Grier verses Grier

Stephanie and Joel Grier are dedicated members of Sacramento’s poetry vanguard—and they’re determined to take their message to the people

Joel & Stephanie Grier

Joel & Stephanie Grier

photo by Larry Dalton

She sits to the right of the stage and listens carefully for either an exceptional or a disappointing performance. She decides it’s just the typical Luna’s Café poetry and relaxes. In her lap, she holds two of her new poems, poems she’s never read aloud, poems unlike anything else she’s ever read aloud. At the top of the page is a circled line: “Sisters’ goodness is the glass ceiling that greatness walks upon.” She catches the eyes of people she knows. Her heart starts to race. If these poems suck, she thinks, maybe her friends will be tolerant.

Frank Andrick, host for this Thursday’s Poetry Unplugged reading, looks out into the crowded room of cramped tables and faces glowing pink under hot pepper Christmas lights. He asks the audience to welcome an accomplished poet.

Stephanie Grier hears her name, and her attention snaps forward. As she approaches the matte black stage, she thinks how kind people are to applaud.

“I haven’t read here in a couple of weeks,” she says nervously into the mike.

She can’t tell if these new poems are a turning point or a step backward. Local favorite Tim McKee gives her an encouraging little smile. Stephanie looks down at the scribbled lines in pencil, the arrows and edits. “Material archetype of female stereotype,” she begins, and all physical sensation eases away. She carefully modulates her voice to sound just this side of aggressive. The poem’s rhythm is a road map. She feels the vibration of approval from the women, but really it’s as if the room as a whole has collectively turned in her direction, to listen.

teaching girls to be sugar and spice and everything nice
to gut yourself with insane self sacrifice
while blessing with seraphic smile the sacred penile blade.
Men love women who love pain.
My mother was that giving tree
And she had enough anger
to blow that stump sky high …

Her husband walks into an almost empty room of the Woodland Library. He approaches the librarian in charge, but he’s not really talking with her; he’s listening to the echo.

He looks around, notices how sterile and bland the space is. Right away, he knows that the cookies on the snack table won’t have enough sugar in them. The small crowd, older, primly dressed, isn’t here to be entertained. They’re going to want to hear something with meaning. He decides to start with “The Lingering Aftertaste of Eagle.” It has impact, he thinks. I’ve read it to a room full of people talking and it shut every one of them up.

Joel Grier approaches the podium, listening to the cool applause of people who don’t know him. He focuses on logistics for a minute, wishing he’d left his papers on the podium earlier. Now he has to drop them there before he begins. I hate that, he thinks. He looks up at all 20 people staring at him and wonders, just for an instant, if he’s going to start speaking at all. Silence, and then, with his strongest, most affecting Southern accent, Joel begins: “Sold my axe, my sax,” he reads.

It feels good. He’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing.

Sold my axe, my sax
when I could no longer hear my muse
above the angry growl of my stomach.
The Pawn shop door swings SHUT.
Hinges creaking a C sharp scream
for my American dream
falling down dead, dead, dead
in the gutter.
In the display window, my sax, crucified
for 30 pieces of silver.
Brief images of my life as Judas:
A hamburger pressed between my teeth,
musical notes eulogized in every bite;
soft crunch of lettuce for smothered trebles,
thick slices of tomato for strangled bass.
As I race to wash every staff
down past my traitorous heart …

Joel begins to type a new narrative poem for <i>Mudcat’s Delta Blues</i>.

photo by Larry Dalton

The small audience widens its eyes in surprise, and then relaxes. People smile, a woman leans forward, a man leans back and closes his eyes.

Joel and Stephanie Grier, entrenched members of one of Sacramento’s most freeform poetry communities, believe that everyone’s a poet and that all experience is relevant. That single idea distinguishes them from academic formalists and professional poets who disapprove of raw, confessional or street poetry. It has transformed them from an average suburban couple of average demographics into a pair of creative revolutionaries espousing the idea that personal expression is vital to human happiness. Through an informal internship with a unique sliver of Sacramento’s poetry community, they’ve made themselves, without the blessings of universities or professors, into amateur storytellers, truth tellers and entertainers for the other poets who gather at Luna’s every Thursday night. A cohesive group of poets wowed by theatrics, sometimes competitive and sometimes supportive, together they stretch the boundaries, for better or for worse, of the written and spoken word.

