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Topics / THE ARTS : It’s Time to Act, Says Poetry Society

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the large, elegant lobby of the Chateau Marmont hotel in West Hollywood, something strange happened Sunday afternoon: An actor and a poet took turns reading poems to an attentive audience clustered on claw-footed, soft-cushioned old furniture and plastic rental chairs.

It was part of “The Act of the Poet,” a reading series begun in September, 1991, to present acclaimed poets reading their own work and actors presenting personal favorites.

Last Sunday’s program featured Sherod Santos, a University of Missouri English professor who has won several awards for his three books of poems, and Michael Ontkean, who appeared in the television series “Twin Peaks.”

There are plenty of reading series in Los Angeles that provide poets with public forums. What makes the series unique is its pairing of actors and poets in a setting far more luxurious than the average coffeehouse or university auditorium.

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The series is sponsored by the New York-based Poetry Society of America. Six to eight readings a year are held at the Chateau Marmont. According to Elena Karina Byrne, the society’s Los Angeles regional co-director, “The Act of the Poet” is designed to “create an inter-art exchange” between poetry and performance and to interest more people in verse.

“We’re really intent on bringing great poetry to Los Angeles and making it a little more accessible to a larger audience than the university audience,” said Byrne, a Palos Verdes poet. “People are always astonished at how accessible poetry is,” when they hear it read aloud at the Chateau Marmont, she said.

Usually, the poetry society entices much-honored poets from other parts of the country to Los Angeles, offering them $500 to read plus a free night at the hotel. The hotel donates the poet’s room and the reading hall.

“We’d like to not think of ourselves as competing with any other venue,” Byrne said. “Despite our wanting to bring what we consider the best poets, we don’t want to be elitist in every sense.”

“Oh yeah?” quipped Helen Driscoll, the society’s director of events, who was setting up chairs nearby.

Driscoll, a Los Feliz resident who works at the Heritage Book Shop on Melrose, has helped run the series since its inception.

“I just love great poetry,” she said. “I went to some local readings and people were sitting there rapt and the poetry was pathetic.”

Many important American poets have been featured in the series, including Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, Robert Hass, Mark Strand, James Tate, Carol Muske and Quincy Troupe.

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Actors who have participated include Tim Curry, Dana Delaney, John Glover, Joe Spano, Blythe Danner and Alfre Woodard.

Last December, poet Tess Gallagher of Washington state and actress Lisa Pelikan read together; in January, Los Angeles poet Wanda Coleman was paired with actor Harry Hamlin. Some in the audience thought Gallagher, Coleman and Santos offered livelier, more dramatic readings than did the actors.

Danee Shaheen, a mid-Wilshire resident who came to the Coleman reading and returned for Santos, said she had been extremely impressed by Coleman’s performance. As for Hamlin, “he could have done a better job of selecting (poems). He kind of winged it. But his delivery was great.”

Shaheen said she has been attending poetry readings in different venues for years. “But truthfully, if they don’t read it well, I don’t know what they’re talking about,” she laughed. “With Wanda Coleman, there was no mystery. There was no question where we were going and what she was trying to convey.”

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Last Sunday, about 70 people turned up for the Santos/Ontkean reading. Hearing the poetry was a little difficult this time because the usual sound system provider had gone AWOL, leaving the performers to depend on lung power. Mary McDonnell, the actress originally scheduled to appear, was also absent, due to illness.

According to Darrell Larson, an actor and poet who initiated the series and now co-directs it with Byrne, getting actors to promise to participate isn’t hard. Getting them to show up is another matter. The actors’ performances are donated, and sometimes professional or personal complications keep them away.

“The Act of the Poet” operates on an annual budget of $4,500 from the poetry society and donors plus what comes in at the door. Admission is $5. Most of the money goes to the poets to cover their $500 fee and the rest covers publicity and equipment rentals. The series has no paid staff.

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Ontkean, the author of five books of poetry, read a hodgepodge of poems, including a spontaneous rhyme created by his 5-year-old daughter and work by poets Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell and Dylan Thomas. Santos read mainly from his most recent book, “City of Women,” meditations on relations between the sexes.

Afterward, Jackie and Robert Parker, a West Los Angeles couple, expressed enthusiasm for the series, which they attend regularly.

“I like the actors, and their interpretations, which is what a lot of people don’t like,” said Jackie Parker, a photographer. Before she began coming to the Chateau Marmont readings, she did not pay much attention to poetry, Parker said. Now, she sometimes hunts up the poets’ work before the events.

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On March 13, the series will feature poets only in “Distinct Traditions: Myths and Voices of the Many Americas,” with Agha Shahid Ali, Toi Derricotte, Cecilia Vicuna and Ray Young Bear. On May 22, Stanley Kunitz, former consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, will read with an actor.


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