Live Poets Society
From the cafes, bars and lavatory walls, to the universities, workshops and fine arts festivals, poets in Atlanta constitute a community that crosses all demographic boundaries, tastes and levels of talent.
Atlanta Magazine | November 1993
Randy Blazak is a poet. A philosopher and a prophet. An angry young vegetarian who craves chicken fingers, leaves his parking tickets on other people’s windshields, and wants to be president. A longhaired, goateed Czechoslovakian “Psycho Chick Magnet” of the Poncey-Highland cafe set, jazz and java junkie, spontaneous versifier of urban life and neo-beat bohemian arts guerrilla who, tonight, is on a mission.
It’s the original poetry pub crawl.
Armed with pad and pencil, Blazak is walking from pub to pub along North Highland Avenue. At each tavern he will slam a beer, write a “snapshot” poem about the scene, then rise in front of unsuspecting strangers and say it. Shout it. Belly up to the bar and howl from the gut, if necessary, and get drunk on the nectar of verse.
By about the seventh bar, Randy’s handwriting will grovel across the page like a palsied worm because Randy is just plain drunk. But in the meantime, he and two fellow poets quaff the elixir of their art, stalking the sidewalk like mercenaries for Apollo, god of cool ideas.
The poets head for Moe’s & Joe’s, a corner tap full of college students. Within minutes, they are booed and physically tossed out in the street. Frankly, Blazak had figured the kids would be hip.
At the subterranean Highland Tap, yuppies are sipping martinis and chatting when this slouching, half-drunk maniac—the anti-yuppie—stands up and begins to recite. And before he and the other two poets leave, they are taking bows on top of the bar. An unexpected conquest, and then they are gone, up the stairs to street level, rambling into the night. Atkins Park. Neighbor’s Pub. Limerick Junction.
At Taco Mac, the folks are swilling pitchers and watching a Bulls game as Blazak knocks back a brew and then writes a love poem to Michael Jordan, or, actually, to Michael Jordan’s paycheck.
At Dark Horse Tavern, a bartender tries to stop the rampaging bards when, shortly, Blazak is face-to-face with the irate keep. No, really, Randy tells him, it’s cool. Poetry is good, man. Poetry is life!
And just before Randy is booted, once again, onto the cold, hard street:
“YOU MUST HAVE HAD A BAD EXPERIENCE WITH POETRY IN SCHOOL!”
SADLY, THERE MAY BE no practical reason why bartenders or anyone else should be much concerned with poetry here in the Age of Information. As the noise level continues to rise at our little technological cocktail party, nothing seems more incongruous with today’s world, which presently turns once every 30 minutes, unless one turns it off.
Yet poetry, the original way in which humans preserved information—by giving language rhythm and rhyme to make it easy to remember—continues to survive, if in no other way than as cultural enigma: at once a dying art form and a formal art that can never die.
“Actually, poetry is the ideal art form for the modern world. It’s compact, direct and immediate,” says Dan Veach, local poet and co-director of Poetry Atlanta, a newsletter of live Iiterary happenings. “There are millions of poets out there, but they just don’t admit it.” Accordingly, writing, if not reading poetry, may be more popular than ever.
“I wish we had as many subscribers as we had poets,” says Stanley Lindberg, editor of the The Georgia Review, which receives up to 15,000 poetry submissions a year. Information media such as television and radio, the traditional nemesis of literary arts, increasingly program poetry readings. Coffeehouse readings, harking back to the Kerouac-Ginsberg beat generation, are back in style. Former poet laureate Joseph Brodsky has even suggested placing poetry chapbooks in grocery store checkout lines.
From the cafes, bars and lavatory walls, to the universities, workshops and arts festivals, poets in Atlanta constitute a community that is no less identifiable than city softball leagues, crossing all demographic boundaries, tastes and levels of talent. They versify alone and in groups, musing over Roman myths and cockroaches, war, sex, underwear and madness, at the kitchen table and in boardrooms, while waiting for the oil to be changed or in a frisson over absent love. They practice their poetry as public confession, as dramatic performance, as politics and, occasionally, as seamless art.
As a result of this pop-heroic quest for what Veach calls a bit of spiritual breathing space—a kind of scavenger hunt for civility, identity and validation—The Poet today assumes seemingly infinite incarnations.
“AN ARTIST HAS TO express herself.”
