Turning the first page of The Café Review is like walking into an art museum that’s open just for you. Most of the artwork inside is poetry, though you’ll also come across a dozen or more glossy pages with colorful paintings and photography, as well as black-and-white photos, collage and illustration. Toward the back of the book, on your way out, you’ll find reviews of other poetry volumes you might like to visit. After an hour or two wandering between the covers from the comfort of your easy chair or pillow-nested bed, one finishes the issue and faces the world again with renewed appreciation for the wondrous power of art to transform our experience of reality.
As in a real art museum, you’ll encounter some works that don’t move you, a few you don’t understand, and maybe a couple that’ll make you think, Hell, I could’ve done that! But in each quarterly installment of the Review you’ll also find much to marvel at and ponder, to read and reread, your understanding of the work, and the satisfaction it imparts, deepening each time. You’ll feel empathy and amazement; you’ll be blindsided by epiphanies, as when Murray Shugars, in a poem from this winter’s issue, writes of “Immoderate ecstasy or anger / The whole goddamn Milky Way / Hurling over us.”
This humble journal is more potently subversive than its modest reputation and tiny print run might lead you to believe. May Sarton, the renowned writer who lived her final years in York, Maine, contributed a poem to the Review in the early ’90s, titled “All Souls, 1991,” in which she wrote of the people of Iraq:
Those still alive
Are not crying
By what they try to forget
The screams, the wild
The bodies of the dead,
Traumatized by memory
And by starvation.
They cannot sleep.
Five hundred more
Will die today
Their souls wandering
The dirty sky.
The Review’s subversion is more subtle than that, though. In today’s U.S.A., the simple act of reading a poem is itself a small rebellion against the trashy tech harpies constantly clawing for our attention. Poetry is language unleashed from the conventions of commercial communication, freed of the need to serve any end save the poet’s desire to express. The frames of reference imposed by social, political and religious authorities need not apply. To adopt a poet’s point of view, without regard for the imaginary borders between nations, between people, or between people and nature, is to be a revolutionary.
If you’re an aficionado of what’s been traditionally called the “fine arts” (e.g., theater, dance, painting, poetry, classical music), you’ll find that The Café Review rivals any source of such art in Maine in terms of quality, and at $10 an issue ($40 annual subscription), it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than, say, admission to the Portland Museum of Art or a ticket to a show at Portland Stage. Granted, those institutions have expenses far beyond what the journal’s publisher must cover, but it’s nonetheless remarkable that the Review can produce art of this caliber four times a year with an annual budget (about $5,000) that’s less than a certain Portland art museum director’s weekly paycheck.
The Café Review’s founder and publishing editor, Steve Luttrell, receives an annual salary with three zeros in it: $0.00. “I’m not doing this to line my pockets,” he told me during an interview last month. “I’m doing this because it’s literally a vocation. The word vocare is Latin [for] ‘to be called.’”
The call, in this case, came courtesy of Paul Lichter, a Portland poet and longtime jazz promoter who was around in the late ’80s when poetry readings were being held in the back room of the Woodfords Café, an eatery that opened in Portland’s Woodfords Corner neighborhood but had moved, by that time, to Spring Street, into the space now occupied by Bao Bao Dumpling House. It was Lichter (a known radical still at large in the Woodfords area) who remarked to Luttrell after a reading, “‘You know, somebody should be collecting some of this poetry stuff,’” the publisher recalled.
“And it stuck in my ear,” said Luttrell. “That was 30 years ago.”
“I would go around at the end of the reading collecting up some of the better stuff,” Luttrell said, “putting it in a 16-page stapled thing. It was real guerilla printing. We were printing it at night in a certain print shop that will remain nameless. Their printer was kind of running it off for us, then we’d hand-collate it, put it out.”
The initial response to the new poetry journal was, frankly, underwhelming. “In those days we were a monthly,” Luttrell said, “so I’d bring like five copies to Raffles [a bookstore and café on Congress Street, where the posh restaurant Five Fifty-Five is now located — seeing the pattern yet?] and go a month later and pick up three.” Luttrell laughed. “So that’s how it started.”
