My east-coast buddy Robert Pinsky’s Americans’ Favorite Poems project had dock workers and Bill Clinton, Air Force enlistees and my mother-in-law telling the world why they loved a work by Robert Frost or Dorothy Parker or Mowlana Jalaluddin Rumi, and then reading that poem aloud, a poem important to their lives. Santa Barbara’s own version of this celebration of poetry-as-life-force energizes the upstairs lounge of the Blue Agave Restaurant, on Cota Street, each month’s third Monday from 5:15 to 6:30 in the evening. Poets and non-poets come to these favorite poems sessions to jest, socialize, and read works by others that mean a lot to them. The shift from the sometimes unskilled self-display that may weary listeners at standard open-mike events gives over at “FAVES” to magnification in the craft and art-power of beloved writers, and this shift works magic, releasing high spirits and deep emotions in a verbal love-fest.
Here’s a taste of the way such sessions go, drawn from January’s meeting. Poet-painter Neal Crosbie (pictured), owner with his wife Gabi of the Blue Agave, started the evening with a poem by the host of the series, Lois Klein, joking that he was knocked out by Lois’s “Braids,” from her newly completed collection A Soldier’s Daughter, because he himself had “a terrible childhood.” The poem, decked out with a pantoum’s soulful repetitions, follows the intimate braiding of a girl’s hair.
Mother’s hands that twirled and gripped my hair, tight against my head no strand escaped or ever slipped.
Next, Sol Morrison (“Sol is Jewish, Morrison Scottish … like a bagel made with oatmeal”) sparked some square-dance moves along with impromptu poet-callings that might guide drivers around the city’s strange new traffic turnabouts. He then read “Routine” by Arthur Guiterman to follow up on the “Braids” poem:
Even Earls must comb their curls And even Kings have underthings.
Not only poems get sounded, you see, but side-flights, whimsies, and personal confessions as well. January’s readings included poems by Yeats, Neruda, and Merwin along with Victoria White’s ode to the Hulk, with its wishes that the hero could live next door and respond to the codeword “Help!” Carol DeCanio recited a poem about women who must give birth in prison, while Mary Brown dipped into the first celebrated book of poetry to emerge from the Iraq disaster, Here, Bullet by Brian Turner, an offering in “a language made of blood.”
Poems by Billy Collins amused us, Bill Gorley’s anecdotes about listening to Langston Hughes perform at the University of Kansas in 1964 moved us, and in “The Whistler” by Mary Oliver, chosen by Sarajane Woolf as her “fave,” a long-time lover discovers something she never knew about her partner: By God, she whistles!
Janine Pourroy told me that the emotional moment of reading a poem at her recently deceased father’s memorial service could never have been managed without the practice offered at FAVES. For many readers, in fact, speaking out a poem important to them before an engaged audience counted as a first-time experience. Here’s the opening sequence of the Jane Kenyon poem that Janine chose to celebrate her father’s days among us:
Let the light of late afternoon shine through chinks in the barn, moving up the bales as the sun moves down. Let the cricket take up chafing as a woman takes up her needles and her yarn. Let evening come.
Readers gather for the next FAVES at the Blue Agave Monday, February� 20. For such and other poetry matters, have yourself a browse at sbpoetry.net.