Compiled by G. Murray Thomas

Next … Magazine covered the Southern California poetry scene on monthly basis from 1994 through 1998. In the process, it provided a ground-level view of a transitional period in poetry, in SoCal and nationally. “From the Files” will reprint articles which capture important but ephemeral moments, events and publications from that period. News Clips and Ego Trips: The Best of Next … Magazine will be published by Write Bloody Publishing this fall. This week, two snapshots of one Southern California’s most influential poetry venues, Jam’s Coffeehouse, later called the Java Garden.

Open Reading: Thursdays, 8 pm
17304 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach
Atmosphere: Kids Today!
Audience: 40 – 50, about half of them listening

I wish I’d had someplace like Jam’s to go when I was secretly scribbling poetry in high school. Someplace where I could share my words. Someplace I could hear other poets, many my age, and get inspired. Someplace I wouldn’t feel alone. Someplace poetry was cool.

Not that everyone at Jam’s is in high school, but it does have one of the youngest open reading crowds around. Most are in their teens or early twenties. This adds a certain liveliness to the proceedings, and definitely affects the crowd’s taste, but all ages are welcome, and mature poetry is appreciated.

Lob, the host, believes a strong host makes a strong reading, and he puts that theory into practice every time he is on stage. His frenetic delivery takes charge of the crowd, and pumps up the energy as he introduces poets, rattles off lists of magazines, books and other events that are happening, and rants about creativity and marijuana. Then he’ll settle down crosslegged to deliver his own work.

Lob is one of the busiest men in SoCal poetry, running two readings (here and Gypsy Den), putting out a magazine (Never Ending Page), publishing books, fronting a band (Instagon), heading the Instagon Foundation for Creativity, and somehow keeping in touch with every other poetry and underground event around.

The list of poets who have been featured at Jam’s is an impressive Who’s Who of SoCal (esp. OC) poetry. There is still room, however, for homegrown talent and other promising but less-established voices.

The big drawback about Jam’s is basic audience rudeness. At any given moment, half the crowd will be paying attention. At a different given moment, a different half the crowd will be listening. The others drift out front to smoke and chat, wander back in (right in front of the stage), hang a bit, then drift out back to smoke and chat. The constant coming and going can be quite distracting, as can the sight of six or eight people outside the picture windows (which form the backdrop for the stage), oblivious to the performer only a foot or two away. More aggressive poets have been known to turn around and deliver their lines through the glass, or even run outside and confront the indifferent boors. Maybe someday Jam’s will invest in drapes.

Jam’s is not a place for meek and mild, daisies and puppies type verse. However, if you like a young, lively crowd, are capable of grabbing their attention, and have some work with a hedonistic tinge, you could be a star here! — GMT (3/95)

JAVA GARDEN 1992-1997
By G. Murray Thomas

I still remember that first night. Five poets (Frank Ortega, Gary Tomlinson, Thomas Rush, Tom Foster and myself) performed round-robin to a small but engrossed audience, mostly friends of the owners of this new coffeehouse called Jam’s. The space wasn’t much — a rectangular white room in a strip-mall(!), but this was a time when any new poetry venue was cause for excitement, and the owners were enthusiastic supporters of the art. We knew something new and exciting was being born.

At the time, in our self-centered delusion, we thought that “something new and exciting” was The 4 Toms, a new performance poetry troupe which would astound audiences and never perform for less than $100 a night.

We were wrong. While The 4 Toms did put on some great shows over the next year (all for free), what was being born that night was one of the longest-running, most-powerful and most influential weekly poetry readings in SoCal.

The Jam’s (and later Java Garden) reading not only survived at least four hosts, or teams of hosts (Frank Ortega, Mark Webb, Lob, and the shifting Victor Infante/Elmo Martin/Natalie Giacone/Beth McIlvaine/Jaimes Palacio group), four sets of owners (starting with Judy and Sam, who combined their names to get “Jam’s,” through Carolyn Churchouse, Tim Mitchell and Janie, and finally Jay Xu and Steve Dass) and two names for the coffeehouse, it grew and thrived.

Now it is ending. Not just the reading, the whole coffeehouse is closing at the end of March. The reasons are too many and too involved to discuss here. Besides, I would rather recall the highlights of the past five years.

There was Charles Ellik’s “Graduation” performance. As he read a series of poems marking turning points in his life, Ellik changed from black to white clothing, and then, in a shocking finale, cut off five years worth of hair…

There was Tom “Psycho Boy” Foster’s triumphant return to SoCal, when he read, with Ardinger, to a packed house… One of the largest and most dramatic of the pre-Lollapalooza slams, which Danni Bonaducci won with yet another reading of “If Doctor Seuss Ate Pussy”… S.A. Griffin reading a long piece of phone sex… My own T-shirt performance… Poetry Sucks, Phuket, Tokes, Paper Shredders, Spillway and many more publication parties…

I’m sorry if this list is taking on a “you had to be there” tone. But that’s how it is with any important venue; the excitement of a hot live event doesn’t always translate to the page. All of these were hot events, when great poetry met large and interested crowds. That’s what I remember about Java Garden — many, many such nights, so many I can no longer distinguish them all. They blend into an image of that long room, dark and packed and charged with the energy of the word.

I suppose I could list the poets who got their start in Java Garden, or otherwise became associated with it. It is neither coincidence nor (as some would claim) nepotism that so many of the names featured prominently in Next …, in articles, in reviews, on the masthead, were poets linked to Java Garden. Like the Iguana in North Hollywood, Java Garden attracted poets who were not only talented, but energetic and ambitious. Poets who worked and accomplished. The energy they brought to Java Garden fed on itself and then expanded until it touched all of SoCal poetry.

Java Garden’s closing will leave a huge vacuum in the Orange County, no, in the entire SoCal poetry scene. I do hope some other venue will emerge to fill that vacuum. But even if it does, Java Garden will be sorely missed. (4/97)