The woman shouts. No question about it. It is a small place. The sound flies off the walls.
"Hey, bartender!" she barks. "A little service here! 'Cause I'm a patron in pain and I need medication--NNNNNNOOOOOWWWWW!"
She cocks her head to her shoulder. For a moment you think she might stop. But she goes on, loud, her voice radiating sensuousness in a singsong cadence.
"Pour the Watney's onto my open wounds," she says, "to fight the infection before it spreads, put an IV on tap so I might avoid the dehydration caused with the loss of all these tears."
An unconventional approach, certainly, to secure a barkeeper's attentions. The other patrons--about 40 people sitting at small, round tables--seem to appreciate it. They watch the woman amiably. Perhaps the bartender has a history of atrocious service, and this gutsy, eloquent woman is the first to dare insurrection.
The bartender busies himself with the cappuccino maker, ignoring her.
She enters a final plea.
"Become my angel of mercy," she purrs, "and open another Harp's so I can get comfortably numb in half the time, or else put those silver bullets through my brain--let me say my prayers and grant absolution to memory."
There is a burst of applause and someone hoots. Dawn Hutchens bows humbly and makes room for the next reader, stepping down from the tiny stage tucked in the corner here at Ventura's Cafe Voltaire.
As it does every Thursday night, the weekly poetry reading in this cozy coffeehouse offers the irrepressible, the spontaneous, the humorous, the sensual, the wildly unpredictable and the plain old weird. These days it seems as if everyone with a working knowledge of the pencil has found poetry, and there's no telling what they will write or say. On this particular night, people meow, sing, mumble incoherently and say things like, "This is just something that came to me tonight from a bearded cherub with mud on his skin."
"I think the new definition of poetry is a line that doesn't go to the end of the page," observes Phil Taggart. "Basically, it's wide open now. These are exciting times."
Taggart, a pony-tailed fellow with a jutting goatee, and a poet himself, oversees the Thursday night readings at Cafe Voltaire as well as Ventura's annual Poetry Festival (coming in April for the third straight year).
Taggart believes that, poetry-wise, Ventura is a flower ready to bloom.
"Ventura is kind of exploding," says Taggart. "I think at some point this area is going to be well known."
Anyone interested in poetry in the here and now will be pleased to know that poetry throughout the county is alive and thriving. In Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks, Oxnard, Ojai and Ventura, folks are waxing poetic at cafes, workshops, colleges and festivals. You can hear the words of ethnic poets, rap poets, regional poets, cowboy poets, gay poets, urban poets, language poets, love poets, anger poets, sexual abuse survivor poets and Persian Gulf veteran poets, a daunting, and partial, list that simply means that these days almost everyone is in on the act and they're often doing whatever they please.
Local poets say the poetry scene in the county is more diverse than most.
"A lot of areas you go to there's kind of a similarity of styles," says John Gorham, owner of The Poetry Shop in Thousand Oaks. "In this county you really don't see that. We get kids from 15 to senior citizens in their 90s."
This eclectic gathering has one predictable effect.
"All our poetry events," says Gorham, "are packed." Packed with folks reading poetry and listening to poetry. And elsewhere, they are learning how to write poetry.
Unfortunately poetry can be intimidating. After all, it is an art form that has been long viewed as the domain of folks with pointy beards, ethereal visions and the vocabularies of a thesaurus. Writing poetry, poets will tell you, is damn, damn hard. Standing up and reading it to a room filled with strangers can be decidedly worse.
"It is scary," says Gorham. "I've done a lot of lecturing and I've played in bands for years, but when I started reading poetry it was probably the scariest thing I ever did in my life. It's very difficult getting up and reading from your heart. Basically you're spilling your guts in front of a crowd."
At The Poetry Shop, Gorham does all he can to ease the angst of his poets. Along with open mike nights, The Poetry Shop has discussion groups, enabling budding poets to first read their work in front of a sympathetic, and smaller, crowd.
"It helps if you find the support of other poets and get used to reading in front of them first," says Gorham.
