The Sherwood Auditorium seemed two-thirds full but, to judge from the long single line in front of poet Michael McClure at the book signing afterwards, the overwhelming majority had come to see him, and the anticipated crossover audience never really materialized.
And that's a shame because, on their own, either of the other attractions on the bill at the opening night of the Cross Fertilizations: Artists on the Cutting Edge IX series would have been worth the half-hour ordeal of Ardath Road's traffic jam on March 8, 2001,
Tenor saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist René McLean stands as a seasoned artist in his own right and ought not to be referred to primarily as "son of alto sax legend Jackie McLean" for the rest of his career.
Alone on stage but for the very capable drummer Chuck McPherson, he set La Jollan heads bopping and toes tapping with his hard bop improvisations including an interpretation of "Around Midnight" that might be extremely commercial if his label found a way to give it some serious exposure.
Bestselling novelist Bebe Moore Campbell is a truly gifted storyteller. She speaks entertainingly and she writes accurately with an eye for detail and an ear for the vernacular of working people. As she related a narrative strand from her soon-to-be-published sixth book, there were audible gasps of excitement among the audience. The woman snoring noisily in the third row must have had an extremely tiring day.
But it was McClure's room. This auditorium had been packed to capacity a few years ago when Allen Ginsberg read here; and apparently many in that audience had recognized each other from the sixties scene. A large section of that constituency turned out for McClure on Thursday.
Like McLean, the sax player, McClure tends to be referred to by association with more famous names. He used to hang with Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jim Morrison, the mantra continues. A cursory search of the Internet turns up a photo from 1965 in which he stands self-assured and debonair beside Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg. But McClure is not merely a living relic from the dead beats.
Now his white hair gives him a distinguished look he is entitled to, but he is a graceful alert man with precisely the same poise as the figure in the 35-year-old photograph.
At age 68 he is neither a retired poet nor a doddering celebrity. He writes plays and they are performed. He collaborates with former Doors member Ray Manzarek on film and in live appearances at festivals and poetry events around the country. And when life on the road runs him down, he likes to vacation in Bali.
His verse is fresh and contemporary. Paradoxically this may be a by-product of his anachronistic adherence to Zazen meditation. "You're not really a Zen Buddhist if you don't practice," he said, and confessed that for many years he had been not so much a practitioner but "a fellow traveller." Now a practitioner, he communicates a meditative quality in performance.
His poems refer to the meditative hand gesture known as the mudra, images such as an eagle, a horse's head, white rocks on a black river. Sometimes a first line is actually a line taken from another of his poems or from something else entirely, such as an apparently redundant line from the Tao Te Ching about the origin of the universe being the mother of all things.
One poem refers to landmarks observed on a car journey northbound from Lindbergh Field. He explained this, with playful humility, as, "Something San Diego gave to me."
This playful quality developed into something of a comedy routine. Interrupting his new "Plum Stones" series of poems, he said, "I have not read these in public before. And they're challenging." Catching himself in what might be taken as pompousness or pretension he qualified the remark. "Challenging to me, speaking them."
He broke off to say, "As I read these, you'll find your mind tends to drift off" There was laughter at the implication that he might be saying the poems are too dull to hold the attention. "No. You will," said McClure, gently milking the laughter with comic timing, "But when you come back, I'll still be here."
And we did. And he was.
Artists on future Cutting Edge evenings are: March 29 - Cal Bennett, Elizabeth Nunez, W. S. Merwin; April 5 - Bobby Bryant, Anchee Min, C. K. Williams; April 12 - Homero Aridjis, Douglas Ewart, Ai; April 12 - Sapphire, David Wong Louie, Henry Threadgill.
All performances start at 7:30 p.m. at the Sherwood Auditorium, 700 Prospect Street, La Jolla. Tickets are available through Museum Bookstores Downtown and in La Jolla or through Ticketmaster (619-220-TIXS).