Forget the Grunge Scene: Seattle's Going Poetic : The arts: Available talent and public hunger for something new fuels a flurry of spoken-word shows, merging the power of verse and the immediacy of music.


The next band's equipment is already on the stage of the Crocodile Cafe, a hard-rock club in the once down-and-out but now resurgent Belltown section of the city, when poet Xavier Cavazos takes the mike.

Seattle has always been known as something of a literary town, with what seems like a bookstore and a coffee shop at every intersection. But this sight is something new, and definitely different.

Any glance at local events calendars reveals new kinds of poetry performances booked every night of the week. Musicians are reading their poetry. Poets are performing with bands. Open mikes are advertised. "Poetry slams" are competing for customers.

In fact, according to local promoters, strange though it might seem, poetry is becoming hip.

The Crocodile is not populated with the Proust-reading latte -sippers that you'll find at virtually any coffeehouse poetry night in other parts of the city--or in Hollywood or Greenwich Village. This is a body-piercings and tattoos crowd, and they don't take much notice of Cavazos, even after he's introduced, except a few in the front who hurl insults and empty cups. Most keep talking, smoking cigarettes, backs to the stage.

Cavazos crouches low, and with one giant stride explodes across the boards, tossing back his hair and wailing out the first lines of his poem "7-Year Heroin":

Stef was that you

Who I saw on the streets of Belltown

The night my mother died

And I cried myself into the curb,

Like water or sewer or dirt . . .

People look up. A few start yelling at Cavazos to shut up and get off, but he barrels through. Chin out, he chants:

. . . Looking for Ginsberg,

Or someone like your father,

But they were both on tour,

So we left, laughing high on Washington weed

And winded up on the stools of the Comet,

Where you poured us our first beer

And I drank it down,

Like the way you must have looked

The first time your cousin gave you a kiss

And didn't stop . . .

And by the time he finishes, winging the last of his beer into the audience, most of them are cheering him on.

The two other poets reading with him, however, are not so lucky. They barely get their poems out amid the catcalls.

"This is a tough crowd for poetry," acknowledges Hamish Todd, 27, emcee and originator of the Crocodile's between-set poetry slams.

"We've got a lot of ugly-drunk, trailer-park people here, but I think they enjoyed it," Todd says, smiling as he adjusts the tails of his canary-yellow tux. "They must have, or else I would've gotten hurt."

Welcome to what some call "mosh pit poetry."

Todd, himself a poet and president of the Seattle Writers Guild, first invited a few colleagues to have a competitive reading--or poetry slam--at the club between sets by the band Sister Psychic early this year.

The crowd that night was receptive, if not outright hostile, he says. They threw a bottle at one poet and booed another off stage.

"I was sweating bullets," Todd says. "But then the last guy stood up and read this great rocking poem about stealing a car and driving to Tijuana and getting a tattoo, 'C'mon, I know a place,' and the audience went wild. They loved it."

Since then, Todd has brought poets to read every Saturday night.

But the Crocodile Cafe is not the only club in town that has suddenly discovered poetry.

"This is the MTV generation. They're not attuned to listening to sonnets in coffee shops," says promoter David Meinert, 26.

Meinert originated and emcees a performance series called the Surrealist Magic Theater, including readings by local musicians, at the club the Weathered Wall. He also runs two weekly open-mike poetry slams, having opened a second across town after his first, begun in March, drew larger-than-expected crowds.

He attributes the interest to a combination of available talent and the public hunger for something new. He says that although Seattle can boast many good poets, literary readings had become too stuffy and factional, either shutting poets out or driving them away.

"At the same time," he says, "the music scene had gotten really stale. Grunge was dying, and there was all this energy looking for a place to go."

The answer, Meinert says, is a new breed of poetry merging the power of verse with the immediacy of music, often performed by musicians themselves.

Roderick Wolgamott is one of the musicians Meinert brought to his reading series.

Wolgamott, 27, is a songwriter and singer with the band Sky Cries Mary. He also reads his reworkings of the old myths to a soundtrack of street noise and percussion.

"I think musicians are getting into the poetry and storytelling aspects of music," he says. "It's kind of the opposite of the MTV mentality of 'Let's give them 10,000 meaningless images in 15 seconds.' This is 'Let's say something that has some meaning, even if it doesn't fit into the marketing formula.' "

He says reading lets a singer drive home the meaning of his words, rather than just the sound of his voice.

"It's kind of an interesting way to take the music and strip it down so people can get the words," he says. "Because when you're in a big arena setting, no one cares about the words. . . . You're lucky if they (the audience) come out with one line."

Emmanuel Malcolm Martinez, poet, playwright and frontman for the band the Altar Boys, agrees.

His group plays 45-minute sets that string together poems and music to tell one long story. He says he believes that the music strengthens the emotional weight of the poems.

Like many supporters of the new style, Martinez, 23, defends his work by pointing to poetry and song's common origins in oral traditions that go back to such bards as Homer.

"There are people who seem to think that poetry is something that should be placed on an altar and approached on your knees," he says. "Poetry started with guys wandering around and singing their stuff. It's meant to be performed, it's meant to be heard, and it's meant to be enjoyed."

It is beginning to be heard.

Cavazos is a good example. The popularity of new poetry here has brought him a certain amount of notoriety. Offers have been made to publish his recently completed book of poems. He's been featured in trendy national magazines. An upcoming PBS documentary, "The United States of Poetry," has chosen Seattle as one of four cities it will cover and retained Cavazos as an adviser, he says. Italian television has filmed at the Crocodile.

"People are watching this and talking about it," Meinert says.

Smells like media hype, a few say.

Some Seattle-ites still smart from what they see as exploitation of their city's music scene and worry that hype will now ruin what they see as an honest and unpretentious style of art. Others are ready to see it go.

Critics, including many mainstream poets and academics, contend that the new style's subjects are cheap, its language vulgar, and that it substitutes showboating for real insight.

Their sentiments are illustrated by one University of Washington professor who, asking that he not be identified, quipped, "This kind of stuff has the same relationship to literature as Jack-in-the-Box does to cuisine--you don't get much to chew on and most of it's full of crap."

Less harsh critics still worry that the intimacy of poetry--the sense of one person speaking to another from the deepest part of the heart--will be smothered in the hype and noise.

"Some older poets don't like seeing poetry done for entertainment or competitively," Meinert acknowledges. But he points out that "at most poetry readings, the audience is poets. Not here."

Todd, for his part, is proud of his role in bringing poets where no verse has gone before.

"I think we're on the right course," he says. "A lot of these people don't have much time to read. They don't know that all poetry isn't just love sonnets in high school textbooks, that there's also fresh, raw poetry written by people the same age as them. We're trying to change that."

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