At home with the creative revolutionaries
In a bright blue suburban-style ranch house across from an elementary school in Rancho Cordova, Joel and Stephanie Grier usher three rambunctious kids to bed and surrender the rest of the evening to art.

A family man and a computer technician for Avanti, Joel seems an unlikely candidate for creative revolution, but he’s one of the most active and ambitious practitioners of a raw poetry considered by his peers to be more vital than the cold, pristine verse of sophisticated poets. Frank Andrick calls him one of the best new writers to come out of Luna’s in the last year-and-a-half. Though Joel never formally studied poetry, since his move to Sacramento in 1999, poetry has moved to the forefront of his ambitions.

Stephanie, a stay-at-home mom preparing for a degree in physics, is equally hard to recognize as a revolutionary at first sight. Tonight, she’s kneeling in a long white dress, looking over a fanned out collection of papers and notes on the floor. She extracts a copy of Alice Walker’s Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down and pads barefoot to her computer.

Stephanie doesn’t consider herself a creative revolutionary, but her socially conscious, self-exploratory works give her away. Influenced by the young women poets at Luna’s, she says, “I think there’s a feeling in Sacramento poetry that poets can find the poetry in life, and in life here.” Stephanie came to Sacramento equating womanhood with frustrated ambition. Seeing how the young women poets at Luna’s “shape their lives to fit their ideals rather than being shaped by their environment,” inspired her to re-examine life from the perspective of “a woman in charge.”

Sometimes a social consciousness coupled with freedom of artistic form leads to moments of poetic grace. Of such moments, Joel wants to make a career. In the month of June alone, Joel read three times at Luna’s, performed with Soul-A at the Woodland Library, and drove out to San Francisco to perform with the League of Revolutionaries and renowned poet and translator Jack Hirschman. It didn’t make him a cent, but through self-publishing his book, The Displaced Child, and looking actively for a future publisher, Joel prepares to make the transition from hobbyist to professional. “Do you think we can be famous?” he asks playfully one night after a reading.

With two different approaches—Stephanie never speaks of poetry as a profession—and various different influences, husband and wife pursue entirely different creative processes in attempts to reach the same goal: the perfect poem.

“No time like the present,” says Joel, referring to the evening’s task of writing a new poem for his upcoming book, Mudcat’s Delta Blues. The book will begin with a narrative poem about how Mudcat, alias John Mead, came to Sacramento as a black man fleeing the burning of his village in North Carolina at the turn of the century.

… The shantytown where the blacks lived seemed to sway and ebb in the sweltering waves of heat. The tobacco stalks grew short that year and the leaves were tough and bitter, tasting of sweat and anger. A vicious taste that clung to the mouth of John’s mother as she gave birth in a far corner of the field where she lay …

Mudcat becomes a mythical, all-knowing voice for the last hundred years of the developing Sacramento Delta area; he translates stories, defines eras, reports on history.

Tonight, as the upcoming book begins to take shape, Joel chews on a new narrative poem that seeks to fictionalize the life of local guitarist Brian James by planting him in an Old Town jazz club in 1928.

Stephanie introduces her youngest daughter to the authors who inspire her work.

photo by Larry Dalton

The poem sprung from an afternoon in James’ studio. The guitarist showed off a number of what musicians call slides, each pulling a different sound from his steel guitar when placed on his finger and pressed against the strings. When he pulled out a slide made of bone, Joel asked him, “Who’d you kill to get that?”

Since then, Joel has imagined a gritty old Sacramento club, imagined its drunken clownish owner losing the bar in a gamble, and then losing his life shortly after. He’s imagined Brian James playing at the man’s funeral, using a slide made of human bone.

“Til I die!” types Joel at the top of a blank page.

