Santa Barbara Poet Laureate Melinda Palacio at the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans | Photo: Nancy Harris

I’m on vacation in New Orleans. While it seems crazy to spend the summer in the South, land-locked, during one of the hottest heat waves on record, the truth is New Orleans is prepared for the heat. There is freezing air-conditioning at most places, making all indoor places comfortable, if not chilly. It was so cold at the movie theater where I saw Oppenheimer that I worried I would get a COVID rebound from the chill, not to mention that the movie itself leaves one cold. I noticed a woman leaving the theater who carried a thick, fuzzy blanket. I made a note to myself never to go to a movie theater here in a sleeveless dress.

One place I was grateful for cold air was the Maple Leaf Bar, where I was the featured reader at the Everette Maddox Poetry Series. The Maple Leaf Bar hosts the longest continuously running poetry series in North America. The series started in 1979 and gained popularity around the same time that James Booker, the one-eyed piano virtuoso, frequently played there. Everette Maddox, a well-loved poet, popularized the series until his early death in 1989. It is rumored he lived at the bar and wrote his poetry on bar napkins. The Maple Leaf’s owner, Hank Staples, collected the poems in a paper sack. Most of Everette’s work was published posthumously, and since his passing, Nancy Harris has been running the weekly series that includes a popular open mic.

The Maple Leaf Bar has survived numerous storms, including Hurricane Katrina. I think the pandemic took a bigger toll on the poetry series and bar than Hurricane Katrina. The back patio, where the weekly readings happen, underwent a remodel and complete transformation. Gone are the trees that pointed skyward and provided much-needed shade during the searing summer months. During the pandemic, many poetry readings took place via Zoom. Some series like the Latter Library’s monthly Poetry Buffet in New Orleans, still maintain a part-time Zoom presence. Many of the regulars have gone on to start poetry series of their own.

Poet and publisher of the Maple Leaf Bar’s poetry anthologies and publisher of many of the Maple Leaf regulars John Travis says the 40-year-old Maple Leaf readings have really picked back up now that the COVID pandemic has eased. He adds that the recent surprise performance by Grammy winner Jon Batiste (and friends) is another example of how the bar and series are back in full swing — and thanks to Harris, who keeps the weekly series going.

On the Sunday that I read, the heat index was off the charts across the country. I kept receiving warnings like “Excessive heat in Nola, with daily ‘feels like’ temps as high as 115°F.” The reading was held inside the back piano bar area, instead of the usual outdoor patio. I was relieved because it was the kind of cool that feels just right inside, rather than over-the-top cold air numbing your body.

I started my set with the six poems from Colleen M. Kelly’s Dichotomy of Laundry exhibit that ran in Santa Barbara last month. I shared one of the poems, “Woman,” here. It was nice to see how well the poems work outside of the exhibit.

What I didn’t tell Nancy was that I would be bringing my guitar and playing some of my original songs. This year, I’ve been incorporating more music into my poetry presentations. My songwriting has been inspired by poetry, and I am on a mission to write companion songs for my poems. However, every once in a while, I will surprise myself by writing a piece that was born as a song.

Thanks to the quiet time during the pandemic lockdown, I had a chance to work on my guitar and ukulele playing, and subsequent songwriting. The last time I was featured at the Maple Leaf poetry series, Bird Forgiveness had just been published and it was the summer of 2018, before the pandemic lockdowns. At the time, I had yet to write the Bird Forgiveness theme song. I played some recent songs, including one inspired by How Fire Is a Story, Waiting, my first published poem and full-length poetry collection. I also sold my last copy of the first run of How Fire Is a Story, Waiting. Copies of the second printing should arrive on my doorstep and in bookstores near you this month.

One of the things I love about the Everette Maddox Poetry Series is welcoming the crowd and Nancy Harris’s dedication to poetry. Poetry happens at the Maple Leaf Bar every Sunday rain or shine, or extreme heat.

Back in Santa Barbara, the Poetry Zone takes a break until October. I will be joining the library’s on-the-go van for a poetry reading (I’ll also play a few songs) on August 17 at noon at Shoreline Park.

This week’s poetry connection entry comes from Christopher Buckley, decorated UC Emeritus Professor. He has lived in the Santa Barbara/Montecito area since 1952. He has published 27 books of poetry and received grants/awards from the Guggenheim, the NEA, and Fulbright Foundation, and his work was included in The Best American Poetry, 2021.  He taught at UCSB in English and the College of Creative Studies.

His poem talks about his growing up in Santa Barbara and has a nod to Fiesta events happening this week. Viva la.

Walking Downtown

by Christopher Buckley

Santa Barbara, California

I walk past the Blue Onion

on upper State, the red and blue

neon, deep-fried atmosphere

hovering over the parking slots

beneath that giant ornamental fig;

we backed in our ’56 Bel Air

in 1964 to salute other cruisers

rolling through—our trays of fries

and cherry cokes clipped to driver’s-side

windows rolled 1/2-way down. . . .

Ragged clouds over Otts Department Store,

the high, white Balboa Bldg.—State

and Granada Theatre marquees pulsing

through a grey mid-century light.

Here’s Pelch & Sons, its flyblown window

displaying White Owls, El Productos,

and Dutch Masters—Perry Como’s

crooning “It’s Impossible . . .” on the radio,

old-timers nodded off in chairs

next to the john.

Then, on the corner

of Chapala, the Carrillo Hotel,

my father in the basement with his FM

Easy Listening station, believing

in Montovani, Andre Kostelanetz, and

101 Strings, believing in Goldwater,

Dan Smoot, John Birch and the Junior

Chamber of Commerce—far right

reactionary cant & conspiracy broadcast

into the late hours where no one listens,

where he goes broke, has to sell

and move to Arizona.

And nothing’s

moved me from the corner of State

and De la Guerra as Cisco and Pancho

ride by on palominos in the Fiesta Parade—

I’m 5, holding on to my mother’s hand,

waving my Woolworths’ sombrero

for all I’m worth, knowing next to nothing . . .

I walk down Canon Perdido . . . all of it

drifting out of me like smoke

from dry ice under the cups of

Carnation ice cream melting forever

on the counter at the California Theater,

where, at 11, Fowler, Cooney, Schneider

and I get in for 15¢—where no one

will ever again be as rich

waiting on the curb for his ride

after a Saturday double feature—

5¢ in his pocket and half a box

of Jufyfruits for the life ahead.


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