Viggo Mortensen, Will Alexander, John Densmore, Bobby Bradford, John Doe and Exene Cervenka turn out for an L.A. literary bash for the ages
By Bliss Bowen
Despite being dismissively stereotyped for its supposed lack of interest in books, L.A. supports a nationally renowned literary center that hosts a variety of readings, poetry circles, workshops, salons, film screenings, songwriter performances and other related artistic events most nights of the week.
Housed in Venice’s original City Hall, Beyond Baroque is a rare resource — one that reflects the community values of its neighborhood as it supports greater L.A.’s diverse literary community.
Currently in its 50th year, the center will be feted Saturday with a “bacchanalian gala” featuring presentations and performances by writers, artists and musicians who found inspiration there. That includes actor, writer and Perceval Press co-founder Viggo Mortensen, a former trustee who will receive the Alexandra Garrett Award for Service to Beyond Baroque; and American Book Award-winning poet-in-residence Will Alexander, who will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Poetry. Both are expected to give readings.
Other scheduled performers include John Doe & Exene Cervenka; John Densmore, drummer for the Doors; Ornette Coleman Quartet trumpeter Bobby Bradford; Divine Horsemen founders Chris D and Julie Christensen; venerated poet and World Stage co-founder Kamau Daáood; jazz vocalist and World Stage Executive Director Dwight Trible; Distinguished Service Award honoree Jack Grapes; Froglab (Joe Baiza, Brian Christopherson, and Minutemen frontman Mike Watt); poet and Distinguished Service Award honoree Jack Grape; singer-songwriter and KCSN “Dylan Hour” host Lisa Finnie; and Carlos Segovia Scholarship winner Erika Duran. The event will be emceed by poets Brendan Constantine and Puma Perl.
“A place dedicated to the possibilities of language”: That statement, displayed on every page of its website, is as clean a description as any of what, precisely, Beyond Baroque is. It is a literary arts center, one that contains a theatre, an art gallery and meeting rooms within its rooms, and gardens outside. It is a welcoming, multigenerational nexus for artists who value the variety and musicality of language — poets, yes, but also short story writers, essayists, songwriters, novelists, playwrights, filmmakers, photographers and visual artists who create their own kind of language. In a culture that tends to compartmentalize artists, Beyond Baroque has since its 1968 founding encouraged artists to fluidly mix mediums and genres.
It is also home to a bookstore, though that is not its raison d’etre. Cervenka worked there part-time in 1976 while living upstairs and learning typesetting under the auspices of a CERT government job-training program, shortly after she moved to L.A. from Florida. It was there that she found her confidence and famously met Doe, at a poetry workshop; they formed their groundbreaking band X the following year. Beyond Baroque, she declares, provided “a foundation that gave me a sense of writerly legitimacy.” If not for that, she would not have met Doe, “there would be no X,” and her life would have traveled different roads.
“I loved working there — the biggest small press library in the world,” she enthused during a recent interview. “Just looking at these books that were just living history — the most incredible tiny chapbooks from the 1960s that people had made, and they had the only copy of, probably, or one of the only. It was before the internet, when people had to make their own poetry books. No one was going to publish those people. Publishing a book was a huge deal, just like making a record was a huge deal.”
Cervenka and Doe both recall a creative community guided by the likes of Kate Braverman, Wanda Coleman, Jack Grapes, Bill Mohr, Santa Monica poet (and Charles Bukowski partner) FrancEyE, and Jim Krusoe, whom Cervenka cites as her biggest influence. “I listened to everything he said. I worked with him at Beyond Baroque,
and to this day I love him; I think he’s
a great teacher.”
By the mid-1980s, X had shaken up punk with a handful of acclaimed albums, and poets, punks, and artists from varied avenues were fervidly exploring and experimenting with new forms. Cervenka and Doe married, then divorced. In 1987, Cervenka and Mortensen married (and divorced a decade later; son Henry, also a writer and actor, lives in Venice). Mortensen by then was a regular attendee of Beyond Baroque’s storied Wednesday night poetry workshops, inspired by the likes of moderator Bob Flanagan and late poet Scott Wannberg. It was here, 25 years ago, that he wrote “Hillside”: “We underestimate damage/ done to the sky/ when we allow words/ to slip away/ into the clouds.”
From 1983 to 1988, Chris D (Desjardins) and then-wife Julie Christensen fronted their roots-punk band the Divine Horsemen, and mingled at poetry workshops with Cervenka, Doe, Dave Alvin, and Mortensen, among others. Sifting through stream-of-consciousness memories, calling up the names of the Carma Bums, Wannberg, S.A. Griffin, Doug Knott. “They were the poetry squad,” Christensen says. “Wannberg wrote me a poem on a long piece of paper while I was singing jazz.”
On Saturday, Christensen and Chris D each plan to give a reading, in addition to reprising some of their songs. “It’s an incredible poetic entity,” she says. “The things that happen at Beyond Baroque — it’s such a vortex of bohemia that it’s shocking.”
Celebrated L.A. literary voice Mike Sonksen, aka Mike the Poet, started attending readings at Beyond Baroque while a UCLA student in 1993, though he didn’t dare to share any of his poetry in this “larger than life” space until 2002.
“These memories in my early twenties were impressionable, to say the least, and gave me the courage and inspiration to start trekking around the city to read my own work,” he recounts in an essay for Beyond Baroque’s forthcoming 50th anniversary anthology. “When I started teaching high school in 2008, Beyond Baroque became the place I would take my students to hear poets and have them read for their first time in public outside of my class. … Beyond Baroque has been a critical player in my involvement in Los Angeles poetry.”
As much as it has nurtured successive generations of artists, Beyond Baroque’s independence is equal cause for celebration — as is its survival. Saturday’s benefit will also include a live and silent auction featuring art by Shepard Fairey, Gronk, George Herms, Raymond Pettibon, Ed Ruscha, and Francisco Toledo, among others, as well as “rare literary material” from the center’s expansive archive.
The gala will be the splashiest in 10 days of celebrations that kick off tonight, Nov. 8, with the world premiere of Peter Fitzgerald Adams’ documentary “Beyond Mr. Smith,” about Beyond Baroque founder George Drury Smith (who was later, during the 1970s and ’80s, The Argonaut’s associate publisher). The screening will be followed by a discussion between Smith, Cervenka, and Beyond Baroque Artistic Director Jim Krusoe.
Next Friday, Nov. 16, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti will honor the center with a special proclamation from City Hall. That day will also mark the launch of the free, three-day Southern California Poetry Festival, with participants including Will Alexander, Poet Laureate of California Dana Gioia, Kimiko Hahn, Morgan Parker, Vanessa Angélica Villarreal, and Ilya Kaminsky, among others.
“Beyond Baroque can’t be overestimated,” Cervenka says. “Fifty years is insanely long for anything.” Citing a long list of galleries and nightclubs shuttered since she was living upstairs reading Bukowski and John Fante, she points to declines in arts funding, fragmented creative communities, the “politically horrifying” national landscape, and champions the essential value of a grassroots, non-corporate literary arts center.
“We need to keep these things alive,” she insists. “If there’s no past, then there’s nothing to hang onto; no place to go and say, ‘This is meaningful, this is for people.’ Beyond Baroque is one of the only things left.”
The Beyond Gala: Celebrating 50 Years of Beyond Baroque is from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Saturday (Nov. 10) in the in the Venice Arts Plaza & Gardens at 681 Venice Blvd., Venice. Tickets start at $50. Call (310) 822-3006 or visit beyondbaroque.org.