Poetry and San Francisco in 1974

Historical Essay

by Stephen Vincent

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originally published as "Here Now" in Shocks: Poetry & Criticism: The Bay Area and Northern California, March 1974.

Poetry and San Francisco are a paradox. Combine the two just about anywhere you go in the world, "I am a poet from San Francisco", and it's a passport to immediate significance whether or not anyone has read your poems. Part of the lure is geographic, the visual sense of place, the hills, the architecture, the bridges, the shifting light, wind and Bay. Then there is the aura of poets and readings that have become famous by way of San Francisco. Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Lenore Kandel, Lew Welch, David Meltzer, Phillip Lamantia, Phillip Whalen, Robert Duncan, Helen Adam and Jack Spicer. All these figures conjure up a presence, a sense of poetic space that, combined with the beautiful geography, nothing but poetry could happen, no matter who or what your talents might be. It's like a poet who hasn't been through here has missed a necessary courtship with a queen. He or she will never be fully anointed or touched. If the poet remains in New York, Detroit or Chicago, he still remains subject to a masculine and technological God. If he stays in the country, he will miss the complications and gentle sophistication of a womanly city. If you haven't planted your feet here once, you are a German who hasn't been to Paris.

It's the myth and the paradox. The myth of the City does not cope with either the real inheritance or condition of those who work to survive here both as writers and citizens. Quite contrary to the myth, the City, for the most part, is oblivious to what it creates, no matter the artist or his medium. Up until the present, the biggest investment of money and energy has been put into reinventing the past, an economic and hollow necrophilia with its history. Whether it is the Opera, Barbary Coast restaurants, or Victorian crib bars, its actual thrust has been to keep out of touch as much as possible with the present. Just this morning, for example, I read in the Chronicle, a restaurant tycoon wants to establish an "Embarcadero Marina", a waterfront hotel and recreation scheme to the tune of 120 million dollars with an "early San Francisco" theme. Surely, if it is accomplished, he will hire people from all ethnic groups in the City and dress everyone up in "early" costumes and it will be assumed that everyone, employee and tourist, will be much happier living out the invented motif, rather than making use of and supporting the current cultural life in the City. (In a similar manner, the BART stations in the Mission will undoubtedly be outfitted with taco stands to look like old Mexico).

In the other direction, when the City isn't bloating and sapping its history for easy coins, it works to design itself in terms of an imitative international futurism. Though there is an attempt to accommodate art within some of the plazas and structures downtown, it's hard to escape the sense that most of the buildings were designed by cool computer architects without any perception of the City as a human occasion. The high, cold, abstract shapes come off more as monuments to economic arrogance, rather than as reflections of what we might become as people and communities. Faces, paintings, and sculptures only achieve a heightened human quality that is struggling to survive, when seen in contrast to these alienating and overwhelming structures. This futurist concept of the City is just as evasive as the nostalgic one. In fact, as Beverly Dahlen suggests, the buildings represent a nostalgia of another sort, a nostalgia for a turn-of-the-century Crystal Palace vision of what the future is supposed to be like. Neither concept, however, speaks to the real content and possibilities of the people and artists who struggle to create their lives here.

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Modernist architecture built in the 1960s and 1970s in San Francisco.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

Up until the present the City has probably always taken an indifferent attitude towards the majority of its artists. It only wanted to hear about the poets, for example, if something scandalous was happening to one of them. It fit the tradition to have Ginsberg on trial for obscenity. Or, if the poet was relatively polite and prominent, he or she would go on the society page. However, Ginsberg's real vision of the City, or those of, say, Helen Adam, Jack Spicer or Michael McClure, how they interpreted the City as a current state of reality, was irrelevant. It did not want the language of the poet to invade the consciousness of how the City could be viewed. The poet was to be a character, It's been a situation just the opposite from science where we learn the knowledge gained by the scientist, but nothing of his personal habits. For poets here it's a condition that has gone on for so many years that many of us accept the isolation, the closeting of our actual work, as part of the given reality of our lives. Poems are to be written for other poets at readings, little magazines, or some mystical sense of historical record. They are not to be written to shift and articulate a public awareness of the present. They are not to become an active part of the vocabulary of the time.

