The Cobalt Cafe is perfect for poetry. The coffeehouse may take in more cash via Grateful Dead tribute bands and high-profit Java, but every Tuesday--open reading night--is evidence that its wide, storefront space is conducive to verse.
Writers can sign up at 8 p.m. to read, and some arrive that early to snag their preferred spots toward the middle of the list. Over the next hour, they settle into the thrift-store armchairs that are scattered across the floral, hotel-lobby carpet. They select a few pages from their tattered folders and spiral notebooks. And then they wait.
At exactly 9, Rick Lupert, 26, hops up on stage to establish one rule: Poets will have no more than seven minutes in front of the microphone. He takes a few questions--such as, what exactly is that print on his shirt?--and calls up the first poet.
In the room are about 15 people; that number will more than double in the next hour. “I always worry, and it always fills up,” says Lupert, who lives in Encino. At places like the Cobalt, there remains a segment of twentysomethings--the same generation blamed for post-literate culture and music-video attention spans--who embrace a medium dating back to Homer.
The mushrooming of Los Angeles’ coffeehouse scene after 1990 spurred a parallel growth in local poetry readings. Some have fallen victim to the trend-conscious fickleness of youth. A scheduled Sunday-night reading at The Happening in Sherman Oaks didn’t happen; no one brought a microphone. Only three people signed up to read at Grounds Zero in Burbank on a recent Thursday night.
It takes more than a venue and a microphone to make a reading thrive. As host, Lupert has given the Cobalt reading direction and personality for more than a year, carrying on a four-year tradition. “I try to create an atmosphere in which anyone would feel comfortable reading,” Lupert says. He offers comments and encourages first-timers to come back. After one graphic misogynistic piece about a failed two-month affair, Lupert eases the tension in the room. “You know,” he deadpans, “I usually date a woman at least eight months before I urinate on her.”
Some of the poetry is heavy on angst and light on style, par for the open-reading course. The audience is too polite not to applaud, so dissatisfaction is measured in whispered asides, weight shifted in chairs and the number of people getting up to order coffee.
There’s no predicting when it will happen, but it always does. A voice rises above the exhale of whipped-cream cans and gurgle of the cappuccino machine. It catches the ear with a phrase--three words, maybe four. The room gets quieter. The poet gets slightly louder. All the elements--words, rhythm and voice--fall in place. And when the poem is done, listeners instinctively nod their heads and release a low “yeah.”
Explaining what makes a poem work at a reading becomes an exercise reminiscent of Justice Potter Stewart’s attempt to define what is obscene. A working definition is impossible, but you know it when you hear it.
“Every night, no matter where, you’re going to find one or two people who have something to say, who are not only entertaining, but also enlightening and inspiring,” says Arash Saedinia, 21, of West Hills. “That’s what makes it all worthwhile.”
On this night, Saedinia’s prose poem about a brief trip through a hipper-than-thou club captures the attention of the room. A recent Berkeley graduate, he’s been a regular at the Cobalt since high school. “I come first and foremost--and anyone who tells you differently is lying--for attention,” he says. “For attention and the gratification that what you’ve written is worthwhile--or at least entertaining.”
Saedinia’s style--white T-shirt, trousers with a wide belt and cap on backward--would fit the part of the poet in any decade. But to him, adopting that title is among the worst of pretensions. “I eschew the whole notion of being a poet,” he says. “I do write poetry. . . . I write it because I have to. If there’s an idea or an image or a poem in my head, I’m not going to sleep until I get it out.”
Poetry in America is broad, encompassing everything from cowboy verse to Maya Angelou. The coffeehouse scene is a primarily youthful segment influenced by MTV and early punk--frequently loud and angry. On campuses and in cafes, modern-day bards also compete in verbal brawls called poetry slams. Winners--chosen by judges or applause--embody the notion of survival of the hippest--or at least, the loudest. A very tattooed Henry Rollins, former singer of the band Black Flag, was the front man for MTV’s “Spoken Word Tour” last year. In such an environment, the compulsion to get the words down on the page is not enough. You have to want to shout them.
In that cacophony, some poets feel, the best work can get drowned out. “There’s a lot of testosterone,” says Amelie Frank, 35, of Van Nuys, who is co-editor of the new local literary magazine Blue Satellite. “It speaks well, and it speaks loud. But there are women here who are amazing. I have read manuscripts this year that have made me weep.”
Frank and others point to Ellyn Maybe as one of Los Angeles’ Great Poetry Hopes. Terrified, Maybe spent a year going to open readings without sharing her work. “It was very scary,” she says. “I didn’t know if I could do it. I was so shy as a child, I couldn’t order in restaurants.”
