On a rainy night, fewer than a dozen people huddle under umbrellas outside the 16th and Mission Street BART station. Bottles of wine and whiskey are passed around while anything from a solemn poem about a passed away Grandpa, to spitfire raps about guns and murder are expressed. Everyone gets snaps and claps.
In the world of literature, poetry is hailed for its free form. But every Thursday, a fluctuating group of rappers, wordsmiths – anyone really – comes out to the station to test those boundaries.
The Poetry Slam, as it’s affectionately referred to, is a forum open to poets of any type. There is no venue, no sign-up sheet and no rules. However, there are loyal followers who make this event happen, rain or shine.
“When I first came here and sat down I loved it. I didn’t know it wasn’t a one-time thing,” said Brandon Loberg, a weekly regular at the event who runs a website devoted to the slam. “I kept coming back like a junkie to the needle.”
Loberg can be dubbed as one of the unofficial leaders of the slam, but is modest about the title. He manages a website bearing the event’s name and image, and has to tone down and set the mood from time to time, but the show is overwhelmingly democratically run.
There are no sign in, no agenda and no wait lists. Anyone who is ready jumps in the middle of the sometimes artfully, sometimes haphazardly chalked circle drawn outside the station–and lets loose.
This guerilla art event has been running for about eight years. Its roots were planted in 2004 when four students of the now defunct art school New College of California needed a venue to perform their live talents. After burning out their welcome in a friend’s living room and a few coffee shops, the group decided to take it to the streets.
From there it exploded. More people came each week, and it eventually became a weekly sermon. The crowd evolves from time to time. Hippies, crust punks, out-of-towners, bar hoppers, folk rockers and brown-baggers all graze the scene from time to time.
“Every week is different and has its own flavor,” said Stellar Cassidy, a creative writing major at University of San Francisco who is familiar with the history of the event. “You can’t go with any expectations because you never known what’s gonna happen.”
The crowd’s participation and the weather have an affect on the mood of the night, according to Cassidy, who said that rain makes the circle especially intimate.
A sunny, summer day, Loberg said, can attract as many as 200 people that night. The crowd fluctuates, of course, between burrito and bottle runs to nearby liquor stores and taquerias. No matter what the scene, the one constant seems to be a community of open-minded poets who want to express themselves and grow.
“It allows a person to express themselves in an unrestrained fashion,” said Mike Walshner, a San Francisco resident who has been attending the slam a couple times each month for the last year. “There are no judgements here, everything is accepted. It’s just positivity and fun.”