Poetry, Slammed

The city of Phoenix kicks culture to the curb — and Neanderthals party on at the Phoenix Country Club

Poetry in the Park was that rare program that kept people coming for 17 years.

Every fourth Tuesday, they'd show at the Encanto Park clubhouse for open mic nights, poetry readings, and even the occasional musician or dance troupe. There was never a fee, never a need to RSVP, never even a request for donations. Just poetry and art and a really good time.

But last week, Poetry in the Park said goodbye to Encanto Park. City bureaucrats had told the event's sponsors that they needed to become an official city-sponsored event and start charging admission, which, naturally, the city would collect. The city even dictated the price: $3 a head. If the group refused, city staffers said, it would have to start paying rent — to the tune of $100 a month. Not surprisingly, the poets are saying goodbye instead.

And it's not just the poets leaving Encanto over the new rules.

Every Wednesday for 15 years, a rag-tag group of acoustic musicians has jammed in the clubhouse lobby. But the city told the group that the Wednesday-night sessions need to become an official city event. Anyone who attends will have to cough up $5 a month and, unbelievably, get a city-issued photo ID.

If the musicians refuse, well, they can pay $100 to rent the space for each week's session.

Parks officials tell me that this is merely part of a new "tightening" of parks department policy.

Ruth Powell, a recreation supervisor for the city, says that the parks department put together a task force to examine the use of its facilities by outside groups. It found a number of groups were using Encanto without cost, and decided to change that. Events that the city wanted to promote could stay on for free, but everybody else would have to start chipping in.

Initially, she says, the reaction was pretty heated. "But after the dust settled, I'm starting to see some clear air," Powell says, optimistically. "Really, some of these groups are realizing it's not so bad."

That may be true for some. (Powell says the orchid society, for one, is staying put and ponying up.) But for others, the result has been disastrous.

The poets are now looking for a new, more affordable space. Carol Hogan, who's been organizing the event for nearly a decade, says they probably won't be able to find one in time for their scheduled January date.

Meanwhile, David Baumann, a musician and longtime attendee of the Wednesday-night jams, says he's practicing "American Pie," specifically the line "the day the music died" — and that the group is looking at space in Glendale.

Glendale!

The groups found out about the city's edict in late October, which hasn't given them much time to organize. After all, neither group has a corporate charter or a 501(c)(3), much less a bank account.

As it turns out, that's the city's fault.

Baumann tells me that the acoustic sessions at Encanto were the brainchild of Lon Austin, the city of Phoenix's longtime activities director at Encanto. (Austin has since retired.) So the city actually set up the Wednesday-night event and instructed the musicians that they had to be free and open to everybody — and then, when the event was running beautifully on its own, announced a rule change that's sure to kill it.

And Hogan says that the city's old policy expressly forbade groups from charging fees or even collecting donations. So the city surely can't be surprised that Poetry in the Park has no resources other than what comes out of Hogan's pockets, other the occasional bag of coffee or plate of cookies donated by attendees.

Oh, and speaking of cookies . . .

"They told us we can no longer bring cookies from home," Baumann says. "Everything served has to be commercially bought." The county health department is cracking down on everything from bake sales to church socials — and the city wants events on its turf to be in total compliance. Goodbye, homemade cookies; hello, ID badges.

I'm not surprised that both groups have flatly rejected the idea of becoming official city events in order to eschew rent.

For one thing, neither group wants to charge its participants, which city officials insist on doing even under the rent-free scenario. Both the poets and the musicians believe that what made the events special was the open-door policy, the fact that no one checked IDs at the door or asked for money.

The other problem is that these are artists. Specifically, the poetry veers more toward Allen Ginsberg than Emily Dickinson. "Do you know how many times we heard the F-word last Tuesday night?" Hogan says. Poets have been known to rant about everything from Sheriff Joe to, more recently, the city's director of parks and recreation. "We can't be in a position where they can come in and tell us what we're allowed or not allowed to do," Hogan says.

It's clear that the city has this thing unbelievably backwards. They sell millions of dollars in bonds to support the arts — money that gets handed over to big-ticket arts groups, like the ballet and the impressive museums on Central Avenue.

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4 comments
helentroy4
helentroy4

I'm really sorry to hear this. But not surprised. I fondly remember the good old nineties and all the good times in the Encanto Clubhouse. I still have my little faded blue flyer from the time I 'featured' back in 93. RIP Poetry in the Park, RIP.

London Todd
London Todd

what about the homemade cookies and goods!? now that is a great travesty in itself, Silly, foolish and wrong that rule is. Its just so wrong, I mean what's next? thehealth inspector going to come in and make sure the cookies some kid baked for Santaare store bought?

and the whole open Mic night thing, another loss for Phoenix.

its pretty bad when your grandmother's homemade brownies are banned and youcan't have some fun for free at poetry night

Katherine Mann
Katherine Mann

Looks like another bureaucratic lose/lose situation.

My condolences Phoenix, poetry, music. We look forward to the return of culture when the pendulum begins it's long journey back.

Can't Wait To Leave
Can't Wait To Leave

The Phoenix Parks "tightening" of policy is just the latest stick-in-the-eye for the people of Phoenix. Support for local arts (not to mention local commerce, local education, and the resident workforce) is invisible if not non-existent. Nothing new there - remember the 51 art debacle, where a million dollars were paid to an out-of-state artist to give us a coffee cup and a toilet seat? We COULD have gotten a PAFA-educated local artist to do better work for less. The Valley is a soulless shithole with nothing more to aspire to than being California's cheap home away from home, the illegal-immigrant stopover city, Meth Lab Central and Wal-Mart's biggest cheerleader. Sounds like a diverse economy, but it's all bad. It's going to take a hell of a lot more than bribing Richard Florida to save this dump.

 
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