Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 124 in September, 2010.
I had just delivered a talk in San Francisco's Beat Museum—which stands in North Beach, right across from City Lights Bookstore—and was preparing to exit, when I ran into J.Brandon Loberg, a young poet who works at the Museum.
Hanging around Loberg's desk were several young, very cool-looking acquaintances of his, whom he introduced me to—among them Shye Has Powers, Stellar Cassidy and Nic Burrose—some of whom had under their arms copies of either my anthology 'The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry' or, the follow-up volume which I had co-edited with Barney Rosset and Neil Ortenberg, 'The Outlaw Bible of American Literature'.
They had showed up at the Museum expressly to meet me with an invite to come some Thursday night to hear them read at 9PM, on the street, at the corner of 16th and Mission, outside a BART train station.
“Where do I sit?” I asked nervously.
“On the ground” said Shye.
I laughed. “My butt's just a little too past that kind of thing. Besides, I teach a class on Thursday nights. I'd be too tired.”
Shye smiled. “You should go anyway.”
And there it was left.
I really had no intention of going. So, it's kind of mysterious to me—though it gets less so over time the more I think about it—that one night after class I heard the voice of Shye Has Powers saying: “You should go anyway” and next thing I knew I was on my bike shooting across town on a chilly night to the corner of 16th and Mission and where I found, to my utter astonishment, about two hundred young people sitting on the ground in concentric rings around an open circle, and a Hunter S.Thompson kind of guy named Charlie Getter —a poet, editor and Writing MFA who works in a print shop— in peculiar Tokyo Godzilla tee, tattered baseball cap and hellacious cargo shorts, ring-mastering the event with consummate wit, tact and street-wise diplomacy. One poet after another jumped into the center, reciting, from memory, long, strangely exciting poems.
Singers with guitars or bongos or ukuleles delivered soulful, highly original songs of protest or love. Circulating through the crowd were small press publishers, cartoonists, photographers, and self-styled literary critics. There were also bums, drunks, crack heads, hoes, bangers, disembarking train passengers, unicyclists, tourists, skateboarders, taggers, whole Mexican immigrant families and Mission scenesters wandering around on the periphery but, strangely, despite wine bottles passing through the crowd, no sign of cops.
Seems that since Getter and friends started the reading seven years ago, Thursday night crime has dropped so sharply on this normally savage corner that the Man has decided to withdraw, leave the street to the poets.
Poetry, it seems, has conquered Big Brother and even the typically ruthless drug trade has made room. It's one of the craziest things I've ever seen in America and there's nothing else like it, anywhere.
Since that night, I have fallen through the looking glass into a world of young poets and musicians such as San Francisco, or any American city, including, presently, New York or Chicago, has not seen in years. Only the longstanding and heroic NYC-based avant garde group, The Unbearables, with satellite members as far-flung as Paris, San Francisco and L.A., are in any way comparable.
The new SF Underground poets are not Beat, Hippie, Meat, Punk, Grunge, Dirt Core, Hip Hop or Spoken Word, and yet are flavored by all these trends.
They remind me, more then anything, with their long hair, intellectual seriousness, endless cigarettes, thrift shop clothes, fondness for taverns, and sexuality-redefining social conduct of the kind of circles of poets, novelists and artists that sprang up in late nineteenth century Scandinavia and Germany around August Strindberg and Hans Jaeger, and that included Edvard Munch, and later, tangentially, Knut Hamsun. In a very real sense, they are new bohemian existentialists, enacting their rebellion against a backdrop of the most serious economic decline since the Great Depression. Poverty and struggle are very real among these poets. At times, having known hunger in my own youth, I have seen it, real hunger—the physical kind—in their eyes.
But also I see there a fierce, incomparable kind of courage,such as Beckett had in the long Parisian years of his neglect, or Kerouac when he backpacked America with his unpublishable experimental novels, and have followed them down into an underground scene of innumerable performance venues,small presses, magazines, critics, book assembly dinner parties, and hang-out bars involving, in total, upwards of, say, several hundred people but at the core of which are about fifty poets who comprise what I believe are the new poetry counterculture of San Francisco.
If the Corner, run by Getter, is their holy medicine ground, Virracocha, an undeground performance space run by Jonathan Siegel, is their indoor Salon Refuse. Here they congregate and perform on stage to packed houses. They even have their own critic and chronicler, Evan Karp, a genuine flaneur in the best tradition of Baudelaire, replete with long hair, bow tie and vest and an air of shabby elegance. Despite a sometimes crushing lack of resources, Karp produces for newspapers and social media a steady stream of written and camera-recorded daily updates of the group's readings, happenings, book release parties, and personal, insider news.
Of the poets, I have selected my fifteen favorites, who are presented here, over the next three issues of Evergreen, in no small part thanks to the assistance of Andrew Paul Nelson, J. Brandon Loberg, Charlie Getter and Evan Karp who helped me to assemble these materials.
A last word about the poets. In a time when books and book culture are fast evaporating from America's mall- encrusted surface, replaced by an Orwellian electronic eczema of screens, apps and delirium-inducing games and 3-Dementia media, these poets venerate the book and all forms of print. They are writers and readers who produce by hand, in beautiful Do-It-Yourself editions which they distribute to their corner audience for free, books, magazines, posters , flyers and broadsides. Around them has grown a new kind of small press with monikers like Seven 7th Tangent Press, 16th and Mission Review, Sparkle and Blink, INK., Ingest Digest, Heavenly Wretched, 16th Mission Comix and the estimable Species Magazine. And they are developing among themselves a growing, close-knit, bohemian community rooted in language, reading, expression, art, and free-ranging intellectuality.
In their uncompromising dedication they recall none other than the Abstract Expressionists—particularly of the 10th Street days of poverty and professional neglect—when painters like Jackson Pollack and Joan Mitchell, used color in expressive forms that opened new pathways to the future.
Similarly, the new San Francisco Underground Poets recite a kind of verse that orally projects into the soul even as it explodes on the American night in singing lariats of verbal fireworks that for just one instant of forever lights up the darkness.