A family affair

Central Valley poets Leslie Kramer and Todd Mann handle publishing and parenting with grace

Todd y Annaliese y LeslieLeslie Kramer and Todd Mann

Todd y Annaliese y LeslieLeslie Kramer and Todd Mann

“Marriage is like Freddy Mercury at the top of his game,” writes Leslie Kramer in her poem “Upon the Marriage of my Brother.”

“It’s got every straight man in the house dropping jazz hands and smiling / like the world will never end / and who cares if it does / cuz I found somebody to love … like winning the lottery, like being alive, like eating an entire clove of garlic and somebody still wants to kiss you / which is a miracle.”

When Kramer read these words on the sidewalk at Java City’s 20th-anniversary Poetry Marathon this summer, it was obvious to everyone watching that the 30-year-old Central Valley writer knew whereof she spoke. She and her husband, 33-year-old Todd Mann, shared the bill, as is their custom at many of their readings. The duo took turns performing—her words languid and lyrical, and his rapid-fire and often humorous—and holding their baby daughter, Annaliese. Their seemingly easy blend of family, community and literary expression was itself poetry—an optimistic verse that belied the idea that art is born of suffering in solitude or that creative goals must be sacrificed to parenthood.

Among the many things Kramer and Mann share is a gift for transforming the joys and disappointments of family life into illuminative verse, as in this excerpt from Mann’s “Riding in a Taxi Cab with My Father”: “And he used to always ask me, ‘What are you thinking?’ / And I would reply, ‘About what?’ / And he would say, ‘About anything.’ / And while that used to annoy me a little bit / I would give anything to answer that question now.” A clear-spoken testament to the pain of outliving one’s parents, the poem often causes Mann to break into tears during performances.

On the other side is Kramer’s “After,” in which she considers her recent motherhood: “Never is not realistic,” she writes in the poem’s opening. “Never is youth. / Never has its own motivation. / Adult has a different function. / Things are changed once you know. / Never, becomes forever, and is gone.”

“‘After’ is a reflection on my daughter being born, turning 30, feeling different and stronger,” Kramer said. “It’s not that growing up isn’t scary. It’s just that it’s OK.”

“The trick is to do what you love, not at the expense of those you love, but to their enjoyment,” Kramer and Mann added, in a jointly constructed e-mail interview with SN&R, which they signed “Todd y Leslie y Annaliese.” The couple, who met in a poetry class while attending college in Stockton six years ago, collaborate whenever possible. “Working together has always been something that’s a lot of fun,” they said. “We have different styles, and it’s a blast to mesh them together.”

The duo’s latest shared project is a quarterly zine of poetry, photography and printed sundries called Lt. Jar. The first colorful issue emerged this summer with verse from artists like Khiry Malik, host of Capitol Garage’s Wednesday Night Hype poetry series; Mike McGee, 2006 Individual World Poetry Slam champion; and Frank Andrick, host of Poetry Unplugged at Luna’s Café.

“Poetry is not dead. Art is not dead. Writing is not dead. And we want to be the proof,” the couple said. They founded Lt. Jar, which is available by snail-mail subscription or at their readings, to combat what they see as the intangibility of digital media.

“We cannot tell you how many files we have deleted to make room for new ones,” they said, “but we can tell you the number of books or poetry publications we have tossed out because we were filling up the bookcase: none. We are more willing to buy a bigger bookcase than more memory for our computer. And it’s precisely those people we’re looking to sell to.”

Though the autumn issue, which will feature visual art and poetry by Tony Camarota, won’t be available until October, Kramer and Mann will bring copies of the debut Lt. Jar to their September 21 reading at Luna’s Café. Kramer also will read from her upcoming book, One Monkey’s Plummet.

“Sadly for us all,” the couple admitted, “Annaliese will not be there. It goes way past her bedtime, so Grandma and Grandpa will be visiting with her.”

Sometimes it takes a family to read a poem.