On a scorching Sunday afternoon, when the thermometer soars to 100 and a million people head for the beach, a small crowd of literati bypasses the hot sands to enter a shaded secret garden tucked behind a Venice restaurant and art gallery.
Like regulars at a small-town cafe, they drift from table to table, exchanging gossip and stories. And they read and listen to poetry.
Reading poetry aloud--a custom that has flourished in various underground cafes since the Beat poets of the early ‘60s--continues in the gentrified Venice of 1990 in the patio of the Sculpture Gardens Restaurant, among other places.
The Sculpture Gardens Poetry Reading series is presented once a month. The program, which writer Joyce B. Schwartz started in 1986 in cooperation with restaurant owner Jerome Rowitch, is open to the public and usually draws 20 to 30 people.
It is one of the more enduring events on the Southern California poetry calendar. (About 150 readings are scheduled each month, with many poetry series added and subtracted every year, according to Carrie Etter, publisher of “Out Loud,” a monthly bulletin of Southern California poetry events.)
Professors of literature, producers of other poetry-reading series, literary magazine editors, students and poetry fans gather in the restaurant garden. The editors and producers--usually poets themselves--search for new talent. The performing poets hope to find new places to publish and read their work. But mostly, people come to schmooze with their own kind, to read, and to listen. “Poetry makes you feel you have these kindred souls. We’re linked together despite geography and style,” said poet Paula Thompson, a reader at one of the recent Sculpture Gardens gatherings. She began writing six years ago, and has been published in a number of literary magazines.
She says she is a refugee from urban life, living now in the Sierra Nevada. She read a poem titled, “First the Singer,” which uses primal nature images that she said came to her while she was in a state of exhilaration from experiencing the beauty of her first Sierra winter:
“wrapped in cocoons of spider legs
wrapped in capes of brown pine needles
in valley fog, in silent hawk feathers
wrapped in dawn’s dusk in heaven’s fire
we are thrust into birth ...”
There is applause. Another poet, who has never heard Thompson’s work before, listens intently, his turquoise eyes fixed on the reader. He is Robert L. Greenfield, who has published 100 poems in magazines throughout the United States. Greenfield lived in Venice during the late ‘60s when it was the L.A. poetry scene.
He reads his poem “the tenderness of spaghetti” --a spoof on romantic love. It is a vision of passion experienced in strands of pasta, which asks: “how do i love you let me count the spaghetti ...”
His descriptions of "... the chew of the spaghetti in the mouth/ the way it slides--feet first/ its delicate female anatomy/ the way it stretches & falls ...,” bring belly laughs from the audience.
He follows with “carmen of camarillo state hospital,” which portrays the terror of madness:
“now carmen is going into
her early post-dusk laugh
near the window where gray
goes into black carmen is
laughing and i’m afraid for us ..,”
His listeners respond with appreciative sighs of “yeah!” And afterward, people who remember him from the days when he lived in Venice greet him.
Greenfield, who now lives outside Santa Barbara, recalls the years between 1975 and 1980--before the local poetry scene exploded in all directions--when almost all poetry activity centered on the Beyond Baroque foundation in Venice.
He attended workshops with poet Kate Braverman and others who then lived nearby. “I think I had a following. People would stop me on the street to discuss my poems,” he recalls.
Venice has changed since then. Braverman lives in Beverly Hills, and her books are now published by Viking/Penguin. Beyond Baroque, still a hub of literary activity, has moved out of its smoke-filled storefront and taken up residence in the old Venice City Hall building.
But it is the poetry that counts, after all. Schwartz says her purpose in staging the readings is to give new poets the opportunity to read with recognized Los Angeles poets such as Braverman, John Thomas, Wanda Coleman, Lynn Manning, Deena Metzger, Jack Grapes, Suzanne Lummis, Max Benavidez and others. Besides scheduling the performances, Schwartz works with an editorial board to publish the Sculpture Garden Review, an anthology of poems by Sculpture Gardens performers, available at the Sculpture Gardens and in selected bookstores for $6 per issue.
Schwartz chooses readers for the series on the basis of recommendations made by Sculpture Garden Review editors who visit other readings and bring her reports of talented poets. “At the time I started, there weren’t as many readings around; I wanted to avoid what I thought was the old buddy system and make available the different styles without having a personal ax to grind,” she said.
Poet Elliot Fried, a Sculpture Gardens performer who also produces a poetry reading series at the William Lamb Gallery in Long Beach and who is the editor of a number of poetry anthologies, agrees with this policy of diversity. Although Fried, a professor of English at Cal State Long Beach, is a certified academic, he doesn’t hold with elitist notions of poetry.
“To me, poetry is the most democratic of the arts,” he says. “I talk to my barber, my accountant. It’s hard to find anybody who doesn’t write poetry.”
Fried chatted with Lisa Rafel, a Malibu actress and poet whose recent work focuses on epiphanies she experienced during a journey to Nepal. He praised her performance at the Sculpture Gardens, and invited her to do an encore in Long Beach.
The fact that the Los Angeles poetry scene has yet to produce a T.S. Eliot or a Robert Frost does not diminish Fried’s excitement. The poet/professor leaned back in his white patio chair, adjusted his baseball cap, looked around the restaurant courtyard and said, “If there are not big names, I think that’s fine. There’s a tremendous amount of energy, enthusiasm and talent here.
“It’s better to be here now than any other part of the country. Maybe for novelists in 1920 it was Paris. For poets in the 1990s, it’s Los Angeles.”
The poetry reading series is held the first Sunday of every month (except August) at 3 p.m. in the patio of the Sculpture Gardens Restaurant, Gallery and Plant Shop, 1031 Washington Blvd. Admission is free, but donations for the poets’ honorariums are requested. For information, call 396-5809.
Sarah Arsone is a Los Angeles free-lance writer and poet.