The second night of the San Francisco International Poetry Festival, a three-day event that featured international poets reading in various venues across the city, was full of promises: “You’ll be talking about tonight forever.... You folks are in for a feast.... Tonight is going to be powerful!” Maybe it’s my cynical nature, but as I slunk down into my cushy seat in the dimly lit Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, I wondered if such high expectations could be met in a free, two-and-a-half-hour event.
A few hundred people filed into the large theater to hear ten poets read their work. The festival’s master of ceremonies, former San Francisco poet laureate devorah major, introduced the first reader of the night, Hanan Awwad. She read six poems—with English translations projected on the screen behind the podium—including the passionate “Because I am Palestinian.”
Awwad was followed by Italian poet Ferruccio Brugnaro, who took the stage and began with the well-received poem, “Buy, Always Consume.”
Buy, buy more than you can
consume. Consume. Fuck over
Step on everything and always
buy everything up. Carry home
As much as you can.
Stuff, stuff yourself with greed.
Don’t look anybody in
But it was Brugnaro’s fourth poem, “Stop the War,” that received some of the loudest applause of the evening. Brugnaro ended his reading with a simple “Grazie,” which was met with a standing ovation.
“I’m so happy to be here. I like the food. I like the people. The houses. I like everything here,” said Cletus Nelson-Nwadike, the Nigerian poet who has lived in Sweden since 1990. He charmed the audience with stories of his ninety-year-old grandmother (who insists she be flown out to the next festival) and interspersed humorous anecdotal fragments with more serious work. The following is from “A Short Black Poem.”
The first time
I kissed a girl
was in the night
She became so confused
that she left her bra
under the mango tree
and went home
During the ten-minute intermission, the large crowd swarmed the book tables in the lobby (some titles, not distributed in the United States, were hand-delivered by the poets). I was so taken with Brugnaro’s work, I braved the crush and swooped in for a copy of his book Fist of Sun.
“That’s mine. I just bought that!” cried the man next to me. I apologized profusely and hurried to another table to get a copy that was still for sale, along with the festival catalogue (a collection of poems and bios from each reader).
After the break, the Swedish poet, long-time London resident, and now San Franciscan Agneta Falk took the stage. “Good Evening. Bon everything!”
Falk read a piece titled “Shivering Mountain,” which is dedicated to a young prostitute.
They found her in a ditch
with sludge in her hair.
Her epitaph reads:
Time of death unknown,
Place of death unknown.
Syrian poet Maram al Masri began with a recollection. “I remember a song when I was young: ‘If you’re going to San Francisco, wear flowers in your hair,’” she said as she pulled a bright stem from her own long, dark hair and threw it into the crowd. Dressed in a floor-length, gold-colored jacket, she read a series of numbered fragments evoking unrequited love and nostalgia.
Alberto Masala from Sardinia, Italy, read from “Taliban,” a series of fragments written in support of the women of Afghanistan. The section titles included “Obligations to wear a Burqa,” “Total prohibition of movement outside of the house unless accompanied by a Mehram (father, brother or husband),” “Prohibition against speaking or shaking hands with men unless Mehram,” and “Obligations to blacken windows so that the women not be seen from the outside.”
Other readers of the night included former San Francisco poet laureate Janice Mirikitani; Aharon Shabtai of Israel; and Alejandro Murguia, a Chicano poet who read Miguel Mendoza Barreto’s work.
The last scheduled reader was the city’s current poet laureate, Jack Hirschman. Dressed in a bright red shirt and black suspenders, he was greeted with a standing ovation—he is, after all, the one who came up with the idea for the festival. He read three poems, including “The House of the Setting Sun,” which is based on events surrounding Hurricane Katrina.
Despite my hesitation, when it was all over, I had to agree: The night was powerful.