Tuesday night is poetry night at the Cobalt Cafe, and Brendan Constantine remembers the moment a gray-haired man stepped on stage and said he would read his son's work.
"We all sort of looked up from our coffee and said, 'What's this?' "
In dress slacks, white shirt and suspenders, Ron Dvorkin must have looked more the retired optometrist he is than a late-blooming bohemian. He read with such passion that anyone might have surmised--and accurately so--that this was a man driven by grief.
Yet there was more than sadness, Constantine says. Ron Dvorkin read well, honoring the words on their own merit, as though they might be Whitman's. "When Ron shows up at the Cobalt, people listen to the poetry. And if there's something amusing, we laugh. We don't back off and say, 'Oh, this is from the grave.' "
Rick Lupert, host of the Cobalt's poetry night, is also impressed by the works of Douglas J. Dvorkin, who died last year of a heroin overdose at age 20. "I really enjoy the raw language and raw imagery that Doug conjures up," he says. "I would liken him to Bukowski a little bit."
Making the rounds of San Fernando Valley coffeehouses, Ron Dvorkin has created a kind of dead poets' society of his own. On Wednesday night at 7:30, this society will gather at Barnes & Noble in Encino for an unusual event. Poets who never knew Doug Dvorkin in life will celebrate his verse as if he were indeed a Charles Bukowski or Allen Ginsberg.
A story like this one raises questions that may be better addressed in a philosophy class than a newspaper column. Why do people write poetry? What compels the human species to create art of any form?
Part of the purpose, Constantine suggests, may simply be the declaration of "I am here." The answer seems all the more poignant because Ron Dvorkin says his son, even as a young child, seemed "lost."
It seems fair, then, to think of Ron Dvorkin as on a journey of discovery as he reads and promotes his son's work. "It's just something I feel compelled to do," he says.
He says this in the dining room of his Tarzana home. His wife, Soli, is in the Bay Area visiting their daughter, a student at UC Berkeley, and their granddaughter that Doug left behind, who lives with an adoptive mother.
There is no grief like that of a parent who loses a child. The feeling that the child was "lost" long before may be all the more reason to grieve.
Ron Dvorkin says his son just never seemed to understand that actions have consequences. Consider the chicken gumbo story. Doug, just 5, took one spoonful, said it was too hot and started crying. Then he took another and another, crying as he ignored his father's pleas to stop, drink some water, at least blow on the soup.
"It was as though he was just in a different world," his father says. "We never got a true diagnosis."
Doug's troubles had him in counseling from early childhood. "His violence," his father says, "was always self-directed." He was 13 when his parents enrolled him in a drug and alcohol rehab program. It was through the rehab program that a scout for Phil Donahue learned that Doug Dvorkin--or rather, Dug, as he spelled his name at age 15--would be ideal for a sweeps-week show called "Kids Who Look Outrageous."
Tears well in Ron Dvorkin's eyes even as he laughs at some unusual father-and-son memories. Ron decided the TV appearance might be good for Doug's self-esteem. Certainly Doug did look outrageous, wearing his hair in a spiky, bright red Mohawk a foot tall. Ron loathed his son's appearance, but on the morning of the show, when Doug's spikes wilted, his father worked feverishly with hair spray trying "to get the ship righted." At the studio, Donahue's makeup staff quickly resolved the crisis.
Panic attacks forced Doug to drop out of Taft High. He started writing poetry at 17, encouraged by a teacher in his continuation school. He would write more than 100 poems. One was accepted in a literary journal and several were self-published in little booklets.
One of his poems was written in response to the attention his appearance attracted in an airport--averted stares, laughter, a child's amazement. The title, "Invisible," comes from this passage:
I'll never be invisible
Ron Dvorkin, who had hoped poetry might prove his son's salvation, doesn't pretend to fully understand his late son or his son's poetry. He and Soli are involved in two therapy groups for parents who have lost children.
"Every story," he says, "is the worst one." The poets he has befriended have encouraged him to write and read poetry of his own, and he has.
"The Soup's Too Hot" begins with the chicken gumbo story and jumps ahead 15 years, conjuring a scene Ron Dvorkin only heard about--a party where people were shooting up heroin.
Don't do heroin
Heroin is too hot, Doug. . .
Wednesday night's program is dedicated to Doug's works. Doug's grandfather, who is deaf, will perform a poem called "Alone" in sign language. Rick Lupert and Brendan Constantine say they feel honored to be among the half a dozen poets invited to read Doug's work. An audiotape of Doug reading one of his favorite poems will be played. And Ron Dvorkin plans to read as well.
"It's something you think is going to be heavy," says Constantine, "but Ron is able to get on stage and be engaging--to honor the work and allow the poetry to remain playful when it needs to be and pleading when it needs to be.
"We're not hearing eulogy and epitaph. We're hearing the work of a poet who happens to have passed on."
Scott Harris' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Readers may write to him at The Times' Valley Edition, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth 91311, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include a phone number.