D.C. Arts Center

3-Hour Weekend - Avant-Garde Poetry at District of Columbia Arts Center

Friday, April 17, 2009

On a blustery afternoon, the faithful file into a small, dark theater connected to the D.C. Arts Center, settling in among rows of hard wooden seats. Once a month, these poetry aficionados gather at the center's "In Your Ear" sessions to hear local and nationally known poets read their latest works, which the center describes as "alternative, avant-garde, experimental . . . and non-mainstream."

After a short introduction from co-curator Maureen Thorson, poet Ryan Walker walks to the front of the theater, which is furnished with a kitchen chair and a wire lectern. A ripple of laughter runs through the audience as the Arnold native haphazardly affixes a paper sign to the lectern: The Web address of his publisher is scribbled across it. Wearing a bright yellow raincoat and speaking in an unrehearsed staccato, Walker balances a taste for the absurd with a keen awareness of what his followers find amusing, reading such lines as "Air is like glass, if you're a dead bird." It's quirky stuff, yes, but at times Walker's musings are so insightful and clever that listeners are caught off guard and tricked into giggling aloud.

Walker reads several pages of his work, asking the audience to let him know if he repeats himself, which elicits more chuckles. There are no critics here, no matter that the phrase "avant-garde poetry" seems to evoke images of disenchanted beatniks in jaunty black berets. In fact, there seems to be somewhat of a kinship among the roughly two dozen listeners, forged perhaps by the intimate space and this deeply personal method of self-expression.

A short intermission prompts some in the audience to head for the homegrown bar upstairs, and then the second poet takes the stage. San Francisco writer Rob Halpern reads from his latest book, "Disaster Suites," a collection of ruminations inspired by Hurricane Katrina and the death of a friend and fellow poet, Kerry Edwards. Halpern's diction is crisp, his tone authoritative. The author touches on war, death, politics, Leninism, peace and violence, peppering each topic with sexual imagery and the occasional expletive. Juxtaposition and irony are the tools of his particular trade, evidenced by such phrases as "the attacks that stabilize our region." When Halpern closes his book, the audience is quiet, rapt -- drained from the emotional 180 that has occurred between Walker's and Halpern's readings.

Thorson closes the session, touting publications for sale and the shiny steel donations bucket. Some attendees wander forward to make small talk with the poets; others retreat from the dark and drafty theater into the cozy gallery in the arts center. But they'll be back on the 19th, when local poets Adam Good and Jon Lee will be joined by New Yorker Thom Donovan for the April session.

-- Holly E. Thomas

Where is it? The "In Your Ear" poetry sessions take place on the third Sunday of every month. The next one is this Sunday at 3 p.m. in the D.C. Arts Center (2438 18th St. NW).

How much does it cost? $3

If you have more than three hours: Satisfy most any craving at the array of ethnic restaurants and cafes in the neighborhood, then head back to DCAC to see the off-Broadway musical comedy "Walmartopia" (show at 7:30 p.m., tickets $25). Also, check out the paintings and mixed-media works by artist Ellington Robinson in DCAC's gallery.

For more information: 202-462-7833, http://www.dcartscenter.org.

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