For anyone who thinks North Beach has lost its way as a leading literary light, shrouded o’er by a toxic cloud of weekend rowdies, think again.
Last night, every descendant of Ginsberg’s angel-headed hipsters within a world-wide radius clamored to Jack Kerouac Alley for the joyful kick-off of the 2nd San Francisco International Poetry Festival.
Founded by former SF Poet Laureate Jack Hirschman, that raffish North Beach raconteur and beloved “poet of the people,” this now-biennial bash is a solid hit.
Oh, and every event, every reading, every single word uttered is absolutely ... free. The festival runs at City venues and library branches through Sunday. Tonight's howling hootenanny begins at 7 p.m. at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater. Check the sked.
And (now a word from our sponsors) that’s because of super support from Mayor Gavin Newsom, Friends of the SF Public Library, as well as Nicola Miner and her husband, author Robert Mailer Anderson; the Mimi and Peter Haas Fund; Barbro Osher Pro Seucia Foundation; Hotel Rex; Savor; Palace of Fine Arts Theater; and such North Beach stalwarts as City Lights Bookstore, Vesuvio Cafe, the Beat Museum and Hirschman’s hangout, Caffe Trieste.
“The library just goes along for the ride; I have to give credit where credit is due,” said SF City Librarian Luis Herrera, graciously. “The festival exists because of the Friends of the SF Public Library and the dedication of Donna Bero and Byron Spooner. In hosting the festival, the library gets to showcase its branches.”
“And, of course, because of Jack Hirschman,” continued Herrera. “This festival is his vision. Jack has truly become our universal poet.”
SF International Poetry Festival founder Jack Hirschman and poet Neeli Cherkovski
Herrera said the festival has created a real buzz within the poetry community, a tight-knit group which is very inclusive.
“This festival represents voices from all over the world because Jack has an amazing network,” continued Herrera. “These poets are part of a universal family that is very extraordinary. Plus, they love coming to San Francisco!”
The Vince Lateano Quartet swung the beat as bona-fide bohos awaited the arrival of the 27 participating poets. Plus perennial hipster hottie, Matt Gonzales (And drat! We missed snapping his photo.)
One-by-one, Bero and Hirschman introduced each poet and presented them with an individual Mayoral Proclamation.
“San Francisco, in spite of its faults, remains one of the greatest cities in the world,” exclaimed Bero, from the stage, “Where people can freely express themselves and raise the world’s discourse.”
Vietnamese poet Nguyen Qui Duc, agreed: “If this kind of event happened in Hanoi, half of this crowd would be filled with policemen.”
Hirschman praised all of the poet’s individual travails in staying true to the path of Ars Poetica. As many have suffered discrimination, fatwas, intimidation, beatings and self-imposed exile for their writings.
For Russian poet Alexander Skidan, the vision of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore burned bright for him as a teenager, inspiring his work.
“I’d seen those photos of famous poets standing in front of City Lights and it made me feel close to this powerful tradition that is poetry,” said Skidan. “In the mid-80s, some of Ferlinghetti’s and Hirschman’s works were translated into Russian. Reading their poetry for the first time was like a breathe of fresh air.”
Poet Cletus Nelson Nwadike left his native Nigeria in 1990 for Sweden because, “The policies of Nigeria would not allow 150 million men and women to grow.”
He was a participant in the first festival and not only loves the city of San Francisco but also the additional festival adjunct of artistic camaraderie.
“Me and some of the guys have become ‘homies’,” said Nwadike, with a laugh. “We stay in touch by computer and send each other videos of our readings on YouTube.”
Throughout this party, we’d been wondering which poem, aside from their own work, might these poets choose as their very favorite work? One which they loved to read over-and-over again. Especially if they were, say, stranded on a desert island and only had one poem to read.
We discovered that most of the poets we met were not at all shy about discussing their work. So we were surprised when Nwadike groaned at the question and responded, “None of my own. I’m tired of them!”
Though fluent in Swedish, Nwadike turned to his girlfriend, Annelie Johansson, and double-checked the pronunciation of his chosen poet: the late Swedish author and Nobel Prize-winner Pär Lagerkvist.
Standing on the sidewalk in front of City Lights as the fog swirled madly, obscuring entire buildings in our view, Nwadike recited the poem's first line. The rest follows:
My friend is a stranger, someone I do not know/ A stranger far, far away/ For his sake my heart is full of disquiet/ Because he is not with me…/ Who are you who so fill my heart with your absence?/ Who fill the entire world with your absence?
Check out more photos below
SF Friends of the Library Executive Director Donna Bero and SF City Librarian Luis Herrera
The Vince Lateano Quartet
Poet Cletus Nelson Nwadike and his girlfriend, painter Annelie Johansson
Poet Alexander Skidan, Professor Richard Gross and translator Rebecca Bella
Jorge Molina inaugurates the festival
Sudanese poet Tarek Eltayeb receives his Mayoral Proclamation
Poet Aggie Falk and SFPL Friend Joe Lucas
Haitian poet Georges Castera
Syrian poet Maram al-Massri and Left Curve Editor Csaba Polony
The mothership, City Lights Bookstore
Troubadour Jonathan Richman sings in the Festival
Poets Carla Badillo Coronado (of Ecuador) and Ambar Past (of Mexico)
Poetical wall of Vesuvio Cafe