San Francisco rings with not-so-sublime poetry in defense of tax-free verse


SAN FRANCISCO -- It was open-microphone poetry night i the back room of Cafe Babar, and 49 de facto members of the renaissance Beat poetry scene were crammed together, beret to beret, black leather to black leather, to share their anguished cries of the soul.

"I want justice!" shouted Russell Gonzaga, whose loud plea caused a weary homeless man in the last row to jerk his head. Up in front, as Mr. Gonzaga recited an unflattering description of a prostitute, a woman shouted in protest: "I work the streets! I work the streets!"

Raucous, raw, disjointed poetry offends some people. San Franciscans are not among them. Since it was discovered last month that police were seeking to force cafe owners to buy a $600 entertainment license for poetry readings, even people who may never have thought of themselves as poets have expressed their indignation.

Mayor Frank Jordan, former police chief, asked the police commission to suspend enforcement of the entertainment license requirement. He penned this ditty, making reference to the city's rich literary history, which includes Bret Harte, Jack London, William Saroyan and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the last of whom opened the City Lights bookstore in 1953 and encouraged Beat Generation literati such as Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac:

We don't care one whit

For poetry by permit

Let the verse flow free

From the beach to the sea

And uphold the tradition of Ferlinghetti

Mr. Jordan's poem was dismissed as "doggerel" by local poets, although they liked its sentiment.

The president of the Board of Permit Appeals, Neil D. Eisenberg, also felt compelled to express himself in verse:

Our Board says this cannot stand

All poems are free in this great land

Neeli Cherkovski dedicated a poem to Angela Alioto, president of the Board of Supervisors, who has vowed to overturn the permit requirement and has invited poets to protest in a reading at City Hall today. He wrote:

Taxing poetry is like making clouds

pay for people passing by

Cowed and possibly seeking to stanch the flow of verse, the police commission voted Wednesday night not to enforce the permit requirement at least until the Board of Supervisors, which passed the law two years ago, holds a committee hearing on the matter Tuesday.

While poetry readings flourish almost nightly in cafes around the city, they are not money makers. Poets and their followers are not a big-spending crowd. During the break at Cafe Babar, there was more smoking, milling around and trying to sell self-published manuscripts than actually buying a beer.

"There have definitely been nights where I've said, I'll nurse this water," said a poet whose nom de plume is Deborah Lee Pagan.

Alvin Stilman, owner of Cafe Babar, is philosophical about sponsoring the readings. "It's art and business, two different things," he said. "We're committed to doing it." The cafe has continued to hold readings without an entertainment permit.

Only one cafe, the Blue Monkey, has been required to buy the permit. This came about when Theresa Strang bought the Blue Monkey last fall and applied to have the liquor license transferred. Reviewing her application, police told her that "poetry recitations" are considered entertainment and must be licensed. Shocked, Ms. Strang canceled for six weeks the Tuesday night poetry reading, pending the permit.

Some poets found the idea that their poetry was classified as entertainment insulting in and of itself.

"This is American confession," said Alan Kaufman. "This is where we bring our souls. San Francisco is the laboratory of the spoken word scene."

In the back room at Cafe Babar, a man wearing a T-shirt advertising a local rock group, Vomit Launch, was holding forth. In the front room, away from the melee, Jim Wilson nursed an Anchor Steam beer.

"A lot of the poetry is bad or weak or poorly edited," he conceded. "Brilliant images do come along. But entertaining, no. I'd like to hear almost anything but this."

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