That early photocopied, folded and stapled incarnation of The Café Review sold (or didn’t) for $1 and only contained poems (no artwork) by Maine writers in the orbit of that smoky coffeehouse scene. Luttrell was raised in the Willard Square neighborhood of South Portland (“I didn’t grow up, I just got old,” he hastens to say.) At the dawn of the ’90s, he was drumming in local rock bands and working at a record store (now a restaurant) and a bookstore (now a Starbucks) in downtown Portland. [Full disclosure: Luttrell also worked for The Bollard as an ad rep in our early years.] It soon became apparent that if the journal were to continue, it would have to solicit work by poets outside the Portland area, beyond Maine, and, in time, worldwide.
The first properly bound issue of The Café Review was published in 1993. This was also the period during which visual art was added to its pages and its literary reputation was made. Famous poets like Sarton, Denise Levertov and Robert Creeley were sending in work. As Luttrell put it: “We had to make the production worthy of the people we were printing.”
The Review has published work by numerous Pulitzer Prize–winning poets and other “big name” bards over the years. Poets who were either inside or on the periphery of the Beat movement of the 1950s, like Gregory Corso, Michael McClure, Anne Waldman and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, have long had a home in the Review’s pages, and vice-versa. Ferlinghetti, who turned 100 last month, has set up window displays featuring the Maine journal at his legendary City Lights bookstore in San Francisco.
The Café Review was one of the last journals to publish the work of Charles Bukowski before he died in early 1994. I asked Luttrell how that came about. “Well, I wrote him a letter, and he sent me two poems and a little drawing that I actually wrote a poem about — it’s called ‘Two Drunks and a Dog,’” he recalled. The infamously disgruntled writer “was easy as pie to deal with,” Luttrell said. “My experience has been that the bigger they are, the easier they are to deal with. It’s the little guy that wants to be a Bukowski that’s the pain in the fuckin’ ass.”
Buk felt the same way. One of the poems the Review published in late 1993, “they are after me,” begins:
more and more I get letters in the mail
from younger men who say they are
going to replace me, that I’ve had it too
long, they were going to kick my ass,
strip me of my black belt, etc. …
I could fill half a McDonald’s with
and I am astonished how cocksure
they are of their attributes. …
but why would they want to replace
a nice guy like me?
I listen to Mahler, tip 20 percent, give
money to bums, I get up each morning
and feed 9 cats. …
I get drunken phone calls at 3 a.m. in
“you’ve had it, Chinaski, you’ve sold
I’m a REAL ARTIST, you son of a bitch
and I’m out on the street!
The Review’s volunteer editorial team, about a half dozen souls, has been meeting to conduct its business monthly at the Dogfish Bar and Grill since that downtown Portland spot was the Free Street Taverna. They all read through the submissions and decide what gets in by a simple majority vote. Poets whose work is accepted are paid with a couple copies of the issue in which their work appears. Those whose work is rejected for publication generally don’t get a formal reply, though one beloved member of the team, the poet and carpenter Michael Macklin, who passed away in 2012, frequently made an extra effort to provide feedback to those aspiring poets.
Though he’s just one vote among several, Luttrell tries to steer the publication away from the type of fancy, high-brow verse that gives poetry a bad name. “We get a lot of the publish-or-perish crowd,” he told me. “They’re teachers, and if they don’t get published, their job is in jeopardy. So we get a lot of submissions with university logos in the upper left corner.
“We also get just everyday people — cab drivers, bartenders,” he added. When assessing a poem for the Review, “it either speaks to me or it doesn’t,” Luttrell said, “and the criteria for that is someone’s not trying to sound too much like they want to get an A in an MFA class. I have read poems that, stylistically, if I were grading them, I would have to say this is an A poem, but it didn’t tell me anything. I’ve read some poems written by someone like [Bollard columnist “Tackle Box”] Billy Kelley, that wrote this poem that I’d have to probably fail it, in terms of its syntax, but it really connected, it said something to me.
“To me it’s the difference between a glass of water and a glass of gin. From a distance, they both look the same, but one of ’em’s going to do something to you and the other won’t,” he said with a laugh.
