City Lights: Coffeehouse musings

Poet whose works started with notes on napkins has put together a 120-page volume titled — what else? — 'Notes on Napkins.'

September 12, 2013|By Michael Miller
  • Orange County poet John Perry. He recently published "Notes on Napkins," a book of poems that he originally had written down on napkins.
Orange County poet John Perry. He recently published… (KEVIN CHANG, Daily…)

Once in a while, a venue sports a plaque declaring that literary history took place there: that a famous author lived in this house, a great songwriter penned a tune on this train platform, and so on.

If Alta Coffee ever seeks to honor poet John Perry, it might want to put a miniature sign on each of its napkin dispensers.

Not that the Newport Beach coffeehouse was the only location where Perry wrote the original drafts of his new book, "Notes on Napkins." Those small bits of paper span eateries up and down the coast, from the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf to Tully's Coffee. But as Perry explained to me Tuesday morning, the cozy spot tucked away on the Balboa Peninsula is his favorite, at least in one way.

"Alta Coffee's got the greatest napkins for writing on," he said, with the contents of a paper bag containing three decades of work spread out on the bench beside him. "They're a great size. They're longer than a Starbucks napkin and a little more substantial."


It was here at Alta, two or so years ago, that Perry first showed me his "Notes on Napkins" project. At that time, the poems took the form of computer printouts in a three-ring binder, with some of the original napkins photocopied on the cover. He had no publisher yet, but he had a unique concept, and I suspected he would find an interested taker before long.

Sure enough, this summer, Laguna Niguel-based Windflower Press compiled the napkin musings into a 120-page volume. "Notes on Napkins" features 50 poems (printed on one side of the page only, unless they spill over onto the second) along with a brief foreword by the author in which he expresses his debt to the coffeehouses that gave him a place to write.

Just about the first thing you notice about Perry in person is how humble and gracious he is. He's 68, retired, a San Clemente resident, someone even Holden Caulfield probably couldn't describe as phony. His poems, likewise, don't make much attempt to hide their origins as ruminations scribbled between sips of java: Most of them are brief and to the point, without fancy wordplay or obscure allusions.

A typically direct piece, "Single Encounter," reads in its entirety:

I reached out

to touch your hand

and the warmth

of your love


I dared not think

of you and me together.


pressed tightly,

in love,

I find myself

trying to say everything

in a single encounter.

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