Rice-a-Roni. The delightful situation comedy Full House, starring Bob Saget and the Olsen Twins. Fog. Journey. Fisherman's Wharf. Earthquakes. The Gap. That Mark Twain quote about the coldest winter that Mark Twain did not actually say. Hippies. Sushi. The really windy street. The Fixie. Anchor Steam. Criagslist. Mrs. Doubtfire. Oh, and the best team in baseball.
No, this is not the proposed new motto advanced by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce but rather a random melange of earnest and ironic signposts that point toward the City by the Bay.
Missing from this list, however, is poetry.
But Not for long.
No city in America is producing more good poetry right now than San Francisco. Its older generation of poets altered poetry's landscape, and its newer crop of writers, who seem to be winning every possible award, are shaping poetic terrain as well. New York might stake out a claim as the country's fiction center, but San Francisco has planted its flag as the poetry capital of the United States.
Ever since The San Francisco Renaissance and the subsequent Beat Movement ensconced figures like Jack Spicer, Kenneth Rexroth, William Everson, Michael McClure, Robert Duncan, Phillip Whalen, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robin Blaeser, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg into the poetry walk of fame, San Francisco has been a must-see on America's literary map.
Legacy alive! Legacy well!
Consider as well all of those slightly younger but equally well-established experimental poets such as Paul Hoover, Maxine Chernoff, and Michael Palmer. Their contributions to innovative poetics have been immeasurable. And then there is the elusive August Kleinzahler--San Francisco Poetry's cranky uncle. He won the Griffin Prize in 2004, and his most recent collection, Sleeping It Off in Rapid City, New & Selected snatched the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award.
Just as exciting is the generation of poets in their 30s and 40s who are also making a name for themselves. No mid-career poet is hotter than D. A. Powell right now. Last year, Powell's Chronic was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, it won the California Book Award, the Northern California Book Award, and it made several best books of the year lists. Powell also captured the lucrative and much sought-after Kingsley-Tufts poetry prize. Similarly, award-winning poets like Brian Teare, Camille Dungy, Matthew Zapruder, Justin Chin, John Isles, Truong Tran C. Dale Young, and Randall Mann--all of whom have published between two and four books--are shaping the conversation not just of poetry in the Bay Area but the entire country.
I'm particularly impressed by a whole phalanx of poets who have published their first books within the last year. The most notable include Robin Ekiss, The Mansion of Happiness (winner of the 2010 Shenandoah/Glasgow Prize for emerging writers and a finalist for many other awards); Melissa Stein, Rough Honey (winner of the 2010 APR/Honickman First Book Prize); and Keith Ekiss, Pima Road Notebook.
And that's just within SF itself. Include Oakland, Berkeley, and San Jose in the poetry hug, and you snuggle up next to Kay Ryan, Brenda Hillman, Robert Hass, Rusty Morrison, Barbara Claire Freeman, Rebecca Foust, Lyn Hejinian, Sandra McPherson, Rachel Loden, and a very popular young poet named Craig Santos Perez. Now, wrap that other arm around the bookstores and the journals and the presses and the cafes and LitQuake. Squeeze tight. Mmmmm . . . that's some serious poetry love.
The question though is this: is this love-in of poetic talent random, or is there something about San Francisco that draws or engenders good poetry?
There are some practical reasons for San Francisco's (and the Bay Area's) poetry dominance. The proximity of Stanford, Berkeley, Mills, UC-Davis, St. Mary's are hard to ignore. Throw in all of the high quality local MFA programs at USF, San Francisco State, and California College of Arts, and a real community of writing comes into being. Also, poetry tends to be about liberation and experimentation, two characteristics San Francisco has always been known for. In fact, if you listed ten traits of American poetry and ten traits of San Francisco, the Venn diagram of the two would likely have huge overlap.
The film The Social Network makes a compelling argument for Silicon Valley as the center of the technological universe--it's where everything is happenning. The art of technological innovation; the technology of artistic innovation. Technae is as much at the root of poetry as it is at the root of technology. It is not surprising then that poetry, the first social network, thrives in a culture of innovation and accomplishment. Despite its traditions, poetry has always been unusually current. It seeks the cutting edge. And so innovation begets innovation; accomplishment begets accomplishment.
I mean look at the Giants--look at that lineup! Can anyone prove that great baseball does not follow great poetry? The only logical explanation for San Francisco's World Series victory is that the city's poetry is hitting homer after homer. Well, and that Brian Wilson dude. I'd love to see his sonnets.