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Poetic License

From chrome-plated poets to grunge performance artists, a new generation of Bohemians breathes its literary beat in clubs and coffeehouses

By Stephanie D. Stephens

THE POET'S SOCIETY is not dead. Bohemia, she lives. Puffing images through cigarette smoke exhaled between age-pleated lips, she clocks the '90s with different beats. Squares and hipsters; cats and kitties. Into her coffeehouse hovel, Bohemia beckons with snapping fingers the literaries, grunge kids, new Bob Dylans and Dylan Thomases, greeting-card poets, erotics, housewives and, yes, even the Rod McKuens. Bohemia's still On the Road, but the roads are industrial Stevens Creek Boulevard, bustling First Street in San Jose, Palo Alto's ivy-league Emerson, and suburban Campbell Avenue--each coffee shop with its own poetry snazz and open-mic regulars. Words smack off back walls, warring against the scorch of steaming milk, sending old microphones into their screech. And, lackadaddy, you've been boheemed.

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Where the poets are in the south bay.

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A little creative rebellion, a live mic, and Bohemia blows into town. If the coffee is strong, she unpacks. Sets up shop. Shakes up the local academics, who prefer good fences between high art and the uncultured masses to make of them good neighbors. Bohemia doesn't love a wall. Instead, she erects cultural outposts where, nourished by caffeine and community, born-again beatniks can renew their poetic licenses.

As e.e. cummings knew, only during a few blessed moments of his lifetime is a poet a poet; the rest of the time he is a would-be poet. In the instant his work is read, a poet dies a little and, in so doing, becomes immortal. The little death. Salto mortale, like the infamous triple somersault on the flying trapeze. Every poet feels it, the precise moment of poetry--when the mind blanks out and the soul risks shattering.

Above the murky, whirring San Jose streets a window bleeds red light into darkness. Inside that glow, the poets of Agenda's Lounge pulse to the billiard-clicking beat behind them, directed to the mic by boheem mamas Pamela Noble and Romany Grant.

"It's all a matter of expectation," Greg Keith says. "If you get one or two bright nuggets out of a pan full of mud and gravel and sand, you feel like you've won."

Whether the writing's revolutionary, renaissance or rubbish, two things prove constant at Agenda. One: Sometime during the night, the candle-man brings his tray of frisking light to the tables. Two: a bone-thin enigma of a figure slips between poets, at her back a signature smokey tail. She is Lu Pettus. Wait for her. When Lu eventually opens her suitcase of metaphors and allegories, it's all worthwhile. Collected on her imagery bags is the very dust of the beat generation. What's inside? Words that will make you gasp.

Farther to the north, the Coffee Society of Cupertino is poet-friendly. Laid way back. They've got the young crowd, chrome-plated poets popping into applause on cue. This evening, host James G. Luna dedicates the night to "Jason," his gothic couplets grinned from a vampire-painted face. Now and again he sputters out a roundabout apology. "My mother's here," he says. For those in the room, no more proof is needed. The verdict's in. Poetry is alive.

With the bohemian comes slack, and they've been given much. "Too much! Too sheltered!" the peninsular poets of St. Michael's Alley in Palo Alto wordlessly scream, though these seasoned fellows may have been Dharma Bums ages ago. For those who brave the collegiate Stanford brigade at St. Michael's open-mics, three words for your own sake: better be good.

Dangling from the outskirts of Campbell's petticoat, City Espresso, in its sub-suburban locale, encloses in its fold some of the South Bay's most eclectic and diverse work. Every week an enclave of novelists, performance artists, poets and genuine freaks shout their ye-haws into this otherwise amorphous lump of land.

In a tie-dyed T-shirt replete with a blue mushroom, 17-year-old Joe DePage, a.k.a. "Pisces," roars Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," a poem many years his elder. He pays his intergenerational respects, tossing off sheets of photocopied paper while jumping onto chairs. DePage's own work is more subdued, but whose isn't? William Jeske, cursed with an "introverted muse," rambles through a scrambled, funny-bone history of America.

THE POEM IS an act that lives and dies inside your ear. An act that, like life's best acts, takes (at least) two. And the two tango, trying desperately not to step on one another's toes, for open mic succeeds only if the audience comes back. There must be ears. Bohemia cackles with her cigarette smile, "a poem isn't written until it's read, daddio."

The old crone Bohemia beats her bongos yet. By her rhythm Greg Keith, the poet with the perspective of decades, still pans for gold:

"On the literary side, one occasionally strikes a rich vein and some nights everyone seems golden--even the weaker poems have some charm that redeems them. ... I love it that all these people, published and unpublished, serious and playful, diffident and inflated, are all out there scribbling their hearts out, just waiting for Sunday night so they can get up and have their say, their pages trembling in their hands."

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From the October 10-16, 1996 issue of Metro

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