Cafe Poetry in San Francisco: The State of the Art, 2000
Poetry is alive in San Francisco as manifested in as many as 2 dozen cafes that host weekly spoken-word events. The cafe owners invite poets and singers to entertain and enlighten the audience. The staff of San Francisco Salvohttp://www.sfsalvo.com sampled several cafes during September and October and herein report on the results.
The Cafe Scene
The audiences are generally friendly and will try to applaud a poet’s effort. Many in the audience are poets who will read later and consequently support an ambience of mutual respect.At least one poet brought a dozen vociferous friends who encouraged his every line and cheered wildly his more outrageous statements.
Often a featured reader who will hold forth for a half-hour. Other poets follow, usually limited to 5 minutes or so, although there are no time-keepers with a clock. Some poets come in just for their own presentations and leave immediately after.
You can find listings of some of the cafe’s poetry evenings in the newspapers SF Weekly and the Bay Guardian. Some of the evenings are filmed for showing on http://www.poetrytelevision.com
Cafe International is a large cafe in the Lower Haight in an interesting area that has seen a flowering of cafes, saloons, and experimental business in the last few years. They featured a two-day poetry jubilee in October packed with poets, song-writers, and some appreciative listeners.
Sacred Grounds is in a residential district on Hayes across the Panhandle from Haight-Ashbury. Jehanah Wedgewood hosts and Zuhair Sinada is the proprietor of the cafe. They serve good home=cooked food as well as an assortment of pastries.
The YakketyYak is in the lower Snob Hill on Sutter Street, a couple of blocks west of the Stockton street garage, near several small stages and art galleries. April Ipock, K.L. Hill, Vernon Small and Gaya Jenkins host the show. It's also a radical art gallery.
La Calaca is at 4754 Mission Street near Ocean Avenue in the Excelsior District, not far from City College. Poets that frequent La Calaca tend to be younger and more radical. Some familiarity with Spanglais is helpful. Janice and Daniel O’Sullivan are the proprietors. It's also an art gallery.
Notes from Underground
This series has taken over from the Someplace Else series. Jeanne Powell hosts and can be emailed at email@example.com
This Czech cafe is in North Beach and features beer and wine as well as coffee. Mark Schwarz MC’s.
The Paradise is South of Market and features a full bar and often music downstairs. There is pool, poetry, and a small bar upstairs. If there are stars in the San Francisco poetry scene, they are likely to be featured readers at the Paradise.
The Spoken Word
Our staff quickly scribbled notes as the spoken words swirled and flew. Here’s what we found.
Most poets read from the page. Some of the poets appear to have some professional training as actors or speakers while other mumble quietly. Some have been doing this for years and have made progress in presentation and composition.
Steve Wood recites from memorized versions while Keith Savage, Dakota, and Chicano-Stoner-Taco-Shop-Owner improvise on a theme. We’ve seen Chicano Stoner at La Calaca. He improvises long, ironic, and interesting Poet in the City narratives. His catalog of encountered personalities typically include a girlfriend, shop keepers, drug buyers, drug sellers, workers, hustlers, borrowers, and stealers. When someone asks him what he does for a living he replied "I don’t understand things for a living."
The Inflection, that rising pitch at the end of a sentence designed to turn a statement into a request for validation, has nearly fallen out of fashion. It was much more common in cafes in San Francisco a few years ago. Gaya Jenkins continues to maintain the tradition. Poets maintain intermittent reflective pauses to allow the listener to contemplate the preceding line.
Teddy Weiler lengthens some syllables, particularly at the end of lines and sentences, adding emphasis. Vlad the Impalor Kurgolof lengthens his ‘r’s and long ‘o’s for an interesting effect.
Poets rarely show their literary education. With few exceptions, allusions to ancient and modern poets are either not apparent or uninteresting. Many of the allusions are actually in the preamble rather than the poem itself. Most of the allusions found in the poems are attempts at name- or –place or time-dropping and are often distracting.
Some poets appear to pledge rhythmic allegiance to the Beats.
Formal poetry is unusual and we suspect that it comes from song-forms rather than the traditional forms such as the sonnet, although a villanelle was read at the YakketyYak. Tarin Towers writes what she calls sonnets but are really 14-line poems with an ironic flavor similar to the poems that she does not call sonnets. Rhyming is unusual and good rhyming exceptional and well-received.
With respect to technique, poets do not appear to school in any way. Not only do they appear to eschew the styles of ancients but also each others. Each appears to work his own mine, diligently expecting the discovery of the utterly unique and wonderful.