It's an utterly crazy condition under which to live. Sometimes I think it is incredible what skill it took for people such as Ginsberg, Snyder and Welch to have risen above the myth of how you are to be in San Francisco, the way in which they created such large audiences for work that ultimately changed many of the life styles of the sixties. But today, even if you look hard, in spite of all the readings and the publishing that took place then, it's difficult to find the real effects of the work on the City's consciousness of itself. I know many people, for good reason, will argue against institutionalization of any sort. But if we look at what's happened, much of this area's fine poetry is rapidly disappearing from sight. For example, to my knowledge, there is not one course in any local college, let alone high school, in which Bay Area art and poetry from the thirties to the present is currently taught. Furthermore there is not one decent anthology with an historical focus on Northern California, let alone the Pacific rim, as a condition. Finally there is still little serious critical work that is publically available that interprets the local significance of the poets I've named (let alone the several I've not named). Most important of what we have, that is easily accessible, is David Meltzer's book of interviews, SIX SAN FRANCISCO POETS, Tom Parkinson's BEAT (in libraries), and some collected essay pieces by Kenneth Rexroth. However, what we really lack, at this point in time, is any genuine public attempt to get a clear view of what we can inherit, or what we can now use as people and artists who live in this particular place. It's as though, regardless of the enormous amount of work that has happened here, and that continues to happen, no matter the vitality and importance of the poetry, it is supposed to remain irrelevant. In reality San Francisco and the Bay Area's cultural and academic establishments still live out some image of the nineteenth century where you comfortably wait for the 'proper news' to come across the Great Divide.

As poets in this city, and in view of these conditions, it's obvious that a change has got to come if we are ever going to gain an active and meaningful voice in how this City sees itself. To take the title of Hilton Obenzinger's excellent book, The Day Of The Exquisite Poet Is Kaput. For those of us who are sick of these conditions, it is now a question of struggle and process. As poets it is a struggle to make the poetry, both current and historic, begin to take actual root in the consciousness of the City. As people and artists, in the war against the nostalgists and the futurists, it is a fight to make the City into a livable space that is reflective of what we do, whether we be poet, artist, actor or dancer. It's a struggle for space to work, be with our different communities, and to be acknowledged. The struggle really is to turn the City inside out in such a way that it can begin to see itself for what it is. What we are looking for are public spaces in which the consciousness of the real City can be created, experienced, viewed and critically valued and decided upon.

However, to get to this point of a new consciousness of who we are, and how we could begin to function in the City, involves a process for which most of us have not been prepared. The myth of the poet as the romantic, isolated creature of pain, or, on the other side of the coin, the fashionably accepted member of a social or academic elite, is so steeped in the culture that many of us are held back from any kind of involvement with the City that would give our poetry a function beyond perpetuating such self-destructive myths. (Larry Pelson's essay deals with the effects of these myths on the stance and the literal content of much of contemporary poetry). However it's going to take real public involvement with our conditions and our work, if we are ever going to break out of the communal isolation that's been much of our local lot.

Part of the initial phase of this work has to be critical. Not critical in the academic sense of removing the work from its context and examining it as a linguistic artifact, but looking at the poet and the poem as they function right here. The idea is not to turn, say, Jack Spicer into another Tiffany lamp, but to question the different work in terms of what it offers us as creatures who live here. How, for example, does the poet see his or her location here. How does he or she experience the geography and its history. What is their literal experience of the day. How do they experience their unconscious and conscious dream life, their bodies, and their consciousness of others. Do they use their imaginations to shape a public view of the City or to escape its presence. What are their politics. How do they value men and women, how do they value and locate people from other ethnic groups. To whom are they speaking. Is the poem just self-serving, self-decoration. How is the consciousness of the poem valuable. How can we take it further into the City.

These questions are essential to ask if we are ever going to break poetry into an open and publicly valuable event. However the criticism is only one stage of the process. Equally current and crucial, especially in view of the enormous amount of poetry being written today, is how to literally take poetry into public space where it can be heard, read, and meaningfully discussed. Even with the recent return to popularity of the poetry reading, the conditions for publication, distribution and public performance of our work varies from limited to miserable. It is essential to examine what the City can offer, new places where we can take readings, ways in which we can help change the wretched condition of most of 'our' bookstores, alter the media reviewing process, as well as gain performance and printed place in the media, find place for work in the schools and institutions, and, finally, find ways in which money can be channeled into readings and workshops that will help finance and nourish our conditions as poets.

