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Self-portraits by Viggo Mortensen
Courtesy Viggo Mortensen
by Shana nyS Dambrot
Before there was the current pre-release Oscar buzz for Green Book, before there was that scene in Eastern Promises or that Oscar nomination for
Captain Fantastic, before there was the epic cult franchise The Lord of the Rings or his imminent star turn and writer-director debut in Falling, Viggo Mortensen was a passionate young poet, a prolific painter and a naturally gifted photographer.
Before he was ever cast as Aragorn, he was already a publisher as well, having founded Perceval Press to support L.A.’s art commu- nity with unique art books, poetry and audio projects. He still does all of that, putting out his own and others’ titles and making new art in every spare moment, of which there aren’t quite as many as there used to be.
Even earlier — way back before any of it — Viggo was a fixture at Venice literary arts hub Beyond Baroque, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and honors him along with poet Will Alexander at its benefit gala and art auction on Saturday, Nov. 10.
“I first heard about Beyond Baroque in the mid-1980s from Exene, and from John Doe and Dave Alvin,” Viggo recalls. That would be Exene Cervenka of the band X, a visual artist herself and Mortensen’s ex-wife, and her X bandmates. Their son, Henry, now 30, is in- volved in the arts and in the book company. “It was when I moved from New York to Los Angeles,” Mortensen says. “Once installed in Venice, I started going to the Wednesday Night Poetry Workshop, which has been
photo by Viggo Mortensen/Courtesy perCeVal press
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the book of viggo
Mortensen helps celebrate 50 years of Beyond Baroque as a tireless supporter for multifaceted artists like him
Wannberg, who was astonishingly prolific, consistently brilliant, and had the best so- ciocultural antennae I’ve ever witnessed.”
Perceval Press has published three books of Wannberg’s poetry. “Exene has often mined similar terrain as Scott did with her singu- lar brand of wordplay, achieving equally thought-provoking results,” Viggo offers. “These are just some of the poets whose work I have been inspired by at Beyond Baroque.”
Without doubt, stories from those heady mid-1980s Venice times could fill a library, an iPod and a gallery many times over, but the 50th anniversary seems an especially apt time to look back, and Viggo is kind enough to walk us a little way down a lit- erary-minded Memory Lane. “There were many great readings on the weekends at Beyond Baroque, and some of us from the workshop read in small venues all over town — from Venice to the Valley and beyond,” he says.
“Musicians and poets mixed freely and performed together at these events. I even remember one short-lived, satellite work- shop in the late ’80s that included John Doe, Michael Blake, Exene and myself, which we called the ‘Desk Squad’ — a play on words in opposition to the infamous Reagan Admin- istration-supported death squads in Central America at that time.”
Mortensen recalls a two-year period in the early 1990s during which he regularly recorded every Friday and Saturday night poetry reading at Beyond Baroque with a DAT recorder. “A lot of good poets are on those tapes,” he says, “which I believe are still there somewhere in storage, in some boxes. Maybe they should be downloaded into some more reliable, modern archival format...” [Editor’s note: Yes, please do that.]
Mortensen isn’t the only one who main- tains ties to the Beyond Baroque scene. Painter Lucas Reiner has been on its advi- sory board since the late ’90s, along with other board and council figures like Chris Kraus, Diane Silver, Simone Forti ( 18 »
Viggo Mortensen, Lenka, Jystrup (2018)
running nonstop since the founding of Be- yond Baroque in 1968. At the time I started attending the workshop, Bob Flanagan was often the moderator. He was an important writer, performer, and a great teacher.
“If anyone wants to try their hand at per- forming their poetry in public,” Mortensen adds, “or simply wants some useful feedback as a writer, no matter what level they are at, I strongly recommend they head to 681 Venice Blvd. on any Wednesday night at 8 p.m.
“I met and listened to all kinds of fine po- ets, musicians and performers there,” he re- counts. “The members of the legendary Lost Tribe and the Karma Bums, and poets S.A.
Griffin, Doug Knott, Michael Bruner, Mike Mollett, Scott Wannberg, and sometimes Bobbo Staron and Ellyn Maybe. They stand out in my memory.”
Beyond Baroque also is home to an amaz- ing collection of chapbooks and small-press publications. “The place is a treasure trove of poetry from the last half-century,” Viggo says. “Many nationally renowned poets have read there over the years, including Amy Gerstler, Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, Amiri Baraka, Wanda Coleman, Raymond Carver, Dennis Cooper and too many others to mention. Of all these fiercely original voices, the one I was probably most impressed by was Scott
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