Stephanie sits cross-legged on the floor in front of her monitor where it’s propped on top of her computer tower. Her keyboard rests on a full plastic storage bin. Searching the Internet for ideas, she can’t find any evidence to support a rumor that a fireman recently entered a burning San Francisco tenement to rescue a young girl. Her attention shifts. She follows instead a tangent on deconstructionism.

Tonight, she “makes notes on her own ignorance,” she says, researching new stories and ideas to link to her existing train of thought about how to create a just society. For example, “this is cool,” she says, reading from a Web page. “I haven’t found a way to work it in yet, but it says that the Sonora Desert is in the very south of Arizona, adjacent to the Mexican border, near the town of Why.” She laughs. “The town of Why,” she says again.

A few minutes later, she reads out loud a convoluted political analysis of border politics, which reminds her that her brother trained Mexican workers on the border. “He’s going down there to train them to make computer parts, but they won’t let them come over here and get a decent wage for doing it.”

A fraction of the worker-training story goes onto a page of notes and stray plot lines to be followed up with a phone call to her brother. She may need more details if she’s going to use the story in a poem.

Joel follows up his first line of the narrative:

“Til I die!” came the words slurred and drained of all civility. Glass raised, he leaned against the bar, a stream of bourbon racing down the sleeve of his expensive suit to puddle on the floor.

“Til I die,” he yelled, and the crowd would only lean their head[s]in his direction, like parents too preoccupied to listen to the misbehaving child. Their eyes stayed locked on the stage, caught in the serpent’s dance, where Brian James played his steel National, played the blues, played the crowd, played the room, played the city.

Joel writes with as much confidence as he speaks. Though he may stop, muddle over a turn of phrase, replace a word or backtrack slightly, his pieces come to him almost fully formed. If something needs changing, he changes it. If it doesn’t, he lets it stand.

“Well, I just realized something about this,” he says, sitting back, reviewing the first page of his new narrative poem.

Kat, who occasionally reads poetry in her native Russian.

photo by Larry Dalton

“What?” asks Stephanie, looking up from her notes.

“It sucks,” says Joel, and he gets up and heads resolutely to the kitchen.

Stephanie’s laugh is jovial and high-spirited. She’s confident that he’s wrong, but she also knows the feeling.

Stephanie looks down at her research, which is spilling over onto various pages. Arrows snake around each sheet, and onto the back sides.

“This poem is reminding me of the lady that lives with Hirschman,” she says. “She was talking at the League of Revolutionaries about how she had wanted to write a poem for that particular event and she said that she had started writing it and it just kept getting bigger and bigger and just getting out and it was including the whole world and she didn’t finish it in time. It was funny, you know, because it’s so easy to be like that once you start pulling threads. It would be like unraveling the whole sweater, you know. That’s what I do.”

Joel returns with a nectarine, contemplates his work, decides it’s using too many words to get where he wants it to go. He retreats sullenly into silence, and then finishes a draft about an hour later.

Stephanie puts her hands on his shoulders while Joel points out lines he likes. “He could feel the tune rising from his fingers,” he reads aloud, “travel up the string and tease the edge of the glass before drifting out into the crowd to mingle with the silence.”

“You are so good!” says Stephanie, reading over his shoulder.

Joel has said that powerful images are similar to special effects in movies. They have to serve the poem, and no amount of praise for a vivid image will convince him to create more of them on purpose. Sometimes they just come. He loves rich textural language, is proud of unique and powerful images when they emerge, but won’t pursue them. He is satisfied to trust his muse every time.

Though Stephanie is hyper-aware of possibly disappointing the young women poets and the activists who’ve helped her refine her voice, she continues to actively pursue different styles.

It’s time to mountain climb
But the poets of Sacto won’t go
They sit by their books and stereos
small walls lit by electron-wicked contrivances
cathode ray spray on phosphorous screens
and globes of tungsten tinsel

While the mountain air full of stars’ stares and shadowfull fire-lit fancies are lost on urban soldiers warring on wildlife with rifle, rod and heavy-balled desires for destruction …

Joel entertains the late night crowd at Luna’s.

photo by Larry Dalton

Always striving and rarely satisfied, Stephanie sometimes judges her work harshly. “Usually,” she says, “I’ll just throw it away immediately if it doesn’t speak the truth I want it to speak.” If it’s not at least 60 percent finished in the first draft form, the poem is removed from the plastic grocery bag where she keeps her hand-written pieces and thrown out.

