Last week, the 2022 San Jose Poetry Festival added to a long downtown San Jose tradition, re-establishing poetry’s place in the urban landscape.
Rather than putting the entire festival out at History Park in all its splendid rurality, organizers from Poetry Center San Jose booked poets in a gallery, a coffee shop, a music venue and a theater. History Park still hosted workshops and a small press fair, but the crux of the festival was urban.
“I wanted to book the best spoken-word artists that I know, but who are also people that love San Jose,” declared Mighty Mike McGee from the Mama Kin stage on opening night.
Formerly Café Stritch and Eulipia, the venue now called Mama Kin triggered the ghosts of wandering lunatics from decades past. The contemporary poets on opening night made me recall the glory days of poetry slams at the Ajax Lounge, an outre Bohemian club that operated upstairs for a few years during the ’90s.
Ajax attracted all sorts of creative riffraff. Ken Kesey, Ice-T and Gil Scott-Heron were among those who showed up just to hang out during the first several years. The poetry nights, run by Bill Cozzini, were especially off the hook. People still talk about those gigs.
Even before Ajax, though, when the space was simply called “Upstairs at Eulipia,” one never knew who would shuffle up those steps. For example, in 1988, Allen Ginsberg just happened to be in town. When his handlers brought him up to the space, he said it was a “nice joint.” The ghost of Ginsberg stalks the landscape of South First.
Across the street in the brick building now housing Petiscos was a dive rock ‘n’ roll bar called Marsugi’s, a glorious dump where one Mr. Frank Bella also held court. Thirty years ago, Bella was the self-proclaimed poet laureate of South First Street for organizing riotous booze-fueled live mic sessions, first at Ajax, then at Marsugi’s, under the banner of a “Purgatory Tour.” At Marsugi’s, a pint of Guinness was $2.50 in those days.
And as those days spiraled right back, the ghost of Matsuo Basho also stirred inside of me. Basho was the wandering poet-pilgrim of Edo-period Japan. To him, the passing of time was a journey, just like his own embodied travels in the physical world.
“The months and days are the travelers of eternity,” Basho wrote. “The years that come and go are also voyagers.”
This is how I felt on opening night, watching SevanKelee Boult, Brennan DeFrisco and Danny Thien Le at Mama Kin. From the stage, McGee also recalled the very first time he ever appeared in front of a poetry slam audience—right down the street at Cafe Babylon 24 years earlier. I remember that place also.
All of which only strengthened the vibe at the festival, at least for me. After a rousing display at Mama Kin, the next night unfolded across the street at Nirvana Soul, formerly Caffe Frascati, which, by sheer serendipitous majesty, was the last place Poetry Center San Jose ever staged an in-person event. Before the onslaught of the Zoom era, McGee hosted a regular series called Live Lit, which imploded in March of 2020 due to Covid. At Nirvana Soul, Kim Johnson, Kristina Robertson and Chris Lok all gave amazing performances.
Current and former poets laureate rounded out the rest of the festival’s urban components. David Perez, who served as the 2014-2016 Santa Clara County Poet Laureate, appeared at the First Unitarian Church on Third Street, while San Francisco Poet Laureate Tongo Eisen-Martin closed out the whole shebang on Sunday at the Tabard Theatre.
However, the past and present were not the only dimensions on display. Saturday night, Anno Domini hosted a reading by the Santa Clara County Youths Poet Laureate—Anna Yang, Michelle Qiao and Sarah Fatima Mohammed—each of whom was born around the time I started writing this column every week, and all three of whom will go on to write even more amazing words in the years to come. This night was easily the most inspiring of the whole damn festival.
In downtown San Jose, poetry is alive and well. And urban. We’re in good hands. There is hope.