In search of feedback and community, nearly 3,000 writers have taken part in workshops led by Jaxck G rapes. He teaches them to listen deep within themselves.
An attractive brunet stands before the group and shares the erotic pleasures of her “no-underwear life.” Others dredge up memories of a teenage infatuation with Swedish actress Bibi Andersson and of a father who fed his kids hot dogs while he ate steak.
Gathered in Venice’s Beyond Baroque theater, the supportive crowd greets each revelation with applause. But this is not group therapy. This is art as envisioned by Jack Grapes, founder of the Los Angeles Poets & Writers Collective, which sponsors readings, retreats, performances and publications. The group evolved out of the writing classes Grapes has conducted in his living room over the years.
Patterning his approach, in part, on Konstantin Stanislavsky’s famed acting techniques, Grapes encourages people to work from the inside out to find their inner voice. Almost 3,000 students have taken part, in search of feedback and community, since Grapes began teaching in 1974. The best of their work is often featured in four national literary magazines–Mo+th,Rattle, ONTHEBUS, and Spillway, each of which originated with the collective.
“The collective is an attempt to get people from the doorstep to the street, putting their work out there in the world,” says Grapes, 75, a good-natured, stocky actor, poet, playwright (the award- winning Circle of Will) and former member of Chicago’s Second City improvisational troupe. “That’s the kind of thing I wish I had when I arrived in L.A. 50 years ago. Being a poet is so isolating–besides solitude, you need solidarity.”
Grapes’s program, a blend of exercises culled from Stanislavsky, improv and sports (“It starts in the body and the head follows”), provided a more meaningful focus for television director Adam Nimoy. “Writers’ boot camps generally deal with structure, character arc, payoff,” he observes. “But Jack isn’t about writing the great American screenplay. It’s all about the process.”
Born and raised in New Orleans, Grapes has been called “the Everyman of poetry.” Strip it of all pretense, he tells his students. Find the extraordinary in the ordinary. Write like you talk. Poetry, which used to be accessible, has become excessively language-oriented and academic, he says. “Poems were always songs and movies–if Shakespeare were alive today, I’m sure he’d be a screenwriter,” says Grapes, who has 24 poetry books and a spoken- word CD to his credit. “But when real movies and singer-songwriters like Cole Porter and Dylan came along, poets had to find new turf. I grew up thinking of poetry as something to be analyzed rather than enjoyed.”
But in the last 40 years, Los Angeles has become a center of poetry and art, much like Paris in the 1920s and New York in the 1950s, he notes. Instead of once-a-month readings, there are now three or four a day from Hermosa Beach to Simi Valley.
Once a week, about 100 students, 15 to 20 in a class, are given assignments based on Grapes’ “method writing” approach. Grapes and his co-teachers, Lisa Segal, Kevin Jacobsen, and Josh Grapes, give their responses to the material. Though the focus is on developing individual styles rather than on subject matter or form, professional opportunities have emerged.
Vanessa Williams, a star of Showtime’s Soul Food, is directing a 40-minute film based on ideas published in her chapbook, the final class project, which students copy and distribute to classmates. Co-written with Shari Poindexter, another student of Grapes’s, the short, due to air on Showtime in February, deals with a love triangle and Williams’s betrayal by her former lover.
“Writing in L.A. is frustrating,” says Williams. “There’s a huge divide between those writing for hire and the grass-roots, more literary types. Jack brings people of like mind together in a very sprawling town.”
Actress Shannah Laumeister–an eight-year “method writing” veteran–performed her pieces in local coffee shops and clubs before taking them on the road. So impressed was actor Harvey Keitel after seeing her first production that he produced “Above Sunset,” Laumeister’s all-women poetry show, which ran off-Broadway for a year. “I’m not just acting but writing now–Jack showed me that part of myself,” says Laumeister, who has just written a screenplay for the French Emmanuelle films and another for Keitel.
Finding a lifeline in words
To cancer survivor Judi Kaufman, Grapes’s collective was a lifeline. Unable to speak after two brain surgeries, she found her voice in more ways than one. Breaking out of her “comfort zone,” she began writing and performing rap songs in class. Quite a contrast to her past life as an etiquette writer, she says, in which manners, not intimacy, reigned.
“Jack gives you ways to peel away the onion skin,” says Kaufman, whose first book Passion and Shadow was published in 2000 by Bombshelter Press, which Grapes and poet Michael Andrews co-founded in 1978. “And since the part of my brain that controls inhibitions had been removed, I was in a good place to follow his advice. There I was rapping and tapping, getting back the beat of my brain. My vocal ability improved enormously–and so did my self-esteem.”
Poet Lee Rossi calls Grapes a “poetry impresario, adept at selling the craft–and himself.” His greatest accomplishments, he says are “instilling and incubating a love for poetry and increasing the number of literary publications in which it appears.”
“Jack is an institution,” says Rossi, a United Airlines computer programmer who studied with Grapes for five years and co-edited the poetry magazine Tsunami.” But his interest in process rather than product can be frustrating. Jack’s so sweet and gentle; he won’t tell you when a poem stinks. He’ll talk about what’s good about it – – even if it’s 98% compost. You end up with all these first drafts that need to be shaped and no idea what to do with them.”
Rossi isn’t alone, Grapes acknowledges. Many of his students arrive with the “masochistic” notion that negative feedback is the foundation of growth. “In my editing classes, I’m a harsher critic,” says Grapes. “But most of the time, I’m encouraging my students to take emotional risks and reach for greatness–which entails a lot of compost. ‘Good’ is not the goal. When I walk into a theater or open a book, I want it to change me. If it merely skims the surface, I want my money back.”
Honey worked better than vinegar for Luke Yankee, a former artistic director of the Long Beach Civic Light Opera who kept stifling his urge to write. Propelled by the support he received from Grapes’ Collective, he wrote a one-man play about his relationship with his mother, the late actress Eileen Heckart. Having performed the piece on both coasts, he says, he’s now in discussions about a PBS special.
“Jack reminds me of a modern-day Tevye,” Yankee said, alluding to the exuberant paterfamilias in Broadway’s “Fiddler on the Roof.” “He gave me the strength to go to vulnerable places–such as my final goodbye to my mom. I was skeptical when people told me his classes would change my life, but, 18 months later, I’m a whole new Luke.”
–By Elaine Dutka © Los Angeles Times