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After Hours: Poetry and Jazz on the New Hampshire Seacoast

By Kathy Biehl, Published on May 29, 2007
Tugs in the harbor, Portsmouth, NH

Word lovers take note: an uncommonly literate travel destination awaits along the Atlantic coastline of southeastern New Hampshire. April may be National Poetry Month for the rest of the country, but just about every day belongs to poetry on the Seacoast, which borders the Atlantic for only 17 miles.

The hub is Portsmouth, a harbor town with breathtaking waterfront views, clusters of 18th century buildings and a population that barely crests 20,000. The public spaces teem with poetry here, even the central business district's parking garage. The installations are courtesy of the town's poet laureate program. Yes: poet laureate, a position that is not merely honorary but an intentional, and well-utilized, platform for interjecting the art form into daily life.

Portsmouth not only has its own poet laureate, but also hosts a jam-packed schedule of regularly occurring poetry readings throughout the month. In this, the town is not alone. Live poetry events are so numerous in the region that a person could go to a reading somewhere in the Seacoast and environs more evenings than not. (Look for listings at the Poet Laureate Program site, as well as New Hampshire Writers Project.)

Although many of these evenings draw a standing-room-only audience, one of them is so popular that it has spawned an annual festival. The third Thursday of every month is Beat Night, when poets join jazz musicians in the brick-walled second floor of a former newspapermen's den now operating as The Press Room. Beat Night traces its lineage to a ground-breaking beat event in October 1957, when Jack Kerouac and David Amram publicly interwove poetry and jazz. Nothing is rehearsed or prearranged at Beat Night; each poet begins by briefly telling ensemble leader Larry Simon the mood of what is about to be read, Simon gives barebones instructions to his fellow musicians, and on-the-spot improvisation ensues.

The result is aural alchemy, with a staying power that has led to Jazzmouth, a long weekend of poetry events, most cross-pollinated with jazz improvisations by Beat Night's ensemble, Groove Bacteria, and friends.

When you've achieved one impossible, the other impossibles come together to be with their brother. – Sun Ra. Bruce Pingree reads poetry by Sun Ra from a music stand with galactic decorations, while members and friends of Groove Bacteria (shown, from left: Don Davis, Frank Laurino, Chris Elliott and Bob Trask) recreate his music at the Muddy River Smokehouse, April 12.

"When you've achieved one impossible, the other impossibles come together to be with their brother." – Sun Ra. Bruce Pingree reads poetry by Sun Ra from a music stand with galactic decorations, while members and friends of Groove Bacteria (shown, from left: Don Davis, Frank Laurino, Chris Elliott and Bob Trask) recreate his music at the Muddy River Smokehouse, April 12.

The third annual Jazzmouth packed eight wildly different events into three evenings and three days between April 12-15, 2007. (I went to all of them, in the company of the M.C., composer, poet and my longtime friend, John-Michael Albert.) It had much you would expect and some you might not – a lot of free verse and a paucity of formal; pervasive intelligence, wit, pithy observations and laughter; simple moments and memories cast in the amber of universal truth; some singalongs and wry political commentary; a touch (but only that) of monotone recitations over bleating horns and of adolescent wrist-slashing lamentations; and an entire evening devoted to high concept. Proving that intellectual singlemindedness need not be boring, that evening celebrated the metaphysical sounds and musings of Sun Ra, recreated by an ensemble that swelled at one point to 14 instrumentalists, including four percussionists, and capped by a screening of his Blaxplotation film "Space Is The Place," which followed his interplanetary travels (Sun Ra claimed to have visited Saturn) and quest to free his race from the constraints of earthly society.

The venues ran from the casual to elegant to borderline dive, from a sun-filled coffeehouse busting with morning customers to the stone-walled, masculine den of a basement bar within a historic harborside restaurant, from the sales floor of an independent bookstore to the cherub-crowned stage of a 19th century theater to a one-time mansion library, now converted to a restaurant.

