My reading at Village Books in Pacific Palisades (on June 14) is something I will never forget. The ambience of this bookstore was comfortable and cozy, just the kind of small independent venue that we desperately need to support. The selection of books was wide-ranging and topnotch, including one of the best contemporary poetry sections I’ve seen.
In addition to the great literature and the delightful atmosphere, Village Books is one of the town’s centers of culture, untainted by the metallic taste inside corporate fortresses like Borders and Barnes & Noble. The humble, hand-written ‘wash-board’ marquee on the sidewalk lists events for most weekday nights, one of which currently was my reading. It was a thrill to see my name on the marquee in Gaia-friendly blue-green letters.
The woman who runs the Moonday Poetry Series, Alice Pero, did a wonderful job greeting me and orchestrating the crowd. About thirty people packed into the elfin bookstore. Despite the cramped quarters, they all seemed at ease and susceptible to laughter. Some of them stood for over an hour as the night proceeded, with nary a complaint, their eyes closed as they jazzed on the untamed words.
I would hear many of them read a poem for open-mike. I was impressed and moved not only by the quality, but also the honesty of these brave souls, who revealed sensitive life issues, some for the first time, to a room that contained many strangers.
And yet the general aura was one of acceptance and welcome to all. The chemistry and synergy felt very special. I vocalized this when it came my turn to read. There aren’t many places left in the urban streetscape where you can find this level of giving and receiving, not within an ephemeral group of people, who lack a common affiliation and come from many different backgrounds. Joined only by their love of poetry, the group seemed as free as language itself.
Maybe this is a special quality granted by the wonderful atmosphere of Village Books. Perhaps the community of Pacific Palisades, with its beachside ease, also plays a role.
I want to mention now some particularly amazing moments. First of all, one of the gentlemen who rose to read offered a most touching poem. It was titled “Egret,” and it wove a sinuous journey of well-chosen sounds and striking metaphors. At one point, the egret’s neck was likened to the arm of the poet’s lost wife, visiting him in a dream, touching him mystically. I was thoroughly moved by this writer's bittersweet longing.
The egret was a gift among many. For a good portion of the night, people in the audience revealed much. The work ranged from light and funny to dark and tempestuous. In between were sad and yet lovely ballads, many styles, offered to loved ones gone. I felt, sometimes, as if we were in a sacred place together, transported out of modern city into an Oracle’s grove.
Another thing to mention: As Alice Pero read her poem to the group, Tom Hanks and his son started to walk into the store! When they saw the unexpected crowd, they waved to the owner Katie O’Laughlin (who waved back) and walked on. As a semi-hermit from Maine who spends a lot of his time in the woods, this was a strange and wondrous moment for me. Of course, no one else in the room seemed even slightly fazed.
Finally, I was not the only featured poet. I was paired with William Archila, who read first. His voice was immediately sonorous with various emotions, some kind, some deep, some wise, some reflecting the painful journey of his life as it moved away yet danced distantly with his home country El Salvador.
At one point, with a hint of wistful tone, he quoted Czeslaw Milosz: “language is the only homeland.” El Salvador, of course, has suffered greatly over the last few decades, and though Archila did not mention it specifically, I will add here that the United States, through the CIA and other foreign-policy thugs, greatly contributed to that suffering; for instance, by supporting dictators instead of allowing the people to democratically choose. The result was oppression by death squad, with all the horrible torture that implies.
Archila said nothing of this. Though his poems, redolent with layers of passion, made the audience feel many things, from great love to moments of horror. Sitting and listening to him, I realized how honored I was to be featured alongside this incredible man.
To make it even more special, he announced, as humbly as anyone could (yet clearly happy and deservedly so) that his book, The Art of Exile, had just won the International Latino Book Award.
So there I was, reading alongside the winner of the International Latino Book Award. Tom Hanks had walked by, and I was sharing a wonderful night with strangers who had somehow captured a piece of my heart.
I managed to sell some copies of my last two chapbooks (“Gordian Butterflies” and the new one “Cantabile of Whims”). With this burst of profit, I bought a couple poetry books I’ve wanted for a while: Lyn Lyfshin’s Cold Comfort and the anthology Chaos of Angels by Word Walker Press. which deals with addiction, drugs, utter despair and transformative hope.
I also bought Archila’s The Art of Exile. To my great regret, in hindsight, I did not get him to sign it. Finally, I traded my chapbooks with Alice Pero for a copy of her poetry book Thawed Stars. I did all right!!
A fantastic night it was. Yet by the end, being an introvert, I found myself eager to go home and rest, which required a lengthy battle with LA’s mean streets (yet how exciting to curve along fabled Sunset Boulevard!).