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Three questions with poet/performer Lee Mallory

Lee Mallory
Lee Mallory

Recently transplanted from Orange County, where he reigned over the poetry scene and coordinated readings for two decades, Lee Mallory is wasting no time in establishing himself here. He’s top-billing the Aug. 6 session of the Word Up! poetry night, his first show in Vegas.
With a connection to Charles Bukowski, plenty of accolades (he says the library of the University of California, Santa Barbara, “has begun to house my archive, dubbed the ‘Lee Mallory Papers’”) and a performance style once compared — favorably, we think — to “those mad German doctors who hypnotized patients in old black-and-white films,” it just might be worth checking out.

You’ve mentioned you were mentored by Charles Bukowski. What’s the most important thing you learned from him?
Don’t force the poem. In fact, at his gravesite in San Pedro, Calif., the epitaph reads simply, “Don’t try!” And for a long time I had to explain to poets that that wasn’t the negative, “drop-out” axiom they thought it was. For they thought it was “don’t try” for success, job, self-satisfaction; and that one could never win, even in that sweet “combat” between the sexes. Moreover, their misinterpretation was reinforced by the fact the he was, indeed, a pessimistic person. He fought through his whole life in bars, at the track and trapped in shit jobs. Though, later, he did write, still fight and continue to love women and, above all, the word.
“Don’t try!” meant simply that one should never force the poem, that — to my mind — the words should bubble up in an unconscious flowering. That is, under the best circumstances, the poem should almost write itself. In fact, he said to me that sitting down and saying, “I’m going to write a poem” was, as he put it, “a suck.” And that it would never work. In my own words, I compare that attitude to sex. When a man things too hard about lovemaking — if it doesn’t come naturally — he probably defeats himself, and it never works. Don’t try!
Is there any difference between writing poetry to be performed, and writing poetry to be read on the page?
Well, I’d like to say no to that because too much performance “poetry” is not really poetry at all. I mean, some presumed poets can stand up and, with enough theatrics, read the Sears catalog and make it sound good. My motto, through all the years I have produced readings (more than 20), is, Anything goes as long as it’s good. Which means after you have studied the basics, forms and, yes (lest I sound stuffy), even the masters, choose the form that provides the best vehicle to motor the poem. And then edit the work carefully, craft it — after the inspirational flow of my answer above — so that it would be solidly worthy of being called a sound “print” poem first. That is, one worthy of appearing in a published book — a book preferably not self-published.
Then, if the writer can project the joy, spontaneity and energy that issued from the poem’s creation, he can, hopefully, master such patterns of delivery, voice modulation, gesturing, focused and intense eye contact, etc., that will even more fully “bring the poem to life.” In short, don’t presume to be a “poet” just because you can perform. (Or, forgive me, don’t presume to be a good lover simply because you know how to have sex ...)
How much does sense of place influence what you write? Will the writing you do here be distinct from the work you did in Orange County?
A sense of place, or milieu, is always operative in the poem. I follow the tenet that the best poems are rooted in experience, imagination and, to a much lesser extent, book-learning.
So, if my poetry, largely written by the sea, often keeps some coast in its sights (“I am destined to inhabit caves on a rocky coast / I play odd favorites” or “The rain comes down / and the rate of my crime”) I suppose, then, that that will just be a part of the body of my work.  
I have, however, always loved the desert, the wind and the changes of weather. Actually, I love the heat, too: “Heat cures the brick, but at night the water runs waist deep.” I also like the excitement of placing a bet, sometimes even a dangerous one, and so I am casting my dice on this place. Along those lines, I authored a small chapbook years ago, entitled Bettin’ on the Come. So I’m sure I am caught up in the excitement, color, personalities and nature of this place. (And with that title, you just thought I was bringing it back to sex; well, that, too ...)

WORD UP! POETRY AND MUSIC, Aug. 6. 7 p.m., The Freakin' Frog, 4700 S. Maryland Parkway