City Lights: Local poet's career goes 'back to sand'

The journalist in me has tried to write a lede for this column, and the poet has fought him tooth and nail. Just how should I begin a piece about the closing of Lee Mallory's Orange County poetry readings? With wordplay? A personal anecdote? Should I even aim for prose, or, in the spirit of Lee, should I dispense with capitals and syntax and let the words flow as they will?

Yes, I think that's the way to go. And rather than shoot for a feeble imitation, I'll let Lee write the start of this column himself. He's earned it:

I see eons / of geologic time / tight bands of / strata & sand, / above, I think of indians / Gabrielaños, Juaneños / gathering, hunting / hauling kids, / while SUV's whir below / now they rest / old bones / deep in willow roots & time / cradled gently / back to sand

That's from "Newport Bluffs," one of my favorite poems about the passage of time, which appeared in Lee's collection "Now and Then" from Moon Tide Press. In the poem, the narrator gazes from a laundry over the bluffs across Pacific Coast Highway, not far from where Lee has run the monthly Wednesday reading at Alta Coffee Warehouse & Restaurant since 1991.

Those who know me know that Moon Tide is the book press I helped launch in 2006, and that Lee was one of the co-founders. They may also know that the first poetry reading I ever attended was Lee's show at Alta a decade or so ago. As a poet, as a publisher, as an event host, he's reached a lot of people here.

And now, to borrow a line from him, Lee's Orange County poetry career has gone back to sand. For more than 20 years, he's organized Poetry at Alta as well as the monthly Factory Readings, which launched in Santa Ana in the late 1980s and most recently met every first Tuesday at the Gypsy Den.

Given Lee's flair for showmanship — more on that in a moment — I always imagined that if he ever retired his readings, he'd do it in the most grandiose way possible: with a massive show that lasted for, oh, seven or eight hours, full of poets, musicians, speeches and other assorted zaniness. We'd all pack the Gypsy Den or Alta with our notebooks full of work, form an open-mic queue that stretched far outside the door, then toast the end of an era with coffee, wine or something stronger.

Instead, after making so much joyful noise the last quarter-century, Lee stepped down in the quietest way possible. One of his fellow poets, who sometimes played substitute host at the two readings, sent out a mass email declaring that the readings had stopped and that Lee, a longtime English professor at Santa Ana College, was retiring and moving to Las Vegas to be with his family.

The email contained a brief message from Lee thanking everyone for their support over the years, and that was that. Back to sand, indeed.

I put a message in to Lee, and when I heard back, I got some heartening news. First of all, he's not abandoning poetry by any means; he plans to look for a scene in Las Vegas, if one exists. And although he's retired his two readings, he's not leaving Orange County until after the new year, so hopefully we'll catch him at one of the other venues around town before then.

But even if Poetry at Alta and the Factory Readings end without fanfare, we have our memories to sustain us. I have no doubt that half the publications in Orange County will run something in the coming months about Lee's retirement, and there should be more than enough quotes to go around. You'll hear stories about his improvised spiels that ran for minutes on end, his off-the-wall Valentine's Day contests, his knack for climbing on furniture, tossing beads to the crowd and doing anything else to bring a poem alive.

As for my favorite memory? That would be a night at Alta when Lee, planning to recite a poem that had a dramatic line toward the end, snuck back to the kitchen and "borrowed" a couple of dishes. When he reached that line, he whipped out the dishes from behind his back and smashed them together, sending shards flying and the spectators in the first few rows recoiling.

After the reading, I emailed Lee and said I had enjoyed the show, but would make sure to wear safety goggles next time. For months afterward, he quoted that line to other poets, and I felt flattered. Did Alta bill him for the plates? I never bothered to ask. But with all the business he brought them over the last two decades, with all the poets whose reputations he helped to boost, maybe they were willing to grant him a moment of indulgence.

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at michael.miller@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°