We do not have the space to give a full examination to all these different areas. Briefly, and in our favor, it should be said that San Francisco, which has been traditionally prohibitive in providing performance and workshop space, no matter the medium, has begun to make changes. Largely through the tough protest efforts of the Community Coalition For The Arts, a half million dollars a year in Federal Revenue Sharing money has been made available through the local Arts Commission to acquire neighborhood spaces for performing and workshop activities.

(The Straight Theater complex in the Haight is one of the great places that is being bought under this plan). However, to this point, few writers have been involved in lobbying for the acquisition and uses of these new spaces. Most of the impetus has come from theater and dance people who originally organized to protest the use of the entire Revenue Sharing money (five million dollars a year for four years) for the establishment of a huge Civic Center Performing Arts Center that will, once it's ever constructed, cater to primarily rich touring companies, not local groups, and audiences that are rich and mobile enough to afford the performances, and not to specific and less mobile neighborhood audiences.

Obviously, if our lives as writers are going to be involved in the various communities, it is a crucial and valuable time to do so. The spaces could become very important for the creation of workshops, readings and printing facilities, as well as working with artists in other mediums. The location of these spaces in the different parts of town will ideally make performing contacts in a variety of neighborhoods much more possible (similar to the way the Mime Troupe goes to different parks). Equally valuable, the possibilities of these different situations will undoubtedly be vital to how the actual City can critically shape the character, content and objectives of our new work. The alternative of remaining aloof, of preserving that romantic myth of the writer's necessary isolation, only cut's us off from contact with public and historic energies that have always been vital to any literature worth keeping. Getting in these new spaces will begin to give us a larger and more specific home, as well as circulation, within the body of the City.

However the question of community space and energy is much larger than what will be fought for and finally sanctioned by the City. If we just look at this town in terms of commercial space, there are still only a minimum of public spaces where we can meet and share what's going on, not only with other writers, but artists and people of different backgrounds, as well. The Ribeltad Vorden, The Pub (during the day), Specs and the Intersection Coffee House are some of the few places where you can run into friends and/or meet new people without feeling like you are in a tomb, a total body shop, or a place with Victorian crib decor that tells your body and mind to believe you are someone and somewhere else. In my own neighborhood, upper Market, where I am sure there are many people who would like to meet each other, there is simply no place to go. The lack of such places becomes a political way of limiting public contact. It reduces the possibilities of shared knowledge, argument, ideas and the flow of real feelings. It is a form of psychic brutality that drives you off the streets back into whatever comfort you can make of your house. (According to Hannah Arendt, totalitarian societies, which thrive on limiting public space for community contacts, specialize in encouraging and popularizing the arts of interior home decoration.) As part of the process of liberating our Jives and our art back into the community, as well as creating a new sense of community, it's crucial now to encourage people to open new places, or overtake established ones, that will respond to who we are today in this town. Otherwise, apartments and flats, no matter how nice, will continue to function, act and feel like detention centers.

