By Johanna Drucker
FOR HALF A CENTURY, Beyond Baroque, the literary arts center in Venice, has provided a venue for an eclectic array of voices from diverse communities. Its program flyers and press releases have featured punk poets and New Age mystics, as well as gay, feminist, Black, and Latinx lyricists, storytellers, songsters, and activists. While creating an essential platform for Los Angeles and Southern California writers, Beyond Baroque has also attracted high-profile figures of international renown like Patti Smith, Tom Waits, Jack Hirschman, Dennis Cooper, and Viggo Mortensen. If Southern California shows up on the literary map of late 20th-century America, it is in some significant part because of Beyond Baroque’s tireless activity and advocacy. And the prevailing spirit of inclusiveness in its programming can be attributed to George Drury Smith, who founded the institution in 1968.
This year, Beyond Baroque is celebrating its anniversary with exhibits, performances, and presentations by figures who have been part of this institution since its creation in 1968. On Saturday, March 3, Smith offered a highly personal reflection on the experiences that led him to create Beyond Baroque and guide its initial decade of operation. He arrived in Southern California at the tail end of the Beat generation and on the cusp of 1960s counterculture. Smith’s personal search for a literary community first drove him to create a magazine and then to establish a physical location to support innovative work, initially on what is now Abbot Kinney Boulevard, and then in the old Venice City Hall, where Beyond Baroque still makes its home.
Hearing 91-year-old Smith speak with wit, modesty, and intellectual generosity, one is struck by the realization that a single individual’s conviction can give rise to a major cultural project. The name “Beyond Baroque” pays homage to the sensibility of the 16th- and 17th-century Spanish writers whose work Smith admired. Though he never quite fulfilled his personal dream of fostering a poetic community that would produce word-playing, metalinguistic, ornate writing built on their sensibility, he admits that what did come into being at the organization was much richer and more vital than he could have imagined in that initial formulation. Smith’s founding vision and his achievements are well worth celebrating. Though his central engagement with the organization ended decades ago, his spirit of eclectic inclusion has prevailed, and Beyond Baroque has managed to escape becoming aligned with any single aesthetic position or literary movement.
Beyond Baroque is the longest extant center for literary activity in Los Angeles. Its Wednesday night poetry workshop has run continuously for decades, almost since it opened its doors. Situated on Venice Boulevard just west of Lincoln, near an old trolley stop for daily beach-goers, Beyond Baroque has a reputation that far outstrips its modest institutional scale and premises. But its long-term success as a site of multifaceted community activity isn’t simply a matter of prime beachside real estate. A number of factors came together in the founding and early years, including Smith’s publishing vision, a surge in public funding for the arts in the 1970s, the relative lack of competition within Los Angeles for audiences and venues for literary work, and the willingness of individuals to contribute energy and time to the undertaking for minimal monetary reward. These created fortunate circumstances. Unlike San Francisco, with its thriving Beat scene, including the famous City Lights in North Beach, Los Angeles was not considered a major center for literature in the 1960s. Beyond Baroque established a visible node of activity within what many considered a provincial backwater, and by its presence helped alter that perception. Read Rest of Article Here