On a recent Monday night, 50 men and women, mostly seniors, filled the Sacramento Poetry Center. They all seemed to know one another. Among them were veteran poets and a few prose writers who had arrived to give spoken word to their works; the others had gathered to listen and lend support.
At 30, the center is the oldest venue in town for poetry and prose readings. It's also the most academic-oriented, as many of its key organizers are former or current university professors and high school teachers.
On a table was a chocolate birthday cake from Freeport Bakery, a bowl of glistening orange segments and green-hued bottles of San Pellegrino water. The feeling was more like a large, informal house party than a reading by serious writers who are part of the area's vibrant and active poetry community or, more accurately, poetry family.
Instant communication, social media and short attention spans may rule the day, but this event, as well as others around the area, make it clear that people of all ages still want to connect in face-to-face settings to share a sense of community, exchange ideas and express themselves through creative use of language. Sacramento's vivid poetry scene offers that chance. April may be National Poetry Month, but this city celebrates the literary art year-round.
By evening's end, the six featured readers and five open-microphone walk-ons had shared small but intimate details of their lives with the Poetry Center group, which responded with knowing nods, thoughtful murmurs, laughter and applause.
Any topic was fair game: Marilynn Price's witty piece on syntax; Melen Lunn's moving memory of her deceased mother; Sarah Stricker's recollection of sisterly love.
Luther Burbank High School teacher Kara Synhorst read a rollicking poem about hoarding. Tim Kahl, a published poet and English professor at Sacramento City College, delivered an über-funny account of missing out on a promotional taco giveaway.
Kahl, the center's events coordinator, has brought nationally known poets to the reading lineup, including Pulitzer Prize winner Gary Snyder and former California poet laureate Al Young. "I can't think of another city with weekly readings at specific venues where (anyone) can take part in poetry," he said.
The dynamic was looser at the weekly Poetry Unplugged reading at Luna's Cafe & Gallery on the edge of midtown on the following Thursday night. Think texting and tattoos. A busy server delivered beer, wine and tostadas to the younger, whooping audience of 40 fans. Open-mike performers stood on the small stage and delivered rhythmic works that mostly mixed beat, rap and hip-hop forms.
Silver-haired poet-playwright Gilberto Rodriguez donned a black beret and performed an in-your-face soliloquy about poetry in American culture that could have been an audition for an off-Broadway play. The crowd loved it.
The featured poet was veteran Rob Lozano, whose black ponytail brushed against his brown leather coat. His just-off-the-press chapbook of poetry, "I Am That I'm Not," was selling for $3, or two for $5.
In the audience was hypnotherapist Eve Dias with her son, Joseph, 11. "He grew up reading and writing (poetry) and I wanted to expose him to some of the art in our area," she said.
"The whole idea here is to explore different forms," said cafe owner Art Luna. "But sometimes the 'poetry police' people who want poetry to be a certain way will say, 'Aw, you guys are breaking form.' Well, you can read anything here, it doesn't have to be poetry and it doesn't have to be perfect."
The Sacramento Poetry Center and Luna's Cafe may differ in style and substance, but their goals are the same: Give poets and other literary writers a place to share their art, and give listeners a place to hear it.
"It's very easy to think that poetry is dead or people aren't interested, but what I've awakened to as poet laureate is that people want to write it, read it and hear it," said Jeff Knorr, the city's poet laureate and English professor at Sacramento City College, who has published three books of verse. "It's crazy how much poetry is going on in Sacramento."
Public readings are vital to poets, and venues exist around Sacramento to give them the chance to try out new work, while encouraging neophytes to keep writing. The rewards are immediate from polite respect to overwhelming appreciation.
Sacramento poet Lawrence Dinkins knows about that. He's a graphics artist and a co-host of the Mahogany Urban Poetry Series, where he uses the stage name NSAA (pronounced en-sa-ah).
"Reading is cheaper than therapy," he said. "You get all your emotions out in a room full of sympathetic people who appreciate wordsmiths and wordplay."
Poet and Sacramento Poetry Center board member Mary Zeppa noted that reading one's work in public "is emotionally risky. But when people are really listening and are with you, you can feel the energy."
During the Romantic movement of the 19th century, poets such as Percy Shelley and John Keats were like the rock stars of today they made big money and were celebrated wherever they went.
With few exceptions, that scenario is history. Most poets have kept their day jobs or are retired, and rely on readings and self-publishing to get their words out.
As for making big money well, not so much. Typically, poets publish and sell chapbooks, and aim to place poems in literary journals, mainstream magazines such as the New Yorker, and anthologies. Beyond that is the grail publishing a complete book of verse.
Most poets agree they make their art for reasons the non-writing public might not understand.
"We're not making a living out of it; it's a hobby we do in our spare time because it's something we love," said Bob Stanley, former Sacramento poet laureate and president of the Sacramento Poetry Center. He teaches English at California State University, Sacramento, and is the editor of "Late Peaches," a collection of works by 117 area poets. His own poetry book, "Miracle Shines," is due in May.
