The Performant: Cracks in the pavement

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Erica Lewis reads at the Squat in Lower Haight
PHOTO BY CARLEEN TIBBETTS

Gentrification-proof poetry

Although the ongoing eviction saga (and upcomng relocation!) of Adobe Books, “the living room” of the Mission, from its 16th Street digs dredges up memories of all the neighborhood bookstores that have closed/moved in recent years, it’s worth being reminded that the book trade has only ever had a limited impact on the persistence of the written (and spoken) word, particularly where poetry is concerned.

In fact, the more tenuous the economic climate, the more tenacious poetry becomes, pushing itself like a hungry weed through the unavoidable cracks left in the superficially smooth pavement of gentrification. That poets are themselves accustomed to staying hungry yet artistically fruitful is a condition immortalized in the famous Robert Graves quip that “there’s no money in poetry, but there’s no poetry in money, either.”

There’s not much money, but plenty of poetry outside the 16th Street BART Station every Thursday night, rainy or not, when a constantly rotating crew shows up to the unnamed, (un)official poetry jam, armed with the essential tools of urban poets everywhere—tall boys in brown paper bags, open ears under fleece hoods, and a cache of words waiting to be unleashed.

As nightlifers in expensive shoes stroll out of the station en route to the increasingly upscaled Valencia Street, they pass by the chalk circle ringed by a throng of scrappy street poets, belting out their offerings with the hoarse-throated projection of people without a microphone to hide behind. Instigated in 2004 by a passel of performance poets from the now-defunct New College up the road, Thursday nights have continued to attract a wealth of wordsmiths for almost ten years: some published some not, some regulars some newbs, some lifers some dilettantes. There’s may be some good-natured vying for stage time, but the bottom line is anyone with something to share is welcome to jump into the circle, and there’s almost always at least one participant who electrifies beyond anticipation, making even the otherwise mostly oblivious passerby stop in their tracks and pay attention.

Meanwhile, in the Lower Haight, a more carefully curated reading series takes place at The Squat, attracting its own adherents with its appealing blend of irreverence and celebration. Conceptualized and commanded by one “Janey Smith,” The Squat is less of an actual squat (no-one actually lives in it) than a liminal territory for an underground intelligentsia to congregate without the burden of pretension.

Beware the published starting time—the real determiner is the setting of the sun, since readings at The Squat are conducted, perhaps by necessity, in the dark. After night falls sufficiently, the group is led in abrupt silence from Smith’s iconic San Francisco apartment to the “venue,” a completely empty apartment upstairs, barely illuminated by rows of flickering tealights (“if you have hair, try not to catch on fire” Smith cracks). We squeeze into the “living room” together, encircling a pile of sawdust, the "stage." 

Of the four readers, three locals (Ben Mirov, Erica Lewis, and Cedar Sigo) and a special “guest star” from the East Coast (Alex Dimitrov), the one whose poems most stick in my mind are Mirov’s, whose chilly distillations of word and image and deliberately affectless tone perfectly suit a body of poetry written in and for a digital age. Lewis reads from her latest project, a linked series called darryl hall is my boyfriend for which she provides mixed tapes of Darryl Hall’s music for emphasis, Sigo, most recently published by City Lights, presents a series of short poems rife with lush imagery, and Dimitrov works the increasingly vocal crowd with his confessional anecdotes, both written and spontaneous. The police don’t show and no-one catches on fire, so the event is deemed a success. Housing scarcity being what it is in this town, surely this apartment can’t stay empty forever, so get down there while you still have a chance, or head down to 16th Street on any Thursday around 10 p.m. Either way you’ll quickly discover that though our bookstores might be under siege, our poets refuse to surrender the fight.

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