Only about 300 to 400 copies of The Café Review are printed each season. In addition to contributors and subscribers, copies are sent to select bookstores in Maine and beyond (the Review is available at the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstores along Paris’ Left Bank). The “big name” poets are included, in part, to attract those out-of-state readers who will pick it up if they see it contains work by a giant of the genre like W.S. Merwin, and thereby discover a relatively unknown poet from Maine, like Jay Davis or Dennis Camire.
These days, entire issues of the Review are dedicated to poetry and art by creators from other countries, like the Summer 2018 Icelandic issue, and forthcoming issues this year featuring the work of Canadians and Russians. For the 30th anniversary issue this fall, the Review will revert to its Maine-centric roots.
Depending how you look at it, The Café Review is either fiercely or foolishly independent. It’s not organized as a nonprofit, which excludes it from receiving government grant money and other means of charitable or institutional support, but it’s not very for-profit, either — there are no ads in its pages or on its relatively new website, thecafereview.com, and aside from modestly promoted and attended quarterly release parties, the team doesn’t do much to toot their own horn.
Revenue from subscriptions and retail sales doesn’t cover all the printing and mailing costs, so the Review has relied on small contributions from poetry lovers in the Portland area to stay afloat these past three decades. “We literally, to quote Blanche DuBois, ‘live on the kindness of strangers,’” Luttrell said. “So if it weren’t for these people that believed in the mission — give us a little money here, a little money there — we couldn’t do it.”
I asked Luttrell if he ever reconsidered the decision to eschew grant money. “No, because nothing comes without expectations,” he said. “The problem with grant writing is … it’s a Band-Aid for cancer. If you’ve got a problem with raising money to meet your print costs, pay your expenses, and then all of a sudden you get some money, and then you get lazy and then that money runs out, now you’re still back to where you were. …
“And the more grants you ask for, the [less] likely you are to get ’em,” he continued. “It’s a diminishing return. So we could get a grant tomorrow, ’cause we’re virginal, but I don’t want what comes with that grant, which is expectations, and, ‘Oh, my nephew writes poems!’ How are you gonna say no to a guy that’s giving you ten grand if he tells you his nephew writes poems, even though his nephew writes crappy poems?”
Wayne Atherton, a senior editor at the Review who takes a lead role curating the visual art, said time was also a factor in the decision to leave grant money on the table. “It’s always been an all-volunteer staff, and we all had full-time jobs, so we didn’t have time to pursue grant-writing,” said Atherton, a retired sales manager for dairy company HP Hood. “We have to rely on the family [of supporters] we’ve built up.”
For the Review to have a shot at another 30 years, “we’ve got to find some new blood that’s interested in promoting the work of exceptional poets and artists, and they have to be able to do it on a volunteer basis,” Atherton said.
There are some younger members on the team these days, including reviews editor Megan Grumbling and managing editor Katie Benedict, who’s been instrumental in getting the Review online and making its now sizeable archive of work accessible to the Internet generation.
“I think poetry itself has an unfortunately limited audience,” Grumbling said. “With more of an online presence happening now, it gives us an incredible opportunity — not for much more money, but an immense opportunity to reach a bigger public.”
“There was a time when, as a poet, I didn’t want to send [work] out to online publications,” Grumbling added. “Now I rarely submit to places that don’t have an online presence.” Among other considerations, work published by those journals is just “easier to share.”
Luttrell said he and Atherton and other longtime Review members have decided it’s time to get a transition team in place. “What we’re hoping to do over the next couple of years … is bring in some new people that may be in their 30s and 40s, instead of their 60s and 70s, and bring them in in such as a way as they really want to be here. And then, when we feel, ‘Hey, these guys can do it without us …’”
The poet left that line unfinished.
I found your book
in a box marked FREE
outside of a bookstore,
one cool summer night.
I found so much
of who you were
in that book from 1980,
in plain green wraps
from a long-gone press.
I wonder now
where you’ve gone
and what might have
happened to you
and if you still make
poems like you did?
— Steve Luttrell; poem published in the Winter 2012 issue of The Cafe Review