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Poets Step Into the Cold for the Warmth of Words

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A poetry reading on Venice Beach, after dark, on a cold (getting colder) evening in the middle of December. Now that’s a tough sell. But poets are tough. So were the roughly 150 or so die-hards who turned out Tuesday in scarves and hats that made it feel more like Martha’s Vineyard on a night in mid-September than Los Angeles.

Actually, a dreadful day in September was the evening’s impetus. A group of local writers gathered amid a thicket of restaurant-style stand-up heaters to offer words in response to the events on, and following, Sept. 11. In the most pointed line describing the vacuum the program was meant to fill, poet and political activist Lewis MacAdams commented from the stage:

“When I first came out here tonight, I thought, well, this is a perfect emblem of the state of poets in America right now: in the dark and out in the cold.”

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Coming in from the cold gave the evening its title: “Where Are the Voices--A Declaration for the Future.” The evening’s theme of a search for artistic response to history started with a question that Mpambo Wina, who works at the L.A. Louvre, posed to her boss, Peter Goulds, the art gallery’s founder and co-director, shortly after Sept. 11.

“It was about a week afterward. Peter came up and said to me, ‘What do you think?’ I’d lived in Germany for 111/2 years and, whenever some catastrophe happened, you heard from the artists, the writers, the people who ran museums. I asked him, ‘Where are the voices that can help me put this into some kind of context?’”

The program, given so long after the events that inspired it because of a delay with a police permit, ranged from short poems written in direct response to the cataclysm of that day, to prose by writer and thinker Isaiah Berlin, to older poems that gained new resonance after Sept. 11.

It has been said that some poetry is written just to make other poetry possible. This was the strength of the evening. It stressed the legitimacy of self-expression in a time of war, getting the momentum of words started.

One spirit that hovered over the scene was that of Allan Kaprow, patron saint of the happenings of the 1960s: the gathering as statement sufficient unto itself. If the event had its ideal critic, it may well have been Sam Scott, a 47-year-old self-described “reader of everything” who rode by on his bicycle as things got underway at about 6:30 and stood astride the bike beneath one of those heaters.

Scott cooed with pleasure at the work he liked--"Oh, cool"-- and laughed with short, hard rumbles of dismay when he found it fell short.

“I liked four of them,” he said, with certainty, after hearing the 13 readers. “One thing I felt was lacking in a lot of this work was emotion. I’m a working-class person. I am not educated. I am not politically connected. I throw pizza for a living, and I work as a tutor of English to a young man who speaks Spanish.

“Some of what I heard,” Scott continued, “was right on with the political situation going on right now: ‘Put down your gun, pick up your baby.’ I liked that.” The line Scott quoted was from “With Our Babies,” by the poet Peter J. Harris, a KPFK radio host and the fourth reader of the evening. With unmistakable antiwar fervor, it begins:

put down your gun/pick up your baby

unto your collar/open your arms

strip off your uniform/salute your equal

unpin your badge/reveal your rib cage

dismount your Tomahawk/hometrain your tongue

swallow your mushroom cloud/civilize your cross hairs

put down your gun/pick up your baby

For Harris, who grew up in Washington, D.C., politics and poetry have long meshed into a seamless fabric. Interviewed at a buffet dinner for the readers at the Louvre Gallery after the event, he said he was influenced by leading poet-activists of the 1960s who brought their “virtuosity to bear on an historical moment.”

Did Harris see writers these days, who have met the realities of Sept. 11 with that kind of strength?

“We don’t know yet who those writers are. It is too early to tell.”

Key organizers were Goulds and Paul Vangelisti, chairman of the graduate-writing program at the Otis College of Art and Design. The list of readers included Harris; Douglas Messerli, founder of the Sun & Moon Press; poet Dennis Phillips; Fred Dewey, executive director of Beyond Baroque; Paul Holdengraber, director of the Institute for Art and Cultures at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and Tim Rutten, culture correspondent of the Los Angeles Times. Councilwoman Ruth Galanter made opening remarks linking the evening to Venice’s history of artistic ferment.

Holdengraber and Rutten read from a summary statement by the late writer and thinker Isaiah Berlin about Western pluralism as a cause for which fighting, if necessary, is just:

“I am not a relativist,” Berlin wrote. “I do not say ‘I like my coffee with milk and you like it without; I am in favor of kindness and you prefer concentration camps'--each of us with his own values, which cannot be overcome or integrated. This I believe to be false

Dewey gave what might be called a meditative rant. Spurred by a key poem that Osip Mandelstam wrote denouncing state violence under Stalin, he alluded to George W. Bush and the American state, which he clearly believes is turning to tyranny with the excuse of war. However, anyone familiar with the niches of the Los Angeles poetry scene--truth be told, this event was not a panoramic tour of its range--would mark Messerli as the evening’s surprise star.

Speaking before the program, he said he had long avoided writing poems with what he calls “direct political content.” He said that though “a lot of gay political content is in all my work,” he does not like “work that is overtly political.”

Yet one could feel that his aesthetic detachment had given way before the emotional force of Sept. 11. All three of his poems groped openly for direction as a poet.

“September” was dedicated to the Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom. Nooteboom has often contemplated, with subdued lyrical understatement, ways in which the worst events in history invade the quiet parts of people’s lives. Messerli read with a startling passion the poem, dated Sept. 26, for which he had taken Nooteboom’s work as his cue.

Messerli’s poem concluded:

*

Poetry can never be about me again. About you. We’ve seen the armored clouds, the planes

of flames and swords, the angels of ruins--from the other end of the dream.

Now we too, together with many a scholar and slave, are victims of our own revolutions.

Odysseus, alas, has never come for a visit.

And the ferryman has asked for his fee. It is that/ infatuated moment when heads are not yet skulls.

Sam Scott declared his approval for this piece louder than for any other.

*

Then he stayed on, in the cold, until the last word was read.


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