There is some discussion about the worth of the sometimes distracting paragraphs with which some poets introduce their work. If the preamble is short, clever, and informative, it is at least tolerated and sometimes appreciated. However, some are none of the above and sound more like the introductory ramblings of someone about to give a speech, designed to put the audience at ease with a joke before a serious sermon.
We have heard one excellent preamble that was much longer and more interesting than the poem to follow. Rules are few and poets rejoice in breaking them.
We suspected that most poems we encountered could be regarded as writing from a central emotional issue and so we set out to identify the issues. By sentiment, we mean an evocation of an emotional principle, presumably used to interest the listener. We found that many poems could be classified using a short list of sentiments. Some poems defied analysis.
We examined 131 poems from several readings and from the Sacred Grounds Anthology #3. The following catalogs the sentiments we identified in roughly the order of their frequency of use.
He and She
The most commonly expressed sentiment was that of the male and female relationship, recounted in positive or negative terms. When written by a woman, it could improvise on the theme of What a Bastard He Was. In that case, the poem became a Them and Us poem, presumably calling on the support of other women and male feminists in a battle against that class of males.
Some men read relationship poems and mostly they missed their lost love romantically in tender tones. We suppose that not a few of these were the same men who so villainously appeared in the women’s What a Bastard He Was poems.
In frequency, injustice ranked highand the complaints included homelessness, poverty, gender or disability or racial prejudice, rape, war, child abuse, in short the entire catalogue of atrocities that mankind inflicts upon his kind. If we would gauge the intensity of these reactions to injustice, it also rivaled that of the relationship-poem.
Nature was praised or mourned and seldom feared. Nature was most often good, sometimes dangerous, and civilization usually bad. Natural objects included trees, birds, cats, and universal love.
Parent and Child
This class of poems were often deeply emotional. Sometimes they concerned loss, especially the loss of a child. In one mother/daughter poems, the poet complained that her mother had ‘tied her up in lies’. This class also includes poems that mention grandparents. Fathers were generally to be feared.
Name, Place, and Time Dropping
Poets sometimes alluded to people or places or times. we suppose this could be very effective, almost a kind of intellectual shorthand, if everyone shared the same knowledge of the same events.
However, in our time when we celebrate our individual points of view, it seems completely unlikely that any two people could share the same knowledge about a person, place, or time unless we had the same experience. Nevertheless, some poets recite nothing more than a list of times and places, expecting that each member of the audience will express the same awe, in direction if not intensity, to a jazz singer, a city, or a decade. That’s asking a lot.
Some poets try to show off their classical knowledge by dropping the names of mythical figures. This is almost as problematical, because neither most poets nor most audience members display much acquaintance with those god-like figures of old. We suspect that members of the audience would be willing to acquire some education in history or in the classics if it were sufficiently disguised as entertainment.
The catalog of virtues included altruism, generosity, and conscience. Keith Savage promotes the virtues of generosity, advising us to act locally and to help one another. We suppose that the virtues extolled complimented the injustices.
The She poem extolled the greatness or strength of a woman. When written by a man, she was a former lover deeply missed.
Many of the She poems praised a mother or grandmother, becoming also a Parent and Child poem.
By contrast, He poems hardly showed, A musician and a father or two were all that seemed worth mentioning in a positive sense. Fathers are generally far out of fashion as heroes and recognizably in as demons.
Death was noted frequently, particularly a parent or child. When successfully combined with an injustice, the poem had much energy.
Them Vs Us
The division between the good guys and the bad guys is still in vogue. The poems consisted of at least a satirical identification of the bad guys and a short list of their crimes. Some of the bad guys that have been identified include Dot-Com invaders, large corporations, Christians, materialists, and many men. When combined with an injustice, the energy increased.
Keith Savage and Dakota, who read at Sacred Grounds, recited poems that suggest a Christian influence. These tend to be prophetic and often allude to virtues, rather like a good sermon. Most sermonizers tend to leave Jesus and his dad out of the poems.
However not all prophecies and virtues were restricted to Christian poets. Admonitions and warnings sprang from every corner. The failure to heed free advice and the threats of apocalypse are compatible with the entire spectrum of belief.
Many poets derided Christian stereotypes in apparent attempt to convert the work into a Them Vs Us poem. This effort raised a cheer and the poet followed by musing on what a comedian God must be. He then catalogued examples, ridiculing everyone in turn, eventually getting around to himself, with excellent applause.
