From the days of the 49ers to the Beats to today, San Francisco has a notable literary tradition. Among the best-known San Francisco and Bay Area writers, several have been poets, such as Allen Ginsberg, Beat and writer of “Howl.” Today’s Bay Area poets are part of a new literary tradition. Whether they are Beat visionaries, chroniclers of Latino culture or spoken word artists, these poets are some of the best that San Francisco can offer.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti is one of the most well-known writers associated with San Francisco’s Beat generation. The first publisher of Allen Ginsberg’s famous Beat poem “Howl,” Ferlinghetti is a poet and well-regarded writer in his own right, as well as a painter.
After earning his bachelor’s degree, Ferlinghetti joined the U.S. Navy and served during World War II. After the war, he attended graduate school, then moved to Paris. He and his wife relocated to San Francisco in 1953, and co-founded City Lights Bookstore the same year with publisher Peter Martin. In the 1960s, Ferlinghetti expanded City Lights by introducing a publication division, publishing many now-famous poets for the first time, including William Carlos Williams, Denise Levertov and, most famously, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”
At the age of 94, Ferlinghetti has slowed down but is still involved in the Bay Area literary scene. City Lights, the bookstore that Ferlinghetti co-founded, is a cultural icon in San Francisco, located in North Beach at 261 Columbus Avenue.
Tshaka Campbell at the Berkeley Poetry Slam
A Berkeley pub, bar and live music venue, The Starry Plow also has a long history of live poetry events. The Plough, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, hosts a Berkeley Poetry Slam each Wednesday. Each week’s slam features a different poet, and many of them are from the Bay Area. Some weeks involve an open mic portion, where new poets can share their work with the audience. The Starry Plow event is the longest-running poetry slam in the Bay Area.
Recent local poets who have been featured at The Starry Plow include San Francisco spoken word artist and writer Tshaka, who has won the 2005 and 2007 National Championships in Slam Poetry.
Related: Best Poetry Events In The East Bay
Diane Di Prima
Di Prima has been called a bridge between the Beats and the hippie movement. Originally from the East Coast, she lived in New York City before visiting San Francisco. In the 1960s, she spent time with the psychedelic community of Timothy Leary before moving to the Bay Area permanently. Di Prima is known for her political stances, as well as the expression of her interest in the roles and sexuality of women. In 2009, she was named the Poet Laureate of San Francisco, a post which she held for two years. Her biography, “Recollections of My Life as a Woman,” was published in 2002.
Gary Snyder was born in San Francisco, but grew up in Washington and Oregon. During his college years, he became interested in nature and the role of traditional cultures, an interest which has evolved into his work in ecological art. He returned to San Francisco in the 1950s, and befriended several other artists involved in the San Francisco Renaissance, including Jack Kerouac, Kenneth Rexroth and Allen Ginsberg. Snyder became interested not only in nature, but in Zen Buddhism and Asian cultures, during the 1960s. What has been called his masterwork, “Mountains and Rivers Without End” was published in 1996 after nearly 40 years of work. In recent years, Snyder has also been involved in environmental activism and in advocacy.
Alejandro Murguia is the currently serving poet laureate of San Francisco. Named to the position by Mayor Ed Lee last year, he will serve two years as the poet laureate, giving public talks, workshops and readings.
Murguia is also a professor of Latino studies at San Francisco State University, and the founder of the Mission Cultural Center. His long-term interest in preserving Latino and Latina culture comes from his personal background as well as his educational work. Murguia, who has won two American Book Awards, calls San Francisco the “city of poets.”
Laura Tarwater-Scharp is a freelance writer, editor and historian. Originally from the Midwest, she has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for over a decade. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.