Lynne Bronstein's Venice
Philomene Long Thomas and
The Beats: An
Prose and Poetry by Philomene
Last Days of John Thomas
Van Gogh's Ear
Laureate at Ceremony
Stuart Z. Perkoff
Eavesdropping on the Boardwalk
by Anne Alexander
Buck-or-Two Blues Rap
Gas House beat HQ
GV6: THE ODYSSEY
In Venice CA
The Ballad of Reading Jail:
an incomplete history of two years of
poetry in Venice
by Lynne Bronstein
Free Venice Beachhead June 1980 #126
Would you like to attend a poetry reading?
Ask most people that question and youll have asked
them to winter in Lapland. Arent poetry readings those dainty affairs
that take place in drawing rooms or gardens with tea and cookies and stiff
well-dressed people quietly applauding a few pastel-colored sonnets and
one or two impassioned villanelles? Arent poets those gals, alleged
boozers and suicidal recluses whom we couldnt stand to read in school?
Hail to thee blithe spirit, it was the schooner Hesperus the moon was
a golden galleon tomorrow and tomorrow and do not go gentle into that
whaddya call it? You mean that stuff could be as diverting an evening
as a baseball game? Why did 14 poets get together once on a foggy night
in a cold basement room at the Venice Pavilion and read to each other
for three hours? And why are poets like them now reading to actual audiences
at an art gallery that used to be a jail?
You could call it the most insane and unlikely optimism
of our times but the series that was born on that chilly June night and
continues at the Venice Jail is two years old this month. During these
two years more than a hundred poets have appeared in ten sets of programs,
doing what poet John Thomas calls one of the two most peculiar human
activities - reading their opinions, visions, fantasies, and life
stories, set in musical language, out loud to surprisingly rapt listeners.
The other peculiar human activity is the writing of poetry.)
Poetry in Venice of America has a history as long as
the city itself. Abbot Kinney envisioned his Venice as a center for all
the fine arts, and some barnstorming poets and lecturers of the early
1900s stopped off to contribute to the cultural festivity of those days.
In the 1950s Venice had its own Beat Poetry scene with readings at such
coffee houses as the Gas House and the Venice West Café. (L.A.s
Finest closed down the Gas House citing among other things the noisiness
of whatever went on in there.) Poetry readings have come and gone at many
Venice locations, the Comeback Inn, the Temple of Man, Figtrees
among them. The best-known center for literary activities anywhere in
the Los Angeles area is the Beyond Baroque Foundation, started in 1968
as a storefront gallery, now a non-profit government-sponsored corporation
housed in the old Venice City Hall.
Some two and a half years ago, a number of us who read
regularly but never long enough (5 minutes being the time limit) in Beyond
Baroques Friday evening open readings, mused about an alternative.
Steve Goldman, a Venice poet whose erudite and often metric monologues
on God, Jewishness, urban angst and intellectual problems were virtually
ripping the open reading format at the seams scouted around for a place
to hold readings of his own. I wanted, said Steve, to
hear at length a number of good people who it seemed were unlikely to
get a chance to read at length at Beyond Baroque. The Venice Pavilion,
a far cry from Kinneys original culture palace with its brick facades
and athletic areas, was the site finally selected. That first reading
took place June 5th, 1978 and somewhere in Venice theres a guy who
had his tape recorder running to get it all down. I cant remember
ever hearing so much exciting wordcraft in a single evening. For the record
the poets were: Scott Wannberg, Garrett Hawkins, myself, Dennis Holt,
Frances Dean Smith, Steve Goldman, R. E. Maxson, Jerry Harrison, Mardell
Martinez, Nick Varljen, Eloise Klein Healy, Nikki Selditz, Dennis Koch,
and Milan Salka.
Diana Spears, a Venice artist who attended as an audience
member, recalls that evening in a poem of her own:
There is something
About hearing poets read
That makes me envious
Their words breathe
Fire into my mouth
That makes by belly warm
And long for birthing
I spread my legs
And echoes of the ancients
That first summer, our cadre of 14 provided each other
with listeners as we staged reading after reading up against Pavilions
schedule conflicts - like meetings that took over our room,
Shakespeare play rehearsals (poets vs. the Bard - divide and conquer?),
legal holidays (Steve switched the readings from Mondays to Tuesdays to
avoid this) and occasional incidents of beachfront violence. Despite the
high quality of the presentations, few knew anything was happening down
beyond the Bocce Court. And although some of us enjoyed the thrill of
hearing actual waves behind the gentle voice of a young woman reading
Wallace Stevenss The Idea of Order at Key West (She
sang beyond the genius of the sea), it was becoming apparent that
the Pavilion was for us only a lifeboat awash in a sea of problems. We
had to get on dry land or find a bigger boat.
At this point (early 1979) Steve joined forces with two
area poets, Liza Jane Braude and Velene Campbell Keslar. Velene hit upon
the converted police station-jail which had been housing SPARC for the
previous year, as the new location for the Venice Poetry Readings
as they were then called. The main gallery room had once been the main
holding tank and many of the cells were still there. But the SPARC crew
had painted them white, works of art came and went on the white-washed
walls, the gallery was long and sufficiently wide enough for six folding
seats a row plus aisle space. The Venice Poetry Readings became the Venice
Jail Readings. Liza and Velene designed a flyer for the first Jail-held
series, decorated with a drawing of a risen phoenix.
