LOS ANGELES — Poetry readings have always been a blast for S.A. Griffin, but the tour that the venerable Los Angeles poet plans this spring may be his most explosive.
This time the author of such collections as "Unborn Again" and "One Long Naked Dance" will be packing his poems inside of a Cold War-era bomb and taking them on the road. The idea is to create the constructive from the destructive.
"I'm taking one of the most iconic images of destruction of the 20th century and turning it into something positive," says the strapping Griffin, who at 6-foot-3 is nonetheless dwarfed by the gun-metal gray performance-art companion that rises more than 7 feet tall when tilted on end. He found the dummy bomb, which contains no explosives, on the Internet and bought it for $100.
His plan: bring the bomb to a city near you, dropping rhymes and free verse by the hundreds on audiences everywhere from Atlanta to Montana, Oregon to North Carolina and points in between. His aim is to get people to wake up to poetry.
"What I'm really doing here is like publishing poetry in a journal," says Griffin, who is also coeditor of the 1999 journal "The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry," a sprawling opus of 720 pages that contains the works of everyone from the beats' Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso to modern-day writers like Luis J. Rodriguez and Jimmy Santiago Baca.
"But when you publish poetry in a journal, usually the only people who pay any attention to it are other poets," adds Griffin, 55, a member of the so-called outlaw generation of American poets that followed Ginsberg, Corso and the other beats of the 1950s.
Oregon-based poet Scott Wannberg, who has sent along a submission inspired by the bomb, agrees it's likely to get more attention than any of the work he's had published in nine volumes over the years.
"What's more devastating, a good poem or a good bomb?" Wannberg asks with a laugh.
Griffin has spent decades attempting to bring poetry to the masses, placing poems on the sides of buses, on billboards, in beer bottles. Several times he's crisscrossed the country in a vintage Cadillac convertible with a loose-knit group of fellow poets called The Carma Bums, giving readings at coffee houses and small theaters around the country.
He plans to go on the road for five weeks beginning in April, making more than a dozen stops around the country, but with just the bomb in tow this time.
He has collected more than 100 poems so far, many penned especially for the tour. They range from Wannberg's whimsical "Sorry About That Bomb Falling On Your Head" to Ellyn Maybe's gentle anti-war lament, "Someday Our Peace Will Come" with these opening lines: "One day poetry dropped from the sky/and the animals grew iambic pentameter tails/and the people breathed in stars."
"I think it's inspired, a really beautiful idea to transform something like that into something poetic," said Maybe, cited by Writers Digest as one of 10 poets of the millennium to watch.
Anyone, poet or otherwise, can send Griffin a poem and it will be included. He plans to take poems from the bomb and read them to people along the way.
All submissions must be delivered by snail mail, not computer — "I want to see that people made an effort" — and be no larger than 8<0x00BD> by 11 inches.
Griffin isn't sure what the Poetry Bomb Tour will cost him. He says he's raised about $3,000 in contributions over the Internet so far, but spent $6,000 just for the 1995 Ford Econoline van he plans to travel with the bomb in. He may sell the van when he returns home.
"If I break even, I figure I'll have come out ahead," he says.
Over the years, Griffin has supplemented his poetic life with work as a character actor, appearing in scores of films and TV shows as everything from a cop to a drag queen. He was the hoodlum Arnold Schwarzenegger beat up in "Twins," the Marine war hero whose wife Patrick Dempsey's young Lothario romanced in "In the Mood" and one of the evil cowboys Clint Eastwood killed in "Pale Rider."
The bomb's previous owner, Robert Demott of Huntington Beach, acquired it nine years ago from a Hollywood movie prop house that was going out of business. For years he kept it in his front yard, in L.A.'s bohemian beach-front Venice neighborhood, just to shake up people.
Its provenance before the studio got hold of it isn't known, but Demott likes to think it could have been stolen from a military base where dummy bombs are dropped for target practice. It appears to have been an old MK series "dumb bomb" that was popular with the U.S. military during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
By the time Griffin is done customizing it, the bomb won't look all that deadly. He plans to paint it a flashy color (he hasn't decided which one yet), pinstripe it like you would a classic car and install a portal with a window under its nose.
"If I get pulled over by the cops I want them to be able to stick their heads in there, look around and be able to see just what it is, an art object."
Already, he has drawn some concerned reactions, particularly when people have ignored his instructions and mailed their poems to his post office box with the words "The Poetry Bomb" on the envelopes.
When he showed up to collect a stack of poems at the post office, an angry postal worker told him they "don't like stuff with the word bomb on it."
"After I told him what it was, he was cool with it," Griffin said. "He laughed."