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Aspen Poets’ Society throws bash

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesKim Nuzzo helped found the Aspen Poets' Society, which holds a bash Sunday, April 25, at the Hotel Lenado.
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ASPEN – Poetry doesn’t register on America’s everyday consciousness. And yet at the presidential inauguration, it is becoming customary for the country’s incoming chief executive to enter the White House with a poet commemorating the occasion. Robert Frost read his “The Gift Outright” at John Kennedy’s inauguration. Bill Clinton took his respective presidential terms to the words of Maya Angelou and Miller Williams; Barack Obama’s inaugural entourage included Elizabeth Alexander. It’s as if the country is using this momentous occasion to say that, while we ignore it the other 1,459 days of the four-year period, poetry is important.

“I think that says, We kind of know there is some other essence we can tap into through words that is of great value to us. And we need to pay attention to it, even if we often forget, and let it get swept aside,” Aspen poet Kim Nuzzo said.

Nuzzo, a warm 63-year-old with a stack of white hair, has been doing his part to keep Aspen in mind of poetry. Five years ago he and local actor Kent Reed staged a “reunion” of the Beat poets at the old Zele Cafe, reading in the personae of Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Nuzzo’s old acquaintance, Allen Ginsberg. Out of that night, Nuzzo and Liza Zimet, the manager of Zele, founded the Aspen Poets’ Society. The group created a website for sharing poetry, and began staging monthly events at Zele. When the cafe shut down, the poets moved over to the Hotel Lenado, whose bar, Markham’s, was, poetically enough, named for an Aspen poet of the ’60s.

The Aspen Poets’ Society, which was formally registered as a nonprofit organization last month, throws its latest bash on Sunday, April 25, at the Hotel Lenado, and the event will follow the established mold: a musical set – by Kent Reed, known better as an actor and director – followed by 20 minutes of open-mike poetry and a reading by the month’s featured poet, Renick Stevenson, a former Pitkin County Sheriff’s officer who lived in San Francisco during the Beat era.

Nuzzo himself is unlikely to take a turn at the mike. Though he calls himself the Society’s “poetry person” – while Zimet is the “paper person” – Nuzzo sees his role in the organization as facilitating poetry, rather than writing and reading it. “Too often, these little poetry events in a small town become a platform for one person. That’s the death knell,” he said, noting that some 40 poets have performed at the local open-mikes. Nuzzo gets his fix on the road: He travels to readings around Colorado, where he searches for top-notch poets to feature in Aspen, and allows himself the opportunity to perform. And perform is le mot juste. During our conversation, I requested a reading from Nuzzo, and he thrust himself into a favorite, his own “Buddha Off the Wheel,” taking on a raspy voice and giving his phrases a dramatic lilt.

Nuzzo sees himself less as a writer, perfecting his lines in isolation, and more as a performer, letting his words fall on living ears. “My main thing is I like the word spoken,” said Nuzzo, who has appeared in several productions by the Hudson Reed Ensemble. “There’s that actor part of me that likes to let it do something to people live. I think of what I do as spoken-word art. Part of that is a reaction to academia. In our creative writing programs, we produce massive numbers of academic poets, and that doesn’t have the flavor of the street, to me.”

Much of what Nuzzo does, as an artist and a person, much of what he is, is a reaction to the establishment. He grew up in the ’60s in Madison, Wisc., a college town that had radical leanings. His father had dreams of being a journalist but instead opened a printing company; his mother had studied French. Poetry was his way of claiming membership in the counter-culture. Spurred on by the Beats, he wrote protest poems.

“That was my entry into poetry,” said Nuzzo, who studied English literature at the University of Wisconsin, and theology at St. John’s in Minnesota. “[The Beats] were really challenging the status quo of our culture. They were part of the times – the Vietnam War, protests on campus. I was attracted to that.”

Nuzzo, a member of the Students for a Democratic Society, was in Chicago for the war-like spectacle of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. There he served as a go-fer for Lee Weiner, a radical attorney who was named as one of the Chicago Seven, and he also had contact with Ginsberg.

But witnessing the civil war atmosphere in Chicago took some of the radical edge away from Nuzzo. Having declared himself a conscientious objector, he wasn’t sent to ‘Nam, but to an orphanage in Southern California, where his life took a major turn. After a two-year term caring for orphans, Nuzzo began training as a drug and alcohol counselor, seeing that as working for something, rather than against something. His poetry, too, ceased its tone of protest.

Nuzzo moved to the valley 19 years ago to work at the Aspen Counseling Center, and now is a director at the Jaywalker Lodge, a treatment center in Carbondale.

“Hopefully I’ve developed a long way from that,” he said of his protest-oriented work. “I don’t consider myself political. I’m a poet who listens to the voices that address the universal things that poets have addressed – the voice of art, the voice of love, the voice of death. I think of poetry as a way of living in the world. It’s being able to walk in two worlds – the world of the visible and at the same time, out of the corner of my eye, to be aware of the invisible.”

Nuzzo has held onto the fairly radical view that poetry actually is part of the daily routine of everybody’s life. It’s a matter of how you listen.

“I’m a phrase guy – in a coffee shop, I like to listen to the conversation at the next table, put it down. I call that borrowing,” said Nuzzo, who carries with him cards for jotting down bits of language he hears, and scraps of poetry. “It’s the idea that this is all one big poem. If we walked up Smuggler today and listened to everyone chatting about the mountain lion that was spotted a month ago, or Wall Street and how their stocks are doing, we could put it all together and make it a song. It’s one big poem we’re writing. No matter how disorganized it may seem at times.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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