Naked Poets Society

The moribund local scene leaves town in search of rejuvenation

A gas fireplace flickers noiselessly, illuminating the "Above Paradise" poetry night South of Market, the oldest continuous reading series in the city. Faces of the gathered artistes bask in the phony glow -- gay and straight, Caucasian and Eurasian, talented and talentless.

"I'll do an old one," explains a poet with a beard, ascending the stage and riffling through a notebook. "I'm still in a dry period."

Meanwhile, across town at the Cafe Du Nord, yet another "poetry slam" night begins for a half-empty room of fellow poets. The word "SLAM" is sprayed garishly, and repeatedly, across a curtain. The winner will receive the grand prize of a consciously wacky green ceramic frog. One of the judges is the host's mom.

Here in San Francisco, birthplace of the beats and site of Allen Ginsberg's first reading of "Howl," any initial excitement over live poetry has definitely worn off. Depending on your social crowd, the mere mention of spoken-word events is likely to elicit groans.

And San Francisco poets themselves are bored with the same old nights in the same old clubs. They now scoff, in particular, at the concept of the poetry slam. Slams started out as a joke -- making readings less somber by turning them into silly competitions in which performance counted as much as the material -- but eventually slam poets began taking them too seriously.

"We like to say that [slam poets] have only got three good poems, and they keep using them year after year," says Bucky Sinister, who has the word "poem" tattooed inside his lower lip.

Jennifer Joseph, host of the "Above Paradise" readings, also wrinkles her nose at the idea of slams: "They're like Seinfeld or something."

So, though other U.S. cities are still swept up in the poetry-slam craze, with participants excitedly organizing formal slam teams, obtaining corporate sponsorships, and competing in regional tournaments, San Francisco poets have moved on.

Specifically, to New Mexico.
Through Feb. 22, poets from around the country will be tearing up Albuquerque in a weeklong poetry festival, held in bars and cafes up and down Route 66. And at least a third of the participants will be from the Bay Area, including the event's producer, poet Juliette Torrez.

Torrez founded the festival three years ago when, after putting together poetry readings for the 1994 Lollapalooza tour, she wanted to stay in touch with poets she had met from around the country. The first year in Albuquerque "there were about four people," according to Beth Lisick, a local poet who attended, but the event has caught fire. This year, organizers are expecting at least 100 artists.

Each night of the seven-day festival features a different theme, Torrez says, from "dead poets" to gay and lesbian, Latino, erotica, horror, all-San Francisco events, and something called a "Grammar Rodeo," in which high school English teachers will judge tag-team haiku competitions. A janitor by day, Torrez organizes the gathering through an online newsletter, which keeps readers informed of nationwide events and trends.

But the whole festival begs the question: If the producer herself, along with a third of the participating poets, is from San Francisco, what's everyone doing in New Mexico?

"All the artists are here [in San Francisco]," says Sini Anderson, co-founder of the Sister Spit queer girl poetry collective. On her five-week national tour last year, Anderson found the best, least-jaded poetry audiences were outside San Francisco. "In this town it has to be comedy," she says. "It has to be a freak show."

The Albuquerque event is getting so big that this year, photographer David Kelley is going along. By day Kelley works as a baker, but by night he roams the local poetry scene, working on his current project: a deck of playing cards (52 plus two jokers), in which each card features a Polaroid of a different nude poet. He hopes to finish his deck in New Mexico, drawing from the large pool of gathered bards, and says he has collected about 40 already, most of them from San Francisco. Notable locals who have posed include Bambi Lake, Hank Hyena, and the Mysterious (and scarily well-endowed) Mr. Clam.

Kelley is drawn to Albuquerque to meet new people in the scene -- although in his case, he also plans to see them naked. But like the poets he's documenting, he's finding his excitement outside San Francisco.

 
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