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The Poetry Forum at Larry's

AirFare/February 1990
By Therese Nolan

     The messages of great poems to each man and woman are, 
     Come to us on equal terms,
     Only then can you understand us.
     We are no better than you...what we enjoy you may enjoy.

      --WALT WHITMAN,  from the preface to Leaves of Grass

     In the recent movie Dead Poets Society, several young men discover new ways of looking at life through the poetry of Keats, Shelley, and Lord Byron. They hide in a cave and practice the lost art of reading poetry aloud to each other.
     In a cave of a different sort-- a dimly lit bar near the Ohio State campus--this tradition is carried on by an informal society of poets in what's called "The Poetry Forum at Larry's".
     Many of the featured readers at the poetry forum are from the faculties of Ohio colleges and universities. Some have jobs flying Medivac helicopters for the National Guard, working with the homeless, or teaching retarded children. Others are also editors, graduate students, and high school teachers. One reader is a psychiatric technician at Harding Hospital; another, a retired librarian. Over the years at least three readers have been drawn from the ranks of the WOSU Stations: Fred Andrle, John McGrody, and Mary Ann Williams. 
     What do they have in common? Nearly all have been published in one or more of the multitude of poetry magazines across the country. They all deal in words. And concentrated awareness. And the glory of creating an emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm. The 19th century poet Wordsworth grounded poetry in emotion. "Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." One hundred years later, Carl Sandburg related it to a sense of mystery and awe. "Poetry is a search for syllables to shoot at the barriers of the unknown and the unknowable. Poetry is a phantom script telling how rainbows are made and why they go away."
     Poets can be like rainbows. Difficult to pin down. Seldom seen. Ephemeral. Usually the quest is to find the poet within the person. Larry's Poetry Forum has been a proven success at bringing out people for the poets, and bringing out the poet in people. It has created its own gold mine of talent while attracting top regional word artists. "It fills a void," says forum coordinator Linda Smith. "I like that it takes place in a bar--it's more relaxed." During intermission, audience members can sign up to read after the scheduled poet. Each "open reader" is allowed five minutes or two poems. Several who 'auditioned' through this process were later given their own berth as a featured writer.
     Forum coordinators strive to strike a balance between regional poets whose readings boost attendance and local poets who are progressing and benefit from an audience. David Citino, a well-known local poet and a member of the Ohio State English faculty, feels the poetry forum has helped him and others because it "gives people an opportunity to share their work. It's very important that the readings are off-campus. Poetry does not just take place in a classroom, but in the neighborhoods of a city. Larry's has made a difference in my career, and I'm grateful to those who run it."

Larry's Sixth Annual Poetry Contest for central Ohio residents closes for submissions on January 31, and a winner will be announced during the month of February. The winner will automatically be a featured reader in the spring and ill have a poem included in Larry's Poetry Review. The forum publication, in its third volume, was first printed in 1986.
     The poetry forum is now in its sixth year. The schedule of readings runs from fall through spring, nearly parallel to the Ohio State quarter system. There are 33 weekly readings per year on Mondays at 7 p.m. It is run by a committee of eight volunteers, roughly split between academic and non-academic vocations, and an advisory board. Featured poets can only return every other year. Other readings have been structured around themes such as the Dead Poets Night, readings of the Poet Laureates, Human Rights Poetry, Goethe, Hispanic-American Poetry, and Contemporary Irish Poets. An eagerly anticipated February theme night is the appearance of the Spirit-Drama Society, an acclaimed performance group from the Ohio State Black Studies Department that is coordinated by Mary Ann Williams.
     Kathy Fagan, a recently appointed member of the English faculty at Ohio State, read on January 8. Another faculty member, Ellin Carter, read January 22. Gordon Grigsby and Citino have also been featured. While Ohio State may contribute heavily in terms of interested faculty members, alumni, graduate and undergraduate students, it is in no way directly involved and does not officially promote the series. The lack of recognition bothers some forum committee members, but the separation of town and gown helps in at least one major way, enabling the forum to gain financial support from the Ohio Arts Council. 
     According to Bob Fox of the Ohio Arts Council, Larry's Poetry Forum has, since its inception, received some financial support. It is the only organization of its type in the area to have asked for and received funding. Fox knows of two similar programs in Ohio: the Cedar Lounge in Youngstown and Arnold's in Cincinnati. The council wants Larry's to serve as an alternative to campus readings and finds that an independent organization often results in different poetry. As Fox puts it, "Colleges and universities just do a type of writer and usually only for the campus community. This group is not part of the academic mainstream and is accessible at an off-campus setting. This provides the community with an opportunity. It also can reach people who just came in for a drink."