Some poets attempted to arouse within the audience a fear of the unknown. We suppose this might work on some folks but that it takes hundreds of millions of dollars in special effects to pull this off believably. Perhaps it’s better to express this premise satirically, as if there really are people who would fall for that. Perhaps, incidentally, someone would.
Poet in the City
We encountered several poems that portrayed the poet as wandering through, assessing, praising, celebrating, decrying, or being oppressed by a city. Chicano Stoner improvises long Odysseys through the Mission where he meets a series of people, encountering and mentally noting a series of sentiments. Allen Cohen walks through a past and present Haight-Ashbury. Tarin Towers works this rich vein of ore.
Reality and Surreality
Mark Schwarz made a poem out of the amazement of waiting for the possibility that something might happen. A few examples of surrealistic poetry were offered whereby the ordinary was made extraordinary. Kristyan Panzica's musical renditions of his perceptions approached reality from an aesthetic perspective.
The Will to be Unique
Vlad the Ukrainian Impaler Kurgolof sought to outrage the audience. His poetry flirted with prostitutes, frank misogyny, references to body fluids and functions, and sadistic images. Some of his flirtations became He and She poems while others merely meandered around a naked lunch.
Ray Wood said at the Cafe Prague that ‘poetry is life criticized’, which is a wonderful thing to say. Also at the Prague, Tony Vaughn sang a song Someone Offers to Buy Your Shadow and the Geometry of Smoke is Impossible to Calculate on the theme that it is futile and self-destructive to attempt to predict experience. The song was a determined and successful and interesting attempt to be utterly original and unclassifiable.
We collected a sampling of chap books and individual poems in our tour. Separated from the oral presentations and the reactions of the audience, we visit here the verse in detail, using the sentiments identified in the spoken word section of this article.
Allen writes poetic travelogues set in San Francisco. He walks through the Haight-Ashbury, an area with which he has been familiar since the 60’s. He populates his verse with characters on the street and infuses his current experience with his memories. In Haight Street – September 1998
The street left to the homeless
sitting alone and in groups
in front of liquor stores
between buildings drinking coffee.
Old and young men and women
alcohol and drug addicted,
mad and down and out.
He’s in Golden Gate Park in Instead of Selling Pretzels
I see a short narrow tunnel
I hadn’t noticed before.
I walked through it
and heard my footsteps
echo from the walls.
I explore the timbre
of the echo with my voice.
"What is the reason I am?"
I intone louder and louder
I find the place where
the echo is loudest and chant,
"Om Mani Padme Hum"
with great elongations of
the Om and the Hum.
The tunnel rings like a Tibetan bell
and the ringing reverberates
and accumulates until
I am within the ringing.
I am the bell and
The bell is my mind.
Allen is one of the founders of the San Francisco Oracle. His email firstname.lastname@example.org
Camincha’s story fragment As Time Goes By is a Parent and Child narrative that deals frankly and plainly with the romantic and realistic family issues of love, marriage, old age, and death.
... the song of birds, the rustling of their feathers in flight, the smell of the cherry tree where they alighted and the lilacs in bloom.
Camincha is the poetess of Why I think of Dead People at Poetry Readings.
Ed’s Sugarstrands is a Parent and Child piece and also a She poem. A mother attempts to teach her children.
Mama cupped her right palm onto my head to press me
into a welter of old beliefs and her loom as if made
from cherrywood spoke an earthquake of hurt tangling
into mud like hot sugarstrands sinking like glass
threads made from stinky and dying candyrod gods.
But she wove me and my siblings and raised us believing
in swirls like foam mounds on waves of scum/sperm
mountains of old myths, new religions, solid beliefs.
Zeus might walk water, head in clouds, but I, feet on
firm ground, try like grass to grow. I pray for rain.
Some of the metaphors obscure each other but what shines through the cracks is the battle between romanticism and realism, the former as nutritious as cotton candy and the latter a hope as distant as an ideal.
If the Numbers is barely sentimental, unless the intellect betrays an emotional origin. The poem achieves a high density, featuring closely-packed qualifiers reminiscent of Gerard Manly Hopkins.
If the numbers inquire, tell them you are one, I
am your one, we truckle, burnished, roan now, in
submarine confusion, swollen, last guest, happy,
proclaiming life is the insult.
Ed’s encounters with reality continue in I am Working My Way Through Reality.
She jettisoned him and took the bus. No more Mr. Chauffeur Stud.
