Daniel Yaryan’s peripatetic reading series Sparring With Beatnik Ghosts has presented 12 “rounds” throughout the state of California. The venues have included many renowned poetry venues such as Beyond Baroque in Venice, the Felix Kulpa Gallery in Santa Cruz, and the Beat Museum in San Francisco’s North Beach. Recently, the Ghosts appeared at the original location of Six Gallery (now Kasa Indian Eatery) where Alan Ginsberg famously debuted Howl for Carl Solomon.
Performers are a who’s who of California poets across multiple generations and styles: from 20-something slam poet extraordinaire Sam Sax to those with long-established reputations such as Floyd Salas, Avotcja, David Meltzer and jazz poet ruth weiss. Mr. Yaryan’s aims go beyond simply creating a series of evenings of spoken word entertainment. His goal is no less than to revitalize a tradition and, especially, to engage and learn from the last survivors of the Beats before they depart.
Daniel Yaryan intro, round 8 (Red Vic)
His fervor is contagious. Beatnik Ghost performer ruth weiss (sic), a key player in the halcyon years of the 1950s, is excited by what she sees today. She loves to talk about the community feeling of that earlier time, especially the way different types of artists mixed with one another—the poets with the jazz musicians and the filmmakers, respectively—everybody sharing the feast. It was weiss, at the invitation of the Cellar nightclub in North Beach, who staged the first series of readings in which jazz musicians and poets improvised together. In her work, the poet is not just backed up by musicians but is a musician herself, using her voice as an instrument fully engaged with the ensemble.
She remembers arriving in North Beach after hitchhiking from Chicago in 1952, about three years…
…before all this happened. I was right in North Beach when it was going on. Suddenly, there was all this mixing of poetry and jazz. There was a mixing of all kinds of people using different medias—filmmakers mixed with poets and so on. And then came the hippies. And then came a lull—there wasn’t that much going on. Except a few poetry readings. I mention all this because for a while there wasn’t that much happening.
Then, suddenly, in the last few years, almost every night there is a poetry reading in a bar! Sparring With Beatnik Ghosts tuned into this very deeply. Starting a series and running it all over the state is fantastic. I performed there a few months ago. It is the different medias that impressed me. It’s a wonderful thing.
For myself, I feel very honored the way the younger generation is treating me. They are listening.
The music is well and alive and I believe that this series is important.
Sparring with Beatnik Ghosts champions a “take no prisoners” aesthetic. The first event lasted six hours, sans intermission, not ending until last call at 2 o’clock in the AM. This style of no intermission, no limits, welcome-to-all-comers approach has continued through the 12 rounds. It is a peculiarly San Francisco kind of madness. Like a Grateful Dead concert, the evenings seem endless, sometimes pointless, often irritating, not for the uninitiated, and yet…
… from this chaos there often spring moments of astonishing beauty and community awareness that seem unattainable in any other way. Mr. Yaryan and his cohorts will settle for nothing less—whatever the cost.
In response to this call, elderly poets who have been silent for years have arisen from the catacombs of age and come forth with a rebirth of energy to enlighten and inspire a younger generation. It’s good. It’s very good.
Mama CoATL, round 12 (Kasa)
Mr. Yaryan’s dedication to the cause grew out of his association with beat poet Brother Antoninus (William Everson, dubbed “the beat friar”) whom he met in 1993. Kenneth Rexroth identified Brother Antoninus as one of the most important players in the San Francisco Renaissance. Brother Antoninus—a Dominican friar for 18 years of his adult life—published over 50 books of poetry and criticism. He was a disciple of Robinson Jeffers and many critics felt he surpassed his master. Compared to other poets identified with the SF Renaissance, Everson enjoyed a relatively stable academic career, teaching and publishing at both Stanford and UC Santa Cruz where he was poet in residence. He was also a master printer and founded the distinguished Lime Kiln Press. In the late 60s, when he decided to leave the Dominican Order and return to secular life, he marked the occasion by reading a love poem, then flamboyantly removed his monastic robes before leaving the stage. He was married a week later. In an interesting summation of his reputation, Brother Antoninus once remarked, “I’m Beat to the square, and square to the Beat.”
Mr. Yaryan reports:
My strong bond with Brother Antoninus continues to this day. There was an indelible impression he made on me that was intensified with his death. … My experience of losing my hero to the grave was a huge loss but it was a genuine spiritual experience when I was a pallbearer at his funeral, which was a huge honor and something I’ll never forget. I believe Brother Antoninus is one of the most powerful of the Beatnik Ghosts—a position which goes against the grain with both Beatniks past (ghosts) and present. Maybe this is why I’m sparring.
Mr. Yaryan has further ambitions. He hopes to use the success of his reading series to springboard the revival of the Santa Cruz Poetry Festival. In its heydey for several years in the 1970s, the Festival was the largest of its kind in the United States. It attracted thousands of audience members to hear such poetic luminaries as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, William Burroughs, Alan Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and a lot of locals. Mr. Yaryan is so committed to this vision that he has already booked a venue (The Cocoanut Grove in Santa Cruz) for the festival’s rebirth as Sparring With Beatnik Ghosts Poetry Festival (February 12, 2012).
David Meltzer, round 9 (Beat Museum)
Jerry Kamstra, a beat writer who authored the much-admired novel of North Beach in the ’50s, The Frisco Kid, founded and curated the Santa Cruz Poetry Festival in its original incarnation. He is anxious to encourage younger poets interested in spoken word performance and the beats. He likes to summarize the history of the movement like this: “ hop hep hip beat beatnik beatles hippy yippie yuppie hip hop and YOU.”
Mr. Kamstra says:
My experience with the Beatnik Ghosts, when I was invited to read, was of a full house and a success! Daniel’s hustle is impressive… I don’t know how the hell he does it. I’m gonna help him as much as I can. I’m just flabbergasted that he’s gonna take this on.
With support like that and a seemingly bottomless supply of enthusiasm, it is clear that Sparring With Beatnik Ghosts is more than a haunting. It is likely to be a major wave in the surging revival of poetry and spoken word performance.
Round 13 of Sparring With Beatnik Ghosts will be this Saturday afternoon, 3/19/2011, in the Martin Luther King Room of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in San Francisco. Sparring in this round will be North Beach Beat Latif Harris (with musical backup by Phil Deal), joined by Bay Area poetry superstars Joyce Jenkins, Sam Sax, Kathleen Wood, Tom Stolmar, Lyzz Bronson and Dee Allen. Also in the spar are special guests Luke Warm Water and Jennifer Barone (w/Daniel Heffez on saxophone). Musical guest is Geordie Van Der Bosch. For more info and to RSVP, check it out on the fbook.
Alan Sitar Brown, round 8 (Red Vic)