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Hansen: The guerrilla poet of Laguna Beach

April 10, 2014|By David Hansen
  • Laguna Beach poet John Gardiner.
Laguna Beach poet John Gardiner. (Dave Hansen, Coastline…)

If you ask poet John Gardiner a question, the path to the answer is not a straight line.

It's a meandering journey that transports you to mysterious places and events that seem surreal at first, as if you've gone down some rabbit hole.

Where else can you rub the belly of a coyote?

Or hear Shakespeare reincarnated?

Or use words to stop bullets?

Gardiner, 67, is Laguna Beach's resident poet, dramatist, teacher, activist and psychedelic historian. In 1969 he read one of his first poems at Mystic Arts in Laguna, and 45 years later, at 7 p.m. Friday, he will read it again, commemorating an anniversary of sorts.

"Mystic Arts used to have some loose poetry readings, and this one was very loose," Gardiner said. "They happened all of a sudden when there was a group there, and they'd say, 'Let's read some poems or something.' And somebody would light some candles."

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It was not the first poetry group in Laguna. That belonged to Laguna Poets, which started meeting at least five years earlier, said Gardiner, who currently runs the group.

During the 1970s, they met in the library, organized by the late Marta Mitrovich, a well-known actress who appeared in more than 20 films, including "When Strangers Marry," "The Unfaithful" and "Titanic."

"Marta Mitrovich had all of the famous Beat poets come down in the '70s," he said. "She had Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. And I went to a lot of those."

But while Gardiner was busy writing poetry and attending UC Irvine, there were tumultuous activities around him: an unpopular, full-throttled war; sexual, political and civic upheaval; and more important, cops in Corona del Mar.

It was, after all, 1969, and Gardiner had long hair.

"Hitchhiking to UCI was always an adventure," he said. "You'd always get stopped in Corona del Mar by the cops. Good 'ol Corona del Mar. It was just Corona del Mar reminding you that you're a long-hair and we don't like you."

It did not help that Gardiner was smart. His professor at UCI was Galway Kinnell, a poet in residence who would win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1983.

"He was a fish out of water in Orange County," Gardiner said. "He's from Vermont. He's a woods person, and here he was kind of in a desert. And UCI was still mostly trailers. He didn't like where we were meeting, so he changed our poetry class to the evenings, and we met at the old Sid's Blue Beet bar and drank wine and discussed poetry."

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