The terms â€œspoken wordâ€ and â€œpoetry slamâ€ often conjure thoughts of small coffee shops full of depressed college students and Bukowski wannabes reading from their notebooks. Enter Barry Miller. Heâ€™s trying to turn the spoken-word world upside down.
Miller is a busy and driven man who juggles performing at Comedy Store â€œcometryâ€ (spoken word with comedy) slams with creating a proposal for a TV show called Lyrically Speaking With Barry Miller. He has even lined up a new event for Zoeyâ€™s in Ventura that will same the same title as his TV show idea.
His premise is this: Take the top spoken-word artists who have a comedic or musical bent and put them in front of a band that backs up their musings. The result is entertainment magic.
The idea is a concept that he has experience with. After blowing away crowds in Westside bookstores with his â€œcometryâ€ he took up residence at Hollywoodâ€™s Comedy Store with a comedy/poetry/music show called â€œBackstreet Cometry Night.â€ The show grew to be so successful that he made a pilot for a proposed TV series centered around this concept.
He is currently shopping around the half-hour show and is in negotiation with several cable channels. He also hosts similar shows in Pasadena and Los Angeles and is seeking to set one up in Santa Barbara.
Miller, who will also perform, brings his own creative tricks to the table. Heâ€™s penned autobiographical spoken-word pieces such as â€œOlive Dell Nudist Ranchâ€ and â€œOdeius Jonesâ€ and did a slam-poetry record with his the band Driving Words backing him. The recording is described on his Web site as â€œfeaturing Jesus, Satan, several wild women and way too many cops.â€ He has also produced a wry country/blues/rock album called Normal, California.
Miller describes the pilot as a half-hour show during which â€œworld class poets meet world class musicians and create kick-ass entertainment.â€ After watching the show on his Web site, where the show is excerpted, it is clear that the show is something different than a typical â€œpoetry night.â€ There are no random poets blurting away over some out-of-key guitar. The artists have a strong musical sense about them, and the playing by Driving Words is dead on, able to nail everything from a streetwise hip-hop jam for one performer to jaded L.A. blues riffs for another.
Millerâ€™s goal is simple for Ventura: â€œI want to pull talented people from the area and put â€™em up on stage.â€
He said there was plenty of talent in the area, and seemed very enthusiastic about who was in line to perform at the Feb.11 show at Zoeyâ€™s Cafe, in Ventura.
â€œThese kids are phenomenal,â€ Miller said.
The â€œkidsâ€ he is speaking about are Ryan Gillanwater, Phil Taggart, Gauvin, Doris Vernon, Erik Haber and Zoe Estep, all longtime, well-respected writers and performers with nice-sized rÃ©sumÃ©s.
All the performers are from the Ventura County area. Miller found them (and continues to look for others) by hitting local open mic and poetry nights. He refers to poet/singer/songwriter Estep, who has been writing for 30 years, as â€œhauntingly beautiful.â€
Vernon, an 83-year-old writer, was lauded by Robert Peake at a recent reading as â€œreading with the fire of a 16-year-oldâ€ and went on to describe her poems as â€œdelightful and often (refreshingly) funny.â€ Taggart and Gillenwater are fixtures on the local scene, while Haber, known as â€œthe Zen Comic,â€ will provide a humorous interlude.
Backing them up will be guitarist Brion Shearer of the Mike Anter Band and host of the well-regarded Wine Loverâ€™s Open Mic. Benji Hamlin, of the reggae band Rising Sun, will be on bass and Oberon of the electronica band Intergon will be on percussion. Mike Anter will play drums.
The result will not be an improvisational roll of the dice. Instead, Miller said the band and performers have been practicing.
â€œTheyâ€™ve all rehearsed together seven timesâ€ he said over the phone, â€œand they really sound fantastic.â€
Miller has big plans for his genre. â€œThe performers Iâ€™m looking for are poets and musicians that can cross over to the mainstream,â€ he said.
When asked how the â€œpoetry policeâ€ (his words) are reacting to what he does, he said, â€œSome poets donâ€™t dig it and tell me that [Iâ€™m] selling out. The poetry police take it so seriously.â€ Miller then chuckled and said, â€œHowever, when I offer them a slot in my show, suddenly itâ€™s a great idea.â€