In the process of realizing public space, much of the work has to focused on new places for readings, schools, bookstores and the media. As I've suggested. many of us are kept in place by accepting the idea that only other poets are interested in readings, that bookstores can't sell our work, and that the general public and media are not interested in the content of what we have to say. Most of these facts need not remain true. In terms of readings, for example, through programs such as Poetry In The Schools, the Third World and Women's Movements, many of us have learned how open and attentive audiences can be to what we are exploring (as well as how out of touch we can also be). Though, as I point out in a later article, the reading here is still an unexplored medium, there are numerous potential audiences outside what have become the conventional spots of most of our readings. In fact reading to audiences of non-poets is really liberating in the way that it's free from the guardedness many of us bring to readings by other poets. And again, to take our voices literally into the life of the City, it's crucial to seek out spaces, such as parks, business', the streets, hospitals and other institutions where people occur daily, where our work cannot only be heard, but can become part of the way people view and critically respond to the experience of their lives. On the level of bookstores, every art form in this City has done badly. There is not one bookstore where you can get a representative selection of both current and historic material in dance, theater, art and poetry. With the exception of Beau Beausoleil at Paperback Books, there is not one other bookstore manager who takes an active interest in getting anything like a reflective con temporary list of large and small press poetry books. Most of the time store managers will argue that they neither have the time or that the books don't move. Usually, however, the truth of the matter is that bookstore managers and employees don't have the interest or knowledge to push poetry books. Because, in fact, the books do move when they are supported, as Beau will tell you, or, over in Berkeley, Jack Shoemaker at Serendipity Books, and Walter Hall, when he was at Cody's. And, outside the bookstores, for example, John Oliver Simon has sold close to 1500 copies of his book, ANIMAL, on the streets of Berkeley. (Julia Vinograd, who I do not know, probably has done better). 1500 copies, by the way, is the average press run of most professional poetry presses for the entire country! In terms of stores, as I see it, the problem is to persuade store managers to either hire interested poets to run that part of the stock, or just. to seek good advice on how to fill their shelves. Of course, it would help if Book People, which distributes a large number of small press titles, would stop just depending on their fine catalogue, and get salesmen going store to store. Precious little of their great stock gets into many of the stores I visit. And the same would apply to Serendipity Books Distribution. In any case, in terms of San Francisco, it's really outrageous in a town of so many writers and artists, let alone readers, that there is not one or several bookstores that can handle the literary and informational work that could make the town much more vital, let alone make our own work a paying adventure.

Equally schools have to broken from their commitment to clichés about poetry. The Poetry In The Schools program has been relatively successful in getting poets and their work heard in the schools, as well as encouraging students to write and use language as a reflection of their own experiences. However most schools still depend completely on nationally produced anthologies for their poetry texts. There are no texts that focus intentionally on poetry that is a manifestation of this area and its history. The net effect of most of these national texts is to dilute the local intention of any poet's work by shoving it immediately into the realm of aesthetics. The poem occurs under sections entitled "image", "rhythm", etc., as if to quall the aims of formal prosody were the complete intention of the poet.

As a consequence students gain no sense of poetry as something indigenous to the experience of their lives. They do not learn, say, the work of Robinson Jeffers, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan, Helen Adam, or Phillip Lamantia as figures with specific responses to this particular geography and history. Instead poetry gets confused with aesthetics and experiences that only take place in other worlds that are quite divorced from what has ever happened here. However, the idea is not to create a neo-provincialism. It's just that the significance and use of literature from other places will strike a clearer bell, if we understand how poetry has already been a literal and active response to this place. Without an actual local anthology, students here remain in a position not much different than students in some African countries who still have to learn Wordsworth's poems on English vegetation as their first experience with poetry. And I can say, it's very difficult to describe daffodils in the tropics. But getting directly to the point, it's now important for our own work to encourage programs such as Poetry In The Schools to get participant teachers and classes to order books by visiting poets, and, finally, to encourage publishers to come out with adequate regional anthologies.

The Press in San Francisco, as I've suggested, is another sore point. It is rarely interested in the actual content of any of our work. The Chronicle, through the fine efforts of Ruth Teiser, has been helpful in drawing attention to local presses and publications. However, as is true with most art forms in the City, the critics for both major papers are either totally out of contact with what's happening, or pathetically predictable in their views. It's a general rule to ignore new, local work completely, be shallow, or kick hard against anything that's a threat to easier versions of reality. In terms of books, the reviewers focus almost exclusively on New York publishers. The whole grey tone is to eliminate the fact and vitality of writers and books that are happening right here. There is literally no sense of San Francisco or the Pacific Coast as a primary reference point. It's as if visions must still be confirmed in New York. It's a ridiculous situation and ends up robbing the dignity of every artist who lives in this area. It's obvious that for our own protection and survival as essential persons in this town, we are going to have to pressure all of them to make them aware of their responsibility to us, as well as the public. Equally, we have to pressure them to hire those of us who want to write real critical work.

