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Poets of Southern California Are Pulled Into View

Hundreds gather for 'The Big Picture,' a 'happening' to record a community that can be difficult to define.

April 10, 2002|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the broad lawn of Beyond Baroque, the venerable literary arts center in Venice, they fall together in semi-straight lines under a cloudy-bright sky: Part-time poets. Silenced poets. Mentor poets. Performance poets. Geographically challenged poets. Come-hell-or-high-water poets.

Among the assembled group of nearly 300, some wear thrift-store dashikis or rumpled top hats, fencing masks or Stetsons. Others carry portraits of absent or sick poet friends.

Dotting the perimeter are the hand-carried details that only poets could arrange precisely on the page of a day: Tarot cards, mud cloth sashes, nosegays of lavender, baskets of vivid strawberries, pass-around bottle of gin. Above it all, installed in a rented cherry picker on the Venice Boulevard sidewalk, photographer Mark Savage peers through the viewfinder of his Mamiya at an antsy assembly that answers his gaze with giggling and catcalls.

Savage calls the portrait he is about to make "The Big Picture," and with it hopes to capture, and thus celebrate, a moment in the life of poets in Southern California, whose community is notoriously difficult to frame, and even more difficult to keep in focus. Echoes of photographer Art Kane's "Jazz Portrait, in Harlem, 1958" (made more famous by a documentary "A Great Day in Harlem"), the indelible portrait of 57 jazz greats who collectively spanned the history of jazz, color the afternoon.

Often hidden behind the cliche that writer, here, means screenwriter, the region's poets have more than made do with their stealth life, filling elite writing programs, winning prizes and organizing various kinetic literary centers and collectives.

But the low profile of the poetic personalities and styles hidden in L.A.'s sprawl has always been an issue. "It's the problem about here ...," says poet and anthologist Bill Mohr, negotiating hugs, shrieks and disposable-camera paparazzi as he crosses the lawn. "This is about making a group of writers visible. It will make people think, 'How could we have missed so many poets?' This is a thriving rambunctious community. This is awesome."

"The Big Picture," then, is an outing, in both senses of the word. It's part reunion, part happening, part wake (for two who died on Easter weekend: Venice beat icon and poet John Thomas and Marta Mitrovich, a seminal figure in Orange County poetry). The event is the collective brainchild of Savage, Fred Dewey, the director of Beyond Baroque, and Amelie Frank, a member of the Valley Contemporary Poets. For five years, Savage has been compiling a visual catalog of L.A.'s poetry community with a series of stirring, intimate portraits. "I want the photographs to be as individual as they are," he says. And "The Big Picture," which will go on display at Beyond Baroque in several weeks, will draw these disparate spirits together.

The trio's effort involves not just convening the poets, but looking more deeply into their work. "We've been trying to get more involved in documenting L.A. poetry history, high-caliber work across genres," says Dewey. "I was looking for a way to preserve not just what is happening but the scope of what was happening, and start new dialogues. You can't create new work if you don't have a sense of your history."

Just Who Is a

Poet, Anyway?

In style as in substance, the image of the Southern California poet is as elusive as a fresh simile. Everyone's a poet: your next-door neighbor, the man who helps you select your weekend videos, the bookstore regular who once whiled away his lunch hour in belles-lettres --they've all made their way here today.

But for all the freedom that suggests, says Frank, it has often presented a quandary, both inside the community and out: Just who is a poet? And what is poetry?

Accordingly, says Dewey, as "Big Picture" planners tried to decide whom to include, "there was some dispute over the question of whether it should be major poets? Major published poets? Everyone who is actively involved in poetry?"

A steering committee of 15 plucked from various corners of L.A.'s literary community met in person and online to hash out particulars from the philosophical ("Who is a poet?") to the practical ("Will we need Porta Pottis?").

Ultimately, when it came to finalizing the guest list, says Frank, "the buck stopped at my desk. My criteria were: They have to be a poet. They have to be serious, they can't be someone that goes to the mike to read from a journal. Publication is totally important, but it's not the only requirement. There are fellowships, poetry hosts, teachers who have put their own work aside. There are spoken-word artists, academics who haven't produced their own books. I'm not letting jokers and clowns in. I'm not letting in songwriters or stand-up comedians. And if you've been a jerk? This is not what it's about."

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