"I read my poems any place where they'll let me on the stage."
In his green baseball cap and work clothes, Willie Sims looked like a man about to change the oil in his car. But he and two dozen others milled around a back yard in Newhall on Sunday, drinking apple juice and daiquiris and waiting for an afternoon of poetry to begin.
Sims had come from Lake View Terrace. Others arrived from Valencia, Sylmar and Van Nuys. One man came from Costa Mesa to read his verse, for it seems that Newhall, despite an image that conjures up saloons rather than salons, is home to the thrice-yearly festivals of the Santa Clarita Valley Poets.
"We used to have a monthly meeting but it was a lot of work, so we decided to put all our energy into three festivals," said Richard Weekley, whose back yard has served as home for the events since their inception four years ago. The night before Sunday's festival, Weekley mowed his lawn in the rain.
"That was an act of faith, and as you can see," he said, he gesturing palms-up at the blue spring day, "the poetry god rewarded us."
A Good Turnout
Weekley, a teacher at nearby William S. Hart High School, was especially pleased by a good turnout and because he had secured Jane Hirshfield, a nationally known poet from Mill Valley, as the day's featured guest. Hirshfield, who read from her own works and from "The Ink Dark Moon," her translation of two women poets from 9th and 10th Century Japan, received a mixed reception.
"Very erotic stuff," one man said.
"Too inaccessible for me," said a woman.
The responses reveal a schism or sorts that exists in the current poetry scene, at least in the Los Angeles area. Several observers agreed that the writing and public reading of poetry has increased in recent years. The trend, however, does not seem to reflect a poetry revival in the true sense, for much of the writing is not accompanied by the study of earlier poets or careful craftsmanship.
"I hear a lot of poetry and most of it tends to be inward-looking and self-absorbed," said Richard Bruland, whose BeBop record store in Reseda holds a monthly poetry reading where anyone can appear. The 20-person sign-up limit usually is reached a day in advance, he said.
"A lot of poets, when you get right down to it, you really can't figure out what they're talking about," Bruland said. "It's filled with so much personal imagery you can't know what's going on."
A growing number of people with "a desperate need to express themselves" are writing poetry, he said, but are not reading the masters.
Weekley, whose work has appeared in several literary magazines and whose collection of verse, "Small Diligences," was published this year by Los Angeles Poets' Press, said he is pleased to see any new interest in poetry, whether its roots are in scholarship or therapy.
A Refuge During Crises
"People in crisis reach out to poetry," he said. "It can be either personal crisis or great national crisis, when there is a tendency to reach for that which really heals. We've been in a time of non-crisis, at least nationally, and poetry doesn't seem as relevant, so I'm glad to see anyone reaching to it."
The Santa Clarita Valley Poets group numbers 25 people, he said, and occasionally publishes a magazine called Volume Number.
Hirshfield's poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and American Poetry Review, and two collections of her work have been published. Her Japanese translations--important, she said, because they are from history's only literary Golden Age created by women--received the 1987 Columbia University Translation Center Award.
She said there are groups like the Santa Clarita Valley Poets throughout California.
"Poetry can be very central to a person's being," she said. "In Japanese they have a word for it, shin, which means heart/mind, so you don't have to separate the two. That's what poetry does. It takes what's important in human life and puts that into language."
Poets, published or not, are driven to write, Hirshfield said. "You do it because you have to. It makes you happier than anything you could possibly spend your life on."
Hirshfield reads her erotically charged poetry with drama. Bruland later said he believes poetry gives people license to talk explicitly about human sexuality, saying things they would never say in conversation.
An open reading followed Hirshfield's reading. One of those taking part was Lauran Hoffman of Sylmar. Hoffman, 24, said she has been writing poetry for about 10 years because "it centers me and makes me feel better about what I'm doing with my life." She began reading her work publicly only in the past few months.
"A lot of poetry readings can hurt," she said, speaking of listeners rather than readers. "The poems can be so inaccessible."
Hoffman said she prefers writing a clear "Gonzo journalistic" style of verse and recites a sample:
I toss my hair aside as if the wind throwing my convertible any way it pleases will not disturb my hair.
I glance over at these men in a nonchalant Bev Hills, Val Girl, European fashion and notice quite subtly
That not one of these tough testosterone-bearing men are paying the slightest bit of attention to me in my hot red convertible.
Another reader Sunday was Don Fanning of Van Nuys. Reading often is an inevitable extension of writing, he said, but it may be years before a person has the courage to stand before an audience and recite his work.
"I belong to a tiny group in Van Nuys and some of those people would never read publicly," he said. "It's too scary."
Sims, who reads any place that will have him, is not afflicted with stage fright. He said he started writing poetry three years ago, after playing backup guitar for a small group of poets in South-Central Los Angeles. At three-quarters of the readings he attends, said Sims, he is the only black poet.
At some, in fact, he is the only poet of any color.
"I go to bars. I go to comedy clubs that have an open-mike night," he said. "It's getting so you really can recite every night of week if you don't mind driving."
Sims, 44, said he is retired from a career as a credit manager.
"I worked very hard for 17 years to take time off and do something like this. Now I'm really enjoying myself. I'm not one of your bleak-chic poets. I try to do stuff that people can relate to."
Sims said he often receives a warmer reception at bars than at poetry readings, because the audience at readings can be ear-weary. One of his poems talks about the phenomenon, citing the three favorite words of a poet at a reading:
These are three little words all poets use
whether they are published elite or still paying their dues.
Every poet has them in his little bag of tricks
cuz they make him seem humble but still let him get in that last self-serving lick.
Three little words! I'll bet Shakespeare used them and everybody
from Robert Frost to Langston Hughes to Bukowski have all abused them.
Now the three little words that you all abhor, make you cringe at the core,
stomp your feet on the floor and get you very very sore when the poet's a bore,
those 3 little words are Just One More.