Is it true them artists are all of them crazy?
Group enterprises seldom hold together as solidly as
gelatin though they shake just as much. Steve Goldmans life took
him down a different path and he left the series in the summer of 1979.
At that time I because an organizer along with Jennifer Macchiarella and
Israel Halpern who were among the first poets to read at the Jail. We
continued the format Steve had devised; two poets reading per evening
with an intermission, poets reading in separate blocks or trading off
(their choice), smorgasbord readings of brief segments of
their work by all the poets in each series at the beginning and end of
each eight-week series. We collected donations to pay a SPARC staffer
to turn out the lights for us but SPARC in a most generous gesture, waived
our paying them as long as we did our own maintenance. This enable us
to collect donations for the poets instead.
We picked out artwork for our flyers - an Eskimo drawing
of caribou, a Max Ernst fantasy etching, an Art Nouveau drawing of fairies,
printed on bright poster paper, electric blue, soft blue, bone, green,
yellow, inscribed with such slogans as Paste this on your refrigerator.
Publications like the L. A. Times and the Reader began to
list our events. People talked about us. The old holding tank was jammed
for readings by New York renegade satirist Michael Silverblatt and Venice
Poetry Workshop alumni like Stuart Lishan, Kita Shantiris, and Joe Safdie.
Kita sang and performed a playlet with a professional actor. Liza Braude
sang songs with guitar and a cappella. Barry Simons, a living legend in
Venice poetry circles, strummed acoustic guitar punk, read with the Jailhouse
lights turned off and locked himself inside one of the cells - (Barry,
what are you doing in there? Im writing! Leave me alone!)
Michael C. Ford, Richard Merlin, and Monica Gayle read from Fords
satire on 1940s radio plays. Jack Grapes showed us a beautifully bound
book of his own verse, declared it was awful, threw it on the floor, and
read form another equally professional-looking bindery job. Linda Macaluso
made her debut as a reader of her own poems, playing cassette tapes of
her favorite songs between poems while her co-reader S. Diane Bogus set
up a stand of her self-published books in the back of the room.
In spite of colorful antics such as these, weve
never had a really rough moment at the Jail. Were still in Venice,
at 685 Venice Blvd. And local gangs who know the buildings only as the
jail it was have left their black zigzagged calling cards on the walls.
A few kids on angel dust have wandered in and out but mostly its
been quiet on Tuesday evenings and except when the fire station on the
corner sends out an engine or a car screeches to a halt on the street,
all you can hear is the age-old sound of people putting words together
to tell stories of their lives and ours.
But the question is?
How do you get to read at the Venice Jail? Drop by some
Tuesday evening at 7:30 p.m. listen to a reading. Weve modified
the format, offering open nights where any poet can read instead of the
eighth-week smorgasbords. Read a couple of your poems at one
of those readings or give copies of a few of your poems to one of the
Our commitment is still - although weve presented
many of Los Angeless best-known poets - to present fine unknown
poets from all over. Of course were in a bit of friendly competition
with Beyond Baroque (which happens to be right next to us on the Blvd.)
In this age of alleged non-readers and non-writers, more poets and fiction
writers want to read than Beyond Baroque alone can handle. It could be
said that we play contrapuntal parts of the same melody - Beyond Baroque
schedules Diane Wakoski, videotapes of Charles Bukowski and Allen Ginsberg,
a night of Love Poems; we schedule Nick Varljen reading his prose work
on the reconciliation of science and art, exciting unknown poets like
Karen Mimms, and most recently an outrageous Dada night featuring poets
reading with backs to the audience and a heckler making up
his oratory on the spot. Liza and Israel lead Beyond Baroques Wednesday
night poetry workshop from which some poets in the current series have
been culled. Beyond Baroque regulars have been seen in the audience at
our readings. So theres definitely a cross-pollination going on
and thats to everyones advantage.
Weve had male, female, hetero, gay, black, Hispanic,
Jewish, Catholic, agnostic, right, left, and middle-wing poets. We do
admit to a certain bias in favor of poets with a strong humanistic viewpoint.
Wed especially like to get more non-sexist male poets and more third
world people. Among our future goals are bilingual and works-in-translation
Until the day when we will hopefully have money from
local and/or federal grants, we continue to squeak along on donations
and commitment, introducing people who never like it or read it, to poetry,
introducing people to poets, poets to each other. Come to think of it,
it is a garden party. That is, if you can see the vines creeping
through the old jail bars, covering the prisons of nervous human silence
with a living green network of words.
The rest is up to you. Like to go to a reading?
(The author expresses gratitude to Steve, Liza, Israel, Velene, Jennifer,
SPARC, Eric Ahlberg, Penny, Wallace Stevens, Kenneth Fearing, Diana Spears;
and Oscar Wilde (through Luis Galvez) for the title.)