Performance poetry, which is what transpires at Cafe Voltaire and most of the county's other poetry venues, is simply one form of poetry, and, argue some poets, it's not really poetry at all.
"A lot of so called performance poetry wouldn't hold up for one minute on the page," says Joan Raymund, the leader of an ardent group of poets who meet Monday nights at the Ojai Center for the Arts. "It doesn't have the condensation and the superb articulation of good poetry. It's broad stroke stuff."
Raymund is poetically concise in her assessment of open mike readings.
"At their best they are effectively dramatic," says Raymund. "At their worst, they're hilarious."
But art, defined as it is by creative, boundary-less souls, has always provoked disagreement and defied tidy assessment. Most folks who attend local poetry readings break the poetry they hear into two simple categories--stuff they like, and stuff they don't. And if something grates, audiences are fairly forgiving, perhaps in part because they may be taking the stage next.
This is not to say they will froth over anything.
At Cafe Voltaire, a fellow with long, gray hair spiraling down in ringlets reads a poem called "tv."
"If I'm not interesting in the next 20 seconds, turn me off."
"If I'm not interesting in the next 15 seconds, turn me off."
"If I'm not interesting in the next 10 seconds, turn me off."
"If I'm not interesting in the next five seconds, turn me off."
The audience has apparently taken his advice. He finishes. The room is quiet.
"Clap," he says.
Success or no, the wise poet is philosophical about reading to the public.
"You really don't know how a poem works until you read it to somebody," says poet Tim Pompey. "If it doesn't work, you just move on to the next poem. You have to have a sense of humor. For the most part you're not getting paid for this."
Observant readers will notice a trend. Taggart makes his living in clothing. Pompey is the community relations coordinator for the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Ventura. Raymund is a retired writing teacher, though she does have a book of poetry--self-published and titled "The Chair Game"--to her credit.
"It's a very beautiful book," laughs Raymund. "I spent a lot of money for it."
How hard is it to actually make a living as a poet?
Raymund considers the question.
"I don't think it's done actually," she says.
While it may be unwise to tell your employer to stuff it, that you are off to pursue the purest distillation of the written word, those who have been writing for a long time say poetry is an intensely satisfying, and possibly universal, hobby. Gorham believes there are more poets out there than one might think.
"One thing I've learned is that everybody writes poetry, just not that many people are brave enough to admit it," he says.
Gorham's advice to aspiring poets is simple: Write from your heart. Then hike up your nerve and share it. Poetry was not meant to exist in a vacuum.
"When you are actually writing, it's a very lonely occupation," says Gorham. "But then you need to share that with other poets. Poetry is kind of the basic essence of what life's about, people sharing their thoughts with other people."
At Cafe Voltaire, another poet is at the podium. The coffeehouse echoes with his words. There is no other sound.
Standing at the back of the room Taggart nods and smiles.
"This is a very different thing," he says. "You have to listen to people. You get a chance to hear what people are really saying."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Writing poetry is a constant learning process, and the best way to learn is to write, write, write. But to learn what you are doing right and what you are doing wrong, the wise poet communes with their fellows. A smattering of county opportunities . . .
* THE POETRY SHOP at 1321 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd. Suite 124, Thousand Oaks has poetry discussion groups, open mike readings and featured poet readings. Call 496-7638.
* ROXANNE'S COFFEE & MORE at 1464 Madera Road, Suite E, Simi Valley offers open mike readings on Monday evenings at 8 p.m. 520-3117.
* CAFE VOLTAIRE at 34 N. Palm St., Ventura, holds open mike poetry readings on Thursday at 7:30 p.m, with sign-ups commencing at 7. Featured readers are at 8 p.m. followed by more open mike reading from 8:30-10 p.m. Call 641-1743.
* OJAI ARTS CENTER, 113 S. Montgomery St., Ojai, features a Monday evening poetry workshop and reading from 7 to 9. Call 646-0117.
* BARNES & NOBLE BOOKSTORE at 4360B E. Main St. in Ventura offers poetry readings on the last Tuesday of every month. Readings begin at 7:30 p.m. The bookstore also has special activities throughout the year (November will feature young poets). Call, 339-9170.