hundreds of his poems published in small magazines and has written four volumes of poetry, most recently 1990's "I Write Your Name." It will be joined this June by "Full Moon, Empty Hands" from Fullerton's Lightning Publications.

He has also conducted the county's longest-running poetry night, dubbed the Factory Readings, held the first Monday of every month at the Casa Palma Restaurant in Santa Ana. More recently, he instituted readings at the Alta Coffee House on the Newport Peninsula, held every second Wednesday. He has taught poetry at Rancho Santiago since 1989. He says the classes are always full, despite school administrators initially telling him it was a "blue collar" campus where students only wanted to learn practical, job-related skills.

*

Mallory wrote his first poem in 1968 while a student at UC Santa Barbara.

"I lived in an apartment house in Isla Vista that looked like a tenement, with the stucco walls streaked with the dampness of the night and a bike rack with various parts of bikes still chained to it, rusting. It was a dreary place.

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