Unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles Wanda Coleman. Photo by Carpendale.
We don't hear much about the legacy of Santa Cruz poetry. It’s little wonder, between the majesty of the redwoods and the town’s deep-seated surf culture. But indeed, from 1972 to 1981 the city played host to the largest poetry festival in the nation. The very same grand ballroom in the Cocoanut Grove that will host Sunday’s Poetry Festival Santa Cruz once boasted the biggest names in poetry on its marquee. Bukowski, Burroughs and Ken Kesey all made an appearance. In fact, during one particularly tempestuous weekend, it fell to Allen Ginsberg to calm the crowd by leading them in “om”s when part of the stage collapsed. By once again turning Santa Cruz into the host of a world-class poetry event this weekend, the performers will not only forge a new path for themselves but also pay tribute to the city’s poetic tradition.
Organizing the festival is Daniel Yaryan, the tireless leader of Sparring With Beatnik Ghosts, a San Francisco–based poetry series. A native of Santa Cruz, Yaryan (who once worked as a sales rep for Santa Cruz Weekly) recently returned to his hometown from the Bay Area in order to better balance his obligations as a single father with his passion for producing poetry readings. Since its start in 2008 in the basement of the Li-Po lounge, a favorite San Francisco hangout of the first generation of Beat writers, SWBG has quickly become a favorite of both established and undiscovered writers because of its take-no-prisoners attitude and marathon reading sessions. Yaryan’s ambition is written all over it.
“There is no reason,” he says, “that poetry shouldn’t be as big as film or other types of media.” For him, bringing people together through live performance is an antidote against individually received mass culture. “Now more than ever,” he writes, “poets are needed to engage and inspire people that have fallen victim to the void.” Given the rapid expansion of SWBG —this year Yaryan will produce shows in Austin, Portland, Las Vegas, North Carolina and New York— the ambitious project seems thus far a worthy successor to the Beat legacy.
To be sure, not all of the so-called ghosts at this weekend’s festival will be of the ethereal variety. Some of the performers themselves emerged in the generation immediately following the titans of the beatnik genre. Chief among these living spirits is Jerry Kamstra, author of The Frisco Kid, veteran of the San Francisco poetry scene and a prior contributor to Sparring With Beatnik Ghosts’ many projects. Kamstra made a name for himself when he published Weed: Adventures of a Dope Smuggler, a book that placed him firmly within the beatnik tradition of flipping off the establishment.
In addition to regular headliners on the Santa Cruz circuit like Ellen Bass, Stephen Kessler and poet laureate Gary Young, the festival will also host Wanda Coleman. Known as the “unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles,” she has described herself as being “in the ‘universal’ tradition of writers who concern themselves with the Truth—never mind that it is apt to hurt someone, in some way, most likely me.” A native of the Watts neighborhood, her poetry concerns itself with the trials of people who struggle every day just to get by. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. Her 1998 collection, Bathwater Wine, won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, and she was a National Book Award finalist for her 2001 collection, Mercurochrome.
Perhaps the most familiar name to poetry scene newbies will be Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, who will perform with poet Michael C. Ford. Manzarek has previously collaborated with Beat poet Michael McClure, one of the most famous names to emerge from the first generation of Beats. Manzarek and Ford’s collaboration will be among the many multi-media acts in a festival that will seek to push the limits of genre by combining poetry with music, visual art and performance art.
Finally, in keeping with a tradition of radical egalitarianism, this weekend will feature a whole slate of up-and-coming artists. One of the most radical among these is Quiet Lightning, a submission-based poetry series that allows literally anyone to submit a poem for reading. By eschewing the formal methods that sometimes allow writers to gain access to an audience, Quiet Lightning is able to keep an ear to the ground for writers whose talents have grown organically, and maybe identify the next great generation of poets.
Poetry Festival Santa Cruz
Tickets $12.50 at sparringwithbeatnikghosts.com