She says this, appropriately enough, just after the biker chick currently on stage at Atlanta’s Clermont Lounge has struck a match and, with small fanfare, set her bare nipples on fire.
“I started writing poetry because I felt like I was dying in here. Spiritually dying,” she says, and swirls the straw a half turn in her vodka and mineral water.
Her real name is Anita Rae Strange, and she has danced at the Clermont for 15 years. Some years back, Anita straightened her hair and died it blond. As nude dancers go, “Blondie” is something of an Atlanta institution.
She started writing poems about five years ago. Originally, Blondie read them between band sets at the Clermont, or to some of the Georgia Tech boys she used to date. Then she started reading at the local bars and coffeehouses in Little Five Points and Virginia-Highland, and recently she took a course in fiction at Emory University.
Last year, when Atlanta photographer Marilyn Suriani Futterman went on Sally Jessy Raphael to discuss her book on the lives of strippers, she took Blondie with her. Sally Jessy read the quintessential Blondie ode, “The Late Night Revue,” on the air.
But as the light of recognition is quickly eclipsed, Blondie grouses at her current predicament. Ever since being jilted at the Gay Pride March two weeks earlier, she has suffered writer’s block.
“She was just a nice person… ” Blondie says, and in lieu of a more recent original launches into a poem about standing in line at the Burger King, a bit of light verse about savoring the sight of a woman who is waiting in line for a hamburger and fries. At the end of the poem, the beauty turns around and is revealed to be Blondie’s sister-in-law.
“Can you believe that!” Blondie laughs and slaps her fishnet stockings. Blondie straightens her cherry lipstick in a compact mirror. Blondie applies a little more perfume and prepares to cue up a Metallica song on the jukebox. Her number.
Blondie closes a scrapbook that contains some of her 50 poems and a few loose pages from the stripper book, rather tender pictures of dancers who come and go through the endless night.
“I think I’m a good writer, but I’ve got a lot to learn,” she says. “I like to have fun, but I’m really a serious person.” Before parting, she glances up at the lone woman perfunctorily gyrating on stage.
“Boy, she’s got some real knockers ain’t she!”
Always, an artist has to express herself.
THE GREATEST WAY to rebel in this country is to become intelligent. Thus speaks Randy Blazak from atop his private Parnassus, a plastic patio chair on the veranda of Cafe Diem. His brownish hair shoves out from a dirty ball cap, and a yin-yang pendant weights his bony breast. He wears shorts and black high-top All Stars, with no socks.
Blazak, a 29-year-old Ph.D. candidate, teaches sociology at Emory. Currently on summer break, however, he spends a lot of time taking in the heat and the noise and the fumes of sidewalk life along North Highland Avenue, a casting call of drifters and yuppies, bag ladies and businessmen, moms, cops, lovers, and wandering bohemians.
Any second now, Randy might write a poem. He has written about a thousand during the last five years. Blazak nudges a copy of his chapbook, Surrounded By Idiots, across the tabletop: No stuff about love galloping like wild horses/You know, jazz music and street culture are the best resources/I’d like to write something about fucking, but I can’t reveal my sources/It’s just some fake poetry, not college courses.
Fake poetry or not, last fall, Blazak was the headline poet at the Decatur Arts Festival. “If I became famous it would be a joke. But I guess the pinnacle of success for me would be to do an ad for the Gap,” he says, referring to the faux beat weenie in the Gap commercial, who dribbles off a few blue jeans metaphors in a coffeehouse setting.
Blazak is a central figure in the Mud Shack group, an underground literary/art scene that originated five years ago at Tortillas on Ponce de Leon.
“We’re constantly told in this country that we have to buy our culture. Get a subscription to Interview magazine, a leather jacket and some punk music. But a lot of us in the underground scene just decided we wanted to contribute to the cultural production rather than the consumption. And I couldn’t play guitar… ”
In the early years, the Mud Shack group met from midnight to 4 a.m. at Tortillas. It quickly became a popular forum for “talentless insomniacs and obscure geniuses” in the Poncey-Highland area, home to early incarnations of acts such as Drivin’ N Cryin’, The Black Crowes and The Jody Grind, featuring the late Deacon Lunchbox, perhaps Atlanta’s best-known performance poet. “We’re mostly people who don’t take poetry as an esoteric, high art form. It’s done as performance… to show that anybody can be a poet.”
“Look, I’m quite sure there is some old Japanese haiku that expresses what I want to say quite nicely. But I don’t want to go dust it off to find out. I’d rather just write it myself.