     The converse is also true. People who come for the poetry often buy drinks (coffee and tea are also available). That's one reason Larry's owner and proprietor gladly donates the space. Says Larry (whose last name is Paoletti) regarding the beginning of the poetry forum six years ago: "To everyone's surprise, it was a success."
     There is no cover charge at the readings, although a hat is passed for donations. The cap in question has a special significance in itself. It once belonged to William J Redding, a respected poet and committee member who recently died. Redding's poems, this time read by his many friends and admirers, will be featured in a tribute on February 26.
     In a way, Redding is the perfect example of the sort of independent poet that Larry's Forum attracts. Redding received his bachelor's and master's degrees in English and a master's in Library Science from the Catholic University in Washington, D.C. He traveled abroad, edited various publications, and was most recently with the Creative Services Division of Ross Labs. His work has been published over the last 40 years in such journals as Points, Merlin (Paris), and The New Yorker. His wife and son have selected poems for the February 26 reading. 
     Redding, like many others, was attracted to the poetry forum nearly from the beginning. The original organizers in 1984 were Cheryl Abdullah and John Cropp, who have since married. Cheryl served as the first coordinator. Steve Abbott, a founding and current committee member, took over coordinator responsibilities for 1985-86. Looking back on the experience, Abbott says he is amazed at the quality of poets who have been available to the organizers. "there's an exceptional community of writers at (Ohio) State." 
     While Ohio's best actors, dancers, and musicians are able to ply their art before theater audiences of hundreds or thousands, poets traditionally require more intimate audiences. That makes Larry's a near-perfect setting--the most deliberately casual of campus bars. You can even bring your dog to Larry's, a nicety seldom permitted on this side of the Atlantic. At Kathy Fagan's recent reading, a dog (not hers) lounged at her feet while she read. In fact, the only species unwelcome at Larry's are frat rats and undergraduate rowdies. 
     Fagan is unqualified in her praise of the opportunities the forum allows. "All poetry should be read aloud, but not necessarily by its writer. Poetry is as much, if not more, an oral art as a written one. "Reading her own poetry gives Fagan "a bad case of nerves," she says, "but if the crowd is responsive I learn what works best orally, what doesn't, where a poem might drag. While writers do their best work, their only real work, in solitude, one can't help but benefit by the insights of an audience as talented and intelligent as the one at Larry's."
     Talented and intelligent in her own right, Fagan has established herself very quickly in her career as a poet. Her first book, The Raft, won the 1985 National Poetry Series Open Competition and was published by E.P. Dutton that year. Her work has appeared in Antaeus, Poetry, The Missouri Review, The Antioch Review, Ploughshares, and Quarterly West, and in the anthologies Under 35: The New Generation of American Poets, New Voices, and Piecework. She received her M.F.A. from Columbia and her Ph.D. from the University of Utah. Now that she is teaching creative writing at Ohio State, Fagan wants her pupils to benefit from the opportunity of participating in the forum. "It underscores or reaffirms what is said in class. I wish there were more opportunities like this. Often students ask how they can get their poems published, without having read them aloud even to themselves." One of Fagan's students did follow her advice during the open reading. 

Fellow poet and faculty member Ellin Carter agrees that students need to test their material. Carter has been teaching and writing poetry for over 15 years. She also wrote a poetry column for the Columbus Dispatch  for five years and has coordinated the Women's Poetry Workshop for 13 years. Her poems have appeared in the Hiram Poetry Review, the CEA Critic, Manhattan Poetry Review, Tendril, Anima, and the Women's Quarterly Review.  Anthologies include  I name Myself Daughter and It Is Good, Saturday's Women,  and The Poet's Job: To Go Too Far. In 1986, she received a citation from the Ohioana Library Association for her contribution to literature. 
     Carter feels the open readings serve that important function of testing material. Here you see all ages and all races. The mix of these readers is quickly evident. The obviously elderly rub elbows with the wet-behind-the-ears. Over the past six years, poets as young as 10 and into their 80's have been included. 
     A young woman from Australia reads a poem about visiting her sister there. An obnoxious self-aggrandizer sputters profanities to get his 15 seconds of attention. At least one male struts his stuff in hopes of attraction a sensitive female to his intelligence. Timid teens hide out in booths, ordering Cokes and laughing nervously at the blue words. 
     It's Monday evening at Larry's Poetry Forum. The audience is ready, and words come tumbling out.

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