A practitioner of internal patterns of sound and image, Stephanie is a natural fan of alliteration. She says, “If I’m writing free verse and I don’t have a set meter, alliteration seems to give it a certain bounce that it wouldn’t have.” She seems like a natural for the precise ordered lines of the sonnet as well, but says she never touches them. “Too much structure—to me it loses some of the surprise. I like to be surprised.” That love of surprise creates some of her strongest lines.

Running down Zinfandel after the storm,
singing Brown Sugar, I meet a warm brown face:
sparkling black eyes, masculine blade of a nose.
The kind of face I tend
to love at first sight …
Face of my grandfather in a photograph
young and Cherokee, holding a football.
My grandmother tells me how handsome he was—as she grins like a hot blooded girl
This handsome man high in a pickup
curls his lips over white teeth
to call me Bitch …

Stephanie has suggested that Joel has a traditionally feminine approach to writing, going on instinct and emphasizing mood over form, while her mathematical mind is more masculine, searching for perfect patterns difficult to detect in life. A few days after her research session, only one poem has emerged. Unsatisfied, she writes “Priming the Pump: Creative Constipation.”

Chrisanne watches as I gulp
Great Gobs of Experience
like a fat boy at the fair
filling his greedy maw
with exotic flavors:
Gyros with lamb, Thai noodles with spicy peanut sauce,
Cajun cayenne crawdads, black bean menudos …
All the culture his belly can bear
doled from once white tin trailers
with greasy gray screens over
the rectangular holes through which
the food is shoved, shoved, shoved …

When it comes time to prepare for the next night’s reading at Luna’s, Stephanie decides not to participate. Her work is shifting into a new style. Her research is so immense and all-inclusive that it suggests the possibility of a book. She’ll read next week.

Joel, on the other hand, decides to try out “Bone Blues” on the Luna’s audience he knows so well. After a year-and-a-half of readings, he knows strong performances, music, and loud, passionate presentation are appreciated. He contacts guitarist Russell Brown.

Max Schwartz said that to write poetry, a poet has to strip himself naked.

Luna’s raised stage makes the room feel something like a comedy club: the single mike, the crowded room, the mood lighting, the active and social atmosphere. When a young man known as Joe walks up on stage, the audience expects performance, but not necessarily poetry. “I had a best friend,” he recounts, speaking quietly into the mike. “She was like my own personal minister. I would go over to her house and we would read the Bible. That’s how she used to inspire me—my heart. Then one day she just lost it. She went psycho. She ended up in the state hospital. And I have nothing but guilt because I should have been giving her what she was giving me … ”

The simple idea that experience equals poetry leads to moments of great honesty on stage, unexpected moments of intimate storytelling encouraged by the friendships between poets and audience members.

For Joel and Stephanie, the intimate environment, the constructive criticism, the ethnic, political and generational variety, and the sense of camaraderie between the 30 core poets who return here weekly, are directly responsible for the couple’s commitment to poetry.

Sunday Blues was one of the byproducts. In weekly gatherings, poets and creative people were invited to engage in some act of collaborative creativity. One Sunday, the Sacramento poets made masks. Another time, they printed cards with their own personal philosophies or encouraging words. They were meant to make someone’s day when handed out randomly.

Erik, a young poet in the spotlight at Luna’s Café.

photo by Larry Dalton

The idea that life itself can be creative is easy to swallow at Luna’s on a Thursday night. Recent performances at Poetry Unplugged have included dramatic recitations of dialogue from the movie The Breakfast Club, a poem read in the writer’s native Russian, pieces in Spanish and English, journal entries full of metaphors for pain, torch song renditions of Jim Morrison tunes, blatant sexual poetry, confessions, shouted poems full of curses, children’s poetry, readings from published works, and poetry of great sensitivity and childlike beauty. All of it was cheered, hooted for, read amidst a cloud of bubbles blown by an avid fan, and followed by the appreciative ringing of a cowbell.