Since then, readings have become more popular than ever in Atlanta, spurred in part by the nationwide revival of coffeehouses and the easily imitated beat motif: black dress and goatees, troubadour hats and bongo drums, maybe a little song and dance to get the crowd’s attention, and the occasional guy with a stuffed bunny on his shoulder or the woman carrying around her plastic “nuclear baby.”
“All of these groups are confessional,” says Bill Sessions, regents professor of English at Georgia State University. “What you see are people trying to work out the basic dilemmas of their lives.”
But as the masses take poetry away from the intelligentsia, thus reaffirming its importance to general society, there are definite dangers for the art itself, confusing the line between studied poetic craft, and prose with line breaks or just solipsistic nonsense.
“You can’t even make bad music as bad as bad poetry,” says Veach. “And there are just some people who, although they may tap dance well or be good mothers, are never going to write good poetry.”
After a local television station aired a segment on the Mud Shack group a few years ago, the next month, says Blazak, “We had people driving in from all over to read. Some lady from the suburbs came in and read a 20-minute poem about her divorce. That’s when we decided it was time to meet somewhere else.”
Atlanta poet and Poetry Atlanta Editor Lynn Alexander used to read at coffeehouses in New York. She tells the story of a man who each month would come in off the street and rant and rave about crime and rape and tearing people’s hearts out until, eventually, they banned him from reading.
“For most people, when they cure their neurosis they usually stop writing poetry.”
TURNER CASSITY STEPS UP to the podium, which sits on a banquet table flanked by palms in a clean, colonnaded lecture hall of the Callanwolde Fine Arts Center, the former Candler mansion. A smattering of French mingles with southern patois in the audience of 50 or so poets and poetry patrons. Cassity is a tidy and diminutive man with a crew cut. He is a poet and an intellectual, who draws at the corners of his mouth as he speaks.
“The strength of Rosemary Daniell’s writing,” Cassity begins, drawing, “is that it is fine reporting. And all good writing is fine reporting.”
Daniell, a widely published Savannah poet and novelist, reads five or six of her typically dark poems, suffused with images of penises, breasts and her own “neat secret genitals.”
“She’s got tits as hard/as your fist! Yes sir!/She’s good enough to fuck!” begins her poem about a surgically transsexualized exotic dancer in New Orleans who mails his/her former parts home to his/her mother, thus becoming the daughter she always wanted.
She is followed by half-British/half-Virginian poet Michael Mott, whose poems are firmly anchored in the classics, with copious references to Delilah, Samson, Psyche, Cupid. He completes his last poem, steps back and breathlessly clasps his hands together. He bows.
“Now that was poetry! The other was politics. Some people confuse them in our society,” says one man.
“Rather pedestrian,” says another.
The following day Daniell and Mott will critique poems submitted by local poets, and then that night will take their own seats before James Merrill, a Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry.
Callanwolde represents the more traditional, formalist school of Atlanta poets. Here, poetry is considered mental engagement of the highest sort, not a support group or a 12-step program, neither politics nor performance art.
“Performance art is to poetry what Liberace was to music,” says Cassity, who cofounded the Poetry at Callanwolde series. During an earlier conversation in the bar at Mick’s in Decatur, he laughs at the suggestion of elitism. That would be a compliment, he says, adding, “To some Americans, anyone who reads is an elitist.”
Cassity, the author of eight books of poems, also teaches a continuing education course in poetry at Emory. About eight out of 10 who enroll are men, often in the midst of a career change. “Of course, there’s always two or three garden club ladies. But it’s always the men who write the sappiest poems. I guess because men have been taught that poetry is supposed to be sappy.”
Not surprisingly, most of what he sees, and most of what is written nearly everywhere else, is loosely referred to as free verse (lacking the regularly repeated rhythms and rhyme schemes of metric verse). And for many poets, therein lies the heart of a pithy debate.
“Really, it is much more difficult to write good free verse because of the basic nature of (English). Ours is a very strongly accented language,” says Cassity, who once translated all of Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” into regular meter for fun.
Lynn Alexander, though, says, “I would never write a serious poem in regular meter. That would be trite.” Indeed, the arguments made for free verse seem to be far in the majority among Atlanta poets: that it is more versatile and invetive, less self-conscious, unpretentious, not as stiff as formal verse and generally more accessible to audiences who have been conditioned to believe that the best poems are probably the ones they least understand, that the point of a poem is to rhyme, and that Shakespeare is always The Great One.
