Journal celebrates 20 years of bringing Portland poets to the world, and vice versa

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PORTLAND — Like the tides of Casco Bay, creative trends in literature and visual arts ebb and flow.

But one local publication has been a beacon through the highs and lows for the last 20 years. 

On Sunday, Oct. 25, the Cafe Review, a quarterly journal of poetry, art and reviews, celebrated its 20th anniversary at the St. Lawrence Arts Center with an evening of poetry and song.

Over the last two decades, Cafe Review has grown from a 16-or-so-page, stapled booklet available only at local bookstores to a 70- to 80-page, bound journal that is available in some of the biggest literary markets in the Unites States, including City Lights Books in San Francisco.

“We’re available in the big markets, but in small numbers,” said founder/publisher Steve Luttrell, who is Portland’s poet laureate. 

Cafe Review arose in the mid-1980s from a small, but devoted group of local poets who would read their poems in coffee shops and any other space that would allow them to gather.

“We were kind of like gypsies,” Luttrell said.

At the time, the group of about half a dozen poets wanted to give the state’s largest city something that it lacked: an arts journal. The first issue was published in the fall of 1989, the material for which was culled from local performances.

But in 1993, Cafe Review went from being a monthly journal of local poets to a quarterly journal of poems and visual arts solicited nationally from a base of aspiring artists and poets. The journal has since published works by renowned poets like the late Robert Creely, a beat poet who later moved to Maine. It also includes interviews with poets as well as poetry reviews. 

Since that change, Luttrell said poetry submissions increased from 100 per issue to more than 600. Those submissions, which must be submitted via mail rather than e-mail, are winnowed by a loosely knit group of five or six people, who meet once a week on the second floor of a local cafe. 

“We are not arbitrators of public taste,” Luttrell said. “But we know what we like.”

Luttrell has 10 books of poetry; his current publisher is Big Bridge Press in San Fransisco. Although spiritually influenced by the Beat poets, Luttrell said he is a lyric, free-verse poet who writes in a compressed form, where less is more. 

“I don’t tell stories as much as give an impression of things,” he said. “I try to stay true to the dream or experience.”

Luttrell is also trying to bring local poetry to community television. His new show, “Poet’s Cafe,” which mixes poetry and jazz, can be seen on Community Television Network Channel 2.

Although the journal casts a wide net, it is still a small publication – 500 copies printed each quarter – that has stuck with its grassroots base. Luttrell is the publisher and his wife, Catherine Fisher, manages the circulation. It can be found at Yes Books, 589 Congress St., or Longfellow Books, 1 Monument Way.

Since 1993, Cafe Review has allowed Portland-area poets to mingle with others throughout the world.

“Our goal is to bring Portland poets to the world and the world to Portland poets,” Luttrell said.  

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or

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p-cafereviewluttrell.JPGPortland Poet Laureate Steve Luttrell is editor-publisher of Cafe Review, a journal of poetry, reviews and art published locally for the last 20 years.