Poetic justice: Cafe Lena cooks again

On Wednesday, a reunion of the legendary hangout and poetry open-mike space will bring back the good times and rhymes

Well, only metaphorically: the actual cooking’s been history for fifteen years now. But Cafe Lena, the sassy little joint on lower Hawthorne Boulevard where the breakfast and lunch spot Jam is now, was something of a legend in Portland literary circles during its ten-year run that began on April 3, 1991.

“Neither of us had restaurant experience,” recalls poet and memoirist Leanne Grabel, who ran Lena with her husband, poet Steve Sander. “The idea was to do a poetry place. The restaurant aspect was secondary … but the cafe turned out to be a restaurant with three meals a day, an in-house baker, and so on and so forth.” Poetry, though, was Lena’s raison d’être, and especially the open mike, which regularly drew performing poets like Doug Spangle, Marty Christensen, Brian Christopher, Walt Curtis, and of course, the owner/operators.

Cafe Lena was packed and jumping on open-mike nights. Photo courtesy Leanne Grabel.

Cafe Lena was packed and jumping on open-mike nights. Photo courtesy Leanne Grabel.

“I’m sure the open mike started within two weeks of opening,” Grabel recalls. “It lasted the whole 10 years. The first night it was totally packed. I remember I had both my daughters there as I was the employee and Steve was the cook. I remember having to drive around looking for day care, as it was obvious I couldn’t have my daughters with me. It was really busy.”

Words, words, words: you could invent ’em, you could eat ’em, you could rearrange ’em, and for a razzle-dazzle decade, people did. Melissa Sillitoe of Show and Tell Gallery (“Art. Caffeine. Community. Good Times. Beginners Welcome.”) has carried on the poetry open-mike torch with weekly events at Sound Grounds Cafe, 3701 Southeast Belmont Street, and from 6 to 8:30 p.m. this Wednesday, June 22, she’ll be hosting the Cafe Lena Oral History and Reunion. Leanne and Steve will tell their stories, Sillitoe says, and then other people can come up to the mike and tell their own. Let the good times, and the tall tales, roll.

Grabel, Sander, and kids: Lena was a family affair. Photo courtesy Leanne Grabel.

Grabel, Sander, and kids: Lena was a family affair. Photo courtesy Leanne Grabel.

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