“It is the distillation of articulate animals calling to each other across a great gulf.”
—Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “Poetry as Insurgent Art”
Spoken word is more popular than ever these days, with a seemingly endless array of live performances that pop up in a wide variety of formats and settings in the Los Angeles area. But what used to be a mainly underground pursuit — in which obsessive wordsmiths parsed and divined the arcane properties, hidden meanings and cryptic allusions buried in each loaded syllable of oblique poetry before a small crowd of like-minded true believers — has long since turned into a fairly mainstream spectator sport.
We don't use the word “sport” lightly, as popular events such as the Moth and other poetry slams are more competitions in which storytellers compete for prizes and attention and are, more often than not, judged and ranked for their comedic abilities and personal charisma rather than their actual literary depth.
For those who crave to hear more artistically ambitious poetry and short fiction performed live, there are nonetheless a dizzying variety of places where subtle wordplay is appreciated, although one sometimes has to search carefully to discern the more adventurous and experimental spoken-word artisans amid the overriding clamor of actor types and comedians manqué shouting over one another in telling their personal anecdotes at generic storytelling events.
When it comes to spoken-word performances of genuine literary merit, choosing SoCal's best venues can be a highly subjective experience, based as much on the power and immediacy of hearing a favorite writer breaking down her well-turned phrases in an intimate room as much as the setting itself. But a spectacular location doesn't hurt. “The Annenberg Community Beach House rocks with Red Hen and other hybrid events in the most glorious sunset-at-the-beach environment,” marvels local poet Peggy Dobreer (Drop and Dazzle) about Red Hen Press' recurring readings at the coastal enclave in Santa Monica. “Love so much of what Red Hen does: cross-cultural, cross-genre, always classy and kind to everyone.”
Dobreer also cites Patrick O'Neil's readings at Kaffebaren in downtown L.A., the Moonday Poetry Series at Flintridge Books, Julia Ingalls' “It's 5 O'Clock Somewhere” series, the Library Girl readings in Santa Monica and Avenue 50 Studio's readings in Highland Park.
Poet (and occasional L.A. Weekly contributor) Shonda Buchanan says the World Stage in Leimert Park continues to champion the art of spoken word in addition to its vibrant ongoing jazz performances. “One of the best venues still for African-American writers and all writers of color, and all writers actually, is the Anansi Writers Workshop Wednesday night series,” notes Buchanan (Equipoise: Poems From Goddess Country and the upcoming Black Indian: Memoir). “In fact, the World Stage Press has transformed what is seen, heard and represented by African-American authors in L.A. However, the space itself still provides writers of color with a safe space to express their social, cultural and political lives.” She also recommends F. Douglas Brown and “fierce bruja” Rocio Carlos' provocative “Un::fade::able” series downtown at Art Share L.A., in which writers use the incisiveness of poetry not as an airy escape but as a way to shine a light on social injustice.
Novelist Janet Fitch (White Oleander, The Revolution of Marina M.) has more than one favorite venue. “I like Stories [Books & Cafe] in Echo Park. With their little outdoor patio and mural, it's really charming and neighborhood-y,” she shares. “Skylight [Books in Los Feliz] is phenomenal, with their tree and their cat. They have readings almost every night, very well attended, and they cater wonderfully to the writers. … Chevalier's [Books in Larchmont] has become very active in the last couple of years. There's something very easy about Chevalier's; you feel you can just drop by. Vroman's [in Pasadena] is the big daddy of L.A. bookstores. The store has a big and loyal following and room for a good-sized audience. Book Soup is fun, on the Strip, a rock & roll feel. … The Last Bookstore also has a real stage — makes a reading there special. … I love the Conrad Romo 'Tongue and Groove' series at the Hotel Cafe, more of a nightclub feel with full bar.”
Poet Mike Sonksen (Letters to My City) also cites a plethora of venues all over L.A. County, including Da Poetry Lounge at Greenway Court Theatre, Gatsby Books in Long Beach, Pasadena Public Library's Santa Catalina branch, Tuesday Night Cafe in Little Tokyo and Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural & Bookstore in Sylmar. “You can do poetry seven nights a week in L.A. There are many genres of poetry, too,” Sonksen says.
The Hammer Museum in Westwood has long featured top-flight writers. The museum's large auditorium might seem utilitarian and minimalist in design, but the lack of visual ornamentation only serves to focus attention on the words cast aloft by such stellar writers as Mary Gaitskill, James Merrill, Margaret Atwood, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, Louise Glück, Robert Pinsky, Agha Shahid Ali, Czeslaw Milosz, John Kinsella and countless others. “The mission of the Hammer Poetry Series is to bring to the museum poets representative of the outstanding work being done by poets of diverse backgrounds and various technical strengths,” says the Hammer's Stephen Yenser. Unfortunately, the Hammer tends to showcase writers who aren't from Los Angeles, which — however unwittingly — reinforces the ancient stereotype that Hollywood is just a film town and that legitimate writing only comes from the east of this Eden (and, perhaps more specifically, east of the Hudson River).
There are so many choices in Los Angeles when it comes to exemplary spoken word, but the best venue of all remains Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Venice, the Beat-minded cultural nexus founded in 1968. It has hosted Patti Smith, Michael McClure, Wanda Coleman, Raymond Carver, Amiri Baraka, Bob Flanagan, Philomene Long, Holly Prado, S.A. Griffin, Gerry Fialka, Amélie Frank, Doug Knott, Laurel Ann Bogen, Allen Ginsberg and many others. Its Wednesday-night workshops have attracted such folks as Dennis Cooper, Tom Waits and Amy Gertsler, and punk poet Exene Cervenka reportedly picked up much of her morbidly entrancing style in workshops in the 1970s led by the oft-brilliant poet-novelist Kate Braverman.
“Beyond Baroque is a favorite because it's a real theater, with theater chairs on risers and a sound booth,” declares Fitch, echoing the sentiments of several of the writers quoted earlier. “And it's a clubhouse vibe, a cultural hub for all of literary Los Angeles. Its Beat history imbues it with a very special atmosphere, and it's easy to hold people's attention there.”