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The Corner: An American Cultural Revolution

By Alan Kaufman.


Each time I go to the open air readings at the Bart train station corner of San Francisco’s 16th Street and Mission, I shut and reopen my eyes like a visitor to Wonderland, just to test that its really there, really happening. The event has about it the quality of a long-awaited miracle: hundreds of young seated on the ground around a Brechtian chalk circle, poets, singers and homeless drunks each taking a turn to recite, sing, talk, rant or just glare.

This is not some ego-driven open mike or sappy town hall meeting. It is an American Cultural Revolution, the poets messenger-embodiments of a dramatic sea-change; New Elizabethan champions of high-wire verse in an age when the book is fast becoming tragically extinct, and technology and Pop Culture have fostered mass social vulgarization and illiteracy among a screen-transfixed population of tech-addicted citizenry.

The guerrilla heart of this movement, its Ginsberg-Che Guevara, is Charlie Getter, himself a poet and one of the founding fathers of street corner Thursdays, who seven years before joined with a group of poets and musicians who met regularly at a Mission cafe to read their poems and play their songs.

When one night they found the place boarded up, they marched, shocked but not helpless, to the 24th Street Bart Station and in a mood of beautifully crazy existential defiance read and played to the indifferent pedestrians.

For a few weeks, they continued to meet there but when fewer and fewer came and only the occasional bystander paused to listen, they relocated one stop downtown, to the heavily trafficked 16th Street Mission Bart, at the very hub of Boho, and there the audience did show, if only a trickle at first but one that grew, year by year, for over seven years. Those were some of the worst times that America has ever endured: post-911 eons of soul-crushing Bush presidency; an era of increasingly militant conformist lifestyle and the chilling rise of Hi-Tech as an alternative to the Human. A tidal wave of mind-numbing gadgetry swept through the puppet population, kept them at home, passively transfixed by Google, Facebook and Youtube, while bookstores closed, culture moved out of the cities, readings folded, poetry dropped from sight like a shotgunned hawk and the educational system went as bankrupt as Wall Street.

In that time, all of the original founding members of the Corner dropped out except for Charlie Getter who continued to come, draw the Brechtian chalk circle on the ground for others to read or sing. He carried faith like a tough partisan bearing a lonely flag in a hopeless war against ignorance and indifference.

One night it rained so hard that only five regulars showed but each took a turn to recite in the downpour, just to keep their Thursday readings record unbroken. No one took note, except themselves. That’s what it means to be a hero.

During those years, Charlie came to take his poetry so seriously that he got an MFA at New College. He also founded a hand assembled perfect-bound lit mag called 16th and Mission that showcases the best of street corner verse. Issued in an edition of 100, it is collectively pulled together by the poets with a dedication and regularity that puts most other lit mags to shame.

But the most exciting development of all is the 16th and Mission poets and their growing audience.

The average age is in the twenties and if they rage against the machine, among themselves they are the most respectful, well-behaved poets imaginable. If two jump into the chalk circle simultaneously, they finger shoot to choose, schoolyard style, who stays and who goes. And if three jump in at once, the one with the most convincing claim remains. Usually, just the set of ones shoulders and look in the eye is enough to decide it. Amazingly, the losers concede without attitude, step out without protest. They know: their turn will come. If a drunk goes wild, Getter, a miraculous diplomat, exercises a firm but gentle authority in ushering the offender away to make room for the next performer.

They – poets and audience – are not the Beat Generation or the Sixties Part II or, vis-à-vis the Spoken Word Revolution of the Nineties, what Post-Impressionism was to Impressionism. In other words, they are not “Neo” or “Post” to any other preceding cultural development, though unarguable strains of past counter cultural trends and scenes appear among them.

No doubt the older movements will try to claim them for themselves because they may hear in the Corner poets cadences of Rap, the occasional strains of Saul Williams or Ginsberg and of styles which the Corner poets may not even realize they’re influenced by.

But these are not the children of other older Gods. Their work, however influenced, is entirely their own, brand new in a very real sense. They are bearers of an epic sensibility shift that is reflective of an emergent new hip social fabric.

The poetry is intelligent and heart-rending and literary and sometimes political and often witty and most of all it is rich in delusion – shattering allusions and metaphors and heartfelt private revelations.

