The charm of cafe life is obvious at Eagles Coffee Pub. Situated on a spruced-up block of Lankershim Boulevard and down the street from a karate studio, Eagles welcomes anyone hungry for a sandwich, a mug of joe, a game of chess, lively music or meaty conversation.
But on Tuesday's open-mike poetry nights, what's also evident--especially to writers--is the appeal of a place that distinguishes art from coffee-bar commerce. Between 9 and 9:30 p.m., when poets begin to read, they don't have to shout down espresso machines or chatty customers. They don't even have to look at them.
After a year and a half of conducting readings in the usual coffeehouse way--in a crowded corner of a tiny club--Eagles has separated the two camps by renting the store next door and giving performers their own turf.
"We wanted to do more to address the service needs of poets," said Eagles' owner Star Irvine, who furnished the new room with cozy armchairs, put in a stage and installed a newsstand for pre-show browsing.
Since it opened in November, the annex (also used for music events) has been a big hit with the literati. "It's an optimal space for the arts," said Jane Laurel Sobo, a Reseda poet and regular at the readings, which are known as "Skinny Leonard's Free Verse."
"At other coffeehouses," Sobo added, "if readings are good for business, they keep going; if not, they fizzle. Here, there's a different level of commitment."
The setup is perfect for those who want to make an evening of their stage appearance.
Before reading, writers can hit the cafe for a cappuccino, an Elvis sandwich (peanut butter, honey and bananas on wheat toast) and the board game of their choice. Next door, after signing up for first-come, first-served mike time, they might wander among racks of magazines that range all over the social and cultural map--from Tattoo to Paris Review, and from Freak Brothers to Town and Country to Investor's Business Daily.
The crowd tends toward the college-age, combat-boot set, but embraces serious writers of any age.
Ground rules--announced at the beginning of each reading by emcee Andrew Michael Berger--limit participants to three poems or 10 to 15 minutes on stage. Enforcement, though, is lax, in keeping with the freewheeling spirit of these events.
In addition to poetry of all persuasions, short stories, monologues and even improvisational performance are permitted.
"If it's felt, I'll let people just go up and speak their feelings," said Berger, a North Hollywood writer who has presided over the evenings for a year. And on some nights, poets--many of whom identify themselves only by their first names--will spontaneously start a collective, free-associative work called "roaming verse." Participants get up and say whatever pops to mind before passing the mike to someone else.
The success of these experiments is partly due to Eagles' audience, which is respectful and supportive--particularly of the diverse forms creativity takes.
On a recent Skinny Leonard's evening, enthusiasm ran high for "Larry H." and his funny story about a thief; "Donna L.," who evoked, through words and movement, "life in a technocratic society"; "Shanda," author of angry poems about cocky men and officious employers; "Dan" and his "dead-dog poem," and Len Doucette, a homeless writer in a suit who read about street waifs and social indifference.
"They're captive listeners here," said Sobo, who has read widely at San Fernando Valley coffeehouses. "True, you don't get the boisterousness--the yelling and screaming--you find at other places, and I miss that, but the level of attention is gratifying."
Pacoima poet Shanda, who discovered Eagles after another favorite coffee bar closed, agreed. "Coming here encourages me to write," she said. "I try never to miss a night."
Where and When
What: Skinny Leonard's Free Verse.
Location: Eagles Coffee Pub, 5231 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.
Hours: 9 to 11:30 p.m. Tuesdays, with open-mike sign-ups at 8:30.
Upcoming: Special open-reading event sponsored by Caffeine magazine, 9 p.m. Feb. 8.
Call: (818) 760-4212.