Poetry Unplugged is occasionally accused of being nothing but “confessional” or “therapeutic” poetry. Between readings by respected poets, audiences are sometimes subject to “hate poetry” or to the very trite. Inviting everyone to participate and valuing all forms of human expression means that, for better or for worse, all voices are heard.

Andrick, the host, knows it’s a calculated risk. It’s worth it to him to support the young writers who occasionally dip into the self-indulgent, and he insists that though confessional poetry is only a small part of what happens at Luna’s, it’s an important one. “I really like confessional poetry,” Andrick says, “that’s how a lot of people get started … then they sort of discover the craft of writing.” He paraphrases Charles Baudelaire in conversation with his lawyer: “ ‘Do you think that I am all those things, all those horrible things, and all the depression and all the blasphemies, all the love and all the hate? Don’t you think that I’m a writer, a poet who has an imagination who can create these worlds out of my imagination and the craft of writing? Of course I can do that. … And if you believe that, you’re believing the biggest liar in the world.’ ”

Joel’s friend Russell Brown warms up on his guitar while Joel makes final notes on a copy of “Bone Blues.” He begins removing change and small scraps of paper from his pants pockets. “I can’t read with anything in my pockets,” he whispers.

Russell glides into a bluesy piece of music, and Joel stands up next to his chair, his pages in hand, and yells like the character in his poem.

“Til I die,” he cries, approaching the stage, arms held wide. Joel has become the slurring bar owner approaching the brilliant guitar player on the stage of a Sacramento jazz club. All that’s missing is the cheap suit.

… The room was gone to that place reality fled to when Brian came storming up the road like Michael himself, swinging his mighty sword.

Far off, as if from across a canyon, he could hear Joe, yelling from the room behind the bar …

The guitar is too loud and the audience strains to hear Joel, whose voice is velvety smooth, tuned for performance, cleansed of any shyness or self-consciousness.

… A sharp CRACK, like a cork from a bottle, and a scream … two … three. The rhythm refused to release him, still dancin’ in his mind, playin’ against his eyelids like his own moving picture show. When the song had died, and his muse had faded back into the beer-soaked wood, Brian opened his eyes to an empty room. “Sum Bitch tried to cheat me!” Joe said, tie off, shirt open. “Tried to cheat me! Can you believe dat?” Brian just stared across the table, in that way that made him appear more sage than man. “Sayin’ he won the bar!”

The audience is used to performance pieces, and they go almost silent, taken by the bluesy guitar, by Joel’s deep Southern drawl, his slow and effortless presentation. They’re generous toward inconsistencies, lapses in the narrative.

… As Brian pulled his hand from his coat pocket and placed his slide on his finger, there was a murmuring from the gathered people, like the sound a mouse makes before the snake begins his dance. And when he set the slide against the strings, a powerful breeze kicked up from the river and passed threw the trees in a thin-lipped whisperin’. His fingers set about Amazing Grace, and a watery chill passed through the crowd. Eyes walked the length of the hill, passing slowly from preacher to casket to crowd to preacher. But no eyes rested upon Brian and the haunting music that came from his steel National in a long, soft cry …

Poets and audience members mingle outside one of Sacramento’s hottest poetry venues.

photo by Jill Wagner

“Bone Blues” is extreme enough and macabre enough to sound like myth. Fear creeps around all over it, and the audience enjoys it. When Joel’s done reading, the applause is more than appreciative. It’s slightly victorious.

But Joel is striving for more than just moody free verse; his pieces are also a call to arms. Poems about the displaced and the marginal are meant to teach people who are usually silent in this society that they can speak and be heard—and that it’s safe to speak and be heard. He’s even launched a group for poets willing to mentor other new poets. His New Renaissance Players is a blatant attempt to seed poetry within the public at large. “Everyone needs to find a voice,” says Joel, “that’s my cause. That’s my revolution. It’s everything.”

“Before [poetry],” he says, “all I was doing was working and being with the family, and that was pretty much my life. … There’s no reason for people to just die inside the way they do.”

