Slovakian poet Milan Salka plays water pipes. Wanda Coleman, Guggenheim fellow, sings the beauties and agonies of growing up black in Los Angeles, while Chicana poet Marisela Norte evokes her East Los Angeles, Mexican and Indian heritage with her readings.
Jean Samuels’ pieces are based on her work teaching in California prisons and her youth in the Midwest. Sylvia Rosen, a long-time Valley resident originally from New York, offers poems based on dreams, marriage, children or madness.
Any of them might be seen on the third Friday of almost any month at the Woodland Hills Community Church, where the Valley Contemporary Poets Series has been meeting for five years, making it the longest continuing series of its kind in the San Fernando Valley.
The richly diversified and multicultural series of poetry readings is funded in part by the West Valley Cultural Center and by a $2 donation at the door. Usually two well-known poets are featured and read for half an hour apiece. They are paid an honorarium.
Founder Is Poet Nan Hunt
The founder and director of the series is Nan Hunt, a well-known poet in her own right. Her book, “My Self in Another Skin,” was published by Drenan Press in 1980. Her work has appeared in Ms. magazine, and in anthologies such as “Ariadne’s Thread,” published by Harper & Row, and “Between Ourselves,” published by Houghton-Mifflin.
She is also a teacher, now giving private classes in her Woodland Hills home. Previously she taught at The Women’s Building and Soutwest and Pierce colleges.
The series of readings, she recalled, “evolved out of one performance I did with Norm Levine, called ‘Connecting.’ We read our work responsively--that is, I would read a poem, say, about Midwestern life and he would answer with one about city life. We performed at the church for an audience of about 90.
“Frankly, I was tired of getting on the freeway every time I wanted to hear or read poetry. I thought Valley people should have their own center for literary activities. So I started asking poets to come out to the church and read. Some of the early responses were negative, i.e., ‘Who would think of going to the Valley for a poetry reading? Who is going to drive clear out to the Valley to hear me read?’
“Some poets did not even return phone calls.
Well-Known Poets Took Part
“But those were really the exceptions,” Hunt insisted. “Some really well-known poets like Laurel Ann Bogen, Wanda Coleman and Jack Grapes participated even when all we had to offer was a split of the door take.”
How did the series evolve into a paying proposition? “Well, we proved ourselves,” Hunt said. “We paid a rental to the church out of that $2 donation.” Hunt donated postage, time and supplies. She had no regular help until last year when coordinator Sylvia Rosen, soon to take over as director, began to volunteer her time.
“After we proved we could get an audience, and I could take a list to the Valley Cultural Center to show that all the best Los Angeles poets had read, funding was voted,” Hunt said. Audiences average 20 to 25. Some special performances, however, bring in much larger crowds. “We still operate on a shoestring, though,” Hunt said.
The first half hour of each evening is reserved for open readings. Six poets sign up on a first-come basis for three minutes of time.
“Poets need a public place to get feedback,” Hunt said. “Sometimes we have really inexperienced poets who read ‘moon in June,’ ‘roses are red/violets are blue,’ stuff. Usually, after they hear the more advanced poets read, they weed themselves out.”
The Valley Contemporary Poets Series is one of the few that still include open readings and what Hunt called a completely democratic format. “I’ll never forget my own pain when I signed up to read at Beyond Baroque (in Venice) and they wouldn’t call on me because they didn’t know me. And they couldn’t get to know my work because they wouldn’t call on me.”
Hunt has since read there.
Her career road has been long.
“I actually started writing poetry in high school,” Hunt said, “but there were a lot of breaks--mostly for survival reasons. I married very young, in my sophomore year of college, and had my first daughter a year after. That marriage ended, and I had to support myself and my daughter. I quit school.
Began Writing Seriously
“It was during my second marriage, when my older daughter was a teen-ager and my younger daughter, 4 years old, was able to go to play school for three hours a day, that I was able to set aside the time to write seriously.”
She returned to school, at the University of South Florida, for a master’s degree. “The experience was wonderful and terrible. At first I found it devastating to have the academic knowledge,” Hunt said. “It seemed to me I took greater risks in my poetry when I knew less. Also my male mentors were a mixed blessing, very encouraging and supportive in some ways, but constricting in others.
“Men helped me to polish and perfect; I received tremendous assistance in craft. The problem was that the relationships never seemed to graduate from the father-daughter stage. Inadvertently they patronized me and attempted to influence me to see the world from their perspective.”
Hunt suspected there was another perspective, a uniquely female viewpoint. Her intuition was borne out by Anais Nin, with whom she studied at International College.
“I had read Nin’s work and been impressed with its distinctly female character,” Hunt said. “It was a voice I had not heard before. Her character portraits, particularly, were most perceptive. Books by male authors did not seem to have this tolerance. Also Anais treated me like a peer. We were two women, grown women, facing similar concerns.
“I began to like my womanly qualities and to like other women. I stopped trying to deny or jump over my femaleness. I was able to write erotically from the female viewpoint.”
Through her connection with Nin, Hunt became interested in journal writing. She has published a body of informal work--diaries, letters, and collaborative improvisational works such as “Dark and Bright Fires,” a performance piece Hunt worked on with a group of women.
Her connection with Nin also led her into Jungian analysis. “Anais suggested this work because she knew I was already working with dreams and she felt I needed a guide to deal with them. I was having nightmares, terrible nightmares. She also thought my personality would be receptive to this work, as I was already working with dream material.
“I don’t think you can be a fine writer without working on your own character development. If you don’t know yourself, you are always tripping over yourself in your writing.”
Jungian analysis deeply affected Hunt’s attitude toward teaching, which includes visiting local schools as part of the California poet-in-the-schools program. “I encourage my students to get personal,” she said. “I had one very talented woman student. She made her living writing public relations and advertising copy. She had some very damaging and terrifying life experiences which she wrote about in her journal and read to the class. In the meantime, she was bringing in poetry for critiquing which was very cute and superficial.
“Now we don’t pressure anyone to share painful material,” Hunt emphasized. “However, once they do, we’re very honest. The other students told her that her journal writing was where her real material was, that she would have to confront and integrate that material before her more formal writing could develop. She was not able to do this and dropped out after a while.”