Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Near and Far Sided


Sometimes I wonder if cartoonist Gary Larson ever lived in Portland. Some of the Far Side images he draws seem to appear in this town. I see them everywhere. If not at bus stops, on the sidewalks, in the grocery stores, and most definitely in the pubs, bars, and coffeehouses so abundant here.
Last night I took the 10 minute drive from my home to Three Friends Coffeehouse to see the weekly Monday evening program and try out a couple of new poems during the open mic they always have. Gary Larson would have loved this audience. Just enough one-of-a-kind folks to give him material for another year. But then that's Portland. Where else can you get two hours of poetry, original music, and a few inexplicable other "performances" for very little cash?
I arrived at 7:00 just in time to catch Robert Griggs, an 82 year old former Beat poet who has called Oregon his home for many years. Griggs read for about 20 minutes, saying at one point," Here's a poem I wrote 50 or 60 years ago. I tried to throw it away two or three times, but it just kept coming back." He was in good form. As is the custom, he was followed by two of his friends who offered very different styles. One read poetry, actually sonnets all based on Aztec culture and the other read mostly anit-war rants that pumped up the crowd and set the tone for the open mic that followed.
I was too casual and almost missed the sign up because I ran into a poet friend of mine, Shawn. He had just returned from Japan, where his wife is from, and recounted a riveting tale to me of driving on the coast before the tsunami hit. Shawn said that he saw the ocean recede and there seemed to be hundreds of black pointy things left behind. Sea urchins. By the time I responded to this I noticed the open mic was about to start and ran to see the sign up list. Only #5 was left. The first two readers left a bit to be desired. The energy was good, but the material wasn't either funny or profound. Next came a wiry artsy looking woman in her 60s who announced that she hadn't been her in about a year but tonight she was going to do something she'd been thinking about for a long time. That turned out to be singing. Her offering began just fine; a little verse about dreaming and dreamers. She then launched into what can best be described as a kind of folksy scat singing. The time limit for the open mic is 7 minutes. After about 8 minutes of her repetitious tune, Melissa, the woman who runs the events there just started clapping. Everyone followed suit. The woman emerged from her trance, mumbled something like someone just awakened by an alarm clock and then accepted the applause of relief. Glad I didn't have to follow that. By the time I read my two poems and returned to chat with Shawn for a moment, I realized I'd had enough and slipped out the back door. One of my poems was about a recent tragedy in Amish country where a family of 7 lost four of their children when their buggy overturned in a rain-swollen creek. As I was getting up to leave, one of the more vocal patrons asked, "You're not Mormon, are you?"
I love this place. It's like a good poem: unpredictable, emotional, puzzling, satisfying.
Oh Yeah, I'm going to read those two poems I tried on that crowd tomorrow night at a more formal reading. We'll see how that goes. Depending on the reaction, one or both of those pieces could end up here.

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