His book of boo is solo jel on the self-absorbed food chain.
Hair, nail, skin: jelly.
Mr. Smarty Pants: is he GOOD or is he BAD said Ronnette LaGuardia
(neither understanding the said nor the meant.)
The manly manifestation hangs outside and is the joy and pride
completing, ending, beginning a lank of shank and hank of hair
on a head atilt, a pagan love god.
The lines are interesting but the meaning is obscured by the convolved voices and statements. Just a guess, but, in I am Working My Way Through Reality, it seems that a woman is dismissing her romantic illusions and some part of the man who represents them. Ed goes on to gather support from Aristotle in the poem and issue statements on the nature of love and America. His rhyming puns tend to add coherence to the poem. We suspect that his work is meant to be pondered on the page. When read to an audience, it’s likely to be misunderstood unless by hydroplaning across the images we can gestalt a furtive meaning. .
His grammatically-fractured Reality, Realities features six characters, including an advising oboe, as well as a bridge and a stream in nine lines.
Ed Mycue reads at Sacred Grounds.
Gaya composes social satires. Her She poem Hypatia has classical allusions that contribute to its very contemporary irony and is quoted in full. The poem is lean and economical. No empty words distract us from the images.
of the Library
Of the Library
Was a bride
of the universe
and all this
world could offer
in the streets
like her library
I told a
This is the
The last four lines make it utterly modern and meaningful and also an excellent usage of a classical reference. We didn’t know Hypatia at first but sufficient information was given without making it into a lecture and the poem inspired us to look up the reference.
Gaya also writes He and She erotica, reads at Sacred Grounds, and co-hosts YakketyYak.
J. Tarin Towers
Tarin’s chapbook, Sorry We’re Close, published by Manic D Press, is a collection of satires in which she aims her sharp wit toward civil society.
She primarily uses the Poet in the City theme, but Tarin amplifies the form: Me Against the World and Sometimes Looking for Allies. This theme is useful for her longer poems in constructing a kind of emotional, if not a geographical, Odyssey.
She often begins her poem as a He and She poem but quickly dispenses with him and turns the work into a Poet in the City poem. She then sets about a tour of characters, sometimes including herself, who willingly deceive themselves into chasing after sex and money and other typical objects of desire, and sometimes threatening murder or suicide, becoming a woman as dangerous as some men hope to be.
Her social satires revolve around willing self-deception and materialism, which she reveals with surprise and creative originality. She frequently wakes the reader with half-comic threats, as in Good Listener.
I could take a phone cord and tie you to the driver’s seat –
set the car on fire and walk away – Your screaming
would sound like your normal voice – I have to learn
to ignore you some day.
Her Discount Pulse Rate is one of the sharpest of her He and She poems. Every line turns over a new game in the newly-coupling foreplay and foretells its bitter end.
What’s your sign? I’m a yield.
What’s your type? I’m a girl.
That makes me: anything in a skirt.
That makes you: anything that moves.
And I know what you like in a woman.
Tarin has a bag of poetic tricks with which to catch the reader’s attention. She plays on internal rhymes and puns. Her verse is at least interesting, especially when read aloud, and sometimes revolutionary. It is fast-paced in its turn-over of images, running hot and then ice cold, sometimes in one line. Reading her poetry plows up the field, exposing things we unconsciously suspect but avoid noticing. Hearing her read on stage is an adventure. She works.
Beneath the satire, Tarin’s verse is romantic. She knows how it ends, the details, the artifacts left in the apartment after the disaster, and what is asked and what is said, and even a line or two about how it started. But the fantastic clutter of her poetry is the residue of people who continue to try while the clock continues to tick, who hold out hope, however tacitly, for the possibility of romance and try to avoid expressing a profound sense of loss when the hope is not realized. Her poetry is a thorough, comedic veneer covering the deeper pathos that is romance in the modern American big city and could become a serious and poetic theme.
Tarin can be reached via her website http://www.tarin.com
Jehanah Wedgewood’s Mother of Winter chapbook is largely a reference to nature. Jehanah says that we have forgotten that we are natural creatures. In Trashed Earth, her father has returned to nature:
Trees wave, trying to be heard
In the oldest languages to call us back.
So we walk in my father’s body
Looking down his long nose
At the only woman he ever loved...
The earth, the great mother.
Her relationship with nature is romantic in that she is separate from it and yearns for reunification. She advises that the way to remember is through rituals typically involving trees, flames, rivers and other natural objects. She also invokes ancient Irish and Egyptians legendary names.
