Phoenix Poetry Series kicks off eighth year with two poets, professors

(Alexandra Scoville/DD)
The writing of James Sallis took him all across the country before he called the Valley home. Sallis shared his story with the {9} the Gallery audience as part of the Phoenix Poetry Series. (Alexandra Scoville/DD)

A poet whose work has been adapted into film and a poet who adapted his work from film gave readings Friday at {9} the Gallery as part of the Phoenix Poetry Series.

The series, kicking off its eighth year, featured old and new poems from local poets James Sallis and R.S. Mengert.

Sallis is an author of poetry, short stories, novels and nonfiction who was first published in 1968. He is most widely known for his 2005 novel “Drive,” adapted into the acclaimed 2011 film of the same name.

Mengert is an award-winning Tempe-based poet whose poem “Middle Age” was recently included in the first issue of the “Four Chambers” literary magazine. Both poets teach courses at Phoenix College.

At the event, Mengert read first, selecting a recent multi-part poem about the aftermath of Jesus’ crucifixion, with verses about iconic movie villains like Godzilla, King Kong, Darth Vader and Frank Booth from “Blue Velvet.”

Mengert said he was pleased at the reception to his reading, particularly the audience laughter.

“I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought this was funny,” Mengert said, “because it seemed funny to me, but I wasn’t sure how it comes across exactly because I’m sympathizing with murderers and monsters. But that couldn’t be easier fun. The empathy is a byproduct to make it more human, more digestible. When I sat down to write them, I thought ‘Why are we so rotten?’”

Sallis chose work that spanned his career, including some new and unpublished work such as a satirical piece called “Me and My Drone” about a child protected in his day-to-day life by a killer drone. An anthology of his complete poetry is slated for release in 2015, Sallis said.

After the reading, the poets fielded questions about their work. Sallis spoke extensively about his writing and life.

Born in Arkansas, Sallis attended Tulane University in New Orleans and lived in New York, Boston, Texas and London before settling in Phoenix.

“I’ve been restless until I got (to Phoenix),” Sallis said. “I don’t know if I got tired of moving or if I just really like it. There are great restaurants here, a really alive arts scene. Scratch any door away and there’s a writer behind it.”

Sallis said that though he initially “cringed” at the thought of “Drive” being made into a film, dreading over-the-top action and explosions, he was “honored beyond words” by the “reverence” of the filmmakers.

He set the sequel “Driven” in Phoenix and peppered the novel with unmistakable references to the city so that “they have to use Arizona” if it is adapted into film.

Although Sallis said he is impressed by the literary community in the city, he said he does not consider himself part of it, instead working mostly in isolation.

“I’m pretty much out of all the communities. I tell my students I’m a hermit. I’m always about five projects behind, so I mostly stay home and write.”

Sallis’ most vital connection to local writers is through his novel-writing course at Phoenix College. He said that striving for concision informs “every sentence I write, every phrase” and he relays that advice to first-time writers.

“(First-time writers are) off in the clouds somewhere,” Sallis said. “They’re so concentrated on their story that they forget that you have to try to create life. People dreadfully overwrite. People sit down to write and they think they have to be elevated or fancy somehow. I try to get them to say things simply, directly, cleanly.”

Sallis said that though he has produced more than 400 poems and 100 short stories in his career, he did not chalk it up to his work ethic.

“People are always astonished by that and say ‘You must work all the time,’” Sallis said, “and I say no, I wander around the house most of the time, playing guitar, petting cats, making tea, drinking coffee. It’s just that if you do this for 50 years, the stuff accumulates.”

Rosemarie Dombrowski and Nadine Lockhart founded and host the Phoenix Poetry Series. Dombrowski is an English literature professor at ASU’s Downtown campus and a member of the “Four Chambers” editorial board. Lockhart is an ASU graduate student and teaches at Phoenix College.

Dombrowski and Lockhart said that the series is the only poetry event in the Valley without an open mic component, though their other event, Caffeine Corridor at {9} the Gallery on second Fridays, is open mic format. Lockhart contacted the poets for the event, hearing of them through their common connection to Phoenix College.

The Phoenix Poetry Series has shifted venues multiple times over the years, but Dombrowski said the series seems to have reliably settled at {9} the Gallery on fourth Fridays of the month.

“This is the first time we’ve started a second year in the same venue,” Dombrowski said. “We’re excited about ({9} the Gallery) being so supportive.”

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