IF YOUR IDEA of a poetry reading is sitting for an hour in a cold metal chair while a timid voice drones endlessly, then standing around sipping cheap wine and munching cheese with a stiff smile on your face, banish the thought. Because the conventional dry, dull poetry reading has given way to some of the most exciting new entertainment around Washington today: performance poetry.
Many poets today see the writing as just the beginning. They take their poems to artists, musicians and actors. And then, weaving words with music, mime, singing, dance, painting and photography, they make poetry a dramatic event, not just a recital.
A dancer in colorful costume may act out the words in front of a screen, where images are splashed from a slide projector. Or a mimist may pantomime the words while musicians "jam," improvising music to the poem. The result can be as enchanting as a puppet show.
If you'd like to lend an ear, here are organizations that concentrate on performance poetry.
INTERNATIONAL POETRY FORUM -- This organization has been presenting poetry as an oral art since 1966, using internationally known poets, actors, singers and musicians. The current season's presentations, at the Hirshhorn Auditorium, are called "Word/Song III" and they're sponsored by the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program. The admission is $7 for members, $8 for nonmembers, and the programs are on Sundays at 7:30 pm. Call 357-3030 for information.
Some coming performances include:
SUNDAY -- "Spoon River Anthology." Broadway star Tammy Grimes and actor Marshall Mason will read poems by Edgar Lee Masters accompanied by turn-of-the-century music played by pianist Edward Mattos.
MARCH 31 -- "The Secret of Survival." Actor/singer Michael Kermoyan and poet Diana der Hovanessian present Armenian poetry and song.
FOLGER SHAKESPEARE LIBRARY -- The Folger sponsors two poetry programs: the "Evening Poetry Series," which brings in nationally known poets; and the "Midday Muse," featuring local poets and musicians. The evening series is a more conventional reading, usually followed by a lecture on poetry-related topics. The midday series is more improvisational and performance-oriented, combining various types of music with different themes in poetry. Katharine Zadravec, director, says, "These are not dull readings. We select people who are performers and presenters, who know how to act."
The Midday Muse series is on Thursdays from 12:15 to 1 p.m. and it's free. Call 544- 7077 for a complete schedule. Among the coming offerings:
MARCH 14 -- Irish-Americans will present Irish poetry for St. Patrick's Day.
TAKOMA CAFE POETRY SERIES -- It holds occasional open readings as well as readings by published poets combined with music.
MARCH 21 -- John Carter and Ilja Kostovski, with musicians Carl Banner, Karen Hewson and Mark Mattson. The cafe is at 1 Columbia Avenue, Takoma Park. 588-1947.
STATION TO STATION -- A writers collective featuring original and historic AfroAmerican poetry, this organization uses "dance, visual art and music to enhance the presentation, incorporating dramatic techniques, sound and props, as opposed to just reciting and reading," according to director Garth Tate.
Among other things, Station to Station presents "Poetry Free for Alls," open readings encouraging artists and poets to mingle and blend their work. For more information, call Garth Tate, 328-6348.
A POETRY FREE FOR ALL -- April 28, 2 to 4 p.m., at D.C.'s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. Anyone can read; each poet gets five minutes.
WORDSTAGE -- In cooperation with Arlington County Visual and Performing Arts, Wordstage frequently brings performance poetry to the Reader's Theater at the Gunston Arts Center in Arlington. Claire Wood, director, combines the theatrical with the literary, emphasizing that poetry does not have action, but movement. "It isn't people sitting around in turtlenecks drinking coffee. It's fanciful and fun and entertaining, as well as literary and with a loftier purpose."
Admission is $3 and all performances start at 8 p.m. For a schedule call Claire Wood at 558-2161. Its next poetry event:
APRIL 12 & 13, 19 & 20 -- "Play Ball." Poetry about America's favorite sport, accompanied by music.
DANCE EXCHANGE -- As part of its interdisciplinary arts programs, Dance Exchange presents poetry performances accompanied by music and dance at a variety of locations throughout the area. All events are free. Call Nancy Galeotta, 232-0833.
MAY 3 -- "Black Art/White Art," at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center Theater Lab, featuring Michelle Parkinson, a D.C. performance poet and filmmaker; and Chasen Gaber, a leading figure in the area's performance poetry movement; combining rhythm, music and theater with poetry.
WORD WORKS -- In conjunction with the National Park Service, Word Works, a literary publishing company, offers a series of "Poet's Jams" at Glen Echo, Maryland, in the spring and summer each year. Local poets are teamed up with other artists through a unique planning meeting held in mid-winter. Several poets are invited to read, and artists, musicians, mimists and dancers are invited to listen and be inspired to create through the poetry they hear. From this beginning, semi-improvisational pograms are devised for the series. Past events have included medieval poetry accompanied by slides of wood engravings by a local woodblock artist, as well as original poetry by area published poets interwoven with live music on such exotic instruments as the sitar, windchimes, Tibetan bells and dumbek.
Admission is $2 and includes refreshments and a ride on the carousel. Call Robert Sargent, 554-3014 or Karen Alenier, 652-3843 for the 1985 schedule. (Word Works also sponsors the popular summer poetry reading series at Miller Cabin in Rock Creek Park, which sometimes includes performance poetry. Information on the Miller Cabin series can be obtained from the above phone numbers.)
