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Lynne Bronstein

Lynne Bronstein's Venice Poems

Kate Braverman

Wanda Coleman

John Kertisz

Philomene Long Thomas and John Thomas

The Beats: An Existential Comedy

Prose and Poetry by Philomene and John

Last Days of John Thomas

My Philomene

Illuminating the Wasteland

Majid Naficy

Van Gogh's Ear

Laureate at Ceremony

Stuart Z. Perkoff

John O'Kane

Clair Horner

Eavesdropping on the Boardwalk
by Anne Alexander

Venice Poems

Zendik poem:
Buck-or-Two Blues Rap

Gas House beat HQ


In Venice CA








The Ballad of Reading Jail:

an incomplete history of two years of poetry in Venice
by Lynne Bronstein
Free Venice Beachhead June 1980 #126

Would you like to attend a poetry reading?

Ask most people that question and you’ll have asked them to winter in Lapland. Aren’t poetry readings those dainty affairs that take place in drawing rooms or gardens with tea and cookies and stiff well-dressed people quietly applauding a few pastel-colored sonnets and one or two impassioned villanelles? Aren’t poets those gals, alleged boozers and suicidal recluses whom we couldn’t stand to read in school? Hail to thee blithe spirit, it was the schooner Hesperus the moon was a golden galleon tomorrow and tomorrow and do not go gentle into that whaddya call it? You mean that stuff could be as diverting an evening as a baseball game? Why did 14 poets get together once on a foggy night in a cold basement room at the Venice Pavilion and read to each other for three hours? And why are poets like them now reading to actual audiences at an art gallery that used to be a jail?

You could call it the most insane and unlikely optimism of our times but the series that was born on that chilly June night and continues at the Venice Jail is two years old this month. During these two years more than a hundred poets have appeared in ten sets of programs, doing what poet John Thomas calls “one of the two most peculiar human activities” - reading their opinions, visions, fantasies, and life stories, set in musical language, out loud to surprisingly rapt listeners. The other peculiar human activity is the writing of poetry.)


Poetry in Venice of America has a history as long as the city itself. Abbot Kinney envisioned his Venice as a center for all the fine arts, and some barnstorming poets and lecturers of the early 1900s stopped off to contribute to the cultural festivity of those days. In the 1950s Venice had its own Beat Poetry scene with readings at such coffee houses as the Gas House and the Venice West Café. (L.A.’s Finest closed down the Gas House citing among other things the noisiness of whatever went on in there.) Poetry readings have come and gone at many Venice locations, the Comeback Inn, the Temple of Man, Figtree’s among them. The best-known center for literary activities anywhere in the Los Angeles area is the Beyond Baroque Foundation, started in 1968 as a storefront gallery, now a non-profit government-sponsored corporation housed in the old Venice City Hall.

Some two and a half years ago, a number of us who read regularly but never long enough (5 minutes being the time limit) in Beyond Baroque’s Friday evening open readings, mused about an alternative. Steve Goldman, a Venice poet whose erudite and often metric monologues on God, Jewishness, urban angst and intellectual problems were virtually ripping the open reading format at the seams scouted around for a place to hold readings of his own. “I wanted,” said Steve, “to hear at length a number of good people who it seemed were unlikely to get a chance to read at length at Beyond Baroque.” The Venice Pavilion, a far cry from Kinney’s original culture palace with its brick facades and athletic areas, was the site finally selected. That first reading took place June 5th, 1978 and somewhere in Venice there’s a guy who had his tape recorder running to get it all down. I can’t remember ever hearing so much exciting wordcraft in a single evening. For the record the poets were: Scott Wannberg, Garrett Hawkins, myself, Dennis Holt, Frances Dean Smith, Steve Goldman, R. E. Maxson, Jerry Harrison, Mardell Martinez, Nick Varljen, Eloise Klein Healy, Nikki Selditz, Dennis Koch, and Milan Salka.

Diana Spears, a Venice artist who attended as an audience member, recalls that evening in a poem of her own:

There is something
About hearing poets read
That makes me envious
Their words breathe
Fire into my mouth
That makes by belly warm
And long for birthing
I spread my legs
And echoes of the ancients
Pour out.


That first summer, our cadre of 14 provided each other with listeners as we staged reading after reading up against Pavilion’s schedule conflicts - like meetings that took over “our” room, Shakespeare play rehearsals (poets vs. the Bard - divide and conquer?), legal holidays (Steve switched the readings from Mondays to Tuesdays to avoid this) and occasional incidents of beachfront violence. Despite the high quality of the presentations, few knew anything was happening down beyond the Bocce Court. And although some of us enjoyed the thrill of hearing actual waves behind the gentle voice of a young woman reading Wallace Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West” (“She sang beyond the genius of the sea”), it was becoming apparent that the Pavilion was for us only a lifeboat awash in a sea of problems. We had to get on dry land or find a bigger boat.

