Pizza, Poetry, and punk rock came together to form a reading that, in summary, sounds vaguely like a bad 80’s movie, but actually turned out to be one of the best readings I’ve ever been to, let alone read at.
The night was hosted by Pizza Supreme in West Covina, which might just become a go-to spot for literary officianados. The reading was hosted by Jeffrey Graessley, who led the night with the kind of tipsy, casual exuberance that was just right for the mood.
Michaelsun Knapp opened with his trademarked “Grass Angel” poem and followed with a few crowd-pleasing poems that combine a wry, comical voice with truly poignant lines and strong, resonant final lines. Despite having frequently read around the San Gabriel Valley, this was Michaelsun’s first time reading as a co-feature. This was not evident, however, as he handled himself like an old pro and let the scotch-soaked profanity roll off his tongue like milk and honey pours from the heavens.
The next reader, Scott Creley, shuffled into the stage and muttered into the microphone. He opened with what appeared to be a set of vocal warm-ups (despite the fact that he read in a sonorous monotone), and then followed with a set of poems that seemed to be set entirely in Keatsian grave yards populated by deceased women. He closed with a poem that seemed to repeat the phrase “good bye” with various random objects inserted at the end. Either that or “good night” (I’d honestly stopped paying attention). Eventually he staggered off stage, seemingly unaware of where he was or how he’d gotten there.
John Brantingham, Poppa Brantingham to some, Mmmm Daddy to others, took the stage next, and read poems from Mediterranian Garden and East of Los Angeles. Brantingham always reads with impact and energy, and this night was not an exception (see the accompanying photos that reveal an almost maniacal glee). Poems like “Ah, That the World Could Be L.A.” deal with concepts like the Crusades with easy humor while simultaneously turning the poem to make the supposed shallowness of Los Angeles seem like a boon to its inhabitants. Brantingham’s poem “Los Angeles”, in which his narrator pays homage to “King Smog” in lyrical prayer-like lines, is one of my favorites, and it fit the poignant-yet-festive end-of-summer filled-with-hyphens mood of the reading perfectly.
Roy Anthony Shabla followed Brantingham, and head read from his chapbook casa la reina. Shabla doles out spectral imagery in minimalist lines. His poetry is high impact, and uses short lines to evoke a landscape where the supernatural and divine drifts between what initially seems to be the ephemera of daily life.
Lines like “even a few lines/ can keep the/ wolf from the whore” are followed by “maybe a shadow/ passes but/ not the moon/ not the stars.”
to craft a dreamlike mood that was perfect as the center of the reading. Shabla has an excellent reading voice, and his poetry completely mesmerized an audience that was otherwise large and joyously rowdy.
Jo Scott-Coe read from her book “Teacher at Point Blank”, a haunting book of non-fiction that syncopates with the rhythm of prose-poetry as it confronts the industrialized conditions of modern education. Her reading style perfectly fit her work, capturing the cold facts that edge the almost hysterical minutia that make up the environment of a school lunch room. Edgy lines like –
“This is the suburbs. This is the inner city. This is the inner city inside the suburbs.”
were supported by Scott-Coe’s tight language and a litany of personal experience. Her selection closed with the haunting line –
“Even the best students have learned to practice orphanhood and homelessness. Even you.”
Closing out the readers was Michael Torres, whose book The Beautiful Distraction is available for pre-order from Finishing Line Press. Torres read a short, scintillating set with the verve and focus of a spoken word performer without losing any of the detail and impact of a more traditional writing style.
Torres read poems that were perfect for the end of our hot Southern California summer in the San Gabriel Valley. One poem that stood out particular described how the narrator took a bike ride and ran into a younger version of himself, and then kept riding hoping to meet other versions of himself. The version fresh out of highschool, the version before the mounting worries of adulthood and all the accompanying existential angst.
Torres’s poems perfectly described the feeling this reading instilled in me, a sense of nostalgia twining with exuberance, the almost indefinable vitality and longing that drifts through the hot summer valley on nights like these. This is the best reading I’ve been to in years, and I can’t wait for the next reading in a pizza place.
Lloyd Aquino loved the reading as well, and he generously granted us permission to repost a poem of his inspired by the night.
According to the math, this happens one in seventeen times.
This time, the band played tributes to teen moms and circle jerks,
consecutively not concurrently. A candy machine was involved.
This had never happened before in all of recorded history.
One in five poetry readings ends in multiple acts of hugging.
One in six ends in regret that has nothing to do with alcohol.
One in seven begins with someone losing their innocence.
One in two involves the song “Kumbaya.”
One in every thousand poetry readings, a rapture happens,
and those of us left behind auction off wallets, jewelry, the odd sex toy.
Someone speaks too fast and someone else overbids, usually
on the odd sex toy. The last rapture happened in Rancho Cucamonga,
and one lucky sinner got an ivory-handle switchblade for a buck-fifty
and an old condom.
One in twenty-five poetry readings will include the loss of a limb.
One in two poetry readings, someone makes a drunken confession.
This usually has something to do with statutes of limitation or else
the real reason behind the self-portrait tattoo on one’s, well, you know.
One in two poetry readings, the poet has a sobering realization.
Half the time, it happens in the middle of a poem about casual sex,
the other half in the middle of a piece about that trip to Thailand.
And it always has to do with the poet’s real sexual orientation.
One in three poetry readings occurs in the poet’s natural habitat.
Picture dim lights stuttering Bukowski in Morse code, uncomfortable
chairs, the smell of a microphone’s frayed wiring and coffee beans.
Hand-woven scarves and horn-rimmed glasses are ubiquitous.
No poetry reading ever involves un-ironic finger-snapping.
One in four readings, someone un-ironically invokes Ginsberg’s “Howl.”
One in eleven, someone un-ironically invokes Neruda.
One in a million, someone un-ironically invokes the singer Jewel.
One in fifty poetry readings features a poet who loves himself
a little too much, with the resulting spectacle making all save one
in the audience a little too uncomfortable because public lewdness
is a near-universal taboo. He compliments himself after every piece
and gazes up at heaven wrapped in fluorescent lighting.
Three poems in, he’s forgotten that anyone’s there listening,
and two poems later, everyone else has forgotten, too.
Once every fifty readings, the poet touches him- or herself
and the audience is left to wonder if it’s all part of the show.
One in one-point-three-three-three-to-infinity features a poet
who loathes everything he’s ever written and is really only there
because self-flagellation means too much of a time commitment.
One in four readings, everyone is touched.
One in twenty readings, everyone is touched.
On average, every poetry reading births eleven-point-seven new poems.
Ten-point-four of them are much, much better than this one.