She is anti-patriarchal and anti-imperial in a time that is possibly becoming less patriarchal but more imperial. In the autobiographical Patriarchy Unmanned
Your lines of order
Run in my blood.
But the world system died
Long before you did.
The dinosaur’s head lopped off,
The great body still gracefully lumbering
To the end of the sentence.
In the same poem, words become the instrument of empire
Words feel good and keep you
From looking around.
Without words I’m still here.
Without words you’re still gone.
Without words my feet stand firm.
Men come and go just like you.
But let’s not pretend.
The language of the empire is dead.
Her strongest sentiments are reserved for her father and mother and it’s clear that she has been effected by them.
It’s also clear that Jehanah Wedgewood asserts her love for the objects of nature and we have no reason to doubt her assertion but we don’t see why or how much or where she obtained her affections. Her birds and trees seem to be just birds and trees. What kind of trees are they? Are they endangered? Are they frightened or angry or amused at our behavior? Are they our children? Have we abused them?
She is at her strongest when talking about herself, rather than advising us about what to do. In Who I Am, we are products of our societies and are ourselves only when alone, almost as if society is the source of the problem. It's unique in the sentiments surveyed. The poem is quoted in full.
Who I Am
I only know who
When I'm alone;
Only when I'm alone.
I'm always playing into
Your expectations, fears,
You'll never see me
Jehanah hosts the Sacred Grounds readings.
Jim’s poem Fiona, Jamie, and the Silkies spans generations as a Parent and Child poem and settles on a lost child. Set in Ireland, a young girl muses on the dangerous sea and her lost brother, who she imagines returning as a seal.
Jim comments that politics are as destructive as nature.
The English ran the schools. No Irish language.
Fiona’s father was called ‘eejit’ by his peers for
Using the old words. His face was bloody, anger
In his heart. Black rocks, wide waves.
The people supplicate the sea as giver and taker of life.
Jim Watson-Gove publishes the Sacred Grounds anthologies and can be emailed email@example.com
Julia VinogradJulia is a Berkeley street poet. Ask a Mask from Zeitgeist Press, Berkeley, CA, is her 45th book of poetry.
Her poems do not fall easily into the classes we have identified. Her book is only partly an Odyssey of the city. IT is entirely an Odyssey of despair. Characters try to avoid each others gaze; people hide behind masks and accordions and offices and heroin; they flee from powerful and pitiless political forces. The world is cold and apocalyptic and she is its observer, chronicler, portrait artist, victim, and seer. She writes from her observations of life on the street.
In Young Junkies Hustling
A dark wind blows young faces down thin alleys,
barbed wire willing faces between locked warehouses.
A cold wind blows tight jeans over concrete
leaving no tracks
except in needle-clawed arms,
birds that fly deeper in basements,
birds that sing and drink money.
Her poetry is often political in that her characters are victims of the forces that make war and the rules.
Her images flow one into another so seamlessly that it is difficult to excise them. In People with Nowhere to Go
A big wind blew all their befores away.
Even the lines in their hands unraveled,
these are the lines they stand in
to ask for their hands back.
No one holds their hands.
They push shopping cart skeletons
crammed with blurs and blobs.
The tumors of time.
Julia’s poetry is some of the most serious work we’ve seen. She expresses a deep emotional commitment to her characters drawn from real life. Without distracting the reader or calling attention to herself, she is artful in her expression, using many flavors of irony, puns, and personifications to reinforce the visual imagery of her world. She uses few empty words. Nearly everything in her verse is solidly believable. Her premise is the actual people in the portraits she paints.
K. L. Hill
K. L. writes strong character-based short stories involving a sensitive person beset by injustice. In Getting It Right, a father gives his young son to work responsibility at work. The listener supposes that the boy will make a mistake and be punished. That the father is generous is a relief but by portraying the boy as sensitive and observant, K. L. creates a menacing background.
In the Company of Old Men, a retired man seeks solitude on the fringe of society but is pushed away.
In The Sharks and the Galley Rat, a young man fails to compete. The story is frankly Them Vs Us.
And they would poke at him with their sticks until he flinched and then poke at him again for flinching.
We suppose that the story could be improved. The mess cook’s description could take more of the story and then he wouldn’t need to suffer so much. The character is strong enough to bear more of the story.
