FROM BENEATH a fringe of flame-red bangs, the rather frail-looking young woman scans the unlikely mix of middle-aged businessmen and beret-garbed artistes in the audience before launching into "O, My Darling Psychopath."
"My sweetest lunatic," intones the unexepectedly forceful voice.
". . . with eyes rolling like pinballs
"and lips as red as those bloodshot eyes."
Sweating under the spotlight is no big deal for Sharon Morgenthaler, who has spent the last couple of her 25 years performing at local poetry readings. But her recent reading in the gallery room at Herb's Restaurant was especially significant -- the event celebrated the arrival of "Flank Steak," Morganthaler's first published collection. The thin volume of 16 provocative poems and a handful of one-page vignettes was designed and published by her own Poodles Pub. publishing house.
"Most of my stuff is steamy and kind of funny," says Morgenthaler, who looks like a character from a Kerouac novel but works as a Chamber of Commerce satellite engineer. "I've heard people say it borders on the obscene, but I don't think they get the humor of it when they just read the book."
The production of "Flank Steak" cost Morgenthaler "a few hundred dollars" and countless hours of paste-up and layout. It shows. Bold letters the shade of a medium-rare T-bone sprawl across the glossy cover, superimposed on a shadowy photo of Morgenthaler's friend Ralph Smith, a graphic artist who is credited in the book for "creative design and overall argumentativeness."
Second Story Books, Idle Time Books and a smattering of other local bookstores have agreed to stock a few copies of "Flank Steak." Even so, Morgenthaler does most of her own peddling -- to unsuspecting coworkers and fellow patrons of her favorite downtown haunts.
Relaxing at a Dupont Circle bar, Morgenthaler cradles a Budweiser and chats easily about poetry in general and "Flank Steak" in particular.
"It took nine months, exactly like the birth of a child," she says. "But there's only so many copies I can sell here in D.C., so it's time to hit other markets. I'm going to try and have it picked up by some small press, so they can get it across the country."
Morgenthaler likes to think her saucy lyrics lure even the most blase' audience into "the palm of my hand, oohing and ahing." Sometimes they do. Most readings kick off with "PNTFLFK," in which Morgenthaler -- "a pre-nuke thrill freak" -- seeks out a "low-key love with big time staying power."
And if that doesn't work, a line like "your buns are like pale macaroons" from "Main Squeeze" will.
"I'd like more than polite applause. I want people to say, 'That was a breath of fresh air,' " says Morgenthaler of her candid style. "A lot of people's stuff is very morose, or it's so abstract you can't understand it."
Three years ago, a more hesitant Morgenthaler stuttered through "I'm Gonna Buy Me a $10 Vacation" at the now defunct Columbia Station. Since then she has read at places as diverse as the Glen Echo Writers' Center, the Potter's House and d.c. space.
The thought of writing poetry had not occurred to Morgenthaler until, bored with two years as an American University literature major, she hit the road to follow Bruce Springsteen's 1978 tour. She first wrote about overweight promoters and bleary-eyed roadies. Later characters included would-be rockabilly stars driving laundry trucks for a living, salesmen of the No-Tell Motel variety and career women toting briefcases full of eyeliner and depression.
"All my poems are anecdotes -- each one is like a little, tiny story," she says. "Everybody seems to like 'Psychopath.' That's easily the biggest hit. 'Bongo Man' is also pretty hot. I guess I've been lucky, because people of all sizes and types come to the readings." Her breezy manner makes life on the poetry circuit look easy. Almost.
"I've been thinking of whether I should become a cocktail waitress to make a lot of money and just write all day," muses Morgenthaler, who is short on cash but has tales aplenty. One of her favorite poems, "The Artist as a Tall Dog," tells of the time she first met Ralph:
"Pinwheels flashed before my eyes
"My head heard a knocking
"I screamed DOLLAR SIGNS
"Oh, this must be luv."
But Morgenthaler has precious little time for reminiscing. Not only is there the promotion of "Flank Steak" and a compilation of three short stories in the works, but she is also putting the finishing touches on new material like "Tired Of Funk," a chronicle of the "old men who sleep all day with flies hovering around them" in front of her Adams Morgan efficiency.
"People expect these sexy poems, so I feel like I've gotta put some of that stuff in it," she notes. "But things that have nothing to do with wildness in the night have gone over well for crowds, too."
Case in point: "Semper Fi," in which Morgenthaler boldly declares that she ". . . wants to be a Marine.
"I want to live on the only real edge there is
"I would be good
"In the face of it."
And that's a promise.