April 26-May 2, 2006

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Michael C. Ford

Of the artist: Los Angeles poet Michael C. Ford reads April 30 at the Bottled Poetry event at Clos Pegase.

Spirit and Marvel

Poets Michael C. Ford and James Cushing write a miraculous soundtrack

By Dian Sousa

The poets I love are all back-alley animists. Their best poems are emergency exits, luring me away from my cagey desk, off the seductively murderous couch, returning me to the brilliant path of spirit and marvel.

On Sunday, April 30, the Bottled Poetry series in Napa hosts two of my favorite back-alley animists, poets Michael C. Ford (Emergency Exits) and James Cushing (Undercurrent Blues).

In 1969, Jim Morrison coaxed his friend the L.A.-based poet Michael C. Ford into reading his profound, jazz-infused poems in public for the first time during a benefit concert to raise money for Norman Mailer's bid to become mayor of New York City.

Since that debut--one which most poets would insert a burning fork into their most precious orifice to have had--Ford has gone on spoken-word tours with a long list of other poets, social commentators and miners of the subterranean psyche. He's shared the stage with God's favorite drunk brother, Charles Bukowski; the Dead Kennedy's gadfly frontman Jello Biafra; former Black Flag muscleman Henry Rollins; and psychedelic guru Timothy Leary, to name a few. Ford has also been nominated for both a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy. The Pulitzer nomination came with the publication of Emergency Exits: Selected Poems 1970-1995.

Ford earned a 1994 Grammy nomination in the spoken-word category for his CD Fire Escapes. Fire Escapes features Ford reading his poems--or, as Dylan Thomas wrote, practicing his "craft and sullen art"--backed up by some great musicians, including the legendary Ray Manzarek.

(It needs to be noted here that Michael C. Ford doesn't just look down at the paper and read. He is not an MFA monkey, aping odd language to be hip. He's a captivating performer with a voice as resonant as a shot of dark, heavy rum followed by a lava chaser.)

Fire Escapes is a CD you can actually groove to while contemplating the myth and nostalgia of place, of beauty, of exuberance and loss, both personal and cultural, as with these lines from the poem "The Day Raymond Chandler Died": "She used to cruise this getaway car just / like a marriage in overdrive; now words / separate the way gears do under a / General Motors metallic roof of love." Such lines are recognizable avenues leading out of the sad, cracked driveways of a million American lives.

Poet and Cal Poly English professor James Cushing writes a miraculous soundtrack for those lives in his third gorgeous book, last year's Undercurrent Blues. All of Cushing's books are published beautifully and meticulously by Cahuenga Press, the longtime cooperative publishing group that includes Cushing and the excellent poets Holly Prado, Harry Northup, Phoebe McAdams and the late Ann Stafford.

It is not hyperbole to state that Cushing is one of the most brilliant and imaginative poets of this century. I have followed the lush current of his poems to all the deep and marvelous places they lead--the sometimes bruised but always amazed dreamland of the heart and soul, the full eternal concert of love broadcasting daily its chord changes of every imaginable color.

Speaking to the CalPoly Mustang last month, Cushing explains, "What I'm trying to do in any one of these poems is to create an emotional situation in which the reader has some complex, new feeling that they might not have had before. I hope that feeling leads to some sort of epiphany about possibilities of love and knowledge and meaning in the world. You might say that writing is a nonrational trance state for me. I am hoping to bring my readers to a similar sort of state too, where it intensifies the real."

Like Ford, Cushing has a voice as sensual and deep as sweet, thick maple syrup being poured over red velvet pancakes. You want to listen well. You want to drink deep.

Michael C. Ford and James Cushing appear at Bottled Poetry on Sunday, April 30. Clos Pegase Winery, 1060 Dunaweal, Calistoga. 3pm. $10-$15; winetasting included. For details, go to www.bottledpoetry.org. Poet Dian Sousa reads from her collection, 'Lullabies for the Spooked and Cool,' on Saturday, April 29, at the O'Keeffe Gallery. 2423 Gravenstein Hwy. S., Sebastopol. 7pm. Free. 707.824.1627.

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