K. L.'s style makes him an ironist, as he poses sensitive characters in an insensitive world.
K. L. co-hosts the YakketyYak readings.
Kristyan’s word jazz is a juxtaposition of images, producing a kaleidoscopic idea that is at least musical. We think we caught these phrases in a reading:
... Cistercian monks ...
... syncopated Balinese mariachi ...
... oscillating Earthlings are fragile playthings
He does more than his share of place-, name-, and decade-dropping, but it excused by his celebratory style.
We are deeply divided on his Heidi Klass’s Polly Fleisch. Except as a landscape, it’s incomprehensible without the title. As landscape, ‘all phrases bathed iniridium oases’ nearly breaks the poem. And we wonder who the ‘dreamers’ are and the ‘curdling frosts’ as well. The poem is nearly redeemed by its beauty. The choice of words is amazing. One of us judged it a beautiful veil covering the hideous. The poem is quoted in full.
Heidi Klass’s Polly Fleisch
A light year past the debt
Eaten one midsummer
Beside dusty attic windows,
She discourages the meadow
Where a lark sings sunshine,
Where curdling frosts drive dreamers
From Cascade-slope orchards.
All phrases bathed iniridium oases
Where her sacramental sutras
Flower in zigzagging streams.
Kristyan can be contacted by email atKristyans@aol.com and his website http://www.sduk.com/darkflash/.
Laura collects cosmic puns derived from her observations of people and the media. She does not write poetry as such but collages advertisements and anecdotes with commentary. On the topic of fingers, she juxtaposes a finger-cartoon from the New Yorker, an anti-cruelty to animals magazine ad containing a finger dialing a touch-tone keypad, and a reference to a museum that displays the preserved finger of Galileo. She is clearly amazed at what she finds. Coincidences are not unimportant. If she can be classified at all, she must be in the Will to Be Unique and Original. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
Leonard Irving’s book Farewell Dundrennan displays strong imagery against a profound and universal loneliness. Many of his poems foreground a warm and observant character contrasted with a cold and aging background. Aesthetically, this is an irresistible combination.
He drops places that are active characters, as in Birthplace
The lute of time plays
Across Solway Firth.
Gladiolas breathe faintly on Fagara Hill.
His phrases of a kind are grouped together and show sharply against the cold statements that follow, as in Ghost-Drawn
Once fine-fingered and warmed by sunlight
Sang and lyred their instruments
With hands now turned to stone.
Only cold stars remained longer than light
Deeper than need
Farther than lost desire
Empty as always
Before time and distance
Squandered our footpath to the sun.
His view of nature is complex, partly composed of a fleeting set of creatures too busy or too distant or too quick to be examined. In The Phantom Deer of Inverness
The shadows of their shadows
Move beyond shades of being,
Presenting not themselves,
but visions of themselves,
white and ghostly,
to only some few,
and even then most rarely,
no more to be accurately described
on a smooth pond’s surface.
His beautiful poems on horses focus on the wild, almost chaotic strength of the animals. We’ve seen a condor in solitude and humans pursuing their dreams, all crying out their terrible fate.
He does not advise an ethic or a politic but simply describes what he sees and his profound reaction to it. In Preoccupation
Beyond scope of memory
And too slow for human vision
A rake of wind
Gnaws the mountain away.
His phrases are economical in that he uses few words that do not strongly reinforce his point, creating lines packed with meaning, hitting hard with its sharply contrasting imagery. This prevents his stanzas from becoming morbid and transforms the verse into an exciting exploration over the treacherous trails above the chasm we all traverse.
Leonard’s verse is often romantic, in that it mourns lost innocence, optimism, and youth. The beautiful melancholy adds color and depth and personality and meaning to the narrative. His talents with the language and his deep appreciation of the largest issues in life make his poetry interesting to read and a pleasure to hear.
Leonard was born in Dundrennan, Scotland and lives in Oakland, California.
Mark Schwarz projects his intense appreciation of life’s smallest details. He writes unsentimentally of events that almost might happen. In For Teresa, he highlights the anticipation that can fill the emptiness between happenings. The short poem is all preamble and after-words with only the briefest mention of the actual event he references.
I am waiting for her
To get done with her busy work
So I can take her home.
In another poem he awaits the unnamed, which does not occur, and ends by saying that someday death will happen, but that it is not happening now. He is sometimes prophetic and faintly advisory in tone but what is prophesied and advised is left blank. His irony is that of expectation versus reality.
Mark is a Cornell graduate and has written over 2000 poems, almost all of which have been lost. He reads at Sacred Grounds and the YakketyYak and hosts the Cafe Prague Sunday night reading.
