Genny Lim by Andy Nozaka • 2014 Fred Ho Memorial

SFJazz Poetry Festival artists to ‘speak truth to power’

For the fifth annual SFJazz Poetry Festival, Genny Lim has curated more than four nights of interdisciplinary performances. She’s used the opportunity to invest in the melding of music and poetry as a regional phenomenon.

“Most of the artists are poets who have performed a lot with music,” Lim said by phone. “I’m trying to carve a niche for jazz poetry by bringing in artists who work not just for this gig, but who have worked and who work well with musicians.”

Born in San Francisco, Lim grew up between North Beach and Chinatown. As a child, she was exposed to many influences. She speaks of her father, who worked as a janitor at the Fairmont, bringing home records by the likes of Ernie Heckscher and Pérez Prado; one of her older siblings spent a lot of time at the Blackhawk jazz club, which Lim, as an adolescent hearing the stories, romanticized. Her mother, from the villages of Toisan in southern China, would often comfort her by humming the Chinese-opera-inspired wooden fish songs.

“They sounded just like the rural Southern blues, like Lead Belly and Howlin’ Wolf,” she said. “The whole mnemonic, oral tradition really heavily influenced and shaped the poetry that I do today.”

Lim takes over for the inaugural SFJazz Poet Laureate Ishmael Reed, whom Lim has known for 40 years and considers a mentor: They met when Reed selected one of Lim’s early poems for publication in his pioneering Yardbird magazine and, years later, in 1982, she received the American Book Award, bestowed by Reed’s Before Columbus Foundation, for co-editing Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island 1910-1940.

“Poetry Matters” is the theme Lim chose for this year’s festival. “You can see the backlash from our regime, making all these huge cuts across the board against the arts,” she said. “Writers and artists are getting hassled at the borders now, so that shows how powerful writing is. The pen is mightier than the sword, as they say, and it’s true, because we plant word bombs and word seeds in people’s minds; the deterrent to that is to cut off our pipeline access to federal and state dollars.

“All of these people who fought so hard for civil rights have become pushed aside, and we are basically losing our human rights,” she said. “They are basically destroying the Constitution piece by piece, day by day, and so this is something that I really wanted artists and poets and musicians to address in their work. If we’re going to be relevant as an art form, we’ve got to speak truth to power.”

Each night has a different theme: Thursday is the poet laureate kickoff, with Reed and Lim joined by Tennessee Reed, Alejandro Murguía and Janice Mirikitani. Friday is “Peace Matters,” with Rico Pabon and musical guests Jennifer Barone and Daniel Heffez of the Word Party, and Palestinian poet Mo Sati with oud player Claude Palmer. Saturday is “Black Lives Matter,” with Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Lewis Jordan and Avoctja. The festival concludes on Sunday with “We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite,” featuring a performance by devorah major and Destiny Mohammed, and Lim collaborating with Anthony Brown and the Asian American Orchestra.

For a full festival schedule and more information, go to


SFJazz Poetry Festival. 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday, April 6-9. $15. SFJazz, 201 Franklin St., S.F.

This article originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo courtesy Genny Lim

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