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Posted by : cj on Monday, December 06, 2004 - 11:35 AM
Chicago Poetry Archives: Click Headlines CAFE ALOHA RISES FROM THE ASHES

It's dark. And smoky. There are only three seats in the house with an unobstructed view of the stage. The waitstaff doesn't speak English, or at least not the word "decaf". The sound system has a mind of it's own. But as far as I'm concerned -- and I'm sure the other Aloha regulars will agree -- it's the only place to be on a Tuesday night.

That's right, after a six month hiatus, Cafe Aloha is back in swing (figured I'd play on David's baseball allusions). On January 23rd, hosts David and Victoria Rubin re-ignited the stage (ooh, bad pun, totally unintentional) with an open-mic and Maria McCray for a feature. They even brought cookies. Though the crowd was smaller than they'd been getting before the grease fire, it still had the friendly enthusiasm I've come to expect from this venue.

One of the best things about Aloha is its regulars. Not only are they a talented bunch, they are an attentive, supportive audience -- for each other and for newcomers as well. I was glad to see many of them ready to pick up where they left off on Tuesday night. Julie Taylor played "She Wanted to be the Rain," my favorite song of hers; it still gives me the shivers every time I hear it. The song was even better with the harmony added by Anthony Wittaker, who kicked off the open mic with two songs of his own. Mike Breen also came back with his mix of vivid imagery and guitar playing. Dina Stengel read poetry about yet another near death experience, as well as commentary on the racism she witnessed at Cook County Hospital. Heather and Stacy could no longer hide in their back corner, as the seats have been taken out. Heather read more of her continuing fantasy epic, and Stacy brought the house down with the announcement of her pregnancy followed by a very funny poem that began by rhyming "Venus" with "Penis."

Oh, I almost forgot myself. I read my burrito poem and sang a silly little song about being inspired by bad poetry. I promise it was not aimed at anyone in particular.

Along with its regulars, Cafe Aloha tends to attract extremely talented poets who drop in from time to time. Among those on Tuesday's open-mic roster: Carolyn Aguilera (I have no idea if I spelled that right) with her elegant, descriptive style and Trooper True (I don't know if I spelled that right either) with a dig against Puff Daddy and a sentimental poem for his wife. I particularly enjoyed Frank Varela's "Gazing at a Picture of Ezra Pound while Sitting in the Humboldt Park Library." Larry Winfield read a poem
that should inspire us all to get up off our collective ass -- Larry, can I have a copy of that poem to nail over the screen of my TV set? And none other than CJ Laity himself made an appearance, reading two of his older poems, which I'm guessing he found while moving into my apartment. Don't worry hon, they still hold up. Stop snickering folks, I wouldn't say it if it weren't true.

I should also give a nod to a young man named Patrick, who as a Cafe Aloha virgin, suffered through audio problems and a sudden light display like a trooper. I hope he comes back so we can hear his songs under less distracting circumstances.

Whew...this article is getting long. Aloha really needs to start serving decaf.

Aloha also has a history of top-notch features -- Maria McCray's appearence on Tuesday is no exception. In fact, she was the first featured performer when Cafe Aloha Circus started in 1997. As usual for Maria, and as usual for Aloha features, she did not disappoint. One of her greatest talents is her ability to balance humor with serious topics. She manages to take her audience from laughter to deep reflection in an instant, and it never seems forced or inappropriate. Maria is such an engaging performer, she kept the Aloha crowd clapping and singing along throughout her set.
Kurt Heintz led a second round of open mic after Maria's performance; apologies to those I missed when I ducked out.

All of this -- the regulars, the special guests, great features like Maria -- would not exist without the efforts of the hosts. I could write a whole other article about the contributions of Aloha's hosts -- not just at this venue but for the Chicago poetry in general. While most venues have one, maybe two hosts, Cafe Aloha now has FIVE. At the start of Tuesday's program, David Rubin announced the new schedule: He and Vickie will play host every other week. Les Enfants Terrible, Kurt Heintz and JJ Jamison, will contine their tradition of hosting the first Tuesday of the month. Marcus (whose last name escapes me for the moment), who filled in last April when the Rubins were busy having a baby, will host the third Tuesday of the month. They're all energetic hosts, and I predict that their individual styles will add to the diversity that is already a signature of Cafe Aloha.

It makes me very happy to write this article. Not just because of my particular fondness for Cafe Aloha. Not just because of my particular fondness of this website's publisher. And not just because it gives me something to do in my caffeine induced insomnia (anyone know how to say "decaf" in Bosnian?). I'm happy to write this article because Tuesday's re-opening means that Chicago hasn't lost this unique gem in its poetry crown.
--Maggie Rubin

The Venue

From the neon coffee cup over the door, to the burnt plywood walls, to the knee bumping tightness of the tables and booths, to the easter colored glasses hanging from the ceiling rack, to the mounted sword fish with the broken sword, to the poker machines hidden in a corner, Aloha is a Chicago poetry venue like no other.