Finally the radio and television media have to be explored more thoroughly. Public radio stations KPFA and KPOO have been helpful in developing regular programs for poets. Recently, through the efforts of Eric Bauersfield, KPFA's Literature and Drama Director, with the assistance of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, poets have started to work with sound engineers to expand the broadcast dimension of the spoken word. These experimental programs will be aired during the current year, and, if the programs are effective, it looks like it will be an extended grant. KQED-TV, the educational network, and the rest of the stations, however, are relatively oblivious to our work, let alone our existence. Partly, however, I feel this has come from the lack of incentive or belief that any of our work could ever find its way on to TV. Such experiences are always supposed to belong to those 'other' people, 'other' meaning some specially trained class of media types, or legitimate people in other art fields who we've been taught to assume should have more weight and relevance than we do. It causes a split personality brain wash that shrinks our own commitment to the public value and significance of our work. Again, as has been the case of Third World and Women poets, whose intentions have been public from the start, and who have gotten media time, the condition is only going to change through individual and collective pressure.

What I've written here is really a preliminary analysis of the way things are in this City and suggested ways in which, for our own individual and communal livelihood, we can begin to change our conditions. (I've not dealt with, say, publishers, libraries, or paternalistic institutions, such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Center, and how they relate to our condition. That will come in the next issue.) However, the impetus and the idea here is that we, as writers, as well as other artists, should work to literally enact the consciousness of the City and the time. In spite of the vast number of writers, and the resources, geographic, historic, racial and cultural, conditions in this City are still primarily oppressive to the expression of this work. And, if we remain limited in all these various public ways, the consciousness of this City will remain that of an unsung morgue. However, if the changes are going to come about, it's going to take the effort of every interested artist and poet to alter the conditions that isolate and deaden the effects of our work. We must insist on the creation of public spaces, and the protection of private ones, to enable us to accomplish this creation of a new and communal sense of public consciousness. If we do not pursue this work, if we do not do the critical work of looking at what we inherit as literature in terms of its current value to the City, if we don't insist on places for our work to be read, heard and discussed, I would predict that much of the work being done today will repeat the mistakes and cliches of the 'fifties and early sixties~ and the work will remain hermetically useless. Poets will go down with nothing but fancy academic or colorful ghetto plumage.

However, if we do begin to see the City as a place in which we are openly engaged. the quality and the content of the literature is going to change radically. Different than the Beats, many of whom were just passing through, many of us have chosen to take root here. In the process we have discovered that many of the myths of the fifties and sixties are simply no longer valid. Like any other major City in America, this place has experienced one wave after another of oppressed groups seeking and fighting for liberation. All the people who were once the exotic particulars of the fifties poem, the Asians; the women, the blacks, and the Latinos, have been busy taking off their masks. Suddenly we are in a period in which there is no agreed upon language or history. We are in the middle of a City where different world views are no longer easily controlled. (Note the policing operations around most schools). Is it Northern Mexico, East China, Indian territory, or Anglo-Italian imperial outpost. We are in the middle of an unregistered earth quake that is deeply altering the ways in which we can relate to each other from the most intimate to the most public levels of our being. (Angelina Alioto, after disappearing for 18 days, interrupting the apologetic Mayor on CBS-TV, "You're on the wrong wave length, Joe. You got it all wrong. All I wanted was recognition.") So many new vocabularies and stances are coming into play.

Ideally it's a situation that can't help but create a new and provocative literature. It's just essential that we have the space to do it. However, as I've suggested, it's not going to be an easy battle. We are into a deadly struggle on one hand, and a creative one on" the other. On one hand it's a deadly battle against those cultural and economic forces in this town who thrive on old ideas at our expense. Futurists and nostalgists, whoever they are, are undoubtedly terrified of the new relationships that might come into balance. The last thing they want is an open City. It would be the death of profits from so much exploitation. On the other hand, the creative battle is to create public space where the different cultures, new ideas, experiences and visions, can begin to confront and deal accurately with each other. It will be the space and the action where the City will create and manifest what it is to itself and to the rest of the globe. It will be what makes the City again fully livable. However, to get to this point will not happen without organization and the public assertion of artists. If we don't let the historic myths against our capacity for organization unfairly destroy us, I am convinced we have the resources to do it. A Dancers' Coalition has been active for months. A Poets' Coalition is forming. I have no doubt the road will be bumpy. However, I am equally convinced, given our conditions, we can go nowhere but forward.