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Grab some Pale Ale and some poems

Suzie Harrison

There’s a whole lot of poetry going on in Orange County and to the

untrained eye and ear, well, the verse just passes them by, and they’re

missing yet another art form prolific in Laguna Beach.


Gone are the days of the stereotypical poet rhyming their words or

reading poetry from the words of great poets past. A new breed of poets

has replaced the stodgy stereotype. And these poets aren’t the meek,

mild-mannered archetype. They have morphed into a more gregarious being.


It’s poetry turbo-style. There’s a whole new generation of poets.

Though poetry has always been an oral art form, and perhaps goes back

to the first grunting cave man who had a way with words, poet John

Gardiner explains that the timeless art has been changing, even as it

maintains its initial purpose.

“Poetry asks you to use your imagination to explore metaphors to

expand your imagination,” Gardiner said. “If it works it is a good poem

and if it doesn’t it falls into the gigantic category of 99%, which most


fall into. Which to me is one of the saddest words in the English

language. It means you did enough but not any more.”

The Pale Ale Poets, a group of local poets started by Gardiner in

Laguna Beach, exemplifies this pattern of change.

Born at Fahrenheit 451 Bookstore in May 1997, the group staged

readings there for a year and a half. When the bookstore closed at the

end of August 1998, they moved to Laguna Beach Brewing Company the

following week.


The Pale Ale Poets will be putting a fifth candle on their birthday

cake at 8 p.m. Thursday at the reading. The name came after the move to

the pub. Before, the readings had gone on without such a title.

Laguna remains at the heart of the whole burgeoning Orange County

poetry scene, which found its genesis here.

“There’s something about the ambience, the mystique of Laguna Beach,

which predestined the whole start of a vibrant, creative poetry

Movement,” said Lee Mallory, a Newport resident who is part of the Laguna

Beach poetry scene.

Having a poetry reading at a bar added a new flavor to the poetry


Gardiner also instigated new paths by creating in Laguna the county’s

first regular poetry SLAM, a competitive poetry contest.

“SLAM poetry gets your attention,” he said. “It makes you shut up and

listen. A SLAM poem has an absolutely dramatic purpose and is a dramatic

performance piece.”

A good number of poets who started their poetry quest in Laguna have

gone through the competitions.

“I started at the Laguna Beach Brewery, the reading John Gardiner

runs, I wanted to get published and first started competing for the SLAM

team there,” said Paul Suntup.

Two Laguna SLAM teams born at the brewpub competed and won in the

National Championship of Performance Poets in the 1999 and 2000. The

competition was composed of some teams from Europe as well as the 50

states with about 500 people competing.

But the merits of judging poetry in general remain somewhat evasive to

Gardiner in general.

“The point is to have fun. Some people get acting coaches and spend a

lot of time and money working on their poetry performance,” he said. “So

as with any competition human nature comes into play. Poetry is supposed

to be fun.”

The scores also often fail to reflect the quality of the written poem.

“There’s a dichotomy of poetry readings -- the page poets and the

performance poets -- however a poem needs to be able to strand on its own

two legs,” Gardiner said.

SLAM’S origins can be traced back to the beatniks at coffee houses,

bookstores and art galleries in places like San Francisco’s City Lights

Bookstore, where Allen Ginsberg and other poets had readings with a

“beat” audience.

At next week’s anniversary reading the spirit of change remains alive.

“The feature is Murray and they are a “garage jazz/spoken word band,”’

Gardiner said. “They have a full set up and will be doing spoken word

instead of singing their words.”

The Laguna Poets formed more than 20 years ago in Laguna Beach and are

still California’s longest running weekly poetry series.

“For me, I still consider the Laguna Poets to be my spiritual home. I

started going to their readings on a regular basis about 15 years ago,”

Gardiner said.

The Laguna Poets meet the first three Friday nights of the month at

Wells Fargo in downtown Laguna.

Beth McIlvine has been coming to Laguna Poets since she was 14 years


“It’s always been a well-known staple in the poetry community and it

still is,” the 22-year-old said. “The Laguna crowd is a more literary and

intimate crowd.”

One poet at the Laguna Poets reading recently summarized the

everlasting impression Laguna has on its community.

“The poem that I am reading is called ‘Carpool Coma’ but it should

have been called, ‘Why did I ever leave Laguna?” said the poet, Diane