Hansen: The guerrilla poet of Laguna Beach

If you ask poet John Gardiner a question, the path to the answer is not a straight line.

It's a meandering journey that transports you to mysterious places and events that seem surreal at first, as if you've gone down some rabbit hole.

Where else can you rub the belly of a coyote?

Or hear Shakespeare reincarnated?

Or use words to stop bullets?

Gardiner, 67, is Laguna Beach's resident poet, dramatist, teacher, activist and psychedelic historian. In 1969 he read one of his first poems at Mystic Arts in Laguna, and 45 years later, at 7 p.m. Friday, he will read it again, commemorating an anniversary of sorts.

"Mystic Arts used to have some loose poetry readings, and this one was very loose," Gardiner said. "They happened all of a sudden when there was a group there, and they'd say, 'Let's read some poems or something.' And somebody would light some candles."

It was not the first poetry group in Laguna. That belonged to Laguna Poets, which started meeting at least five years earlier, said Gardiner, who currently runs the group.

During the 1970s, they met in the library, organized by the late Marta Mitrovich, a well-known actress who appeared in more than 20 films, including "When Strangers Marry," "The Unfaithful" and "Titanic."

"Marta Mitrovich had all of the famous Beat poets come down in the '70s," he said. "She had Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. And I went to a lot of those."

But while Gardiner was busy writing poetry and attending UC Irvine, there were tumultuous activities around him: an unpopular, full-throttled war; sexual, political and civic upheaval; and more important, cops in Corona del Mar.

It was, after all, 1969, and Gardiner had long hair.

"Hitchhiking to UCI was always an adventure," he said. "You'd always get stopped in Corona del Mar by the cops. Good 'ol Corona del Mar. It was just Corona del Mar reminding you that you're a long-hair and we don't like you."

It did not help that Gardiner was smart. His professor at UCI was Galway Kinnell, a poet in residence who would win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1983.

"He was a fish out of water in Orange County," Gardiner said. "He's from Vermont. He's a woods person, and here he was kind of in a desert. And UCI was still mostly trailers. He didn't like where we were meeting, so he changed our poetry class to the evenings, and we met at the old Sid's Blue Beet bar and drank wine and discussed poetry."

The Blue Beet in Newport Beach was like a beatnik retreat for Gardiner, who, while originally from Manhattan Beach, spent several years in Northern California and traveled extensively. He is now a teacher at UCI, active in local Shakespeare productions and his latest book of poems is called "Coyote Blues."

"I was influenced completely by San Francisco and the Beat poets," said Gardiner, who admitted to partaking of the mind-expanding traditions of the time. "We weren't just hippie-dippy, drop acid in the morning and surf all day long. Sure, I took large amounts of acid, mescaline, peyote, etc., but I also had one foot firmly planted in the anti-war movement."

This balance between self-indulgence and activism was a challenging position to maintain, and Gardiner would often retreat to the mountains.

"My experience was to go out in the desert and get high up in the mountains," he said. "The last thing in the world I wanted to do was go to the Sunset Strip and jump around elbow to elbow in what can be called a '60s acid-head monster mosh pit. That was too much confusion, and I had no interest in it."

Instead, he would participate in guerrilla-style, anti-war plays on Main Beach.

"Everyplace we played, including Main Beach in Laguna, we quickly got kicked out by the cops. People didn't like it. They did not want to hear the city's long-hair drama students doing anti-war theater. It wasn't appreciated."

As much as the '60s now might be viewed in almost sectarian terms — hippies, environmentalism, feminism — not everything was black and white. And while there was admittedly a lot of drug use, not all of it was equal.

"I wouldn't just go to Mystic Arts as a lost boy, hoping I could go across the streets to Taco Bell and score some loose joints, which was happening to a lot of the 17- and 18-year-olds — or worse, score some acid from a stranger that was mixed with speed and STP and God knows what. They had no idea what they were getting.

"In other words, you can't write about the '60s in one particular perspective. It's just impossible. There was so much going on."

To make matters worse, new Laguna Beach resident Timothy Leary was starting to make headlines.

"The Brotherhood of Eternal Love … they were tough streets kids from Anaheim. They were a little older than me. It was much more of a street-surfer thing that came out of the original car culture. You know, dragging the main in their souped-up cars."

Gardiner did not agree with the basic tenets of Leary's philosophy, "Turn on, tune in and drop out," because if you were 19 and passed the war physical, you were dropped out of a military plane over Vietnam and "had a good chance coming back maimed or in a body bag."

"It was easy for him to say that because he was in his mid-40s," Gardiner scoffed.

What Gardiner learned was to appreciate and harness vitality. His poetry now is accessible and urgent, as if he is speaking directly in front of you in his rich baritone. He has a secular world view, easily infusing Native American lore, Shakespeare and mysticism with skill and conviction.

He brings life to the obtuse, extraordinary and connected moments that appear to us if we only see.

These are the types of Laguna Beach stories you don't hear much anymore. Vietnam-era veterans and activists are approaching 70 now.

It will not be long before we lose the shades of gray behind the nuance of the '60s.

The spoken words will become fixed, taking on a predictable varnish. We will not have the lifeblood of contrary passion that jolts us into action.

Let's hope our psychedelic shop of counterculture does not become a caricature of something else.

It means more than that.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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