Brew Bayou. The Venice Cafe. Mokabe's. The Oasis. The Grind. Sacred Grounds. The Mud Room. The tables were often unsteady, the chairs did not match, and the coffee was of uncertain quality. But coffee houses draw English majors into their dim, warm interiors to compose innumerable sonnets or free verse as they try to figure out life, love, and iambic pentameter. Within this collection, one such poet-narrator muses on those very topics as he sought to transition from youth to adult, and then he reflects upon those days when he spent those hours in coffee houses.

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These are a few of my coffee house memories.


Michael Castro was the first poet laureate in the city of St. Louis, and I once did a poetry reading with him. Well, that’s certainly self-aggrandizing and self-promoting, but that’s what this Web site is for. But it’s true in a fashion. Okay, to make a short story long, here’s what happened:

One day (my twenty-fifth birthday, as a matter of fact), I got an email from someone at the University of Missouri with a single line in it: “So where is there to read in St. Louis?” A student in Columbia had come across one of my poems (“Exploring, we discovered Bee Tree Park….” which appears in the Samples section) on a Usenet news group. This student wanted to know what kind of places one could read poetry in St. Louis—that is, what are the open mic nights like. Gentle reader, I was just the person to ask, as I knew the places one could read each day of the week and what kinds of audiences one found there. The difference between the crowd at the Venice Café and the Barnes and Noble in Ladue, for instance. So I responded with a great degree of detail to this student, identified only by a student number email address.

This student in Columbia turned out to be a comely lass, also a good poet. We exchanged emails for a couple of weeks, and then I got her to agree to come read poetry at Brandt’s, a little coffee shop down at the end of the University City Loop and the only place to read on Sunday nights. Unlike, say, Monday, when one could choose between the Venice Café or the Way Out Club (or both).

She came to town the second Sunday in April. Unbeknownst to me, Brandt’s changed their schedule that month to every other Sunday, and that was the off Sunday, so I took her on a bit of a tour of St. Louis, including the Loop where I showed her that Brandt’s really existed, and then I took her to The Grind in the Central West End and asked her to read my play The Courtship of Barbara Holt.

The next week, though, I invited her back to actually read at Brandt’s. Brandt’s, as I recall, had a bifurcated poetry reading. The first portion had a named and generally known poet, well, as “generally known” as poets get—followed by an open mic. That evening, Michael Castro read from a seated position on a stool behind the microphone. He was a magazine poet, not a street poet or an open mic poet. Not necessarily geared to performance and hopeful of winning the occasional poetry slam. When it came to the open mic portion of the evening, I was my normal performing self—projecting without a microphone, being as expressive as a silent film star, but far louder. The lovely young lady performed very genteelly, also sitting on the stool with her legs crossed and reading from her printed pages.

I’ve asked that lovely young poetess—whom I was sagacious enough to marry—to confirm my memory of the evening. Wasn’t that Michael Castro? She couldn’t envision him sitting on the stool reading, though; she thought it was a bald guy named Brian. “Michael O’Brian?” I said, and she thought maybe so. But I don’t remember Michael O’Brian doing Brandt’s, and I never made it to Duff’s to see Michael Castro doing the River Styx poetry readings there. So, in my coffee house memories, it was Michael Castro at Brandt’s along with the beautiful young lady whom I would wed along with a couple friends of mine who were there to ensure me that, yes, this properly reading young poetess might be interested in me.

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I was working at Artmart, an art and commercial graphics supply store, in the winter and spring of 1995 along with a night job slinging produce at Sappington Farmers Market [sic].

A fellow I knew, the guy who ran the open mike night at the Oasis and the guy behind Stages St. Louis under whose aegis I shanghaied friends and an actual actor (on stages in St. Louis and now in Hollywood) and several friends into doing a staged reading of my play The Courtship of Barbara Holt (also available on Amazon!), this guy was doing a couple fill in spots overnight at KDHX, a small local access sort of radio station in St. Louis. He thought it might be cool to have poets to come in and read poems live on the air.

So I got home from my second job, took a couple of hours of sleep, and drove to the station's house-sized studio in the southwest portion of the city not far off of Grand. A little groggy, I leaned on the doorbell outside of the locked studio for a couple of minutes, wondering if I was in the right place and whether he was in the right place, before he let me in.

And I read a couple of poems on the air punctuated by something he played on the turntable and a couple of PSAs probably.

