Dr. David Shevin photograph

Freeborn And The Bean: A Statement

January, 2007

** This first appeared in the “Coffeehouse Poetry Anthology” in 1996, published by Bottom Dog Press.

“It was the most amazing thing, the scene this one angry woman made at my reading!” my friend Ellen, a fiction writer, told me. “I had read a story–like much of what I write, it dealt with sex and relationships. So here this woman stands up and declared what I wrote was against the Bible. ‘If what you’re presenting here was on my television, I’d turn you right off!’ she declared. I couldn’t engage her any more, because she stormed out.”

I like what she said, personally. In fact, the anonymous woman who threw the tantrum made exactly the point that I hope this anthology makes. If literature is the news that stays news, it is also the news that you’ll never see on your cable box. Every coffeehouse reading I’ve ever been to reminds me all over again that Gill Scott-Heron’s prophecy that “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is an accurate one.

Face it: if any real art or depth came through commercial channels, the coffeehouse audiences would embrace ‘em. It’s not that we are resistant to the easy path. It’s just that the easy path winds through barren soil, and the coffeehouses provide an atmosphere where thought and laughs and tears are genuine, not generated by laugh tracks and synthesizers.

I like the sense of community that breathes the warm brewed air in these places. It’s appealing because this is not a physical community, but an intellectual one. At their best, coffeehouse audiences gather for a common set of beliefs–as in the early history of anybody’s church. Like the churches, too, the coffeehouses fill a spiritual need. Coffee itself does this, but so do the gathering sites. When Herbert Gold published his book Bohemia, he described his habit on arrival in a new community. He inquires of the first person he finds carrying a Kerouac or Sartre or City Lights tract, “Where do we meet?”

Perhaps my unique gratitude to the stalwarts who assemble the readings in coffeehouses is that these gatherings affirm the same assumptions I’ve felt within the nuclear disarmament movement. Here is a grouping of people among whom I never have to explain underlying political assumptions, and with whom complex analysis is welcomed. We already know what is stupid in the culture, and even when disagreeing on the next direction, there is trust and acceptance for all voices and vices on display.

What was remarkable about Ellen’s Bible-bearer story is that it is so much the exception, to little the rule. I’ve not had the Bible pitched at me at a coffeehouse reading yet, but I did have an agitated young man lecture me once after I read a poem from the point-of-view of a vacuous high school kid visiting the Richard Nixon library. The vampire Nixon had recently been laid into his coffin, for the last recorded time.

“This was the President of the United States!” he proclaimed. “How dare you be so disrespectful?” Well, I hope this youngster keeps speaking and listening and learning. I hope he takes lots of caffeine and stays aware of the dialogue around him. And I wish I’d had the sense to say that in a more positive way. “You’re young yet,” is what my mouth said, and “You’ll find out.”

By David Shevin

(C)opyright 1996 David Shevin All Rights Reserved

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