But Cassity, who has written one free verse poem in his entire life, is implacable. “Most free verse just isn’t free enough, so what you usually end up with is the impression of reading a failed metric poem.”
It probably is safe to say that successful metric poems are usually more tightly reasoned. And often, free verse seems a convenient excuse for poets not to study the fundamentals of poetic language, or, as someone once said, is like playing tennis with the net down.
There is also modern reaffirmation of poetic tradition in the voice of young black culture, which, finding itself with few other means of expression over the last decade, has asserted itself through the most regularly rhyming of pop arts: rap music. And there is a reason why poetry in that most honest of human forums, the bathroom wall, often assumes regular poetic form, such as the limerick. There is reaffirmation of regular poetic form in the fact that the most comfortably exchanged unit of emotional expression—the greeting card—usually employs regular rhyme and rhythms… just as there is a reason why most greeting cards sound silly.
“Cassity? Sounds familiar,” says Randy Blazak, with his black high-tops crossed one atop the other.
“Look, I’m quite sure there is some old Japanese haiku that expresses what I want to say quite nicely. But I don’t want to go dust it off to find out. I’d rather just write it myself.
“Part of the role of the street poet is to cast off that pretension and to dispel those myths that poetry has to be obtuse and difficult.”
Once, Blazak was invited to read at Emory, but recited a poem about burning down fraternity row; thus, a return engagement does not seem imminent. ”They just sort of looked at me like, What is this guy about?”
Verily, there is no rhyme for angst.
OVER IN WEST END a storm is coming, and the horizon silently lights up nightfall-blue as a lone sheaf of trash whisks along the sidewalk past the Goodwill store. Weeds are growing straight up through the garbage in a nearby parking lot, which is dark and empty, save for three cops and a skinny black man. He slouches atop a low rock wall at curbside. Handcuffed.
Across the street, behind a smoked glass door, down a long, narrow hall is Club Kuumba (Club Creativity), a black poets and writers group that meets here every Thursday in the Dejoul’le African House of Celebration. The small auditorium is painted bright blue, red and yellow, in a Caribbean motif. The ceiling is hung with two fans and festooned with drums, gourds, African folk art and straw grass. There is no air conditioning, and the heat quickly conjures sweat beads on the eight to 10 poets who are waiting to read.
“I want to emphasize that rap is a folk art,” he says. “It is important that we make the distinction between rap and serious literature… “
A small man in a tie-dyed shirt, Brother Askia Toure, assumes the role of elder poet at Club Kuumba. He speaks of a “Renaissance” among black writers and artists in Atlanta, and refers to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, led by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, among others.
“Had we been in any other city, they would be trumpeting this movement! There has been a curious silence among the mass media about what is happening in the arts in the inner city.”
Over the next three hours a crowd files down the long hallway; more poets, a few curious idlers who stand at the back of the room and stare, a large man wearing thick, wet curls and a shoulder holster, and a man with two children who sit beside him, by turns restless and enthralled.
Between poets, Club Kuumba cocoordinator Kenneth Zakee passes the mike around and solicits criticism. When a young woman says she “really liked” the last poem and alludes to its hip-hop style, Brother Askia quickly commandeers the mike.
“I want to emphasize that rap is a folk art,” he says. “It is important that we make the distinction between rap and serious literature… We don’t want to just hear that you ‘liked’ or ‘didn’t like’ a poem. What about the writer’s use of simile and metaphor? I want to remind everyone that we are here to develop our critical faculties… ”
Throughout the evening the poets’ images maintain a bleak subtext: a woman smoking crack while crippled with sicklecell, South Africa and Somalia in our own back yard, Mike Tyson as scapegoat, doing for self, a siren song from cocoa lips, the Euphrates and the Nile, sex, AIDS, Malcolm, Miles, rap, and “lazy niggers.”
The final impression is that of a cultural crossroads, the direction to be charted with words, and of a search for celebration in Black America’s deep oral tradition: the preacher, the storyteller, the orator. Ultimately, however, the ideology and the aural instincts tend to dominate the poems themselves, which, as Cassity puts it, must finally exist “on the page and in the inner ear.”
After the reading, Brother Askia pauses in the long hallway and says, “I have yelled, shouted, stomped and flip-flopped to stress that poetry is an art. As black poets, we are constantly struggling with the convergence of our oral tradition.