I had been very excited and had told everyone, but the people I asked after the event had missed it. Even Jay, the formerly long-haired, former rock band guitarist who'd cut his hair when he became a commercial sales representative, although he assured me that he'd fallen asleep in a chair with the radio on.

I still tell the story of how Jay met Steve Miller's aunt in an elevator in the apartment building where they both lived in California, and how she had said that her nephew also played in a band, and perhaps he and Jay could play together sometime.

That story is not in the collection Coffee House Memories, but the poems I read on the air that night in KDHX most likely are.

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Reading Raymond Chandler

Back in my poetry open mic days, I not only used to perform my own poems, but also works by others. Most famously (which means I would already mentioned it), I would do an Edna St. Vincent Millay sonnet whose opening line is "Love, though for this you riddle me with darts". But I also did longer pieces, too. Such as Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". I was working in a print shop at the time, and when the press was doing its long runs, I had a lot of time standing at the workbench and watching it glide by, so I often tacked up something to memorize in those idle hours as wet ink on 17" paper rolled by.

One longer block that I tried out came from Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye:

There are blondes and blondes and it is almost a joke word nowadays. All blondes have their points, except perhaps the metallic ones who are as blond as a Zulu under the bleach and as to disposition as soft as a sidewalk. There is the small cute blonde who cheeps and twitters, and the big statuesque blonde who straight-arms you with an ice-blue glare. There is the blonde who gives you the up-from-under look and smells lovely and shimmers and hangs on your arm and is always very tired when you take her home. She makes that helpless gesture and has that goddamned headache and you would like to slug her except that you are glad you found out about the headache before you invested too much time and money and hope in her. Because the headache will always be there, a weapon that never wears out and is as deadly as the bravo's rapier or Lucrezia's poison vial.

There is the soft and willing and alcoholic blonde who doesn't care what she wears as long as it is mink or where she goes as long as it is the Starlight Roof and there is plenty of dry champagne. There is the small perky blonde who is a little pal and wants to pay her own way and is full of sunshine and common sense and knows judo from the ground up and can toss a truck driver over her shoulder without missing more than one sentence out of the editorial in the Saturday Review. There is the pale, pale blonde with anemia of some non-fatal but incurable type. She is very languid and very shadowy and she speaks softly out of nowhere and you can't lay a finger on her because in the first place you don't want to and in the second place she is reading The Waste Land or Dante in the original, or Kafka or Kierkegaard or studying Provençal. She adores music and when the New York Philharmonic is playing Hindemith she can tell you which one of the six bass viols came in a quarter of a beat too late. I hear Toscanini can also. That makes two of them.

And lastly there is the gorgeous show piece who will outlast three kingpin racketeers and then marry a couple of millionaires at a million a head and end up with a pale rose villa at Cap Antibes, an Alfa-Romeo town car complete with pilot and co-pilot, and a stable of shopworn aristocrats, all of whom she will treat with the affectionate absent-mindedness of an elderly duke saying goodnight to his butler.

The dream across the way was none of these, not even of that kind of world. She was unclassifiable, as remote and clear as mountain water, as elusive as color.

I had just read a two volume set of Chandler's complete works, and that stuck with me. Well, because I typed it up and tacked it up.

I didn't keep it long in my repetoire, though, as it was a bit dense for spoken performance. But I did like kind of how it has a sonnet feel to it, with three paragraphs and a turn like a Shakespearean sonnet (or the aforementioned Millay sonnet).

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Reading Edna St. Vincent Millay

Back in my coffee house days, I hit numerous open mike nights around town, and attendees knew what to expect from me, from sonnets to ending with the poem "An Evening Walk." I would mix in some "covers," where I would recite a poem by another poet or even cool prose from someone like Raymond Chandler.

But if I went to an open mike for the first time, I would do a little trick: I would perform Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Love, though for this you riddle me with darts...."

You can see what this sounds like when a proper British woman reads the poem:

That's not how I did it, though.

I'd sign my name on the sign-up sheet, and when the MC would call it, I'd go to the stage or the microphone with slumped shoulders, clutching a set of papers shyly, and I'd warble my voice breathlessly into the microphone, "This is a, um, sonnet" as though I were shy. And then I would throw the papers aside and shout/snarl the first ten lines like a challenge to fight Cupid and then the last two lines like almost a whispered aside.

Then, of course, I wouldn't have to pick up the papers to go into my own poems, because I memorized them. And when I did coffee houses, I liked to perform the poems.

Less formally than Edna St. Vincent Millay herself would have done.

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