"So many times I've heard the same answer to the question, 'Why do you write?' It's because I have to," Stanley said. "Words are always bubbling in your head."
The words may be on call, but selling and marketing them are other matters.
"There are a handful of poets who can sell 6,000 to 7,000" copies of a book, said Craig Teicher, poetry editor of Publishers Weekly magazine, the bible of the book industry. "A publisher is very happy if a poetry book sells 1,000 copies. Even though there's a ton of poetry being published, literary readership is not huge."
For context, a debut novel typically sells between 5,000 and 10,000 hardcover copies.
Two of Sacramento's most well-regarded poets are Susan Kelly-DeWitt and Indigo Moor, who in many ways are indicative of the "poet profile."
"It's difficult to make a living from poetry," said Kelly-DeWitt, a semiretired educator who has published eight collections. "That's why so many poets are in (academia); it lets them stay involved in (the arts) and work on their poetry during summer break."
Moor has won awards and writing fellowships for his poetry, which includes two collections. Still, his full-time job is at Intel in Folsom. "I will eventually transition to poetry full time," he said.
However, some poets have found creative ways to earn coin. Web designer and poet Shawn Aveningo monetized her avocation when she and partner Robert Sanders opened the Poetry Box in Sacramento in 2011 (www. thepoetrybox.com). She writes custom poems for special occasions while Sanders supplies the frames and portrait photos to go with them.
"We started writing poems to go with old family portraits just for fun, and it caught on," said Aveningo, who appears on the open-mike circuit. "Some (other poets) may think I've sold my soul, but I'm really just sharing it."
Poetry may be thriving in niche ways, yet you won't find much shelf space devoted to the subject in chain bookstores such as Barnes & Noble or in the book sections of big-box stores. Larger and more diverse selections are mostly found at independent bookstores, such as Time Tested Books and the Book Collector.
One reason poetry isn't exactly mainstream could be the commonly held view that the art form is elitist and inaccessible, or is trite with tedious rhyming.
While poets and their editors say today's verse is very approachable, a mindset still lingers that much of it is plain hard to understand and so personal to the poets who write it that readers can't relate.
"That's because the schools beat you over the head with it when you were a kid, and you turned away from it," said Don Share, senior editor of Poetry, the century-old magazine of the National Poetry Foundation in Chicago. "A lot of research shows people return to it later. Richard Blanco's poem at the presidential inauguration was quite easy to understand."
"Yes, there's a misconception that poetry is written for 'some other audience,' " said Stanley. "We write to be understood, but we use fresh language in unusual ways. When people realize that most poets write to express their thoughts and be understood and have fun, they begin to appreciate it. I hear from my students all the time, 'I didn't know I liked poetry.' "
April is National Poetry Month, launched in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets. The group calls it "the largest literary celebration in the U.S." The AAP offers a roster of events at its website, www.poets.org.
Meanwhile, opportunities abound at local venues for aspiring and established poets and prose writers to read their works in supportive public settings, and for the public to sit and listen.
"There aren't a lot of cities in the nation that have really solid, regularly scheduled poetry-reading series like we have here," said Sacramento poet laureate Jeff Knorr.
Bonus: Nationally known poets regularly make appearances, and musicians perform at some venues. For a calendar of readings and workshops, go to www.eskimopie.net.
Here's a sampler to get you started:
SACRAMENTO POETRY CENTER
1719 25th St., Sacramento; (916) 240-1897, www.sacramentopoetrycenter.org
What's happening: Poets and prose writers, open mike, art displays, workshops, lectures, music.
When: 7:30 p.m. Mondays and 7:30 p.m. the third Saturday of each month. Urban Poet series is 7 p.m. the third Wednesday of each month.
Cost: Free; donations accepted.
LUNA'S CAFE & GALLERY
1414 16th St., Sacramento; (916) 441-3931, www.lunascafe.com
What's happening: Spoken-word performances, open mike, mixed-media art
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays
Cost: $2 cover or one-drink minimum
POETRY NIGHT READING SERIES
John Natsoulas Gallery, 521 First St., Davis; (530) 756-3938, www.poetryindavis.com
What's happening: Poetry, prose, open mike, music
When: 8 p.m. the first and third Thursdays of each month
MAHOGANY URBAN POETRY SERIES
Queen Sheba restaurant, 1704 Broadway, Sacramento; (916) 446-1223, www.queenshebas.com
What's happening: Featured poets, open mike
When: 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays
THE OTHER VOICE
Unitarian Universalist Church, 27074 Patwin Road, Davis; (530) 753-2581 ext. 103, www.uudavis.org
What's happening: Featured poets, open mike
When: 7:30 p.m the third Fridays of September through April; in May, the event will be on the second Friday.
For National Poetry Month, the Sacramento Public Library has special events planned at several of its locations. For details: (916) 264-2920, www.saclibrary.org.
Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128.