Looking for the Beats and finding slam poetry

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It started with Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s 100th birthday and book release last March. I arrived at City Lights bookstore half an hour early for the release event for his new novel, “Little Boy,” and was confronted by a sea of backs — too many people to comfortably lean forward, much less see any of the promised Bay Area authors speak at the podium just a few yards away.

When Ferlinghetti founded City Lights in 1953, the bookstore immediately became an epicenter for the collection of bohemians and poets known as the Beats, who gathered in San Francisco in the 1950s.

What I learned standing in the back of the bookstore (which I later discovered was a good spot compared to the dozens of spectators who gathered outside the glass storefront to glimpse the podium speakers) was that City Lights Booksellers & Publishers is still central to the Bay Area poetry scene today.

But unlike today, the San Francisco Beats were far from celebrated when they were in their prime. Local newspapers painted the Beats as criminals, and in response, the police frequently raided Beat bars and hangouts in the North Beach district.

City Lights Booksellers & Publishers is still central to the Bay Area poetry scene today.

I interviewed the director of the Beat Museum, located across the street from City Lights, to get a foundational knowledge of the impact and timeline of the Beats in San Francisco. There I learned that reporters and police were unable to deter young people from flocking into San Francisco from all over the country — droves of free spirits looking to become the next Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg. Even after the Kerouacs and Ginsbergs of North Beach died or disappeared from the scene, young people carried the spirit of the Beats into the 1960s hippie movement. However, the various Beat figures stayed in the spotlight through the 1960s. It wasn’t until Woodstock in 1969 that the Beats symbolically passed the torch to the younger, more politically active hippies. 

Today the Beats and their cultural successors are celebrated as key components to mainstream San Francisco history. City Lights became an official historic landmark in 2001, and tour buses frequently include it as part of their loops. In 2017, the de Young Museum dedicated a few months to the legendary 1967 “Summer of Love.”

But the Bay Area counterculture movement extended far beyond Woodstock and the Summer of Love. While talking to poet Julien Poirier over a croissant at Cafe Milano a bit after the book release event, I learned that older bohemians and nonacademic street poets populated Telegraph Avenue through the 1980s. 

Poirier offered a fairy-tale alternative to the contemporary Berkeley, one where Telegraph brimmed with poetry-infused nightlife and then-accessible campus steam tunnels provided shelter and inspiration to writers and musicians. Poirier and his fellow poets packed bars, cafés and bookstores to perform poetry to rough and ruthlessly honest audiences.

Poirier also listed poet-frequented establishments, and while most had closed their doors many years ago, after hearing about his experiences I became fixated on the hope that this counterculture poetry scene must still be out there in the Bay Area. 

In an attempt to find this scene, I attended more events and interviewed more poets until I landed on this conclusion: There are at least two parallel poetry scenes in Berkeley today. 

The first stems from the Occupy Oakland movement.

When the Occupy movement swept the United States in 2011, Oakland’s main stage of choice was the Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, unofficially renamed Oscar Grant Plaza during the occupation. For the weeks that protesters occupied the plaza, poetry readings were central to the atmosphere and lifeblood of the movement.

In an attempt to find this scene, I attended more events and interviewed more poets until I landed on this conclusion: There are at least two parallel poetry scenes in Berkeley today. 

After the occupation eventually dispersed, poets who had been occupiers went on to create more environments for poetry in the Bay Area and strengthen the existing scene. One of these spaces is the Woolsey Heights poetry readings, a semimonthly poetry reading series at the Berkeley home of former Occupiers Andrew Kenower and Paul Ebenkamp. Ten years after the series began, they continue to invite poets into their home for nights of writing and wine, sometimes followed by a casual after-party.

I attended a reading and discovered that some of these poets had published at City Lights and worked at Moe’s Books on Telegraph. They referenced the Beats in their poems. Stepping into the reading felt almost like I had found what I had been looking for — the posterity of the Beats.

But according to Ebenkamp and Kenower, events like these are dwindling. Friends and poets from Occupy are fleeing the Bay Area for cheaper housing elsewhere.

“We are precarious,” Ebenkamp said about his own housing situation. “We rent. And anything could happen. We could be given our 30 days’ notice any given first day of any month.”

Since around 2014, Ebenkamp and Kenower have seen their poetry scene decrease in numbers, partly because of the Bay Area housing crisis.

The second parallel poetry scene is the slam poetry scene in Berkeley. 

At The Starry Plough every Wednesday evening, judges rank open-mic slammers who perform for an active audience. Judges rank poems 0-10, and the winners compete for a sum of money gathered from the audience.

This crowd is younger, closer to college age than middle age, and louder. The audience cheers at particularly impressive phrases and boos when judges give low scores.

While slam poetry may have originated in jazz clubs in 1980s Chicago and is therefore not the direct descendant of the Bay Area Beat Generation, attending slam poetry events at The Starry Plough provided the same energy Poirier described: passionate poetry as performance.

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Contact Hannah Frances Johansson at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @hanfrancesjohan.