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Taking Over L.A. — Excerpt, Part 4

Ground Zero

da poetry lounge ( is like falling down a faerie well.

I had always wondered what it would feel like. Always hoped it would happen.

This is how it looks like: young people with a fireplace in each eye, and the cockiness of prizefighters whose backs have never felt canvas.

This is what it sounds like: a preacher's fervent song to the beat of a 1963 Impala bouncing high on its hydraulics. Call and response and whips cracking.

I found Ground Zero for Taking Over Los Angeles. It's da poetry lounge. I also fell madly in love with about 150 people.

I'll know I got game when I come here and send ‘em. I am so coming back with game.

These are the name poets at da poetry lounge, taken off the internet: poetri, shihan, gimel, dante, damon, dingo, gaknew, tiffany, nafeesa, bridget, in-q, sekou, omari, jada, snow plow, slim, raymond, frank, macho, chia, gina, delight, rachel kann, bess kepp, mark gonzalez, el rivera, rafi, keith meyers, big al, opposed thumb, bowerbird and mark schaefer.

I want to prayerfully thank them, and all I saw perform. I drove home last night (3/26/02) knowing how it's done. Filled with the Holy Ghost.

Up first is a 14-year-old who says she's going to sing an Alicia Keys song. I think, man, the girl's got guts. She opened her mouth, and the sound of a church organ tuned to midnight sex came out. She drove the audience nuts.

Then, there was a rap for gun control by a guy who looked 21, baseball cap on backwards, pacing in the single spot like a jaguar. Faux rap to rap is the same relationship as faux poetry to poetry: like getting your teeth drilled. This was the real thing. Smart stuff.

A real poem about madness, as funny as it was scary, acted out by a skinny kid who shouted in explosions of spit, and acted it out in antic, grinning, sure energy. Early 20s.

A poem that somehow stabbed me with light with two words at just the right time, just the right place, just the right way, “celestial bodies.” It looks corny, but you had to be there. The crowd moaned its approval, as a poet prophet with an athlete's build announced the way. Mid-20s.

A poem about fighting off the white media to keep your identity—swordfighting the ocean waves—but you'd be foolish to bet against this poet. She was in her early 20s.

And more.

Anger. Intelligence. Ferocity. Craftsmanship. Purpose. Fearlessness. Joy. Faith. Purity of heart. The thing they call poetry.

The Greenway Court Theatre, on Fairfax, a block south of Melrose, seats maybe 80. Every seat is filled. I'm instructed to get out of the aisle and sit on the stage. No charge to get in (I didn't sign up for the Open Reading because da poetry lounge is so popular, it's suggested you call ahead. I thought it better to first check it out). Two sound guys work a perfect sound system from a booth above the seats, which rise like a real theater. Shihan's on the turntables, playing music between sets. He's apparently one of the best poets here—became a father three days ago—but I didn't get to hear him this night.

From my bearings, I'd say the Greenway Court Theatre was in the geographical center of L.A. It's in an old Jewish neighborhood, which is still very visible in places like Canter's deli. But, there's also Bang and Cat Walk, for clubbing apparel, and Goo, which I have no idea what that is. Next trip, I'm stopping at Tom Bergin's for Irish Coffee, and, hopefully, good craic.

I can't quite get the name of the MC. But, he should have his own HBO special. He's wickedly fast, funny and charming.

These poets come ready. There appears to be an understanding that stepping into the spotlight is like walking onto the court of an NCAA basketball game. If you came to learn, they're not here to teach.

I can't stay long. After 40 minutes or so, the MC announced tow trucks had arrived. About 30 of us, who had invented our own parking spaces on the campus of Fairfax High School, had to bolt. It was a pretty funny sight.

I open the door to exit, and there's over 30 people waiting to get in once some of us leave. I get a cute smile from one young woman, nicely surprised at my presence. I'm an old dude here. There was only one other guy anywhere near my age in the house. I figure I'll end up back in this line, so I decide to head home. I saw what I wanted to see. I found Ground Zero. I learned in some gorgeous, intimate way, how it's done. I get to dream each night of returning.

This is what the quest does. It takes you to places of myth.

I need to slam. I need to slam bad (which I probably will). It's the time before sex.