Improvising on air
A couple of weeks later, Joel and Stephanie join host Felicia, and poets Charles Curtis Blackwell, Gloria Purter and Candice LaMarche for KDVS’ Voices of Vanoo, a series of hour-long radio shows. Guitarists Brian James, Steve Passarell and Russell Brown have hauled in their guitars and amps and back up the poets with Southern style blues. The show moves easily between poems and interviews. Stephanie reads with new confidence and perfect timing. The show wraps up with a shared reading of two poems in conversation, poems written separately that magically fit into a pattern. It’s a fine ending, but neither the poets, the musicians, nor even the hostess are prepared for the fact that their rehearsed show only amounts to 45 minutes performed live.

From the booth, the technician flashes the 15 minutes sign against the glass. Felicia turns to look back at a room full of some of her favorite performers. “We’re going to have some fun now,” she says sweetly into the mike, “we’re just going to go for it.”

Felicia hauls Blackwell up and makes him riff on whatever comes to mind, which includes the statistic that 85 percent of Americans hate their jobs. “That leaves 15 percent of the people” he says, “that love themselves.” Felicia grabs Gloria, whose voice is full of Southern gospel, and she begins to hum a raw response to Blackwell. Felicia joins her, hitting high notes. The improvisation winds down and here comes the seven-minute sign from the sound stage. Felicia takes a breath and drags Joel up to the mike with hand signals. She grabs Gloria a minute later. The guitars squeal behind them. Joel reads:

I’ve got friends who carry their childhood conquests like shields into battle.
Their tongues count memories like the fingers of a miser playing over gold coins.
Knowledge! Experience!
Schools that shaped their minds,
their spirits,
Taught them to play in orchestras.
Align the planets.
And produce universal harmony!
But they don’t know a damn thing about dirt.
I know dirt.
And I try to tell them about
dirt bombs that explode like fireworks
at the feet of laughing children.
Smooth dirt sleeping under a blanket of leaves
beneath monster oak trees.
Dark soft creek mud that squeezes between your toes and hides the crawdads.
Easy playground dirt that makes the best looking mud pies in the world
and dries like cracked armor on your skin.
Hard yard dirt that hits back when you get
tackled two yards short of the big tree …

Joel pauses for only a moment, and Gloria’s melodic reading voice takes over. She stands beside him at the microphone and begins.

Why should it have to hurt like this all over again?
Again it hurts like this all over …

What happens next is the ultimate result of regular collaboration, a habit of free and confident performance, and the revolutionary idea that all expression is valid. People, in their best moments, are inherently creative.

Five poets descend on two microphones while three guitarists collaborate blindly behind them. Rather than form a cacophonous noise, all five voices roll smoothly into each other, adding nuance and meaning to the collective reading of five different poems. They create one single voice.

It is the ultimate finale. It leaves the performers slightly high.

When Joel and Stephanie exit the sound studio and wander out into Davis in the middle of a hot afternoon, they have no idea if the final improvisation was a success or a disaster. It was just another chance to perform, another opportunity to be heard and understood, like the upcoming readings at Carol’s Books and Tower Books, the possibility of publishing, and the plans for expansion into the Bay Area, Stockton, Lodi. “There are a million poetry venues I haven’t worked at yet,” says Joel.

Art Luna, owner of Luna’s Cafe, says of his regular Thursday night clientele: “Your only recognition is your own words, your own poetry. Your signature is your style. That’s all you get. So I’ve seen … this real jealousy thing happen, this real contentiousness between [poets], but I’ve also seen a lot of love. Maybe there’s an evolution that’s happening. We’re in the middle of some sort of evolution here in Sacramento as far as the poetry scene.”

In order to be a poet, according to Joel, one just needs to think and feel a little more deeply. Through words and voice, the same tools we use to communicate every day, poetry can turn a deep emotional reality into art, and anyone into an artist.

And artists as saints and demon of holy truths
that exist like dandelions:
wind-strewn weeds
springing up in vacant lots
buckling concrete in pursuit of light.
weed-like itinerant truth
radical, beautiful, tasty,
pushing its boundaries
sailing on a breeze …

—Stephanie Grier