The Importance of Being Lee Mallory

Lee Mallory is like Li Po, the eighth-century Chinese poet who could entertain a drunken bar crowd or the emperor of China, delivering delicate verse about nature, life and romance with panache and melodrama. To the casual observer, Po's poems were unspectacular, but he was famous for shocking China's most powerful with prophetic insight into their lives–and for living to tell the tale. It was the sort of unsettling the elite enjoyed, or at least believed they needed to be seen enjoying.

Mallory's much the same, unsettling OC's social set in ways that titillate. We may well christen him not the Love Poet–that's what he calls himself–but the poet laureate of OC's middle class.

It's not that he's the county's best poet, although he's very good. He's got seven books, more than 125 published poems, and lovely lines like "What I say to you is squandered on the storm." Nor is it that he's the county's best performer, although his in-your-face shows are in fact bracing. One night at the late, great Club Mesa, he adopted the stance of a stern schoolmaster and walked around slapping a stick on tables to startle people.

Critics overlook this talent. They believe Mallory's fame is a product of his personal press-relations machine; certainly, reporters countywide are familiar with the "Mallory Alert," the shouted warning that Mallory is at it again, calling every desk at a paper until someone agrees to write about his next event.

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But fickle audiences wouldn't return to Mallory's events for 15 years if not for something about Mallory's poetry that resonates. What hits them most powerfully is the sense that poetry is good for them.

Evidence for this claim comes from long, direct observation of Mallory's readings. Most poetry promoters in the region have sought their audiences among punks and hip-hoppers, disenfranchised bohemians and college students, and, of course, other poets. Mallory's readings, particularly his long-running series at Alta Coffeehouse in Newport Beach or his ongoing annual performance poetry contest, are often packed with white, middle-aged professionals.

Over the years, conversations with the attendees of these events have revealed teachers, doctors, lawyers, housewives and at least one insurance adjuster. Once, a Newport Beach city council member. Another time, a gaggle of Register news reporters. Repeatedly, the same threads emerge in conversation with these attendees–the sense that they go see a Mallory event every year or two, that they have little interest in attending the more revolutionary events around, despite direct entreaties–mine, for instance–that they do so. They don't buy poetry books often, or if they do, it's usually the classics. These are not people looking to change the world, but when you ask them what brought them out, the answers always fall flat, as if they themselves aren't really sure. "I don't know, I just like to come support," said one middle-aged schoolteacher outside Alta about four years ago. "And Lee's so fun."

Mallory doesn't disappoint. He pronounces his poems like Li Po before the emperor of China, all bravado and confidence.

"Winter comes/to shroud temptation/the rain comes down/like the rate of my crime," he says while hovering over some stranger, or, in another poem, begging some audience member to smell his finger. Still, people who otherwise never think about poetry applaud with delight, taking away handfuls of lines from the newer poets he often collaborates with or the dozens of open readers that parade past them like watercraft at the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade. Then they forget for a year or so, like Easter Morning Christians, until that nagging idea that their lives are missing something draws them back.

If one were to posit a reason for this, it would be that Mallory has constructed a world that, to the middle-class audience, seems dangerous and outr,but isn't. It's a sort of protected environment, a fake danger. Potemkin Villages were set up to persuade the czar that all was well in his Russia; Mallory readings are set up to suggest that all's not well. His work isn't as sexually or politically dangerous as some–lines like "their thighs/in contour/his oasis finds/a breast" bespeak more a mainstream preoccupation with sex than, say, Chris Tannahill's chilling "and still I continue to fix myself breaking women/but the sign above her head has always read/this is not an exit." But then, it doesn't need to be. By creating some sort of middle ground, Mallory—and it's hard to imagine there's not some design in this–makes it possible for the more cutting-edge work to filter to those who need most to hear it. Mallory hooks the bourgeoisie with romantic titillation and a feeling of cultural duty, singing deep into the subconscious the idea that poetry is important, even if the masses don't know why. Then–and this is the tricky bit–he plants the idea that there is much, much more behind his show, that he's just the visible rock on an ocean's shore, and that what's back there, looming dark behind him, is enormous, deep and powerful.

There is as much art in this phenomenon as there is in writing, and as with any good artisan, it's hard to see the scaffolding that holds his construction together. There's a sort of brilliance in that, a sort of mystery. And you get the feeling that Mallory likes it that way.

Lee Mallory reads with poet Season Cole and musician Courtney Montgomery, Wed., 8 p.m. at Alta Coffeehouse, 506 31st St., Newport Beach. (949) 675-0233. Free.

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