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Where Bards Tread the Boards

At the Poets' Theater Jamboree, verse goes live on stage.

For most of human history, poetry was meant to be performed, not read to oneself. Even the most bookish work that seems esoteric on the written page can be transformed by actors into the cadences of characters and themes. This idea is at the heart of the Poets' Theater Jamboree, an annual event at San Francisco's Small Press Traffic.

A literary community center affiliated with the California College of Arts and Crafts in San Francisco's Potrero Hill neighborhood, Small Press Traffic (or SPT) hosts the Jamboree for the next three Fridays through February 6, with more than 30 artists working in collaboration to stage original and adapted works. (Opening night was January 16.)

The three-year-old Jamboree began as a joint project with Bay Area poet Camille Roy, who was inspired by past poets' theaters such as the Provincetown Players of Djuna Barnes and Edna St. Vincent Millay. It's not a poetry reading, and it's not a slam, because poems are transformed into theater pieces. It's still different than regular theater, says SPT executive director Elizabeth Treadwell Jackson, because "language is more important than any plot or character; it's still poetry."

Poets are chosen by the Jamboree's curators and come from across the country, ranging from well-known figures such as San Francisco State University creative writing department chair Maxine Chernoff to poets selected from an open call for submissions. This year's Jamboree includes the late poet Frank O'Hara's play "Two Eclogues" and Chernoff's "Heavenly Bodies."

Chernoff has never written a play and "was intrigued with how [director] Mac [McGinness] worked the pieces into a story in terms of the actors and psychological connections. My first impulse when I wrote was language and the response to language, so this new layer of interpretation and the way he humanized the work was interesting."

McGinness, whom Chernoff describes as a voracious reader of "everything that's been written," has a background in theater, not poetry. Such cross-genre collaboration adds a richness to the Jamboree and strengthens the local art community. Novelist and SPT board president Kevin Killian collaborated last year with video artist Karla Milosevich on "Love Can Build a Bridge," a tale of conceptual art, country music, long-ago feuds, and present-day shamanism that gathered together an eccentric cast of artists, poets, filmmakers, and painters. "We needed someone to play Donald Judd, the visual artist," Killian recalls. "We were able to get George Kuchar, the great experimental filmmaker. He's someone I never thought I'd be able to work with-he's like San Francisco's version of Andy Warhol."

While reaching out to other types of artists, poets also have the chance to act, direct and perform other tasks. As actors, they often read from scripts onstage, which lends even more informality to the proceedings. "It gets kind of goofy," says Jackson.

And dangerous, as Killian recalls from last year's performance: "One of our poets was running around the stage and fell down and broke his arm because he was so excited. It was a play by Lorine Niedecker, who's this Emily Dickinson type of poet, and you don't normally imagine people getting worked up over that sort of thing."

Medical emergencies aside, putting artists into unfamiliar roles can be healthy for the creative process. "Writers always seem to have an imaginary audience," says Killian. "Here on the stage, it's instant, and it frees up a lot of poets. It's a real experience in pushing the artistic envelope. People you'd never think are hams turn out to be hams."

Founded in 1974, SPT soon became a hotbed of talent and activity, with an impressive repertoire of readers like Isabel Allende, Thom Gunn, and Dorothy Allison and low-cost workshops that provided an alternative to more academic settings. It's a place that not only preserves literary history but provides a place for it to be made. "Lots of people are turned off by poetry or don't think they're smart enough to get it," says Jackson. "Jamboree is about expanding audiences' ideas of what poetry can be."

Remaining performances are Jan. 23, Jan. 30 and Feb. 6. For more information about the Poets' Theater Jamboree, visit the <a href="http://www.sptraffic.org">Small Press Traffic Web site</a>.