It will come as no surprise that San Francisco is still a spiritual mecca for all things literary; for the championing of the right to free expression; and for an intersection of the two. It is still one of the book-buying capitals of the world, and the site of famous social change demonstrations that continue today.
This past weekend, Sept. 23-25, I went back to San Francisco, the place where I lived while I was in law school at Berkeley. I hardly saw my hotel room—I trekked from event to event in all corners of the city, enjoying every minute. While in school, I rarely had the chance to appreciate what the city had to offer; I was always breezing by it all in search of the future.
But on Saturday, I was there at the Beat Museum’s Fourth Annual Poetry Festival in North Beach, which coincided with 100 Thousand Poets for Change global events and the North Beach Art Walk. Tucked up in a second floor windowless space, surrounded by artifacts and articles from the Beat era, poets gathered to hear each other’s work about what’s wrong in the world, what’s right, and to implore action in the face of injustice. I heard a song wondering whether it would take Fallujah coming to Petaluma for people to rally en mass for change (Margo van Veen), and I swear that the ghost of Jack Kerouac stood up to clap when a young poet hailed the gathering of all us poets in his truly Beat-style free composition (Josh Nelson).
On Sunday, the second day of the Poetry Festival, I read my own work about living Beat era poet ruth weiss (now in her 80s), who I got to hear perform at the Focus Gallery Saturday afternoon. Jerry Cimino of the Beat Museum had told me about her scheduled performance just before she was set to read and I rushed to the gallery a few streets away. I wrote the poem in a cafe just after hearing her performance.
ruth, with her bright turquoise hair and fingernails, reads to the beat of a hollowed-out redwood log-turned-drum, played by her partner, Hal Davis. She is a seasoned jazz canto (or poetry & jazz) performer (a style in which she was an early innovator), and she sips a beer set on a music stand in between poems, taking her glasses off for emphasis.
Watching ruth stand on the platform in front of young Los Angeles-based artist, Liv Zutphen’s abstract canvases, beneath a neon sign that said ‘Gallery,’ shedding her 80 years but not the cool that has captivated audiences for more than 40 years, I just had to capture her essence in words. A who-what-when-where like this article just wouldn’t do the moment justice. I had to write a word picture, a poem.
I’ve spent the better part of my life worrying about things that do not matter like my outside appearance or what others (mostly the male figures in my life) would think of my choices. I won’t say I went to law school for those figures, but it’s true that the ghost of my grandfather, with all of his lofty expectations, always loomed large. My father’s figure casts no less an imposing shadow, considering his life story of coming from nothing in Mexico, earning a Ph.D. in chemistry, and serving as a medic in Vietnam.
But sitting before ruth on Saturday truly inspired me to cut my own creative path, and to continue onward against odds, opinions and the temper of my time. The vision of her was actually empowering. You can read the poem I wrote about ruth here.
Before the Poetry Festival on Sunday, I went to the San Francisco Public Library for an event celebrating Banned Books Week, sponsored by Bannedbythebay.org and PEN USA. Authors Michelle Tea, Jewelle Gomez, Rebecca Solnit, and Alejandro Murguia read from their favorite banned or challenged works. Tea read from Judy Blume’s Forever (1975), Gomez from James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956), Solnit from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) and Alejandro Murguia sparked a discussion about civic engagement by speaking about the work of Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), a book banned by several countries and currently challenged for use in classrooms by Arizona’s secretary of education, Tom Horne.
Hearing passages from these works was excellent, but the discussion, moderated by Zyzzyva’s Oscar Villalon, was the best part of the event. Murguia, via Freire, made us think about civic engagement as it might be sparked by literature, if we could only get to the business of physical action instead of just passive listening, and if we (especially those marginalized by society) could imagine ourselves as the subject and not just the object of a sentence.
Those marginalized by their race or socio-economic status often cannot, because of their experience, place themselves in sentences of literature as part of the action occurring, but rather, they may subconsciously only see themselves as the acted upon, or as passive bystanders. It is up to good teachers, Freire argues, to change this, and to make all readers understand the power of their own actions and their own voices.
The authors at the event also collectively contemplated what civic engagement looks like in this digital, social-media-fueled, 24-hour news-cycled, celebrity-obsessed age. They seemed to settle on the idea that physical action and presence are extremely important, as is increasing literacy, which can lead individuals to realize that they too have a voice.
At the Poetry Festival, one of the poets who cut her teeth in the 1960s era of change said that she didn’t know anymore if she could change the world, but that she might at least change a mood. Maybe that is where it starts, and, as I rediscovered by being present this weekend, poetry and literature can do that for sure.
Click here to read the poem I wrote as a tribute to ruth weiss, which I read at the Poetry Festival.