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Longtime Southern California poet takes his act to Vegas

The old poet is dressed in black, his platinum-blond hair rakishly moussed. He stands amid the hubbub, facing a stern test of his crafted words and carnival-barker delivery.

The venue is a smoky lounge called Ichabod's, east of the Strip. Drinkers stare zombie-like at TV screens and bar-top poker machines, laughing too loudly, lost in a heady haze of alcohol and another Vegas night.

Certainly no place for a performing poet. But Lee Mallory feels right in his element.

He wanders a tiny dance area for an hour channeling his idol, infamous booze-bard Charles Bukowski, with an arsenal of racy shock speak. He looms in people's faces, challenging the yakkers at the back bar.

"Hey!" he shouts. "I'm talking up here!"

To a bass-guitar back beat, he delivers a series of word-images that resonate in Sin City. About lust and excess. About "the secret in the skirts; the blessed yes." The self-proclaimed "Love Poet" calls "yes" the loveliest word in the English language.

Mallory moved here from Southern California last year with a Quixote-like plan: to reign as the king of poetry in a desert resort town without an attention span, a place that refuses to feign interest in anything without an over-under.

For the Ichabod's gig, he almost rented a limo and two strippers. "A poet who's reading in Vegas better arrive in a limo," he said. "You're going up against Cirque du Soleil and strip clubs like Little Darlings. Nobody cares about poetry, so you better have a shtick. You have to be a zealot."

But poets are not usually wealthy men: He eventually dropped the limo-stripper idea because the stunt was too pricey.

At 68, Mallory knows how to snatch attention. In conservative Orange County, where for years he organized poetry readings, the former college English instructor once licked a woman's thigh during a recital. (She threatened a restraining order.) He smashed dinner plates and stuck his hand into a whirring ceiling fan. He stood on furniture. One night, he walked among an audience snapping a bullwhip.

Mallory will use any device to get people to pause — in shock or bemusement, he doesn't care — and listen to his poetry. Or anyone else's. He has a motto for readings: "Anything goes as long as it's good."

In some ways, Mallory in Vegas is a hookup from heaven, both with their over-the-top PR campaigns and seeming self-obsession. He's foisted himself on anyone with a public space and already scored a reading inside the Silver Sevens casino. Days before, his picture was emblazoned on the marquee, near the $2.99 breakfast come-on. "An evening with Lee Mallory: poetry reading," it read.

But Mallory is finding that Las Vegas is not so easy to shock. At Ichabod's, his entourage — mother, wife, daughter and fellow poets — is outnumbered by strangers who dismiss him as if he were a schizophrenic babbling on a street corner.

As he recites the poem "Open," riffing on the word, "open road; open skies; open search; open mic … " a woman catcalls: "Open fly!"

And someone else: "Open sesame!"

Mallory doesn't care; he's got their attention.

He works without a microphone. When someone hands him one, he soon drops it, preferring to shout. He rolls on the floor. As he slaps his manuscript onto a table, a woman wearing a white pearl necklace and a flower in her hair looks up from her poker game.

"Oh, my God! Really?" she gasps.

Nearby, a man in a fedora turns to a local newspaper editor: "You better save some space for an obituary tomorrow. Because this guy's dying up there."

When it's over, Mallory is satisfied. Sure, it was a tough crowd, he says. But he killed it.

::

Mallory's art is colored by two painful relationships.

One was with Bukowski, whose drug-fueled L.A. parties he attended in the early 1970s, soon after the young Mallory started writing poetry. Bukowski's shabby bungalow was peopled by disciples the old mentor called sharks, who brought 12-packs of beer as admission while seeking to bite off a piece of his cool.

But a drunken Bukowski often turned hostile. One night, pointing to his chin, he challenged Mallory: "What do you think of my face?" The young poet was petrified of showing weakness. So, as Mallory tells it, he shouted: "Your face is so ugly, it looks like it's been bitten by red ants. It's a flame-scored face!"

Bukowski froze. Then he suddenly summoned Mallory to get a beer. Months later, Mallory intervened as the poet was about to punch a woman. That's when Mallory drifted from his idol, though Bukowski still influenced his poetry.

Mallory wanted to take his writings out of the library and onto the streets. "So it's understood by bus drivers, shipping clerks and warehouse people. Otherwise, what's the point?" he says. "I want people to understand that poetry can be a touchstone in their lives, for their understanding of the world and their own growth."

Moving from Los Angeles to Newport Beach, he took the bus to and from his teaching job at Santa Ana College just to watch the mannerisms of the working-class. Over three decades, he published numerous collections of poetry and became a featured reader at poetry gatherings. And he constantly hectored journalists for coverage, many of whom celebrated his spirit but loathed his overbearing style.

"At the end of the day, Lee quite literally drove people crazy," said Victor Infante, a poet and journalist who once lived in Orange County. "Then for two weeks straight we'd all be talking about poetry and nobody knew why."

Mallory compiled 6,000 pages of journal entries — fuel for his own poetry. He taught students that poems were a key to the soul, often hurling chalk at the blackboard for dramatic effect. He preached that their poetry would help define them.

Carrie Piela took Mallory's poetry class in 1991 and remembers a somewhat wacky instructor who often jumped up on his chair to get students' attention. Her enduring lesson, she says, was embracing the freedom to be creative. "We thought if he could get such a kick out of shocking us on that chair, we could be more brave to push our own personal envelopes."

In 1999, personal tragedy struck: Mallory's eldest daughter, Misty, a fellow poet, took her own life. Police found her in a nature preserve in New Jersey. She'd suffered a sudden onset of mental illness and struggled to cope with life under medication.

She left a note saying she hoped her family would understand. Then, quoting Bonnie Raitt, Mallory says, she wrote, "Gotta go now."

Mallory's own work in the months after her death made him realize the truth of what he'd always said about poetry: It was a vehicle for his innermost feelings about his daughter's suicide. And another thing: Poetry endures.

"Her work is still there on my coffee table," he said. "She's been gone 15 years now, and whenever I pick up her book, she's right there."

::

Mallory came here to help care for his aging mother and lives in a penthouse suite she owns at a tennis club — a place with mirrored ceilings and pink pillows he knows would disgust Bukowski.

"A poet shouldn't live here," Mallory says, "except it makes him an escapist to the streets."

Most mornings, he drives over to the Silver Sevens in his 1993 Buick with the "777" license plates and plays his favorite "Coyote Moon" slot machine before a few throws of craps.

"Charles Bukowski found his voice in Los Angeles, but he should have lived in Vegas," Mallory says. "He should have been betting horses downtown, in a dingy casino."

He keeps his writer's eye open for ways to make a city take notice of poetry.

Cruising the Strip, Mallory points out a limo passing a homeless man, neither seeing the other. He watches a cattle call of pedestrians with "sunburns and shopping bags, lucky to have a chip in their pockets" — images that could populate future poems.

He says poets try to solve life's mysteries but end up failing. "Let the buyer beware," he says. "There's something dangerous but exciting here, right beneath the surface. I'm trying to understand that."

He pauses. "Maybe there's room for a poet here after all."

john.glionna@latimes.com

Twitter @jglionna

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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