No City Is Complete Without Its Poets

joan gelfand in the garden, poet and poets' coach Written by Joan Gelfand

With a rich history of literary innovation, exploration and celebration, San Francisco is the ‘go to’ place in the US for poetry. When Lawrence Ferlinghetti opened City Lights Books in 1953, he also started a publishing house that disrupted traditional poetry publishing. City Lights brought Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” to the public and when the book was banned for profanity, Ferlinghetti went to court to advocate. He won. Game on!

As literary agent Carol Criss describes: “The Beat Generation walked into an unexplored cultural vacuum. Their instincts toward honesty and experimentation, toward impulse and libido were greedily embraced by the society, and they burned a broader consciousness into the collective mind. Clarity, political insight, sexual freedom and questioning authority opened the stage for social turmoil in the 1960’s: Feminism, social justice, and, to this very day, the permission for new poetic forms: rap, hip hop, spoken word, and identity poetry. The Beats’ relevance to current challenges cannot be overestimated. We live inside a tightening web of conformity, similar to what the Beats faced in the 1950’s. That conformity now disguises crucial issues: climate change, poverty, classism, racism, and inequality. Poetry again assumes the vital role of expressing our authenticity and our vulnerability.”

Since the revolution of the Beats the poetry scene has only expanded. City Lights, still a nexus of literary activity, hosts readings throughout the month. Berkeley, Oakland and San Jose are also centers of poetry around the Bay.

In 1895, California assigned its first poet laureate: Ina Coolbrith. A mentor and friend to Jack London, Mark Twain, Joaquin Miller and Ambrose Bierce, Coolbrith, working as a librarian in Oakland, took a young Gertrude Stein under her wing. Poet laureates now serve in almost every county in the state actively promoting programs for teens, veterans, and others. 

Clive Matson, one of the original beat poets, has been living the life of poetry for over fifty years. Clive (who lives and teaches in Oakland) writes: “Find us in cafes and bars and on the littered sidewalks or in the trees or on the coast, we scrape the base of imagination, we sculpt ideas from sand and dust, we tire-swing on hope and we slam down lids on tyrants big and small. We’re writing, reading, belting out to amphitheaters, to vaudeville stages, to candlelit nightclubs where the waiters stop to listen.” Matson’s description of local poets and the multitude of inspired poetry readings might as well be a clarion call: passion, fire and music are burning around the Bay.

Poetry Flash, the bible of all things poetry in Northern California listed 70 readings for April. The Northern California Book Awards — presented at the SF Public Library on June 27 and co-sponsored by WNBA-SF — received 67 volumes of poetry published by Northern California authors in 2016 alone.

Today poetry is at the forefront of the #resist movement. “Northern California poets are fashioning their forward looking language to break down barriers, hold mass resistance readings, publish anthologies of protest and project poetic imagery that dreams the unconscious conscious. We have only begun to be heard,” said Amos White, board member of Bay Area Generations, Haiku artist and poetry impresario.

While poetry thrives, some trouble brews under the surface. The democratization that has seen poetry through the 20th century is changing: according to Jannie Dresser, publisher of Sugartown Publishing and poetry teacher: “Poetry in Northern and Central California is alive and richly varied, representing slam poets, narrative poets, avant-garde experimenters, neo-formalists and many others. Yet, while we probably have more people writing and sharing their poetry, there has also been a rise in the wall within this democracy. One discrepancy lies in the validity of self-publishing. While it is a tradition in poetry publishing there can also be distasteful self-promotion. All said, Northern and Central California face the problem that goes with having become strong centers for poetry.”

The good news here is that, like the Bay Area itself, the scene is diverse. “The Latino community is aflame with poetry; revitalizing it with English, Spanish, and Spanglish.” writes Nina Serrano, host of KPFA’s poetry hour.

At issue regarding keeping poets in the Bay Area is the gentrification that is challenging the resources of artists and writers. San Francisco Poet Laureate, Alejandro Murguia, bemoans the loss of his local favorite spots in the Mission, but is staying positive and nurturing his goal of bringing poetry to a wider audience. A common myth about poetry, he said, is that most people cannot comprehend it. But good poets use language and rhythms that ordinary people can understand, he added. It’s the type of poetry he himself tries to write. “If poets were to make more of an effort to reach everyday people, poetry would gain a wider audience.”

Regarding communicating to a wide audience, Stephen Kopel, founder of the Word Painter reading series and co-host of the Special Edition segment of the San Francisco Poetry Open Mike Podcast TV Show says: “Our literary culture is motivated to read books, listen to and read poetry.”

We hope that you celebrated National Poetry Month by taking advantage of the many events, purchased a book of poetry at your favorite indie bookstore and read, or shared a poem with friends and loved ones.

Consider this, from a poetry lover who served as US President, John F. Kennedy: “When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.” 


Small publishers thriving in the Bay Area:

Learning venues:

Initiatives that bring poetry to school kids around the Bay:

Event listings:

For Jazz lovers:

  • SF Jazz center, a Poetry and Jazz series hosted by Genny Lim celebrates National Poetry Month

Berkeley special:

  • A few years ago, the City of Berkeley proclaimed Jack Foley Day. The day honors Foley, author, editor and host of “Cover to Cover,” a weekly literary hour on KPFA radio. For many years, Foley and his recently passed wife, Adelle, had been mainstays on the poetry scene, reading “choral poems,” poems for two voices and delighting audiences with their braided voices.

Joan Gelfand is the Development Chair of WNBA and founder of the National Writing Contest. Joan is an author living and writing in San Francisco. She coaches writers in San Francisco and around the country. Her website is

The title of this post is a quote from Wallace Stegner’s novel Crossing to Safety.

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