Sonnets in Sin City: How Poet Lee Mallory is Shaking Up Vegas

The former Southern Californian brings his verse-case scenario to Las Vegas

It’s gotta be interesting to be a poet in Las Vegas. This city will silver-platter all manner of human behavior for a writer, serving up our species at its best and worst, from naked greed to foolish risk-taking to baroque criminality to the thrill of the payoff—great material from which to create art. But this isn’t a town overly concerned with art or poetry, so you operate within a relatively small sphere of colleagues and audiences.

Lately a disruptor of sorts has emerged in the Vegas poetry scene, such as it is, a recent Southern California import named Lee Mallory, known in some precincts of Orange County as the “love poet” because much of his work deals with the male-female thing. Grandfatherly in appearance, entrepreneurial in spirit, evangelistic about poetry and a canny self-promoter, he’s doing his best to help shake up the condition of poetry in his new home.

In a short time, he’s not only become a familiar face at various ongoing reading series (including an occasional session called 5×5, in which poets sling five minutes of their work, then endure five minutes of gloves-off feedback), he’s trying to help raise the profile of poetry in a town where it can easily get lost amid the more frenetic entertainments.

Take his recent reading in the Double Down Saloon. The Double Down is a legendary pillar of the other other Vegas — it’s not only beyond the Strip, it’s beyond whatever’s beyond the Strip. It’s a crusty, punky, gloriously grungy dive bar where the house drink is called Ass Juice. Though it’s got its own literary pedigree—plenty of writers have worked their Bukowski barfly shtick there—it’s a long way from the coffeehouse/classroom milieu in which poetry typically unfolds. Yet, perhaps in funky homage to his mentor, gruff street poet Charles Bukowski (a linkage he frequently touts), Mallory gave a rousing reading there, drawing from the randier portions of his oeuvre to match the bar’s grittier, rawer mojo, the better to, as he put it then, “savagely bond” with the audience.

This followed a performance in a local casino, and precedes his Dec. 3 reading in a local tennis club. While those performances smack of a gimmicky quality, relying as much on the novelty of the setting as on the strength of the verse, Mallory is pushing poetry into some unusual Vegas venues, in hopes of finding new audiences. (He’s not the only one to do this, of course; for example, in April—National Poetry Month—some local poets “ambushed” bus riders with their poesy. He’s just among the most persistent and vocal.) It’s all part of his crusade to energize both the local scene and the idea of poetry itself as something vital to life rather than a dainty parlor art. This may not sound unusual to those who knew him in Orange County, where he once licked a woman’s leg during a reading (among other stunts), but it’s not quite the poetic norm here.

“The challenge of the L.A. scene is that it’s so damn big,” Mallory says. “Los Angeles is diverse but so huge that it’s hard for any poet to tap fully into it.” For a poet or dedicated fan, hitting all the venues across the SoCal vastness is tough. “On the other hand, the Vegas poetry scene is entirely reachable.” Small, he means. Not surprisingly, L.A. has certain creative advantages, too: “For sheer excitement and an energy which breeds its own hope, Los Angeles is king.” But Vegas has its own creative buzz. “For all its glitz and phoniness, Vegas is exciting,” Mallory says. “The poet, if not stimulated to write here, should hang it up and sell vitamins.”