A few luminaries were in the mix, sitting accessibly and attentively in the audience when not performing. David Amram himself was in high visibility, linking the festival to its beat roots while participating enthusiastically in current time. Amram has supported Jazzmouth since its inception with his presence, reminiscences and passion for improvisation, which bounded from instrument to instrument -- a small drum hanging from his neck, a tin whistle or two (simultaneously), French horn and, occasionally, keyboard. Other returning featured guests were Eric Mingus, whose high-energy vocal and bass pyrotechnics established his artistic credentials well before he addressed living in the shadow of his father Charles, and Merge, a spoken word and music band led by saxophonist Erik Lawrence and poet Cassandra Cleghorn.

Andre Codrescu reads a poem written earlier that day while Erik Lawrence of MERGE, David Amram and Eric Mingus jam at The Press Room April 14

Andre Codrescu reads a poem written earlier that day while Erik Lawrence of MERGE, David Amram and Eric Mingus jam at The Press Room April 14

The newcomer headliner was poet and NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu, who read during Saturday's main event from a soon-to-be-published poetry collection about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. In looser forums, he warmed into a collaborative flair when tightly flanked by musicians, whether debuting a just-written poem during Friday night's jam or weaving a saucy work happily and effectively into the sounds at the Sunday jazz brunch.

The poets – all of whom read their own works -- were self-published and widely published, well known and neophyte, from grade-schoolers to retirees to poet laureates past and present, and including a dozen or so teenagers, some of whose craft and poise outclassed that of a few of the adults. The best of them knew how to work the pauses between their lines, to ride on a groove and wait to start the next verse until a time so organic with the music that it felt predetermined. Two of them even brought rock-star quality to their performances, on the Music Hall stage Saturday night (Ryk McIntyre and Young Dawkins, a nationally competing slam poet and a university foundation development professional, respectively, either of whom has the charisma, material, and musical ease to elevate this art form into the stuff of cable TV specials and groupie bait.)

Groove Bacteria and company, in all its myriad forms, were a uniformly top-notch and integral component in Jazzmouth's magic. The players showed the precision, polish and group mind that comes from playing together frequently. It didn't hurt that they looked to be having fun. Simon's unerring knack for matching sounds to words helped, too, as did his low key vibe, which was anything but attention-getting despite the occasional outbursts from the audience of "All hail Emperor Simon!" (a nod to an inscrutable comment by a radio interviewer).

Jazzmouth was filled with true performance art – not the posturing, overly self-aware phenomenon of 20 years ago that attached that label to any action on stage, even pouring baked beans on one's head (I'm not making that example up, either), but art that is created by and exists only in the performance, in the moment. Somebody should be documenting this for posterity.

After Jazzmouth, I am reading poetry more – for starters, the five books I brought home and the two that followed, by authors all. Yet reading poetry from the page now feels to me like reading a musical score. The beauty is extractable, but I have to work at it.

Portsmouth Picks
Herewith a few culinary alerts for Seacoast visitors:

Green eggs and ham at The Friendly Toast

Green eggs and ham at The Friendly Toast

The Friendly Toast is a casual eatery with early Boomer-vintage thrift store décor and an equally happy-making menu that actually, really, unbelievably, includes green eggs and ham. It's at 121 Congress St., a couple of easy blocks away from Market Square.

Byrne & Carlson's retail shore

Byrne & Carlson's retail shore

At the sublime end of the spectrum is Byrne & Carlson, a chocolatier and confectioner that pairs visual elegance with superb quality. The shop, in the former living room of a Federal era home at 121 State Street, has a decidedly Francophile air. Ellen Byrne studied both fine art (in college) and chocolate-making (in Paris and Lyons, with an apprenticeship in Brussels), and her dual training shows in through every detail.

The company's wares are tiny works of art, all poured, dipped or shaped and decorated by hand. The most eye-catching are the artisan chocolate bars, topped with crystallized edible flowers, nuts or dried fruits. The pansy bars combine flower petals with graceful decorative lines that evoke stems and tendrils, a design inspired by a row of art nouveau houses Byrne once saw in Antwerp. The wares also include delicately sculpted marzipan fruit, exquisite truffles and barks, and fruit jellies, made by Christopher Carlson from fresh fruit and zest, with no artificial flavor or colorings.

If you can't drop by the store, Byrne & Carlson will ship. For mail orders, visit the website or phone 888-559-9778.

And for a specialty food shopping spree, take a short drive up I-95 to the mother house of Stonewall Kitchen in York, ME.

©Kathy Biehl 2007. All Rights Reserved.