At this point (early 1979) Steve joined forces with two area poets, Liza Jane Braude and Velene Campbell Keslar. Velene hit upon the converted police station-jail which had been housing SPARC for the previous year, as the new location for the “Venice Poetry Readings” as they were then called. The main gallery room had once been the main holding tank and many of the cells were still there. But the SPARC crew had painted them white, works of art came and went on the white-washed walls, the gallery was long and sufficiently wide enough for six folding seats a row plus aisle space. The Venice Poetry Readings became the Venice Jail Readings. Liza and Velene designed a flyer for the first Jail-held series, decorated with a drawing of a risen phoenix.

Is it true them artists are all of them crazy?

Group enterprises seldom hold together as solidly as gelatin though they shake just as much. Steve Goldman’s life took him down a different path and he left the series in the summer of 1979. At that time I because an organizer along with Jennifer Macchiarella and Israel Halpern who were among the first poets to read at the Jail. We continued the format Steve had devised; two poets reading per evening with an intermission, poets reading in separate blocks or trading off (their choice), “smorgasbord” readings of brief segments of their work by all the poets in each series at the beginning and end of each eight-week series. We collected donations to pay a SPARC staffer to turn out the lights for us but SPARC in a most generous gesture, waived our paying them as long as we did our own maintenance. This enable us to collect donations for the poets instead.

We picked out artwork for our flyers - an Eskimo drawing of caribou, a Max Ernst fantasy etching, an Art Nouveau drawing of fairies, printed on bright poster paper, electric blue, soft blue, bone, green, yellow, inscribed with such slogans as “Paste this on your refrigerator.” Publications like the L. A. Times and the Reader began to list our events. People talked about us. The old holding tank was jammed for readings by New York renegade satirist Michael Silverblatt and Venice Poetry Workshop alumni like Stuart Lishan, Kita Shantiris, and Joe Safdie. Kita sang and performed a playlet with a professional actor. Liza Braude sang songs with guitar and a cappella. Barry Simons, a living legend in Venice poetry circles, strummed acoustic guitar punk, read with the Jailhouse lights turned off and locked himself inside one of the cells - (“Barry, what are you doing in there?” “I’m writing! Leave me alone!”) Michael C. Ford, Richard Merlin, and Monica Gayle read from Ford’s satire on 1940s radio plays. Jack Grapes showed us a beautifully bound book of his own verse, declared it was awful, threw it on the floor, and read form another equally professional-looking bindery job. Linda Macaluso made her debut as a reader of her own poems, playing cassette tapes of her favorite songs between poems while her co-reader S. Diane Bogus set up a stand of her self-published books in the back of the room.

In spite of colorful antics such as these, we’ve never had a really rough moment at the Jail. We’re still in Venice, at 685 Venice Blvd. And local gangs who know the buildings only as the jail it was have left their black zigzagged calling cards on the walls. A few kids on angel dust have wandered in and out but mostly it’s been quiet on Tuesday evenings and except when the fire station on the corner sends out an engine or a car screeches to a halt on the street, all you can hear is the age-old sound of people putting words together to tell stories of their lives and ours.

But the question is?

How do you get to read at the Venice Jail? Drop by some Tuesday evening at 7:30 p.m. listen to a reading. We’ve modified the format, offering open nights where any poet can read instead of the eighth-week “smorgasbords”. Read a couple of your poems at one of those readings or give copies of a few of your poems to one of the organizers.

Our commitment is still - although we’ve presented many of Los Angeles’s best-known poets - to present fine unknown poets from all over. Of course we’re in a bit of friendly competition with Beyond Baroque (which happens to be right next to us on the Blvd.) In this age of alleged non-readers and non-writers, more poets and fiction writers want to read than Beyond Baroque alone can handle. It could be said that we play contrapuntal parts of the same melody - Beyond Baroque schedules Diane Wakoski, videotapes of Charles Bukowski and Allen Ginsberg, a night of Love Poems; we schedule Nick Varljen reading his prose work on the reconciliation of science and art, exciting unknown poets like Karen Mimms, and most recently an outrageous Dada night featuring poets reading with backs to the audience and a “heckler” making up his oratory on the spot. Liza and Israel lead Beyond Baroque’s Wednesday night poetry workshop from which some poets in the current series have been culled. Beyond Baroque regulars have been seen in the audience at our readings. So there’s definitely a cross-pollination going on and that’s to everyone’s advantage.

We’ve had male, female, hetero, gay, black, Hispanic, Jewish, Catholic, agnostic, right, left, and middle-wing poets. We do admit to a certain bias in favor of poets with a strong humanistic viewpoint. We’d especially like to get more non-sexist male poets and more third world people. Among our future goals are bilingual and works-in-translation readings.

Until the day when we will hopefully have money from local and/or federal grants, we continue to squeak along on donations and commitment, introducing people who never like it or read it, to poetry, introducing people to poets, poets to each other. Come to think of it, it is a garden party. That is, if you can see the vines creeping through the old jail bars, covering the prisons of nervous human silence with a living green network of words.

The rest is up to you. Like to go to a reading?
(The author expresses gratitude to Steve, Liza, Israel, Velene, Jennifer, SPARC, Eric Ahlberg, Penny, Wallace Stevens, Kenneth Fearing, Diana Spears; and Oscar Wilde (through Luis Galvez) for the title.)



© 2004 - 2012 Pat Hartman
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