In ways that Spoken Word or Rap often only pretended to be, this poetry is nakedly raw, private consciousness confession as public political testament and it has its roots less in Slam and Whitman and Mayakovsky than in Dada, Dirtcore Punk, Sylvia Plath, Lord Byron, Anne Sexton, Surrealism, Homer, William Burroughs, Shakespeare and Rimbaud.

The length of the poems which often exceed four or five minutes are recited by heart, long unpublishable and heroic Wastelands floating over the smoky Mission corner. The poets paint on epic abstract-expressionist scale canvasses of language, feats that their contemporary poetry elders won’t dare to attempt these days for fear that it won’t get play in the space-stingy pages of the New Yorker or Poetry Magazine.

There are so many street corner poets to laud that I hardly know where to start but among my absolute bottom line faves to date are Shye Powers who has a poem called ‘House of Hay’ – a work so good that it kept me up all night thinking – in which the voice echo Richard Brautigan as channeled through Grace Slick. ‘House of Hay’ describes a young love so cool it makes you want to pack up, leave home and take to the high road of heart-risk and poetry.

Nick Burrose (who also goes by the name Nick Garrett) and Stellar Cassady are not only terrific poets on their own but also form with Shye Powers a band that I can listen to all day, called ‘(Secret Secretaries)’ – a group so secret, their name is in parens.

Burrose’s typewritered flood-of-consciousness song-poems, such as ‘Plastique’ – complete with the x’d out corrections – are madly gifted downfall prophesies of love and catastrophe, the Bob Dylan of Tarantula meets Tom Waits meets Iggy Pop and all dirt-dipped in William Burroughs.

Stellar Cassady’s poem ‘Cravings’ is a personal manifesto declaration of poetry war on bullshit and lies that reminds me of the poems of the French adventurer surrealist, Blaise Cendrars. ‘(Secret Secretaries)’ songs are accompanied by casual vocals, impromptu laughter, guitar, recitation, the clacking of a typewriter or bongos. Listening to them is like hanging out with close good friends through hard times.

The astonishing Sam Sax enters the chalk circle wearing a backpack and cap turned sideways, like some insolent schoolyard kid and proceeds to command the crowd with crashing chandeliers of verse as gorgeous as anything that Rimbaud or Leonard Cohen ever wrote.

In the poetry of J. Brandon Loberg, gentle wit meets acrobatic metaphysical amusements. A prime mover, along with Getter, of the Bart scene, Loberg is a poet, anthologist and artist who works at the Beat Museum, and he is a deep-space cultural historian in his own right. His poems of high baroque intelligence lost in a carnival dream evoke J.S. Bach visits to the Octopuses Garden.

Charlie Getter is to street poetry what Wittgenstein was to philosophy: one minute, a wildly ingenious conjecturist articulating the weird and haunting conundrums of our innermost thoughts, the next stomping on our cultural and personal sacred cows like Godzilla in Tokyo.

The inimitable Kate Abarbanel spins out private nightmare as public political outrage in words that subdues the rowdiest audience into quiet listening respect. Few have ever succeeded in poetry to make the political truly personal, and visa versa: Kate stands to emerge as the genre’s most accomplished master.

There’s so many others who have won my unqualified regard: Dusty Rose, Nicole Alea, M.G. Martin, Jonathan Siegel, Guinevere Q, Miguel Pereira, Kaile Glick, Chad Rochkind, Jonathan Brown, Nick Soderburg, Pam Benjamin and…

Too many to name here. And anyway, why bother? You will certainly hear of them soon enough. They are a deadly strange new growth on the sickened body of America, killers not of life but of the death that has come to inhabit us in this country.

They are curing us, day by day, with genius and love, through caring for each other, reading to each other, and with soulful generosity welcoming anyone into their chalk circle of magic rebirth. Intoxicated with language, their’s is a healing revolution that will topple the high glass and steel towers of corporate coffin culture and redefine and give new meaning to words like ‘human’ and ‘poetry’ in years to come.

For they are coming. They are growing. There are more and more of them. They are young and beautiful and they are dangerous.

They are the poets of the new century and you’ll find them on the corner.


Alan Kaufman‘s books include The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry [Basic Books], Matches [Little, Brown] and Jew Boy, a memoir [FSG/Fromm]. His essays have appeared in Huffington Post, L.A. Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Salon. He is currently at work on a new memoir for Cleis Press.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, April 8th, 2010.