City Lights: Coffeehouse musings

Once in a while, a venue sports a plaque declaring that literary history took place there: that a famous author lived in this house, a great songwriter penned a tune on this train platform, and so on.

If Alta Coffee ever seeks to honor poet John Perry, it might want to put a miniature sign on each of its napkin dispensers.

Not that the Newport Beach coffeehouse was the only location where Perry wrote the original drafts of his new book, "Notes on Napkins." Those small bits of paper span eateries up and down the coast, from the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf to Tully's Coffee. But as Perry explained to me Tuesday morning, the cozy spot tucked away on the Balboa Peninsula is his favorite, at least in one way.

"Alta Coffee's got the greatest napkins for writing on," he said, with the contents of a paper bag containing three decades of work spread out on the bench beside him. "They're a great size. They're longer than a Starbucks napkin and a little more substantial."

It was here at Alta, two or so years ago, that Perry first showed me his "Notes on Napkins" project. At that time, the poems took the form of computer printouts in a three-ring binder, with some of the original napkins photocopied on the cover. He had no publisher yet, but he had a unique concept, and I suspected he would find an interested taker before long.

Sure enough, this summer, Laguna Niguel-based Windflower Press compiled the napkin musings into a 120-page volume. "Notes on Napkins" features 50 poems (printed on one side of the page only, unless they spill over onto the second) along with a brief foreword by the author in which he expresses his debt to the coffeehouses that gave him a place to write.

Just about the first thing you notice about Perry in person is how humble and gracious he is. He's 68, retired, a San Clemente resident, someone even Holden Caulfield probably couldn't describe as phony. His poems, likewise, don't make much attempt to hide their origins as ruminations scribbled between sips of java: Most of them are brief and to the point, without fancy wordplay or obscure allusions.

A typically direct piece, "Single Encounter," reads in its entirety:

 

I reached out

to touch your hand

and the warmth

of your love

followed.


I dared not think

of you and me together.


Now,

pressed tightly,

in love,

I find myself

trying to say everything

in a single encounter.

 

That's one of the lighter poems in the book. Perry, who notes in the foreword that he has often written — and frequented coffeehouses — to help him cope with tough times, returns repeatedly to a few basic themes in "Notes on Napkins": heartbreak, loneliness, romantic yearning.

Taken as a whole, the book has a soothing, almost meditative quality. It might be best read in a beachside coffeehouse on an overcast morning.

A few of the napkin poems date to the 1980s, but the majority come from the last decade. "Notes on Napkins" isn't entirely a work of minimalist art. Perry revised most of the poems, some on multiple napkins, before he liked them enough to publish. Still, he hewed to a strict rule in compiling the book: Every piece, true to the title, had to have started life on a napkin.

Of course, there are hazards in that medium. The second-to-last poem in "Notes on Napkins," titled "I Blew My Nose," is about a time when the author did just that and then realized he had defaced one of his works. Still, even after the book's publication, Perry finds himself reaching into the table dispenser to jot down his new ideas.

"I kind of feel like it helps me be creative," he said. "Maybe it's good luck or something."

 

Speaking of poetry, I have a new book of my own coming out this month from Tebot Bach, a nonprofit press based in Huntington Beach. "The First Thing Mastered" is a thematic collection about the journey from infancy to adulthood, and it will launch Sept. 27 at Golden West College's Community Room 102. (If you're unfamiliar with the campus, shoot me an email and I'll give you directions.)

The reading is free and starts at 8 p.m., so I hope to see a few of you there. Feel free, too, to bring a poem of your own, since the press always offers an open-mic list. And if any inspiration strikes you during the reading, there should be napkins on the refreshment table.

MICHAEL MILLER is the features editor for Times Community News in Orange County. He can be reached at michael.miller@latimes.com or (714) 966-4617.

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