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A Month of Poetry in 3 Stanzas

Listening to the sound of the muse, amateur poets turn to a '50s typewriter, a stockroom employee writes gangsta lyrics, and teenagers stage a guerrilla poetry attack.

April 25, 2001

O, yes, we honor Marianne Moore's take on poetry--"there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle"--and, yes, we, too, dislike the gimmicky naming of months. But April is National Poetry Month, which "celebrates the democratic spirit of American poetry," and we want to join that party, to know whether this poetry-for-the-people notion is sweeping the land, whether ours is a culture in which the poetic "O" is not askew.

How could we not love the imagination in projects inspired by National Poetry Month, which began in April 1996: The guy who drove across the country in a moving van, handing out 100,000 free books of poetry at supermarkets, zoos, prisons and elsewhere in 1998 (brought to you by the Washington State Apple Growers. Seriously). The 58 billboards put up around Los Angeles in 1999, featuring excerpts from the work of poets including Charles Bukowski and Gwendolyn Brooks, sponsored by a group called Poets Anonymous. (Members, who declined to be named, hired a publicist to speak for them.)

But this April, we wanted to peer beyond the Official Calendar published by the Academy of American Poets in New York and paid for by sponsors including Merriam-Webster, the New Yorker and Random House. Events such as the poetry readings on Mt. Everest and the International Space Station, a tribute to U.S. Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz in New York City, a poetry festival at the Carl Sandburg House in Flat Rock, N.C.

We wanted to see if poetry is palpable to people for whom the usual readings and workshops are but distant constellations; to see whether poetry consciousness is surfacing in unexpected ways--say, in the non-poet populace as we know it.

Earlier this month, for instance, Long Beach Mayor Beverly O'Neill read her own poetry for the first time in public, before a standing-room-only crowd of 120 during the city's Poetry Week. Was she scared? "Absolutely. I can talk about the city and other things very easily, but to talk about things personal. . . " The poem, which she wrote in graduate school at USC in 1976, was inspired by Dante's Beatrice from "The Divine Comedy." "I'd like to be Dante's Beatrice. . . ." the poem begins.

Turns out her act of self-revelation prompted another. The next day, at City Hall, a security guard asked her, "How did the poetry reading go?" Oh, fine, the mayor said. "Well," he told her, "I write poetry, too."

The English professor who invited O'Neill to read had no idea that she wrote poetry. Cal State Long Beach's Elliott Fried, the week's co-organizer, simply took a shot. "What we're trying to do," says Fried, "is break down some of the perceived traditional boundaries about poetry, that certain people write poetry and certain people do not. He turned to people he knew, to people his neighbors knew. The week's five poetry events drew more than 1,000 people.

"The poets are already here. You don't have to bring in big-name poets."

I. In which the sound of the Muse is pl-unk-pl-unk-pl-unk-DING.

What if I don't get it, the typical bookstore-goer worries about poetry. What do they mean, those famous William Carlos Williams lines: so much depends/upon/a red wheel/barrow/glazed with rain/water/beside the white chickens. Skylight Books general manager Kerry Slattery knows the type. This is the customer whom Slattery wants to beckon to the party, the type who is intimidated by poetry readings and the "rarefied audience, where you have other poets or people who are already knowledgeable about poetry."

"It seems," says Slattery, a bubbly redhead in her 50s, "like the whole point of focusing on a month like this is not for those people who are already the converted." Oh, there is poetry everywhere, she thinks, and she--the independent bookstore manager in Los Feliz--must coax the poet out of the non-converted! In a gentle way, a simple way . . . give them . . . space.

So for April, Slattery decided to put together a poet's retreat in her bookstore, a homey place with brick walls and a chunky cat named Lucy who jumps into laps during readings. Head to the back, past the rack crowded with poetry chapbooks sold on consignment. Past the 18-foot ficus tree that grows toward the skylight in the high ceiling with exposed beams.

A sunny yellow sign invites: "Add a poem to our Poetry Month Book, no more than one page. Use the hole puncher, and add your poem to the black three-ring binder."

Nearby a manual typewriter sits on a worn oak desk, along with a stack of white paper, notebook paper and yellow lined paper, a couple of pens and pencils, and white correcting fluid. The "A" key sticks on the circa-1950 Smith-Corona unless you press hard, which is fine with Slattery, who wanted to provide "things that, in themselves, by touching, make [people] feel differently."

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