BARS FOR POETS -- Adams Morgan may not quite be D.C.'s answer to Greenwich Village, but some poets are working on it. The two bars in Washington that can be truly called places where poets gather are there: Potter's House Coffee House at 1658 Columbia Road, and Cafe D'Or at 1721 Columbia Road. After 9 in the evening, poets can be found sharing their work or just lending support to colleagues in a profession with an "image problem," according to performance poet Garth Tate. "A lot of bar owners think poets are poor and won't spend money on drinks, or that poetry is just for intellectuals, and discourage them from gathering at their establishments."
KEEPING POSTED ON THE POETS
WPFW (89.3FM) -- "The Poet and the Poem" can be heard every Thursday evening, 7:30 to 8:30. In addition to a featured poet reading and discussions on the craft of poetry, there's information on area performances and readings. Call 783-3100 for information. WPFW also airs "Dial-a-Poem" every Thursday 11 a.m. to noon. Live readings are given by poets who call the station's special number: 783-3104.
THE WRITER'S CENTER -- This organization offers classes and readings and publishes a bimonthly newsletter, Carousel, with a very comprehensive calendar of poetry events in the Washington-Baltimore area. Call 229-0930. On March 31 at 2 p.m. the center presents "Poetry in Performance." Robert Peters will perform "King Ludwig of Bavaria."
POETRY HOTLINE -- Call 783-POET for a listing of events. POETRY STRAIGHT UP
Maybe you're among the lucky ones whose soul thrives on good poetry in any form, so it doesn't need to be dressed up or disguised for your heart to respond. The following are conventional poetry readings:
THE ART BARN -- 2401 Tilden St. NW, near Beach Drive, in Rock Creek Park. 426-6719. Visions, a poetry magazine, presents monthly readings by local and out-of- town poets, on Thursday evenings at 8 p.m. March 14: Malcolm Glass, Bill Brown and Randy Mackin, poets from Tennessee. $2 donation requested.
AMERICAN UNIVERSITY -- 686-2450. Well-known writers are scheduled for occasional readings. March 13: Gjertrud Schnackenberg at 8:30 p.m.. Free.
BETHUNE MUSEUM-ARCHIVES -- 1318 Vermont Ave. NW. 332-9202. Emphasizing black and Third World poets, this organization holds readings from 3 to 4 p.m. on the first Sunday of every month. Free to members; $1 for nonmembers.
FOLGER SHAKESPEARE LIBRARY -- 544-7077. The "Evening Poetry Series" brings to Washington distinguished poets from all over the world. All readings begin at 8 p.m. March 4 & 5: Edward Hirsch and Gjertrud Schnackenberg. April 2: Denis Johnson and Elizabeth Spires. A donation is requested.
GAITHERSBURG REGIONAL LIBRARY -- 18330 Montgomery Village Ave. 840-2515. The "Gaithersburg Lyric Society" has open readings (anyone can come and read), on the first Tuesday of every month at 7:30 p.m. Free.
GEORGE MASON UNIVERSITY -- 4400 University Dr., Fairfax. 703/323-2222. The English Department sponsors readings by established writers once a month at 8 p.m. in the Student Union. March 20: Katha Polott. Free.
GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY -- 22nd St. NW. 676-6472. Occasional readings held in Room B120 of the Academic Center (between H and I streets off 22nd) at 8 p.m. March 28: Charles Wright. Free. GWU also sponsors a weekly series, every Tuesday at noon, at 2000 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, featuring one poet from GWU and one from the community, followed by an open reading. March 5: Charles Dennis, Ann Becker and Calvin Forbes; March 19, Judith Hall and Michael Glaser.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS -- First and East Capitol streets SW. 287-5394. Nationally known poets are featured on an irregular basis from October to May. A reception follows all readings, held at 8 p.m. March 4: Grace Cavalieri and Robert Sargent. Free.
JEWISH COMMUNITY CENTER -- 6125 Montrose Rd., Rockville. 881-0100. Occasional readings emphasizing Jewish heritage. On March 5, at 8 p.m. Myra Sklarew will read as part of a women's series. March 8 at 8 p.m., Isaac Goldemberg, Latin American poet, will read from his works. $2 members; $3.50, nonmembers.
MILLER CABIN -- Rock Creek Park. 726-0971. Word Works holds a summer poetry reading series every Tuesday at 7:30 p.m., beginning in June.
MARTIN LUTHER KING LIBRARY -- 901 G St. NW. 727- 1281. The "Poets in Person" series has monthly readings, by published poets, at 7:30 p.m. March 14: Susan Sonde and Edward Gold. Free.
TAKOMA PARK LIBRARY -- Philadelphia and Maple avenues, Takoma Park. 270-1717. Local and well-known poets read the first Thursday of every month at 8 p.m. Free.
THE WRITER'S CENTER -- 4800 Sangamore Rd., Bethesda. 229-0930. Published local and visiting poets are featured on Sundays at 2 p.m., followed by a reception. Occasional open readings for new poets. March 17: Elaine Magarrell and David McAleavey. Members free; Non- members $1.