This weekend’s Southern California Poetry Festival caps Beyond Baroque’s 50th anniversary celebration and exalts poetry in its many forms
By Bliss Bowen
Last week a bohemian gala celebrated the 50th anniversary of Beyond Baroque, a Venice Boulevard anchor of greater LA’s literary community that has been an invaluable resource for writers, artists, musicians, and lovers of language since George Drury Smith opened its doors in 1968. Actor/writer Viggo Mortensen, poet-in-residence Will Alexander, John Doe and Exene Cervenka of X, venerated poet and World Stage co-founder Kamau Daáood, and Chris D (Desjardins) and Julie Christensen of the reunited Divine Horsemen performed at the multigenerational gathering last Saturday. It was a natural occasion for reflection on Beyond Baroque’s significance, past and present.
“As you go along the river of poetry you come to certain destinations in your travels; and Beyond Baroque has been a central destination because of its uniqueness in planetary culture, in writing,” says Alexander, who was honored at the gala with a Lifetime Achievement Award and who will open this weekend’s Southern California Poetry Festival, the three-day culmination of Beyond Baroque’s anniversary celebration.
“Centers dedicated to the art of writing are incredibly rare. I’ve done some work with the Poetry Project in Manhattan, the Woodland Pattern [Book Center] in Milwaukee, and the Poetry Foundation in Chicago; they all have purity of intent, but none have the direct energy that I found at Beyond Baroque. It has a unique energy that’s in its own dimension, where it doesn’t have to propagate itself via some external understanding of who it is. It knows itself.”
Daáood, who rendered “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” with Doors drummer John Densmore at the gala, was introduced to Beyond Baroque by the late Wanda Coleman in the 1970s. “It broadened my scope,” the LA native says, by introducing him to people he wouldn’t normally have met. Now 68 and highly esteemed for his jazz-infused poetry, he credits the center with facilitating community connections by providing platforms for voices otherwise rarely heard.
“Large supported institutions are one thing,” Daáood observes in his low rumble. “But street culture, counterculture, all the way from the Beats and the hippies and then even multicultural Los Angeles — it has given a lot of us an opportunity to live outside our individual communities, to move in larger circles, and to get those kinds of discourses going. When we hear each other, it opens the door to understand each other and know each other and ourselves better.”
Those communities have linked at various junctures across LA’s dynamic cultural landscape. Christensen, an acclaimed singer-songwriter and self-described “unschooled poet,” recalls reading her dreams at events in the ’80s at the invitation of Mortensen and the late Tracy Phelan, when punks and poets were rubbing shoulders and satellite literary communities “were all kind of dancing around” Beyond Baroque, including the Desk Squad and the Punk Hostage circle. Beyond Baroque, she says, “was the big magilla” to which they all aspired.
California State Poet Laureate Dana Gioia, who served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009 and now teaches at USC, echoes Daáood as he singles out Beyond Baroque from a list of national poetry venues.
“YMHA in New York, the Folger Library in Washington, D.C., the Poetry Center of San Francisco — these venues are all institutional,” he says. “Poetry is part of a larger academic enterprise. Beyond Baroque is unique in that it comes out of bohemia. It’s an institution created by artists to serve their own community.”
That inevitably informs the substance and flavor of the poetry produced.
This weekend’s festival fittingly opens with Alexander. The prolific poet and essayist will read and hear his cosmically themed work discussed by a panel comprised of poet Anne Waldman, editor Janice Lee and radio host Justin Desmangles. It naturally coincides with his residency. “I’m basically a poetic ambassador,” he explains, doing outreach to other communities.
Community (often interwoven with identity) is a recurring theme for several poets reading Saturday, including “There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé” author Morgan Parker, Kimiko Hahn and Vanessa Villareal, who will each introduce new work commissioned for the festival on the theme of “Writing the Future.” That afternoon a group of notable Beyond Baroque alumni — including Laurel Ann Bogen, Amy Gerstler, Carma Bums alum S.A. Griffin, Suzanne Lummis, and Bill Mohr — will convene for a retrospective discussion of Beyond Baroque’s literary impact, called “ReVerse”; and three poets each from Kaya Press, Red Hen Press, and Jack Jones Literary Arts will also read — showcasing more of the satellite communities that have orbited Beyond Baroque over the last five decades.
Rather than read from his own books, Gioia plans to honor incarcerated poet Mike Owens and England-based American Anne Stevenson, among others, by reading their contributions to “The Best American Poetry of 2018,” a recently published anthology he edited. (“I tried very consciously to reflect the best work from every community — and by community, I mean style, cultural group, region, and tradition,” he says.) Gioia will be joined by Brendan Constantine, Mandy Kahn, Ilya Kaminsky, and Aaron Poochigian, among others. Their session will close out the festival Sunday evening.
“I will be there in the service of poetry,” Gioia says. “American poetry is growing dynamically right now. Places like Beyond Baroque are the ones who are changing the art. American poetry is growing because it’s been able to escape from the universities.
“I don’t believe the university is bad,” the USC professor elaborates. “But I do believe it’s bad when the art only exists in the university.”
Gioia, a trained musician before he committed himself to poetry, recently collaborated with jazz pianist Helen Sung on her album “Sung With Words.” It’s an elegant mixing of mediums that represents one of several ways in which poetry is regaining its voice in the public commons, and perhaps securing its future as a cultural force.
“Poetry is the fastest growing art form in the United States,” Gioia says. “The number of readers of poetry in the US has grown by 76 percent in the past five years. … It’s almost the only art form that has tremendous growth among the young. When you look at some of the root causes, it’s because they got poetry out of the university. So all of these people saying poetry is dying, that nobody reads poetry — when you make poetry accessible to the common person, the audience comes back.”
The Southern California Poetry Festival happens Friday, Nov. 16, through Sunday, Nov. 18 at Beyond Baroque, 681 Venice Blvd., Venice. Admission is free but RSVPs and early arrivals are encouraged. For tickets and schedule details, visit scpoetryfest.com or beyondbaroque.org.