On Thursday night, May 25, an amazing event will take place outside a BART train station in the Mission District of San Francisco, as it has every Thursday night for the past fourteen years.
If you were to pass by, you might not even notice what is taking place. The corner of 16th Street and Mission Boulevard in San Francisco is not a spot you would normally seek out, most likely. Not unless you were out looking to score illicit drugs or sex, or you were on a binge, or perhaps just looking for adventure in low places. You might be there, briefly, if you were leaving the BART on your way to someplace else in the neighborhood, and decided to stop for one of the famous Mission burritos sold in any one of several nearby taquerias. But it’s not a place to hang out.
The sounds are loud. You might hear a police siren. You would probably hear somebody blasting a boombox. Any one of a number of homeless folk might be shouting into the vortex. Knots of hungry looking teenagers, too thin, poorly dressed, might be arguing loudly. You’d sense the potential for violence. The pavement is quite probably wet with urine. A street evangelist may have set up a loudspeaker in front of the drugstore and there might be a stand of pamphlets manned by a few determined Jehovah’s Witnesses. The escalator leading to and from the underground Bart Train disgorges a few hipsters who like the edginess of Mission life, and a great many tired immigrants. The community is changing though, under the pressures of gentrification, and many of the poorer citizens are being pushed out. There is anger in the air.
But it’s Thursday night, and next to the escalator you may notice something unexpected. On the pavement is a large chalk circle, decorated as a mandala, swirling with color, and suggesting a sense of power or sacred space. In the middle of the chalk circle stands a young man with a guitar (perhaps its Nic Burrose, a longtime participant). He is pounding the strings and singing open-throated and wild while friends and passersby surround the circle, some seated on a tiny wall, others right on the ground, ignoring the grime, drinking beer and whiskey from paper bags, transfixed by poetry. As the performer finishes, two others jump up and rush to the center of the circle. They clutch notebooks or cell phones, or they are ready to scream poetry from memory. Who will take the stage? There is no argument. The street artists play a game of “rock, paper, scissors” and the show is on.
What’s going on here? You are at one of the most astonishing (among those in the know), unknown, regularly occurring alternative literary events in the world: it’s the Open Mic without a Mic, a nursery for many a poet and musician, balm to the weary, inspiration to the tired, home to the dedicated few. Seven years ago, Alan Kaufman paid a a few visits and was enthused enough to describe the scene as an American Cultural Revolution.
Among the artists nurtured there is Sam Sax, whose first book, Madness, was published this year by Penguin and was the winner of The National Poetry Series selected by Terrance Hayes. Sam is also an NEA Fellow, among other more or less mainstream achievements. And his second book, Bury It, will be published next year by Wesleyan University Press. Also, the wonderful Chris Peck, who has recorded under the name “Peck the Town Crier” and, more recently, “Ancient Baby.” Also, Lambda Fellow Nic Alea, who once won an SF Weekly award for being one of the town’s “Best Writers Without A Book”—appropriate enough for a star of the Open Mic without a Mic.
At the heart of the scene is poet Charlie Getter, one of the original organizers, and the undisputed leader for the past several years. Charlie is a too little known, too rarely published writer of extraordinary gifts as both a spoken word performer and a page poet. His books—the three-volume The Garrulous Progress and, more recently, How To Arrange Physics & Geography to Your Advantage, both published by Seventh Tangent Press—are rare and hard to find but worth any effort you might make.
As well as being a fine poet (mentored at San Francisco’s famous, short lived New College of California, founded by such gifted teachers as David Meltzer, Diane Di Prima, and Robert Duncan), Charlie is especially impressive as a teacher, inspiring the folk at 16th and Mission with his rallying cry: “Poetry Is an Affliction!”
I was introduced to Charlie, and the kids at 16th and Mission, seven years ago, and, honestly, it changed my life. Without Getter, and 16th and Mission, there would be no Storming Bohemian.
When I sat down this week to write this column, I was (as usual) at a loss for a subject. And I began to consider the question, “Why do I write, anyway?” For that matter, why do any of us write? It’s not the money or the fame or the high status, is it? So what do we get?
For many of us, it often seems we are driven to drink and that’s about it. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as long as it’s working.)
It took only a few moments of cogitation before I had an answer: I write because among writers, especially among the Thursday night crowd at 16th and Mission, I found my people. This tribe of passionate communicators, this solidarity of scribblers, this word afflicted collection of lovers—I write to be one of them, my family, my tribe.
Happy anniversary, 16th and Mission! Long may you bellow!
Rumpus original logo by James Lorenzato, aka Argyle C. Klopnick (ACK!). Photograph courtesy of Charlie Getter.
“The Storming Bohemian Punks the Muse” was originally developed as a column under the editorship of Evan Karp at Litseen. An earlier incarnation of this work can be found there, along with many other interesting things.