“It is our duty as senior poets to help the younger ones understand that poetry is a way of shaping words into beautiful organisms.” He shakes his head. “The mass media and popular culture are affecting all aspects of art. And they threaten to make this art a dying one.”
Outside, the rain is over and the police are gone.
RAISE THE CALL. Cafe Diem has seceded. Its patrons hereby refuse to acknowledge common taxes, currency and vulgar materialism, and proclaim Diemland—a small island of culture in the sea of indifference—sovereign territory. Poet Joe Brennan has been named treasurer, and co-conspirator Randy Blazak minister of culture.
Minister Blazak is standing on a chair, barking out Diemland’s constitution to his subjects, many of whom, unfamiliar with Cafe Diem’s monthly “theme” readings, seem surprised to learn that they have just been annexed by the tyrant poet, Plato’s philosopher-king in a smock shirt, tight black pants and combat boots.
The previous month, Blazak, Brennan and others created a mock cult, The Branch Diemians, and in between poets delivered prophesies to their followers. This month, only a day or two after the Fourth of July, the theme is, of course, independence.
Blazak introduces one of the first poets, who mounts the chair and commences to bellow over the cafe din. Before Blazak can take his seat, however, a disgruntled young woman has confronted him. Over the last few months, Cafe Diem’s readings have become so popular that poets are starting to show up at 6 and 7 o’clock to make the sign-up sheet, which, limited to 10 poets, Blazak begins circulating at 9 o’clock.
This woman did not make it on the sign-up list. Blazak is sympathetic, but firm. Cafe owner Andy Alibsh only gives them an hour, and she’ll have to come back next month.
But she must read, and so heads outside to the patio where 20 or so disinterested cafegoers are enjoying their cappuccinos and pasta and imported beers. She pulls a chair into the middle of the crowd and climbs up. She is a striking young woman with coal-colored hair, milky complexion, ruby lips and a black lace bra worn on the outside of her shirt. She begins reading. Page after page.
Meanwhile, poets in Diemland’s heartland compete with waiters banging on the cappuccino machine to clear its gurgling throat. Blazak stands up and threatens to exile waiters who bang, then introduces another poet, a young black man who reads from a hardbound book of his own verse. People often ask him why he doesn’t read poems about nature, he says, and in one final short poem reminds them that “there is no nature where I live.”
Poems about oceans, poems about war, poems about monkeys at the primate center, as a young poetess sits alone on her balcony, drinking and listening to them howl. Poems about friends, poems about lovers. Poems that halt with an image (“her tumor growing like a great idea”), and poems that halt with absurdity.
A quite normal-looking man in blue jeans and a tennis shirt takes the floor. His will be a kind of rambling prose poem.
“And God said, ‘Let there be Dance!’ And there was! And, God o’mighty it was good!”
An equally sane-looking woman joins him on the floor, and as he continues to hop about the room babbling about Dance! and scaring some college girls at one table, his woman-partner begins to writhe on the floor at his feet.
Shortly, she has removed her sandals and uses them to spank him on the ass. He continues to read as half the audience emits audible chuckles, while the other half watches in dutiful respect for the artists’ emotional depth.
The girl stops cracking him on the ass and sits down. Altogether, it is a rather mild display compared to the man at a previous reading who suddenly dropped to the floor and rolled across the room crying, “There’s no fish in the basket! I love my daddy!”
Such freedom, however, is a fleeting thing even in Diemland. And before the hour is up, Blazak solemnly announces that the U.S. Marines are on their way to reclaim Diemland as part of the American tax landscape. Some miles out, the jarheads have already erected a coffee blockade, perhaps in hopes of jonesing Diemlanders into reunification. In the meantime, however, another couple of poets have opted for the now lively patio venue, and there will be more poetry, even a bit of a light show.
Blazak and his fellow ministers have begun lighting sparklers and Roman candles in the middle of North Highland Avenue. Blazak dives behind a tree as an errant flaming doodad shoots past his head. And a new state—founded on the love of self-expression and the belief that all men are created poets—whistles and cracks and pops into existence by the rocket’s red glare. In the throes of revolt, there is poetry everywhere. Poetry inside the cafe. Poetry outside the cafe. Poetry in the air. Poetry on the floor. Poetry on the tables and poetry on the chairs. It is poetry night, with poetry people, in a poetry nation. ✦