Making DC safe for poetry


  Sam Smith – I  saved the tape from a late 1950s news conference held by Harvey Rosenberg, member of the DC and Texas bar, who had been hired the previous evening to represent the Coffee ‘n’ Confusion Cafe. The DC government was trying to shut it down. Although there were already perhaps 1,000 such establishments around the country catering to the still quietly alienated, nothing quite like it had hit DC. In Philadelphia, meanwhile, a cop named Frank Rizzo was making a name for himself by staging raids on three or four coffeehouses and having them closed for health code violations. Although on the case less than 24 hours, Rosenberg threw himself into the cause with remarkable vigor.

“We plan,” he announced, “to produce 150 witnesses, including some eminent personalities, to establish the fact that this Coffee n Confusion Cafe is of the type that would be most beneficial not only to the District of Columbia but to the United States of America.” Rosenberg continued:

We have been accused of a cultural dearth in the United States. Wherever you go in Europe they talk about the cultural lag. Personally, I must admit that I have very little knowledge of poetry, or the bohemian atmosphere that is found in Coffee n Confusion. But I have been informed by personages who have visited Paris that this is the way that numerous writers and poets who have reached the French scene, and are recognized as outstanding authors and poets, began their struggle in the artistic world.

There must be some area where people can get together and present their views, whether it be on art, politics, chess or women. We have in the fair city of Washington a number of emporiums dedicated to the latter search. We have in Washington a number of emporiums dedicated to the search for art in the sense of the Mellon Gallery. but we have no place where the poet may congregate and present his work . . .

Our defense will be that this group has a right to express itself whether you like this expression or their poetry and we feel that this is an outlet for young struggling poets, authors or what you will.

We can’t all be born with a silver spoon in our mouths and we can’t all be given a fashionable showing on 5th Avenue, Madison Avenue or Park Avenue. And some of us, no matter how talented they may be, can’t even get their manuscripts read. For this reason there must be some area for people who think they have the capability to express themselves. This cafe is such an area for Washington . . .

There are always those who are opposed to anything different. And to them the fact that these poets wear beards and are unconventional in their dress and attire is different. I must say that if they believe that they must harass because these people are different they are only subverting the American way of life. Our very tradition has been to allow us a freedom of expression as long as such freedom does not invade the privacy, attack the common decency or incite to danger. None of these have been shown to be caused by this cafe . . .

We are told that some people complain of the noise. I have never been in one of these cafes before and so last night — since I had a new client — I decided to establish my headquarters here and find out exactly what the noise was and see what could be done to smooth over our differences with those who said we were noisy. I was astounded to find that there was less noise here — even with a bongo drum and a piano going — then in some nightclubs or taverns that I have been in. In fact the quiet got on my nerves.

Now I can not say, and I have never heard anyone say, that one reading poetry causes loud and boisterous noises. As a matter of fact when the poetry reading was going on there was absolutely no noise. In fact, the only noise that I heard was when a gentleman got on the guitar and someone else was playing the drums. But certainly in the city of Washington we are used to music.

If some people are opposed to having a few poets read their poetry I myself am greatly shocked that this would occur in the citadel of democracy, in its very capital, the District of Columbia.

Rosenberg then announced the creation of a Washington Writer’s Guild to publish and present the work of local writers. A reporter asked whether this project had been developed within the past 24 hours. Rosenberg said the idea had been around for a long time but when it had been presented to him the previous evening. he had said he thought it was excellent. The lawyer continued:

We also intend, if we do raise the funds, to bring a French artist here from the Left Bank and let one of our artists go to the Left Bank, and have an exchange of cultural relations with various nations. . .

I see some people are snickering and I have only this to say: even President Eisenhower has commented that the person-to-person campaign is the best way of effectuating peace and better understanding. . . .I think that a cultural exchange of artists would not only benefit the United States but the entire world.

DC was eventually found to be safe for poetry and bongo drums.


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