The self-taught poet would sign up on lists: “Ellyn (Maybe I’ll Read).” That way, she figured, if she chickened out she’d given fair warning. Over the last seven years, she’s gotten more confident about reading, but the name stuck.
Now she gives featured readings all over Southern California. “A reading is a duet,” says Maybe, 31. “Where they [the audience] are at is like counterpoint.” She is dressed in a teal sweater, purple leggings and a black felt hat adorned with a pin that states: “Why be normal?” Though she seems to embrace it, Maybe’s quirkiness leaves her sensitive to insult. She operates on a “shoestring confidence level,” she says, and was fortunate to meet kindred spirits at the now-closed Bebop Records and Fine Art in Reseda.
These days, Maybe considers her home base the Iguana Cafe in North Hollywood.
Shortly after opening in 1989, the Iguana developed a successful poets workshop. By the time the workshops fizzled out, the Iguana had established itself as one of the leading spoken-word venues in Los Angeles, and the poets who got their start there have remained loyal. And for good reason: Audiences are respectful; self-published or small-press chapbooks are for sale; and everybody who performs there gets a share of the cover charge.
It’s rare that any poet makes a dime off his or her art. For a time, Maybe had a patron who helped finance her writing; now she’s looking for full-time work. Lupert, who writes topical poems for the syndicated Premiere Radio Network, may be one of a handful of Angelenos who gets to write “poet” on his tax return. Rollin Jones, whose tight verse arrested the Cobalt crowd, is trying to find work in the television industry; in the meantime, he is delivering pizzas.
Poetry is cost-efficient, and truly time-efficient. Academics may propose that poetry offers honest language, a broader sense of culture or an escape from passive forms of entertainment. But at readings--especially in Los Angeles, the entertainment capital--there also is an appeal to the instant-gratification crowd. Poetry is the rare work of art that can be conceived and presented to an audience in the same week.
“I got hooked and found out it’s just extremely important. You can write screenplays or stories, but there is no quicker avenue to throw your heart out there,” says Jones, 22, of North Hills. At the same time, Jones and others who take their writing seriously tire of the diatribes presented by those who don’t. Some of the poetry he’s heard out here lacks effort, Jones says. “Instead of ‘Every word counts,’ out here it’s free-flowing and in the moment.”
Maybe has a similar concern. “It depends on why they got into poetry in the first place,” she says. “If they got into poetry since it became trendy, then they aren’t as concerned about the essence of the work.”
Already, young writers and editors are trying to anticipate what happens after poetry slams go the way of disco. Blue Satellite’s Frank sees Los Angeles at a critical point in its literary history. “I think we have a very important literary center in this town, and I don’t mean just for murder mysteries,” she says. “But if it is to stay that way, it has to transcend the trend of the moment. The coffeehouses eventually will shut down.”
Her co-editor, Matthew Niblock, 28, of North Hollywood says Los Angeles is underrated as a literary town when compared to New York or San Francisco. But Niblock says there is a supportive and thriving poetry scene in Los Angeles, and that it’s only a matter of time before local poets gain national recognition.
He hopes that small press publications like his thrive and become well-respected, because the true test of poetry’s reach is if people want to take it home with them.
“People don’t yet buy poetry,” he says. “When people start to support publications with their wallets more, that’s when we’ll start being real. That’s when we’ll be more than a group of people sitting in a coffeehouse reading to each other.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
all the indie girls shop
shop at the anti-mall malls
and buy their fake fur furs
to match fake hide boots
and all the indie boys buy
buy their weekly tattoos
to match this month’s piercing
and last week’s shoes
sister I got a nose ring
I got a half-grown goatee
got my hair dyed green
bought the latest cd
drank some low end vodka
and it made me sleepy
bought an attitude cheap
only cost me fifty
my drawers are latex
my style is kinky
I wrote you a poem
wannabe with me?
I was driving on the 405
and saw a police car
with flashing lights
coming toward me
I always drive probably a little fast
I mentally planned traffic school
then i saw the car behind me pull off
into the vulnerability of the shoulder
the police car was after them not me
I realized this is how you live
so close to being harassed
so close to being beat up
so close to being called a name
so close to remembering your memories
when i see riots and tear gas
I see our skin separate
I realize our ancestral humor goes
through common longing in resistance
I know the effort you will not make
until you are ready to accept
I am not a war.
The Lone Mosher
The lone mosher
no-one to bump into
The lone mosher
venting his frustrations
beats himself up
The lone mosher
self-inflicted mosh wounds
Someone should get him some blow-up mosher dolls to mosh with
The lone mosher
proves his manliness
in Caffeine magazine