At thirty people, the evening is a packed house (I don't think you could fit much more in there if you tried); and the Bulgarian owners are kind enough not to blast the house music from the upstairs bar as has been the case in the past. The stage is bigger than the entire raised booth area, and all that space is not needed, as there is just a microphone for the poet behind which our guest host, Kurt Heintz, stands waiting--sometimes offering his brand of humor to the performance. Our other host is J. J. Jameson, though he doesn't do much except give closing plugs (David and Vicky Rubin are the usual hosts, but are replaced on the first Tuesday of the month "so that they can spend time with their children").

After Kurt Heintz salutes John Sheehan, calling him the "defacto poet laureate," he goes into a piece about fear which quickly turns from a list poem to an excercize in stream of consciousness. He then reads a poem by Craig Hickman, a poet who Heintz refers to as "out, I mean waaay out." He reads the poem, "Sassy Diva" with more umph than he even reads his own poem.

The Open Mic.

A regular at the establishment, Maggie Rubin (no relation, I hear, to the regular hosts), begins the open mic. set with a poem called "Past Over" (referring to the holiday, Passover), which describes the ten plagues as including headaches, lonliness, sore muscles and post-nasal drip. Next, a man named Mike reads from a typed page marked up by scribbled corrections: "somewhere hovering between layers of space . . .are those who gaze at her timeless beauty." The Moon Lodge, which consists of two women, one with a guitar and another with a voice, performs next (a song written by "Karen"): "I got too many cats, cats in the garden, cats on the bed, cats at the window, cats on my head." I'm not sure if this performance can actually be classified as performance poetry; it's more-so just a song, though it tends to remind me of Example: None. Nicole reads next, offering two short pieces about terrors: "like a collection of faeded demons . . . shake them away like flying fish." And speaking of Example: None, who got up to the mic. but none-other than Steve Seddon, who read a poem about not wanting to "see the baby," which he admitted sounds like a Seinfeld plot. He also "sang" a poem about turning the gun on one's self.

Kris Darlington, another Chicago poet not often seen on the scene these days, came to the Aloha microphone. He read poetry inspired by his participation in a "12 step recovery for depression program", reading from a sticker covered notebook with pages glistening from scotch tape making them look like broken glass, offering three little words of wisdom: "don't look back." And yet ANOTHER name which forced me to look back, Daniel X. O'neil, stepped up to the stage, with his infant child even, head practically shaved: "It's okay to smash your head against the bathroom mirror if you just don't feel like going to work." A man named Hugo read the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe with too much energy; doesn't he know Poe was one morbid dude? Yet it somehow symbolized the night: how else could one capture the essence of a bunch of dark poets reading at a place called Aloha? With animated right hand, Hugo proclaimed "We choose to be blinded by the over stimulation of our senses!"

Adam Swinfor-Wasem (also with a lack of hair) read about "concrete monotony" and a Ian Winn, from either London or California "performed" with a double jointed spine beneath a Freddy Krugar shirt in a mentally deranged Dr. Seuss style. And there were yet even more open mic.ers--but let's get on to our feature of the evening.

The Feature

Lucy Anderton, member of the Mad Bar 2000 National Slam Team (along with Tara Betts, Shappy and Ariana), has been making the rounds lately, everywhere from in front of the 300 people at the slam finals to the 25 people at the poetry in the park--she's back from L.A. and thank God, 'cause Chicago needs the likes of her.

In her style I can see the influences of some of the other Big Goddesses of Chicago who have inspired her, such as Cindy Salach and Patricia Smith. I can recognize these people as her mentors in not only the style of her poetry but in the way she performs it. This is a very good thing. She is carrying on a tradition and claiming it as undeniably her own place within it.

Anderton has most of her poetry committed to memory, but she doesn't mind resorting to the page when needs be. She read a long piece about Morocco: "slapping the seventeen blankets for the heat they were holding back." Her topics ranged from the three titles given to her female medical exam poem, to her classic "Soul Flower": "she slides in and out of feelings like socks. . .she isn't a paper doll . . . her eyes dive into the moving darkness / she often wants to be a string . . . lately, she's been looking for a window to walk through."

Anderton's voice cracked with emotion as she read "The Church of Noticing: "words came from him like apples from an old battered sack," leaving us in awe during the climax of her perfectly timed set. Her performance was worth much more than the crumpled dollar I dropped in Jameson's hat, which was rudely passed during one of Lucy's poems, distracting her (do it between the open mic. and the feature, guys, please).

I believe Lucy Anderton has the heart to bring Chicago close to the National Slam Title; the question is does she have the will, and the competative spirit, which is necessary to help her team go all the way? Can she tap into her raw emotions in order to bring her sometimes dark poetry to a level which is pleasing to a judge seeking to be instantly gratified? If she can do this for Chicago, I smell victory.

Regardless of that bit of pressure, Lucy Anderton showed herself during her feature at Café Aloha as one of Chicago's freshest voices in the performance poetry arena. And ya' can't change that.

--C. J. Laity

**We hope you found the information on this page useful. ChicagoPoetry.com needs your help. We are holding a fundraising drive in order to stay online. There are two ways that you can help: Click here to offer a financial gift or click here to order the new book by ChicagoPoetry.com Press.

Note: Here Rubin and Laity join forces to paint a perfect picture of the Aloha Circus.

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