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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND : CENTERPIECE : Releasing the Inner Poet : Shouts, Whispers, Howls of Budding Wordsmiths Fill Ventura Scene

October 19, 1995|KEN McALPINE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The woman shouts. No question about it. It is a small place. The sound flies off the walls.

"Hey, bartender!" she barks. "A little service here! 'Cause I'm a patron in pain and I need medication--NNNNNNOOOOOWWWWW!"

She cocks her head to her shoulder. For a moment you think she might stop. But she goes on, loud, her voice radiating sensuousness in a singsong cadence.

"Pour the Watney's onto my open wounds," she says, "to fight the infection before it spreads, put an IV on tap so I might avoid the dehydration caused with the loss of all these tears."

An unconventional approach, certainly, to secure a barkeeper's attentions. The other patrons--about 40 people sitting at small, round tables--seem to appreciate it. They watch the woman amiably. Perhaps the bartender has a history of atrocious service, and this gutsy, eloquent woman is the first to dare insurrection.

The bartender busies himself with the cappuccino maker, ignoring her.

She enters a final plea.

"Become my angel of mercy," she purrs, "and open another Harp's so I can get comfortably numb in half the time, or else put those silver bullets through my brain--let me say my prayers and grant absolution to memory."

There is a burst of applause and someone hoots. Dawn Hutchens bows humbly and makes room for the next reader, stepping down from the tiny stage tucked in the corner here at Ventura's Cafe Voltaire.

As it does every Thursday night, the weekly poetry reading in this cozy coffeehouse offers the irrepressible, the spontaneous, the humorous, the sensual, the wildly unpredictable and the plain old weird. These days it seems as if everyone with a working knowledge of the pencil has found poetry, and there's no telling what they will write or say. On this particular night, people meow, sing, mumble incoherently and say things like, "This is just something that came to me tonight from a bearded cherub with mud on his skin."

"I think the new definition of poetry is a line that doesn't go to the end of the page," observes Phil Taggart. "Basically, it's wide open now. These are exciting times."

Taggart, a pony-tailed fellow with a jutting goatee, and a poet himself, oversees the Thursday night readings at Cafe Voltaire as well as Ventura's annual Poetry Festival (coming in April for the third straight year).

Taggart believes that, poetry-wise, Ventura is a flower ready to bloom.

"Ventura is kind of exploding," says Taggart. "I think at some point this area is going to be well known."

*

Anyone interested in poetry in the here and now will be pleased to know that poetry throughout the county is alive and thriving. In Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks, Oxnard, Ojai and Ventura, folks are waxing poetic at cafes, workshops, colleges and festivals. You can hear the words of ethnic poets, rap poets, regional poets, cowboy poets, gay poets, urban poets, language poets, love poets, anger poets, sexual abuse survivor poets and Persian Gulf veteran poets, a daunting, and partial, list that simply means that these days almost everyone is in on the act and they're often doing whatever they please.

Local poets say the poetry scene in the county is more diverse than most.

"A lot of areas you go to there's kind of a similarity of styles," says John Gorham, owner of The Poetry Shop in Thousand Oaks. "In this county you really don't see that. We get kids from 15 to senior citizens in their 90s."

This eclectic gathering has one predictable effect.

"All our poetry events," says Gorham, "are packed." Packed with folks reading poetry and listening to poetry. And elsewhere, they are learning how to write poetry.

Unfortunately poetry can be intimidating. After all, it is an art form that has been long viewed as the domain of folks with pointy beards, ethereal visions and the vocabularies of a thesaurus. Writing poetry, poets will tell you, is damn, damn hard. Standing up and reading it to a room filled with strangers can be decidedly worse.

"It is scary," says Gorham. "I've done a lot of lecturing and I've played in bands for years, but when I started reading poetry it was probably the scariest thing I ever did in my life. It's very difficult getting up and reading from your heart. Basically you're spilling your guts in front of a crowd."

At The Poetry Shop, Gorham does all he can to ease the angst of his poets. Along with open mike nights, The Poetry Shop has discussion groups, enabling budding poets to first read their work in front of a sympathetic, and smaller, crowd.

"It helps if you find the support of other poets and get used to reading in front of them first," says Gorham.

Performance poetry, which is what transpires at Cafe Voltaire and most of the county's other poetry venues, is simply one form of poetry, and, argue some poets, it's not really poetry at all.

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