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New American Underground Poetry Vol. 1:
The Babarians of San Francisco - Poets from Hell

Author: New American
Copyright 2005. Alan Kernoff.
Anthology issued by Trafford Press.
Distributed by Zeitgeist-Press. (
323 Pages / Price: 23.00

ISBN: 1-41205270-X

Review By: Charles P. Ries

Context, talent and emerging form are the co-parents of art movements. When these three
aspects of great art collide (as they seldom do) a child is conceived. A creative voice so
unique in its character that when it is seen, heard, or read it guides the reader
unmistakenly back to its place of origin.

As I read the thirty-two poets whose works comprise this expansive anthology entitled,
New American Underground Poetry Vol. 1: The Barbarians of San Francisco - Poet
s from Hell,
I welcomed the raw honest energy I found in these long narrative poems. I felt
as if I was there with them, listening to them. They called themselves the Barbarians.
Every Thursday night from the mid-late 80’s through about 1994, their home was a tiny
wine and beer tavern located on twenty-second and Guerrero in the Mission District
of San Francisco. For just under ten years it was the home of a perfect storm - a Thunder
Dome in which spoken word poetry of high emotion, insight, and humor was delivered
and refined. This excerpt from David Lerner’s, “Mein Kampf” addresses the objective of
their collective efforts, “all I want to do / is make poetry famous // all I want to do is /
burn my initials into the sun // all I want to do is / read poetry from the middle of a /
burning building / standing in the fast lane of the / freeway / falling from the top of the /
Empire State Building // the literary world / sucks dead dog dick //I’ll rather be Richard
Speck / than Gary Snyder / I’d rather ride a rocket ship to hell / than a Volvo to Bolinas.”
And indeed this desire to raise poetry above its lost status as a mainstream literary art
colors many of the poems in this collection. These writers wrote and spoke words tha
could not be confused. They were metaphor lit and smash mouth rich.

Context: The back room at Cafe Babar. A tiny performance space of only about 30' x 30',
with wood bleachers and corrugated aluminum siding stretched over the walls. At critical
points, the poet could hit the walls and the entire small room would vibrate. Often, there
were 75-100 people stuffed shoulder-to-shoulder, crowding the halls and every spare inch
of space, hungry for what the poet could do. "The Babar crowd was pretty merciless,"
says Zietgeist Press Co-Founder and Café Babar regular, Bruce Isaacson. "There was no
polite applause or lukewarm response. If they loved you, they let you know, and if they
didn't, they really let you know: hoots, whistles, heckling. Even beer glasses would
sometimes get tossed at the stage."

Talent: In the forward to this anthology, co-editor Alan Allen described the odd mix of
tribal members to this scene, “The barbarian poets were broke. Won the west-coast slams
but couldn’t afford the tickets to go East to compete. Lived only to write, to perform, to
read. Many were without jobs (with notable exceptions), or disabled, or addicted, or
worked in the sex industry. Most struggled to pay the rent, or eat well, wore thrift-shop
clothes. IQ’s were the highest, hearts the biggest, poems what mattered most. Was all
about feeling their voices, their words, their lines, their lives.” This collision of wild and
diverse poets, writers, musicians, and performers created the ethos of that moment
including: Laura Conway, Joie Cook, David West, Eli Coppola, David Gollub, Vampyre
Mike Kassel, Kathleen Wood, Zoe Rosenfeld, Sparrow 13 LaughingWand, Q.R. Hand,
Alan Kaufman, and numerous others who would go through the baptism of fire that was
Café Babar. These writers and many more are featured in this exceptional collection of

Emerging Form: Richard Silberg in his introduction to The Babarians of San Francisc
o - Poets from Hel
l says, “As opposed to movements that have centered on magazines, a
college, a writers group, the Babarians have forged their work in a performing space.” He
goes on to say, “Barbarians focus on that performing voice. The Barbarian voice goes for
personhood, somewhat like the voice of Bob Dylan’s lyrics, or a comedian’s voice, or the
voice of a TV newsman. Emphasis is shifted from the page to performance. The poem on
the page is more like a script or a score.” Berkeley Poet Laureate Julia Vinograd told me,
“This period was an explosion of poetry and Café Babar was at its epicenter. The work
was unlike anything that had been done before; we fed off each other. New things were
being said in ways that were forceful, serious, and funny. The best of the young poets of
their time read there along side total unknowns.”

The November 4, 1992 issue of the San Francisco Bay Guardian described the poets
reading at Café Babar as, “The Best poets working in America today. The cradle of
the American avant-garde tradition. Formed in the crucible of real economic despair &
political threat. Poets of lowered expectations & political rage. Café Barbar is
the symbolic crucible of the spoken-word scene where gather the keepers of the flame – the
poets doing poetry before it caught the public eye.”

All the poems in collection were written to be heard and grasped quickly. They speak to
the world in which the writer lived. Here was a tribe and a moment in time that
personified what is best about poetry – raw, straight forward revelation. Emotional
honesty delivered in a manner that demands attention.

Here are two short excerpts from The Barbarians of San Francisco. The first is from “I
Was a Teenage Godzilla” by Vampyre Mike Kassel. “When I was ten / I was hit by a
very small nuclear warhead / which slipped out of a torpedo tube / while my cub scout
pack was visiting / the Navy submarine U.S.S. Caligula / on a field trip. / The incident
was hushed up. / The other cubs perished / but I mutated into a Teenage Godzilla / just
like in the movies. / Only I was still only five feet ten inches tall / Just a friendly li’l two
legged radioactive Komodo dragon / It wasn’t so bad / My parents were pissed / but the
government paid them off / and they just had to kind of live with it.” And another from
Sparrow 13 LaughingWand entitled, “Larry Said”: “Oh the filthy chalice of his skull /
blown apart in New York / Oh, his razorback heart and his lead sugar mouth, / Larry said
his mother died in a house fire / while he was in the joint / Larry said it was political. /
Larry told / the dumbest arrest story I ever heard / how he broke into a liquor store and
got too drunk to escape. / The Nevada beauty of his tomcat ass could / scratch your eyes
out. / Larry said he was an honest thief. / Larry said I wasn’t queer / because he love me. /
Thanksgiving we had lentils under my tarp / in a storm at Davenport. / Larry wasn’t a
queer / because I really wasn’t a man.”

They stood stripped naked before a crowd of true believers and had to sell it. They had to
make it real, and they had to make it work or they were shouted down. Posers were
persecuted at the Café Barbar.

Charles P. Ries lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His narrative poems, short stories, interviews and poetry
reviews have appeared in over one hundred and twenty print and electronic publications. He has received
three Pushcart Prize nominations for his writing and most recently read his poetry on National Public
Radio’s Theme and Variations, a program that is broadcast over seventy NPR affiliates.  He is the author
of THE FATHERS WE FIND, a novel based on memory. Ries is also the author of five books of poetry —
the most recent entitled, The Last Time which was released by The Moon Press in Tucson, Arizona. He is
the poetry editor for Word Riot and Pass Port Journal. He is on the board of the Woodland Pattern
Bookstore in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Most recently he has been appointed to the Wisconsin Poet Laureate

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