Eight years ago, as an obscure publisher of a small poetry book press, I decided I had nothing to lose by calling the main number of the most lavish performing arts venue in my hometown. The Muckenthaler Cultural Center, which once served as a family's home and perches high on a hill in Fullerton, California, had hosted any number of youth arts endeavors -- painting exhibits, live theater and the like -- when I was in school. Just as Elvis, I suppose, listened to the Louisiana Hayride with wide-eyed yearning as a child, so the Muckenthaler seemed to promise us a shot at glory, or at least high altitude, in those formative years.
When I called the number in 2008, I got a hold of Zoot Velasco, the executive director, who told me he would be at a street fair later that day and invited me to come by. I brought a small stack of books that Moon Tide Press had published and asked if the Muck, as it's known, would be interested in hosting a reading series. Perhaps my pitch was persuasive, or perhaps I just brought the Moon Tide volumes with the most gorgeous covers. Regardless, Zoot agreed to give it a try. Over the next near-decade, the Muck went on to host dozens of poets, many of whom shared the bill with local student musicians. Best of all, approximately half of our authors got to launch their (gorgeous) new books in the Muck's gallery or outdoor patio.
Now, Zoot is stepping down as leader of the Muck -- or, I should say, moving on, as he'll assume a leadership role at the Kern County Museum in Bakersfield. The Orange County Register's Brian Whitehead wrote a fine piece on Zoot today, outlining how the Muck expanded, lured more visitors and even reduced neighborhood noise complaints during his nine-year tenure. None of our poets would have been that loud, of course...but then, acoustics are one of the prime considerations in a poetry reading, and the Muck proved just about unequaled in that regard.
The thing about poetry is that, unlike sports or movies or music, it doesn't often have venues created specifically for its use. If the voices in Field of Dreams had urged Kevin Costner to build a site for poetry instead of baseball, he wouldn't have had to sink thousands of dollars into topsoil and stadium lights; he would have simply cleared a space in his kitchen or the neighborhood community center. Poets, who generally go without dressing rooms, paparazzi and limousines en route to their live gigs, may have to contend with coffeehouses where they struggle to be heard over the blender, libraries where the hard wooden chairs aren't especially comfortable, college lecture halls with drab decor, and the like.
And then there's the art gallery in the Muck, which is large enough to accommodate nearly 100 people but cozy enough not to make low turnouts an embarrassment. The foot-high stage, situated under a fancy white arch, makes a perfect focal spot for performers who, as long as they speak somewhere above a whisper, don't require a microphone to be heard. As one who dislikes shouting his poetry -- at least the non-angry poems -- I found that the confines of the gallery worked wonders in terms of subtlety and pacing. With the paintings on the wall and the piano in the corner, the room feels like it was tailor-made for a visit by Cecilia Woloch or Eric Morago, even if we know that wasn't what the Muckenthaler family had in mind.
On summer nights, we'd often relocate outdoors to the patio or even the amphitheatre, which required more amplification. Still, those shows were some of our best -- particularly the launch party in the amphitheatre for the Pop Art anthology in 2010, when the Troy High School jazz band took the stage between poets.
In the Register piece, Zoot is quoted as saying, "We found a niche that wasn't being served, and we served it. You come to the Muck, you can expect to see something you won't see anywhere else." On behalf of Moon Tide Press and all the poets, Zoot, thanks for making us part of that something.