While Ventura County’s local music scene suffers another year of closed venues, empty shows and broken-up bands, another local arts movement has been quietly gaining momentum and looks ready to break out as the area’s major creative force.
Surprisingly enough, it’s poetry.
Before you run for the hills with visions of being chained to a desk in junior high reciting “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” this is a whole new ballgame, thanks in part to one man: Ryan Gillenwater — or as he goes by on stage, Gill.
After a stint in the Navy, during which he scored extra cash by penning love poems and drawing portraits for other soldiers to send home to their girlfriends, Gill returned to his hometown of Oxnard bursting with creative energy. He threw himself headfirst into the poetry world, excelling in the modern art of slam poetry.
Attending local events and slams in L.A., Gill took a tip from the hardcore music scene and started throwing poetry readings in his garage. The attendance eventually led him to leave the cozy but cramped garage and start an open mic at the Bell Arts Factory on Ventura Avenue, which he called Train of Thought. Again the crowds grew. So a month and a half ago, Gill took his open mic to the Selah Café, located next to Ventura College. On Thursday nights, the crowd averages around 50 people — an unheard of number for local poetry readings — and it has been growing by the week.
Beyond the open mic, which the animated wordsmith hosts, Gill has also been instrumental in bringing names from the national poetry scene in as featured readers. He has even had performers from HBO’s Def Jam Poetry Slam, who, in the world of spoken word, are akin to rock stars.
It doesn’t stop at poetry, though. Gill’s non-profit arts company Soundtrack of the Unheard also hosts a musical open mic night on Tuesdays, hosted by longtime music scene vet Crazy, and a drama night on Wednesdays, both at Coastal Roasting & Fireplace Company in downtown Ventura. Aside from the open mic monopoly, Gill often teaches and performs poetry at schools across the county. He is gearing up to release Elephant Heart, his second CD of spoken word poetry.
Right now, Gill’s vision is set beyond the local scene. Over the next year, he is putting together a Ventura County Team to perform at the National Poetry Slam Competition in 2008. The judging takes place once a month at the open mic.
When asked about his drive, Gill is incredibly humble, insisting it is his many friends, volunteers and inspirations that should take the credit. But he is clear as to why he does it.
“What inspires me,” he says, “is when people find their inspiration. A lot of people come to the open mic the first few times and just watch. Then, finally, they get up one week and just do one poem. To see the simple joy that they have afterward from just expressing themselves and having other people appreciate them for it, that’s what it’s all about for me.”