You’ll often spot him traversing Portland's streets in a panama hat (or flat cap, depending on the season) and shaking hands with seemingly every other person he passes. Steve Luttrell is a former Portland Poet Laureate whose DNA is deeply woven into the fabric of the city. He is the founder and publishing editor of the The Café Review, has his own TV Show (Poet’s Café), and has spent recent years running the Portland Club. We caught up with him to drink coffee and talk poetry.
You were born here. You were the Portland Poet Laureate (2010-2012). This is your town.
Yes. One could argue that, to some degree.
You are also the founder of the quarterly journal, The Café Review, which is celebrating its 25th year.
It’s gone by, needless to say, much quicker than one would have imagined. Obviously it took the work of more than just my own energy, I was fortunate enough to have a lot of help in those 25 years. It wasn’t a solo effort.
So the story goes that you were meeting in a café in the late ‘80s and reading poetry—and this gave birth to the journal?
We were; it's true. Someone at some point had mentioned there was so much good poetry being read once a month. Someone suggested, you know it’s too bad there isn’t a record of this activity. So, to that end, I started The Café Review working with a few friends. It was a small group of us, six, seven, or eight of us that used to hang out and drink coffee and talk about poetry. So the Review grew out of that energy because we wanted to, posterity may be a strong word, but we wanted to at least have something for the archives.
Over the years, because Portland is such an old city, there have been more than a few literary publications. But there wasn’t anything going on to speak of in the mid-80s when we started to kind of get together and read and talk. Then a few years, certainly by ’89 we were meeting fairly regularly at the coffee shop, Woodford’s Café—where Miyake is now on Spring Street. It was the basement, pretty good size, so we were out in the back room so to speak.
What was Portland like then in terms of its writing scene?
Well, I can only really speak to poetry, because writing is a much more broad term. I wouldn’t pretend to know what was going on as far as fiction or non-fiction. I think what was going on then and maybe one could argue still, is going on around the folks at the University of Southern Maine. As far as poetry goes, there were a small group of people that were interested in poetry and it seemed to grow. We began in that little café, and then the man sold it, and we moved to Café No in the early ‘90s. They were a great coffee shop, they had jazz, they had reperatory theater.
People came from quite a distance for the monthly readings. We had people come down from Rockland, Conway, we had people come up from Saco, down from Camden area. They came from quite a ways because where they lived, there was nothing going on. So if you were interested in poetry, you came down to Portland. This was pre-slam of course, you just came and signed up and you were in. I met a lot of people who went on to become friends.
You were really a hub of that community.
I think at that time, we were. But then, as time went on, these people started their own reading groups in their own towns, so they stopped coming here because there were readings going on in Camden, Saco. Then we moved from Café No to the old Oak Street Theater that was kind of cool as they put on plays—say they were putting on Hamlet, the stage had like parapets that you’d be reading behind. Then they sold it, they moved to Westbrook. Then we went to One Longfellow Square and were there for two or three years. That’s pretty much where it ended around 2003 because at that point, I had been hosting readings for 20 years maybe, and I really needed a break.
It’s interesting how in Portland you have this big statue of Longfellow sitting there, overlooking Congress Street. Poets have a presence here.
Well, yes, sure. Of course, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow because he came from here and grew up in Portland, there has been the association of Portland to poetry as a result of Henry Longfellow. But over the years there are wonderful poets that didn’t achieve the notice that he did, and ironically he had to leave Portland to go down to Cambridge, Mass., where he really made his mark. It seemed like he had to get out of town.
But you didn’t get out of town. You stayed.
I did. I travel a lot. This winter, I was down in Jamaica reading at the University of the West Indies. I have a new book coming out next year, so when that comes out I’ll be doing more readings. I do get out of Portland. But it is my home and always has been and always will be. I tell people my favorite view of Portland is of 2,000 feet and descending. Because you can’t appreciate it until you leave it.
If you were to compare the scene in Portland now compared to when you started, what are the major differences?
I don’t go to readings anymore so I have to say that any opinion that I might have … and I prefer the word community to scene because scene to me sounds a little facile; it’s a poetry community. I think there are a lot of elements to consider. I know there are a group of young poets like the Port Veritas people that do readings still, although it’s a more slam-oriented, performance-oriented venue. But the heart of poetry still continues to beat in Portland.
I like the word ‘community.’ It is like there’s an invisible web of community here that a newcomer doesn’t see for a while.
Well let’s face it, there’s only roughly 75,000 people here. That’s not a really big city. That’s two blocks of Brooklyn. So consequently, the sense of community is almost inevitable in a town this size.
Has Portland evolved since the 80s, creatively?
New people bring new energy. I think there’s a fairly constant well of new folks coming into Portland and with them they bring their energy and interests. And if they’re coming from away and are interested in poetry, then the community of poets becomes that much stronger because that person is now living here. It’s hard to quantify. But I do know, new people are coming here. Like any town it’s gone though it’s changes. I mean, it’s been burned twice; the city has gone through changes. Property values are going up. But it’s a great city for an artist in terms of his or her spirit. They're encouraged to really open up and manifest here.
Do you see yourself a Portland poet?
Oh absolutely, it's my home. And the port quality impacts my poetry distinctly. I’ve written more than a few poems around the salty air, the sound of the buoys, the ships coming in. It’s a part of my DNA, the ocean. I don’t know who it was but someone once said all art is local. And I think there’s a lot to be said to that, even if you’re not aware of what the influences on you are, they are there. Charles Olsen, the great poet from Gloucester, Mass, they called him the Conscience of Gloucester. He celebrated Gloucester in his poetry and how could he not because he was there all the time, everybody knew him. He was steeped in the history of the place going back to 1620. So his poetry reflected life in Gloucester, and I would hope that someone would say of my work, that my poetry reflects life in Portland, Maine, to some degree. We’ll see; that remains with the pundits.
About the author
Clare Morin is a freelance arts writer who is currently editing the 2014 edition of the Time Out Hong Kong Art Guide from her nest in the West End of Portland. She also works part-time as the Director of Arts & Cultural Programs at Fox Intercultural Consulting.