If poetry and story reveal truth, then much lay exposed one evening earlier this month at The Bohemian Art Loft in south Redding.
For more than two hours, the cozy studio space – arrayed in red, blue and purple velvet curtains, wood and candlelight – transformed strangers into fellow travelers on an imaginative journey through the human landscape.
Age was no restriction in this medium of “paper emotions,” as one young reader dubbed her poetic expressions. Nor was stage experience – at least three poets admitted to being open-mic first-timers, while others spoke with the ease of spotlight familiarity.
The ride was unpredictable – and often compelling. Nearly 20 participants echoed sometimes age-old themes in freshly personal ways: from a lighthearted Valentine ode to a wrenching struggle over a friend’s senseless death; from the Vietnam War to last year’s Haiti earthquake. Some shared stories and personal anecdotes. All celebrated the transportive power of words.
Spoken Word Night is a bit of verbal magic – uncensored and open to all – that takes place every second Wednesday at the Bechelli Lane art gallery/stage, home to the eclectic arts-support group The Traveling Bohemians.
A bit of Bohemian background
Started in Redding in the late 1990s by husband-wife duo Nadia Hava-Robbins and Peter Robbins, the Bohemians host two free monthly open-mic nights at The Loft: Spoken Word Night for poets, storytellers, actors, and comedians; and Music Night for musicians and dancers. (Donations are collected to help cover refreshments and facility use.)
The Loft, which opened in May, also hosts art exhibits on a monthly to semi-monthly rotating basis, as well as work by fine-art jewelers (works sold on a consignment basis). And it is an intimate venue for performances by local and touring musical and theater groups and dance companies (next up: virtuoso autoharpist Adam Miller on Friday).
In addition, the new space is also home to The Traveling Bohemians’ Theater Lab, a small, professional avant garde theater company (upcoming shows in April and May), and the Stars Theatre Company of adults with disabilities.
The Czechoslavakian-born Hava-Robbins is a poet, artist, storyteller, actor and longtime dancer. Peter Robbins, a nuclear medicine physician and son of a concert pianist, manages all the technical aspects of shows, including sound, lights, recording and videography. The pair met while working at a Philadelphia hospital.
The Traveling Bohemians actually started in Honolulu in 1995, with an open-mic poetry night, Hava-Robbins said. The publishers of an art journal, for which she had written, wanted to have a reading. “We organized the reading, and from then on we had a poetry open mic,” she said. “We were all shy about it, but it really grew.”
She and Robbins dubbed the group – which attracted musicians and dancers as well as poets – The Traveling Bohemians. “It really caught on,” she said. “We did an eclectic variety show in a theater in Honolulu.”
When the Robbinses moved to Redding a few years later, they had no plans to continue the group. But one night they visited the old Redding Bookstore (where Vintner’s Cellar is now located, at the corner of California and Placer streets) and “found some poets in a corner,” Hava-Robbins said. “It was very quiet. We said, ‘You need some mics,’ and they said, ‘OK.’”
And so the Redding chapter of The Traveling Bohemians was born.
Spoken Word Night
Longtime Redding poet Larry Greco Harris remembers meeting Hava-Robbins at the Redding Bookstore. He’s been a regular at the Bohemians’ Spoken Word Night events ever since.
“Because of these nights, I write poetry more,” he said. “It gives me a good reason to get going on a new poem.”
His crisp, descriptive pieces, read in a strong, rich rhythm, are a highlight of the poetry nights. This month Harris (who, with wife Tish, started Pecha Kucha Nights in Redding a year ago) read two poems: a longer dramatic piece titled “Didn’t Fight in Vietnam,” and a new poem, titled “Car Trip to Yosemite, Pre-Dawn.”
“One of the reasons I write is because I didn’t take pictures as a kid,” he told the audience of 30 to 35 people. “It’s a way to remember — a snapshot of that time.”
Harris’ new poem, reprinted with permission:
Car Trip to Yosemite, Pre-Dawn
In 1953, I at 4 in the back seat,
stood atop that unexplainable hump
that ran down the center
of every family’s Dodge or Plymouth station wagon.
There, with my bottom wiggling
into the disinterested faces
of my 3 rolling & tussling siblings
on the bench seat behind me,
and with my arms spread wide
across the top of the seat in front of me,
one hand behind my mother’s head,
one hand behind my father’s,
and with my own head still not high enough
to touch that dome light
that my father would switch on at pre-dawn
to spotlight my thrill,
I surfed my reign over that long summer highway
that rumbled its magic like a herd of cattle
thundering under my feet.
These became the treasured days,
long before seat belts,
long before crashes.
An attraction of Spoken Word Night is that novice poets get the same opportunity to share as published authors. This month’s event drew young people flexing their creative-writing muscles as well as established writers like Redding children’s book author Linda Boyden. Other regular poet participants include Shasta College professor Michel Small and Sara Crandell-Hoxie, a charter school teacher.
Readers sign in upon arrival and are introduced between performances by Hava-Robbins. Peter Robbins adjusts the microphone for participants, who are welcome to sit or stand and generally share about three pieces.
“It’s a nice environment, not competitive or threatening,” Hava-Robbins said. “If you’re a writer and you write poetry, it’s an excellent place to come and share your craft. If you don’t write and want to come and listen, that’s tremendous. We love audience. If you love poetry and don’t write, you can bring your favorite poets. If you’re a fiction writier, you can read part of your writing. Any kind of spoken word we encourage.”
Another highlight of the evening was a mesmerizing bit of storytelling by acclaimed community actor Dean Williams (catch Williams next month in the Shasta College Theatre production of “Circle Mirror Transformation”).
Haunting music played softly as Williams recited (entirely by memory) “The Cats of Ulthar,” a story written in 1920 by American horror author H.P. Lovecraft (“a poor man’s Edgar Allan Poe,” Williams said). Perfectly still, Williams used his voice and eyes to captivating effect as he related the tale that begins, “It is said that in Ulthar, which lies beyond the river Skai, no man may kill a cat; and this I can verily believe as I gaze upon him who sitteth purring before the fire. For the cat is cryptic, and close to strange things which men cannot see.”
By the end of the evening, the audience had dwindled considerably (more than two hours of sitting can be a stretch). But many lingered, enjoying coffee and wine and looking at the art displayed on the gallery walls (currently the Loft is showcasing works by Shasta College students).
Harris said that whenever he visits a new town, he seeks out poetry readings. Spoken words tend to forge community. “It’s one place where strangers seem to come together in immediately meaningful ways,” he said.
The next Spoken Word Night starts at 7 p.m. March 9. (The next open-mic Music Night is March 3.) Visit www.travelingbohemians.org to learn about all the group’s events, including the debut performances this spring by the new Theater Lab, directed by Hava-Robbins.
-Candace L. Brown has been a newspaper and magazine writer and editor since 1992. She’s been a fan of the spoken word since her first dramatic monologue in elementary school. Candace lives in Redding and can be reached at email@example.com.
-Photos courtesy of Peter Robbins, Adam Mankoski and Dean Williams
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