Making Their Case With Voices, Verses Poetry Nights Offer Refuge For Area Liberals. Iambic Pentameter Is Optional.

Posted: March 09, 1995

PHOENIXVILLE — It was Ash Wednesday in this town, dotted with churches of many denominations. But inside the Royal Scot pub, near the old industrial district, mockery of targets religious and political was the rite of choice as the bar became a smoky poets' den for a night.

"Man of the Year," read Annie Hawkins, a Kennett Square poet, storyteller and journalist with a shock of red hair, sniffing at Time magazine's choice of Pope John Paul II for its annual honor.

"Whose man is he? Not my man. . . ," she recited. "Twenty-two languages, but he don't speak mine. In the language of women, the Pope couldn't pass a simple vocabulary test."

Some of the women applauded and laughed. The crowd, warmed up by now, was reminded that this was the beginning of Women's History Month. And the literary venting continued at this poetry reading, one of a group emerging as a rare refuge for liberals in conservative Chester County.

Patrons and participants come for poetry and doggerel, music and raving. At these monthly readings, part of a series sprinkled around the county, one can hear pig stories along with the would-be Plath. Last week at the Royal Scot, there were voices as diverse as the beat poetry of Cub Culbertson of West Chester and the verse of Stan Warren of Downingtown, who draws his inspiration

from 18th-century history and draws his paycheck from a computer firm, where he works as a senior technical writer.

Poor Warren. This may be the only corner of Chester County where eyes look askance upon an executive position.

"Stan is a corporate man, but his love is poetry," said Dagmar Holl, a West Chester poet and the driving force behind these readings, as she introduced Warren.

"A corporate man?" Warren protested, approaching the mike with maroon vest, tweedy jacket, and Woody Allen dialect. "I've been called a lot of things, but that's the lowest blow."

He shared his "Kings Cannot Endure," with lines such as: "Stolen pearls of wisdom / Yet to be spent on painted dreams / Unrealized fortune, wrested

from the laughing gods."

But talk of great rulers was interspersed with paeans to intercourse, and other verse unprintable here.

There are men in these regular poetry circles old enough to remember Dorothy Parker, and girls who look no older than Chelsea Clinton.

A poet need not have been published in the New Yorker or the Nation to partake. No one will find fault with a lack of iambic pentameter. But a reading such as this is the place to bring predilections for the irreverent and barbs against the banal.

It's a forum to vent against all that is conservative in Chester County, including book-ban advocates on school boards and religious fundamentalists who "don't give us newaged hippyfried fantastical nature loving lunatics a moment's peace," in the words of Warwick poet Tom Bissinger.

Are these the kind of people Newt warns about?

"We're not trying to be an elite philosopher's crowd," Daphne Longo, a 26-year-old teacher who helps run forums for child and teenage poets, said during a break in readings.

Such readings have been going on in the county for years, explained Longo's mother, poet Eileen Longo. But they were more likely to be in homes or community centers. Poetry now is going public, increasingly to pubs such as the Royal Scot or restaurants such as Vincent's in West Chester, which will hold a politically oriented reading on March 18 from 2 to 5 p.m., titled ''United States of Mind."

The word wizard behind it all is Holl, 47, a native of Germany and a longtime resident of Chester County. The eloquent woman with upswept graying black hair has been organizing poetry readings for years, and in the mid-'80s ran the West Chester Arts Cooperative. That group spawned Capricorn Productions, an agency she now runs that promotes the appreciation of the performing arts in the area.

"Everybody's calling it a revival," said Holl. "But for me it's a constant effort to keep it alive, because we don't have a constant place, a coffeehouse where you can exchange literary things, no great bookstore you can walk in and do this. It's a dry county as far as that goes."

Dennis Brown, a musician who handed over one of his every-Wednesday "Open Mike Nights" at the Royal Scot for last week's poetry readings, began the evening with a similar grievance.

"One thing I find in the Philadelphia suburban area is a lack of unity in the performing-arts community," said Brown. "There's just not enough venues for original works to be aired out."

Holl described the poetry scene as "sort of like this traveling gypsy show."

But the wandering of the poetry coterie seems not to discourage its enthusiasts.

"In each place it takes on a different flavor," Eileen Longo said.

Robert Koepcke of West Chester, young and bespectacled and armed with a black-and-white composition notebook, was the last to read. After a stream-of- consciousness piece about a poor Los Angeles neighborhood, he read a selection evincing a poet's pleasure in fanciful rhyme: his ode to piercing.

A nose, a nose jutting from out a face

We learn 'twas left by nature in disgrace

What seemed at last to be a beauteous thing

When punctured and when fitted with a ring. . . .

A pewter dragon hanging from a lip

Might launch again a thousand mighty ships.

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