Maurice’s The Day the Cook Died continues the anti-war poetry tradition of the Vietnam war era. It mourns a generation’s loss while fore-grounding a character who cannot bear what must be born.
The day the cook died,
I read dispatches.
At headquarters they said,
Another patrol ambushed,
Another firebase overrun.
The morgue trucks rumbled,
Down to the arriving helicopters,
For the muddied, bloodied,
Stumps of once young men.
It’s about injustice without turning into a Them Versus Us poem . It’s eventually a He and She poem with perhaps another She in the far background, but we believe this fine and touching poem transcends genre.
Steven writes quietly powerful poetry. His Overbite is ostensibly about his cat but works well as a She poem that meditates on the dangerous woman.
no catnip dreams,
my pussy meows for
red meat dishes
His Singer is a Parent and Child as well as a She poem, a form that we’ve seen achieving strength.
mother collected thimbles-
ivory, pewter, brass-
dozens in a drawer
reminders of pinches or puffy faces,
hostile places on the way to now...
she loved fingering those favorite things,
hard-tipped and tapping rhythms
of a history bleeding
from much labor, little love
a young girl rushing up and down
scales to a, then, cold bed.
Steve has written on the loss of the American buffalo and reads at Sacred Grounds and the Yakity Yak.
Unladen Swallow Press has published Steve’s because I love you so much I’d wait for you and Helen Could Waste Away. He’s from Lewisville Texas and we met him one evening at the Paradise Lounge in San Francisco.
He begins Helen Would Waste Away with a tribute to Charles Bukowski, a raw and sarcastic poet, but Steve writes tender He and She poems, using the boy-meets-girl story as the basis of a narrative form upon which he improvises throughout both of his books. Sometimes he spices his lines with explicit sex. Generally each poem ends with a reflection on what was he has lost.
In little green demon, he’s filled with dread in the beginning of the poem, which ends like this:
every part of her
until she whines
like an old 45
through a broken
and all is forgotten.
A burst of excellent description can be found in bleed burn and curse
From the second story window
the pool is blue and clear
reflective mylar sunshine crests
that wash over themselves
and glint like miniscule thieves
in a back-alley beneath
In the title poem, Helen Could Waste Away, Steve drops some Homeric names. If he were Paris and his lady were Oenone, he would pick Oenone over Helen and let the latter waste away, presumably in the Spartan house of her boring husband Menelaus. The poem’s lines flow easily.
if you were
I would never have left
and troy could have fallen
and helen could waste
and my ships would rot
in the salt of angry seas
and my men would conspire
but nothing would matter
except for you
However, if Paris did not elope with Helen, then Steve’s mention of a fallen Troy is a puzzle. But we appreciated his references to one of our favorite stories and he made us look up Oenone.
His characters do not risk much. One exception is the dangerous woman in erin
erin had a jean jacket
she had a shock of bleached-blonde hair
that hit her right in the eye.
she yelled and sneered.
she never suffered fools.
her leer slit my throat.
Steve’s second book is another collection of He and She poems with occasional good phrasing but lacking shock appeal or revelation or evolution or revolution or even much in the way of a new expression. Although some might consider them erotic, and developing ironies can be detected, the relationships are far too casual for writer, characters, or readers to take seriously.
However, he writes with a sense of boldness and is at his best with fast-paced encounters as in blind date.
she likes john irving, pat conroy, country music and disco
is hyperactive and sounds short thin and pretty
has many gay friends not due to he location as much as
the fact she finds men annoying.
Steve Norwood’s work can be found athttp://www.sfsalvo.com/.
Steve’s frankly romantic poetry is devoted to his love. However, his exuberance is expressed generically. For realism’s sake, I’d suggest he take more of his sensual cues from actual life. For example, in This Morning
Finding cooler places on the bed
And warmer places on each other
is quite good. The contrast between cooler places and warmer places is interesting and effective, especially given the circumstances.
But further in the poem
Sweet fingers touch my lips and I see
(through this darkened room)
a smile that calls only me – and calls me
in your service
I wonder why her fingers are sweet, except that the poet feels obliged to say so. I don’t dispute that the smile calls everlastingly for Steve’s service but it is not evident in the poem except that the poet claims so.
By this time, the modern reader has seen everything. He’s been to hundreds of movies and seen thousands of sit-coms and cop-dramas and read best-selling books and, maybe, some pretty good poetry. To be willing to see it again, the reader expects a fresh expression or he’s in danger of boredom and the poet’s in danger of rejection.
