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COVER STORY : Angry Young Poets : Coffeehouse readings are an often loud and irate scene influenced by MTV and punk.

August 04, 1995|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CANOGA PARK — The Cobalt Cafe is perfect for poetry. The coffeehouse may take in more cash via Grateful Dead tribute bands and high-profit Java, but every Tuesday--open reading night--is evidence that its wide, storefront space is conducive to verse.

Writers can sign up at 8 p.m. to read, and some arrive that early to snag their preferred spots toward the middle of the list. Over the next hour, they settle into the thrift-store armchairs that are scattered across the floral, hotel-lobby carpet. They select a few pages from their tattered folders and spiral notebooks. And then they wait.

At exactly 9, Rick Lupert, 26, hops up on stage to establish one rule: Poets will have no more than seven minutes in front of the microphone. He takes a few questions--such as, what exactly is that print on his shirt?--and calls up the first poet.

In the room are about 15 people; that number will more than double in the next hour. "I always worry, and it always fills up," says Lupert, who lives in Encino. At places like the Cobalt, there remains a segment of twentysomethings--the same generation blamed for post-literate culture and music-video attention spans--who embrace a medium dating back to Homer.

The mushrooming of Los Angeles' coffeehouse scene after 1990 spurred a parallel growth in local poetry readings. Some have fallen victim to the trend-conscious fickleness of youth. A scheduled Sunday-night reading at The Happening in Sherman Oaks didn't happen; no one brought a microphone. Only three people signed up to read at Grounds Zero in Burbank on a recent Thursday night.

It takes more than a venue and a microphone to make a reading thrive. As host, Lupert has given the Cobalt reading direction and personality for more than a year, carrying on a four-year tradition. "I try to create an atmosphere in which anyone would feel comfortable reading," Lupert says. He offers comments and encourages first-timers to come back. After one graphic misogynistic piece about a failed two-month affair, Lupert eases the tension in the room. "You know," he deadpans, "I usually date a woman at least eight months before I urinate on her."

Some of the poetry is heavy on angst and light on style, par for the open-reading course. The audience is too polite not to applaud, so dissatisfaction is measured in whispered asides, weight shifted in chairs and the number of people getting up to order coffee.

There's no predicting when it will happen, but it always does. A voice rises above the exhale of whipped-cream cans and gurgle of the cappuccino machine. It catches the ear with a phrase--three words, maybe four. The room gets quieter. The poet gets slightly louder. All the elements--words, rhythm and voice--fall in place. And when the poem is done, listeners instinctively nod their heads and release a low "yeah."

Explaining what makes a poem work at a reading becomes an exercise reminiscent of Justice Potter Stewart's attempt to define what is obscene. A working definition is impossible, but you know it when you hear it.

"Every night, no matter where, you're going to find one or two people who have something to say, who are not only entertaining, but also enlightening and inspiring," says Arash Saedinia, 21, of West Hills. "That's what makes it all worthwhile."

On this night, Saedinia's prose poem about a brief trip through a hipper-than-thou club captures the attention of the room. A recent Berkeley graduate, he's been a regular at the Cobalt since high school. "I come first and foremost--and anyone who tells you differently is lying--for attention," he says. "For attention and the gratification that what you've written is worthwhile--or at least entertaining."

Saedinia's style--white T-shirt, trousers with a wide belt and cap on backward--would fit the part of the poet in any decade. But to him, adopting that title is among the worst of pretensions. "I eschew the whole notion of being a poet," he says. "I do write poetry. . . . I write it because I have to. If there's an idea or an image or a poem in my head, I'm not going to sleep until I get it out."

Poetry in America is broad, encompassing everything from cowboy verse to Maya Angelou. The coffeehouse scene is a primarily youthful segment influenced by MTV and early punk--frequently loud and angry. On campuses and in cafes, modern-day bards also compete in verbal brawls called poetry slams. Winners--chosen by judges or applause--embody the notion of survival of the hippest--or at least, the loudest. A very tattooed Henry Rollins, former singer of the band Black Flag, was the front man for MTV's "Spoken Word Tour" last year. In such an environment, the compulsion to get the words down on the page is not enough. You have to want to shout them.

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