The Dionysian glories of fermented grapes have been celebrated in poetry and song for centuries, but 18th-century Scottish bard Robert Burns is one of the comparative few to raise his pen in defense of the distilled spirit that inspired his “Scotch Drink”:
“Fortune! If thou’ll but give me still
Whole breeks, a scone, an’ whisky gill
An’ plenty o’rhyme to rave at will,
Take all the rest,
An’ deal’t about as thy blind skill
Directs thee best.”
As its name implies, the Whisky & Poetry Salon brings Burns’ beloved passions together. Unlike most poetry series, however, even those offering “literary libations,” this one requires active participation: everyone who attends must bring a poem to read aloud.
Returning to Kidd’s Jewelry Heist in South Pasadena this Thursday with featured guest Alexis Rhone Fancher, the Whisky & Poetry Salon was launched by script analyst and Mount Washington resident Kim Ohanneson after attending an event at the Seven Grand bar in Downtown LA. (The salon uses the “-y” spelling rather than the more familiar “-ey,” Ohanneson explains, because they mainly pour Scotch and Japanese whiskies; “whiskey” is used mostly by American and Irish distillers.)
“The price of admission was a poem,” Ohanneson recalls. “That is what Johnnie Mundell, the whisky ambassador, requested. It was a very cozy, intimate setting. After everybody read their poem, there were so many people who were kind of disappointed with themselves; they didn’t have the courage to read their poems. And it just struck a chord with me. There are a lot of people who don’t necessarily think of themselves as poets or creative people, but they want to be involved in something creative. So I was inspired to create a community that would encompass everybody.”
She approached Mundell about starting a private series, and they launched the Whisky & Poetry Salon in November 2012 with original co-founder Karolyn Kiisel. It has shuttled between numerous venues — Kiisel’s loft, the Huron Substation and Traxx Bar in Downtown LA, the Three Clubs in Hollywood, Kidd’s Jewelry Heist — but wherever it convenes, Ohanneson strives to create an atmosphere conducive to comfort and intimacy, aided by musician husband and “silent partner” Marty Axelrod. Attendance is capped at 35 or 40 guests; otherwise, Ohanneson jokes, the night risks becoming “the Whisky & Poetry Salon sleepover camp.”
“Everybody brings a poem, original or not, and reads it in a candlelit circle of fellow poetry aficionados. It doesn’t have to be memorized; there are no bright lights; there are no mics. Brevity is encouraged. In return, you get really great whisky, usually single-malt scotch.”
“Whisky for words,” as the salon’s logo puts it. Each gathering has at least one featured poet; the salon audience has been introduced to a number of younger performance poets, including Derrick Browne, Matthew “Cuban” Hernandez, Beth Marquez, Christopher Rivas and Alyesha Wise. “When people have been drinking, a performance poet tends to end the evening on a more dynamic note,” Ohanneson says wryly. “We don’t want poets conking out.”
Other poets who have been featured include Rebecca Gonzalez, 2014 Poet Laureate of Los Angeles Luis J. Rodriguez, Get Lit poets Raul Herrera, Gordon Ip and Ryan Jafar, as well as acclaimed poet Alexis Rhone Fancher, who returns Thursday to read from her new book, “Enter Here.”
Frequently presented as an “erotic poet,” Fancher’s writings aren’t usually safe for work, nor for family hour. They’re hard to hear, some of them, but their provocative scenes aren’t pointlessly salacious; they shine hard light on power plays between the sexes, and on the unseen ways in which people use and underestimate each other and misunderstand themselves.
Not all of the poems in “Enter Here” concern boudoir politics. “For the Sad Waitress at the Diner in Barstow” offers an empathetic portrait of a dead-end life (“the cruel sun throws her inertia in her face./ this is what regret looks like”), and “I Was Hovering Just Below the Hospital Ceiling, Contemplating My Death” travels back to the intensive care unit where “tubes and machines that keep me/ earthbound give way” to recollections of the fiancé and unborn child Fancher lost in an accident. Vivid and precise, her words land like strategically aimed punches.
Ohanneson organizes the salon, which she likens to a theatrical event, every other month. Poet and Writ Large Press co-founder Chiwan Choi will be the featured guest at the next salon on Thursday, Sept. 21, at Kidd’s Jewelry Heist; tickets will be available in late August. A fifth-anniversary show will follow in November.
“Poets don’t get the honor and respect that they deserve,” Ohanneson says, explaining her motivation. “There are so many poetry events where there’s a coffee machine whirring in the background, or it’s cold, with bright lights. Poets deserve to be able to share their art in a beautiful space with really attentive people, surrounded by beauty — flowers and candlelight. I really did want to return to the idea of the old-fashioned salons where people participated in an event of beauty and culture. It is a very creative act for me.”
Whisky & Poetry Salon with guest Alexis Rhone Fancher at Kidd’s Jewelry Heist, 1510 Mission St., South Pasadena, 7-10 p.m. Thursday, July 13; entrance is behind building. Tickets are $35, available at eventbrite.com/e/whisky-poetry-salon-w-alexis-rhone-fancher-tickets-35615933215. whiskyandpoetrysalon.com, alexisrhonefancher.com