With his shoulder-length hair, Fu Manchu mustache and cowboy shirt, performance poet James Bruce Joseph Sievers was once described in the Washington Post as looking a bit like Abbie Hoffman while sounding more like Barry Goldwater.
That was in the early 1980s, when Sievers was gaining notoriety doing as many as 500 poetry recitals a year in a nationwide one-man show called "An American in Love With His Country."
The name of the program was taken from the title of Sievers' best-known poem, which he delivers with trademark passion and concludes with the line, "America must strive / To keep America alive / For freedom can never be free."
The Rotary, Kiwanis and other organizations ate up the Los Angeles native's poetic antidote to the negativity of the '60s and '70s, audience members snatching up the self-published poetry books Sievers sold at the end of his performances.
People magazine dubbed him "Old Glory's Happy Homer."
Today, Sievers no longer sports the hirsute look (not since second wife, Lori, talked him into a shave and a haircut last year by saying "we can get you from the '60s to the '90s in a half hour").
But at 50, Sievers is still logging 40,000 miles and several hundred performance poetry gigs a year from Huntington Beach, where he moved a year ago from El Segundo.
Sievers will perform at a reading presented by the North Orange County Poetry Continuum at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Springfield Conference Center, 501 N. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton.
Sievers' audiences range from the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Daughters of the American Revolution to Mothers of Twins and the Chrysanthemum Society. He also visits about 40 schools a year. "The kids, in some ways, are better audiences than adults because they haven't decided they hate poetry," he said.
Among Sievers' biggest fans: former Sen. Barry Goldwater, who, in the months before his death in May, recommended Sievers to the Library of Congress to be Poet Laureate of the United States in 2000.
Sievers, according to a letter he received in April from the Library's Office of Scholarly Programs, is one of the "four most highly recommended candidates" for the $35,000-a-year, one-year appointment. From that list, the Poet Laureate will be selected in the spring to succeed Robert Pinsky.
The position--established as the Consultant in Poetry in 1936 with an endowment from Archer M. Huntington--underwent a name change in 1986, with Robert Penn Warren being the first to bear the title of Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. Formal duties require only that the Poet Laureate open and close the Library of Congress' literary season with a reading or a lecture.
This is the second time Goldwater recommended Sievers for honor (the first was in 1990). Sievers met the Arizona Republican in the White House Rose Garden in 1981. Sievers had been invited to perform during National Patriotism Week. After hearing him deliver his patriotic trademark poem, Goldwater pressed his way through the crowd to shake the young poet's hand.
"Goldwater has really been so good to me," Sievers said. "He thought I represented something that was good."
Although Sievers continues to call his program "An American in Love With His Country," Sievers said 90% of his poems are about other things. His subjects have included friendship and the birth of the first of his two sons--not to mention a poem marking Bob Hope's 90th birthday, Magic Johnson's retirement from basketball and Pete Rose's efforts to be admitted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
More than being about patriotism, Sievers said, his program "is about the goodness of the American people and relationships that are contained therein."
Still, because of his program's patriotic title, Sievers said, "I get invited to places like the Veterans of Foreign Wars state convention."
Or the state convention of the California Peace Officers Assn. where, he recalled, he faced a room filled with "500 big macho cops." When he walked out with his long hair and mustache, he said, "it was like an E.F. Hutton commercial: Everything went quiet, because they wanted to hate me."
Yet by the end of his poetry recital--a term he prefers over "reading" because he can recite 200 of his poems from memory--Sievers received "the longest standing ovation I ever got."
The son of a Los Angeles policeman who rose to the rank of general in the Army reserve, Sievers dropped out of Cal State, Long Beach in 1968, the peak of the Vietnam War. About to be drafted, he enlisted for a three-year Army stint to ensure he'd have a choice of schooling. Although a member of Special Forces, he said, he spent his hitch stateside in an intelligence unit.
After completing active duty in 1971 at age 22, Sievers began hitch-hiking, zig-zagging through 42 states over 10 months. The journey proved an eye-opener.