The Shades of Poe festival is sponsored by the San Diego city library and… (Associated Press )
SANTEE, Calif.— Ladonna Maki, an unemployed waitress, stepped off the San Diego trolley on Saturday afternoon and quite unexpectedly encountered the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe.
Celeste Innocenti, artistic director of San Diego-based Chronos Theatre Group, was providing a dramatic reading of one of Poe's best-known works:
"I was a child and she was a child
In this kingdom by the sea:
But we loved with a love that was more than love –
I and my Annabel Lee."
Maki's companion wanted to keep walking, but Maki insisted on standing and listening, drawn in by the strangely hypnotic tale of love lost, demons, angels and "her tomb by the sounding sea."
When Innocenti had finished, Maki was pleased: "I love Poe. He's creepy. He's awesome."
The open-air reading was part of a monthlong Shades of Poe festival, sponsored by the San Diego city library and Write Out Loud, a San Diego group that promotes the power of words. The National Endowment for the Arts kicked in a $14,000 grant and all manner of teaching materials under its Big Read Program in which local communities pick a single author to celebrate.
Poe readings, Poe movies, Poe-themed art exhibits, Poe discussion groups and Poe-inspired dance performances are being held at venues throughout San Diego County. Teachers are assigning Poe and encouraging students to use him as inspiration for their own poems and short stories.
Mariah DeHeart and Alex Boyd, who are both 11, wrote "The Will of the Crows," involving crows with scarlet eyes and a gangly man who aims to carve up the narrator's heart.
"A heart plucked from a body, that's pretty Poe-ish," said Veronica Murphy, artistic director of Write Out Loud.
Ronan Elliott, in the 8th grade, did his own take on "The Raven," entitled "The Orangutan." Including a truly modern line: "I cried Lenore! Come in, I beg you! Although you haven't shaved your legs."
Schools, theater groups and libraries are hosting events. There's something new every day this month.
In succeeding Saturdays, Poe readers will be at trolley stops in Chula Vista (April 14), La Mesa (April 21), and San Diego's Old Town (April 28). To provide a visual come-on, set designer Mark Robertson has a larger-than-life Poe puppet.
Poe died (mysteriously) in 1849, but his themes remain modern: psychologically complex, macabre, bloodthirsty, neurotic. Poe was edgy and dark before edgy and dark were cool.
(No wonder that a Poe-themed movie, "The Raven," starring John Cusack as Poe helping a detective catch a serial killer, is set to open later this month.)
The goal of the Poe festival, said Walter Ritter, actor and executive director of Write Loud Out, is to provoke interest from the "reluctant or lapsed reader," by reintroducing them to a writer they were probably assigned to read in middle school or high school.
"Anything that promotes the written word is something that I'm going to promote," said Charles Harrington Elster, author, former member of the San Diego library commission and former co-host of "A Way With Words," a public radio program. Elster is set to be on a Poe panel.
"When this came along," Elster said, "how could I say 'Nevermore'?"