s a poet recently released from the repressive wine-and-cheese readings of academia, I’m really tired of balancing plastic cups of Two-Buck Chuck on my knees while listening to a guy at a podium whose every sentence trails upward. And another thing: Why should my literary world be relegated to the realm of ebook readers and inscrutable poetical experiments acknowledged by golf claps?
I want my literature live. It should embody the witty, raucous, variegated life I actually experience, not be read from handheld devices, and certainly not echo wanly off acoustic tiles. In a city with such a rich literary history, and so packed with scribblers that it has nightly readings, I set out to find my bookish bacchanal. My guiding muse on this search for public rhyme was to seek out venues I’d never visited, a sort of blind date with ink-slinging fate.
Sacred Grounds Coffee House bills itself as the oldest continuously running open mic in San Francisco. Emcee Jehanah Wedgwood founded this reading 19 years ago at the cafe, located one block off the Panhandle in NOPA, where it has been meeting every Wednesday night since.
By 7 p.m. on the night I go, the room is filled with a collection of San Francisco characters who would be at home at Alice in Wonderland’s mad hatter tea party. A man with a shock of unruly salt-and-pepper curls holds hands with a red-haired siren in her fifties sporting an eye patch and a rose in her hair. A portly gentleman who looks dressed for a baseball game chats animatedly with a chap in a cocky fedora, and I share a table with a tall drink of water in a bright orange sweatshirt with a beard that touches his navel.
The featured readers are Clara Hsu, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and Nicole Chu, a performance poet from New York City whose family and best friend are here to hear her read for the first time. Nicole confides that she’s chosen tamer work than her usual for the occasion. Her conservativeness is not echoed by the other readers, who, in one example, bust out with a politically pornographic poem featuring Ann Coulter as a gun-toting anime chick.
Jehanah keeps everyone to a three-minute limit via an egg timer (though I saw her twist a few extra seconds on for those in full-poetry flair). The highlight for me comes when Nicole reads and her mother, sitting directly in front of me, turns around mid-performance with tears in her eyes. Meanwhile, Nicole’s brother does his best not to stare at a patron who put his head down on his arms, letting out occasional snorts which were either droll commentary or snores.
When it’s my turn at the mic, I choose a poem about the day John Lennon was shot. This sparks a short debate about his assassin, who has recently come up for parole. Emotions run high, and I’m pleasantly surprised by an audience that responds to poetry as a spark for public discussion.
At the corner of Valencia and 21st is an eccentric wood-paneled shop called Viracocha, which sells antique typewriters, out-of-print literature, and one-of-a-kind decor. Owner Jonathan Siegel hosts a variety of events in the shop’s basement, including classes in making your own kombucha and an open mic every second and fourth Thursday called Poetry Mission.
Equipped with a minibar, an upright piano, and a wood stage, Viracocha’s cozy downstairs immediately gives me that speakeasy feel I’ve been hoping for in an open mic. Emcee Cesar Love catches me off guard by quoting a line of my own poetry that he remembers from a reading in 2009. I am struck by the aptness of his surname, as he opens the festivities with gentle humor, soliciting the crowd for the names of dead poets he then conjures to the stage. He good-naturedly corrects the crowd when they offer names of poets not yet dead.
Cesar starts with the open mic list, and I am first up. I read a piece about a friend who lived on the lower Haight in the early 1990s – she eventually overdosed and wasn’t found for several days. It’s a dark subject I’ve worked hard to make buoyant with lyricism and punk rock references. It goes over well, and I feel the rush that comes with connecting to an audience through words I’d never have the guts to offer in regular conversation.
Featured reader Sally Frye is co-author of
The 23rd Street Poets, an anthology of five long-term local bards. She opens with a song and then reads us one long, deeply-imagined piece based on the gruesome story of Phineas Gage, a nineteenth-century railroad foreman whose skull was impaled by a metal bar during an explosion.
My favorite moment of the night, however, is when a local poet introduced only as “Steven” sashays onto the stage, brandishes a bottle of Jägermeister from his jacket, and regales the audience with a hilarious monologue of tongue-in-cheek puns and wink-wink, elbow-to-the-ribs repartee. Steven can only be described as the love child of Truman Capote and Studs Terkel.
I leave Viracocha feeling that writing has more do with the expectations you bring to it than what actually shows up on the page. Much of the work I’ve heard tonight might not cut it in an M.F.A. workshop, but many of these writers’ lines tonight will stick in my head, like mine did with Cesar. Best of all, I want to come back, to make a regular habit of listening to the voices of people with enough balls to share their raw and unguarded selves.
It’s Friday the 13th and emcees Alia Volz and M.G. Martin promise me both intellectual violence and loss of their virginity from the stage of the Elbo Room. Between this oath, the dimly lit room, three fingers of gin, and a man offering free Polaroids, I feel I’ve finally stumbled into the exact combination of erudition, claustrophobia, and devil-may-care gamesmanship I want in a literary event. Let’s put it this way: If elusive author J.D. Salinger and Rocky Horror’s raunchy Frank-N-Furter had one too many bourbons together, the result would be Literary Death Match.
Part pugilistic display of literary chops, and part game show, LDM is a monthly event co-founded by Opium magazine’s Todd Zuniga. His aim is to innovate new ways to “present text off the page” by pitting four emerging writers in a performance duel. The battle is mediated by three local judges bent on double entendre, flamboyant non sequitur, and gentle character assassination.
LDM is for the pros. Readers appear by invite only. For now, I make like a wallflower and watch how it’s done.
Tonight’s four writers – Tanya Egan Gibson, Jamey Genna, Matt Stewart, and D.A. Powell – square off in pairs, performing their best work in seven minutes or less, unless they want to be doused by a fully primed Super Soaker. Our judges this week are K.M. Soehnlein, Russell Blackwood, and Tony DuShane, who give feedback on literary merit, performance, and intangibles.
K.M. and Russell keep it mostly highbrow, with the exception of applying a riding crop liberally to contestants’ hindquarters. Tony, however, narrowly escapes public pillory by lewdly commenting on readers’ physical attributes. Even more egregious is his gratuitous use of MC Hammer quotes to back up his opinions.
In the end, the competition comes down to fiction writer Tanya and poet D.A. The final round is, in trivial LDM-style, a name-that-literary-reference sudden death. Each correct answer wins the contestant a chance to pop one of three balloons strapped to the waist of our fearless emcees (now stripped to their skivvies). The final question hangs on the correct identification of a Shakespeare play. Needless to say, the poet triumphs – and proceeds to deflower poor M.G.’s “cherry” balloon with a cactus, bathing the stage in a spray of what is either Hershey’s syrup or the blood of former contestants.
LDM is by far the slickest, most produced of the literary events I attended, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a great time. But walking home from the bar, past the drunks grabbing late-night slices, I feel a little hungry myself, a little hollow. I hadn’t made a single friend at that reading, and hadn’t heard one unpolished word. LDM dazzled me with showmanship and good fun, but it was shiny and perfect, with none of the imperfections that make things interesting.
I said I wanted my literature live, but what I really want is my literature real. Sometimes that’s cavalier and hip; sometimes it’s painfully earnest and a little rough around the edges. Thankfully, this town has it all.
Stuff your battered notebook in your backpack and head down to Sacred Grounds any Wednesday night. On the second and fourth Thursdays of the month, descend the dark stairs into the basement of Viracocha and ask Cesar to sign you up for your moment in the spotlight.
Check out Literary Death Match (cover price is usually $10) for its next San Francisco event to see how the pros do it, or check out Dan Brady’s handy one page list of San Francisco open mic nights (most are free) and get literal locally.