Taking Over L.A. — Part 7

Rachel Kann: I'm calming down after the Big Damn Poetry Slam disaster, and I'm thinking I've seen Rachel Kann before. She's one of L.A.'s most famous, most high-profile poets. As I mentioned in the previous chapter, she has a definite star presence. She walks into the room like she's Shaq, about nine feet tall and 750 pounds. That's how I remembered her. She came to a Two Idiots Peddling Poetry night for a slam they had organized a while back. Her presence is such that I remembered her in the audience, even though I left before she read. She's a bull. She's a Poet Mama. She has swagger. I think she'd feel at home on a pirate ship. She makes it immediately obvious she has opinions; she's going to share them; and you should listen, whoever the hell you are, it doesn't matter. I didn't stay for the slam at Two Idiots, because there was some bad poetry torture that night, plus I was getting tired. I've never heard Rachel Kann read her stuff. But, I like the fact that she seems to be a poet 24-7. And I hear she can mix it up with the best at da poetry lounge. Most people allow the poet to emerge from the shoe clerk. I don't think Rachel's employable. And I mean that in the coolest way.

Not Breathing: Ever since I decided to self-publish my book, six or seven months ago, I think I ‘stopped breathing.' It's just too big a personal event for me. It took me 10 years before I wrote a single line of poetry. It took me another 18 years to write and edit this 252-page book of poems. I don't know how to explain it, but I'm freezing up. All of me is collapsing to one dimension. I don't want to move until the thing is done. I allowed the public readings to be a distraction because there was no point in publishing a book if you couldn't go out and sell it. But, it's time, and I can't breathe. God, you have the finest sense of humor, but please don't deal me a fatal on Highway 133 just now. Give me 10 more days.

Festival of Books: The L.A. Times big Festival of Books features only one L.A. poet (Wanda Coleman) that I recognize in two days of readings, with a new poet every half hour. In the list of exhibitors, and what they're exhibiting, the word “poetry” comes up three times in a list of over 340 exhibitors. But that's the state of poetry for you.There's a Poetry Stage for the L.A. Times Festival of Books, featuring a new poet every 30 minutes for two full days. I only recognize Wanda Coleman as a representative of L.A. I can only guess this is because it's a Chicago newspaper now, long destroyed. There are plenty of big poet names, but the poets—and writers—have no “where” as far as Los Angeles is concerned. This could be anywhere. I don't think the L.A. Times even knows who Rachel Kann is, or what magic happens at da poetry lounge.

Wayman Writes: Wayman Barnes, the master storyteller and great actor who organized with Frankie Drayus, discovered my online notes about Taking Over LA in Avatar Review/Burning Chrome. He loves it. He's going to promote it on the website. He said it's like a novel in which he knows everybody, and has been to all the places. Wayman also is very direct in telling me it's going to take a long time to Take Over L.A. “Trust me, it takes longer than you are giving it to make inroads into the LA poetry world. I have done nearly 130 performances since I've started and have just recently begun doing features. If you are not a name, some venues will want you to show some loyalty to their venue before they will even consider you. It's not a judgement on your work, just the way it works,” said Wayman.

The Moment of Will: Whenever I've taken over anything, there's always the purposeful beginning, followed by defeat, followed soon after by total confusion and an absolute determination to give up. Instead of trying to avoid these feelings, I always feel these emotions fully and absolutely. I feel it until there's nothing left. No desire. No strategy. No possibilities. What's left is only one thing, weightless and invisible, and the strongest force in the universe: will.

After the clusterfuck at the Big Damn Poetry Slam, I was in the process of taking a break from poetry readings. Then, Frankie Drayus sent me a note that she would be slamming in my home town, at the Two Idiots reading (4/24/02). The Five Penny Poets were competing against the Valley Contemporary Poets ( I was immediately conflicted. I wanted to see her perform, and show my support. At the same time, I was still angry at what happened—or didn't happen—at the Big Damn Poetry Slam. At the last minute, I went. And I felt about 25 things at once in the 90 minutes I was there:

Time is falling in boulders in slow motion. There goes another one, and I'm much older, with much less time to get the job done. I hate the role of making people appreciate what has innate value. They should just see it. I hate the cheap bohemian ploy of using retro shock instead of craft to make a poem. Why do bohemians lack muscle in their poetry? Where did they get the license to complain incessantly? Some of the poetry makes me want to elevate hard and immediate through the ceiling of the Ugly Mug to escape. Why are they torturing us? Frankie kills, though. She's really turning from a very writerly writer into an actress. She made poetic history with one word, “olive.” I won't tell you how, because that moment belongs to Frankie. Steve Ramirez kills. He's a real writer, I think. I hope he gets his due some day. A very quiet, professor-like guy (the worst personna for slamming) kills me with a poem about an ancient sex scroll. He gets the lowest slam marks. There's no reason to Take Over L.A. It doesn't lead anywhere. There's no reason to think I could sell even 1,000 copies of my book. It's clearly impossible. I don't have time to wait around. Why aren't people more demanding? Why aren't they more appreciative of real craft, real vision? Steve Ramirez worked his butt off, I guess, to organize the Orange County Poetry Festival, financed by the group, Tebot Bach, and I marvel again at poetry people attempting difficult things for little reward. In my own mountain-climbing, pyramid-conquering way of doing things, poetry drives me nuts. There's no ladder. No getting anywhere. No system. I need to calm down, and not get pissed off at how Poetry World doesn't work. I can't figure out how to join a slam team, other than the great L.A. poets at da poetry lounge. Where is another one? I realize I'm not going to the nationals this year, and I'm sorely disappointed. I realize I've got to give everything another year, and I'm depressed. My energy is coiled ambition, and there's no use for it. I want to go up on stage and be great, but I know I can't. It's awful being awful at something, and then not quitting. I'm going to be 800 years old before everybody knows I'm a poet. I have zero self-identity as a performer. To me, I'm a cipher up there. I have a ringside seat on how poetry remains outside of mainstream culture, and I sure can't see how to change that. I can't wait to be just a writer again—an environment completely under my control.

And here's more crazy zen weirdness of this whole trip: I'm trying to find Charlotte O'Brien, and her poetry reading, and Wayman is her boyfriend! He introduces me to her at Two Idiots, and I think that is so cool to meet her in this zen/connected way. He and Frankie are heading to Seattle next week for a poetry festival there ( They're signed on as featured readers, and Wayman is hosting a panel. He doesn't quite know exactly what the subject is. It has to do with alternative avenues available to poets, such as the Internet and slamming. I hope Wayman and Frankie become rich and famous. (Note: Wayman said there were a couple of other L.A. poets at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.)

Still Taking Over L.A.: In my time so far Taking Over L.A., I really value having met Steve Ramirez, Frankie Drayus and Wayman Barnes. And I'm grateful to have found da poetry lounge, and what Wayman said is its spin-off, Green, at Tanner's in Culver City. When I'm ready, I'll make a run at Green and at Mia's (Charlotte's reading at Tanner's in Santa Monica). I'll give up on the goal of slamming for a while, and just try to get better at reading. Basically, I'll start all over again. Set myself adrift in the zen ocean.

Word From Redondo: Larry Colker, who organizes the Redondo Beach Poets readings at the Coffee Cartel, also found these notes on the Internet, and sent me an e-mail. The Coffee Cartel was a terrible experience for me, as I failed miserably to generate any notice, for which I have only myself to blame. Larry never said a word to me. I could tell he was a true believer in poetry, and I thought it would be great to be validated by him. That would be a nice step in Taking Over L.A. I thought Larry had heard Bukowski read, but he said in his note that he hadn't. He invited me back to the Coffee Cartel, saying he had wondered where I went. That was very nice of him, to go out of his way to invite me back. “I, too, find that the work that sometimes gets the noisiest or most positive response is not particularly...shall we say impressive, poetically. Our audience is diverse, as are our readers, and there are some nights when few readers seem to elicit more than polite acknowledgement,” wrote Larry. Like all of the people I've seen so far in the L.A. Poetry World, Larry is 10 times nicer than me. Less-than-great poetry drives me insane. But, the L.A. Poetry World appears to be about total accepting. Everybody's welcome. I'm focused on being effective, but that's not the game. Ambition seems so out of place. It's all very murky to me right now. Anger doesn't work here. It only gets you confused, and on the wrong road.

My Book Is In My Hands: And it sure sounds nuclear (May 8, 2002).

See a review, here.






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