Generic poetry cries out for detail. I’m convinced that Steve has plenty of positive energy but it could use a footing in the specific detail that makes his telling of his experiences an interesting story. Is her smile the same fabled smile that all fabled women wear? Is she dangerous? Why is she smiling? Is she really smiling at him?
Because tragedy dares not show its disagreeable head in Steve’s verse, all is sweetness and light. This makes the cynic rather suspicious and prevents a full-dimensional expression of Steve’s poetic life. If everything is beautiful, nothing is beautiful because there is no contrast. If a poet wants to put real beauty in a poem, he should never use any form of the word ‘beautiful’ and ought to consider putting beauty’s antithesis into the poem for contrast and relief from the responsibility of finding beauty everywhere.
Poets might add interest by back-grounding their feel-good stories with a deep loneliness, which, when contrasted with the thrill of proximity to love's object, provides the aesthetic basis for a scenic event. However, everything is foreground in Steve’s verse and so we don’t see where he’s coming from.
We admire Steve’s enthusiasm for poetry and desire to entertain and inform his audience. His energy will find its way.
Teddy’s distinctive reading style reinforces his bitter social criticism. The world is too full of machine-like people who are stingy with respect to justice, livelihood, and letting him sleep.
In his ATM Machine blues, his character is trapped near an ATM, waiting for his monthly check, and assaulted by the building, the traffic, the noise, his hunger, the bad booze, his impatient landlord, his grandmother, a welfare-department computer operator, the hot and humorless sun, and the knife in his pocket.
And this pisses him off, more than anything else, more than the voom-voom of the automobiles, the sports cars exiting from a driveway, needlessly barking out their shit-scream while blocking a single pedestrian on the sidewalk of Sado-Masochism Boulevard.
Teddy’s 3:30 Machine wakes him nightly with its own complaint and in his Frankenstein poem he elevates the inarticulate primal cry to the status of a word that must be heard. He reads at Sacred Grounds and the YakketyYak.
Vlad seeks to outrage his audience with explicit sado-masochistic images and in some cases works the fruitful ironiy of a man’s romantic expectations against the actual behavior of women. Some of his best work reminds us of the theme of Fellini’s City of Women where the character’s ideal is the virgin whore, a difficult and increasingly uninteresting ideal for women. This is a rich vein of poetic ore to mine, having much contemporary interest as our culture tries to become more realistic with respect to gender roles. The refrain from one of Vlad’s spoken words:
Vlad has also written a poignant and mournful piece on a pigeon living in a beer box.
Trash collectors will sing your funeral song
Vlad reads at the YakketyYak.
This article depends in part upon our ability to classify poems. We view this problematic adventure as a way to talk about poetry. We admit that no two poems are alike, that many poems express more than one sentiment, and that some poems appear to express no identifiable sentiment. Nevertheless, we press on. The real issue for us is what, specifically, the poet does with the sentiment, and how it is delivered.
Many of the poets have invented their own experiment. They repeat the experiment, varying the ingredients or the temperature or the pressure. The effect of this experimentation is often interesting but we suppose that many are finding themselves gradually discovering the advantage of the round wheel. We further suppose that by even a little study, they'd find some better examples and perhaps an entire vehicle and a map to go with it.
But maybe San Franciscans value originality above artistic success, disdaining tradition as a trap and education as the death of the creative impulse. They do not form schools by which they learn from each other nor, with some exceptions, do they appear to be conscious of the poetry of the past. Few of classical allusions we have heard are more than faint and pretentious, claiming greatness by referring merely to great people, times, or places.
We expected that political correctness would stifle poetic art in San Francisco but we have seen no evidence for this. Poets are generally free to explore any direction, although in some cases they feel obliged to issue an apologetic preamble before launching into work that might appear misogynistic or racist or Republican.
The old forms of expression continue to show. We’ve seen sermon, complaint, elegy, song, prophecy, confession, and celebration. The romance in its multitude of possibilities is still with us. There is a strong emotional motion toward ever newer freedoms, one that criticizes and attempts to exceed even our successfully permissive and increasingly hedonistic times.
The spirit of poetic creativity has been kept alive in the city and has been transmitted to a new generation. Many of the younger poets are bold, radical, surprising, and well-received. San Francisco continues to bring people in from around the country and around the globe, due, in part, to its reputation as a center for creative arts.