Reflections on the legacy of the Sacramento poetry marathons
The poets of Sacramento’s streets—
particularly 18th and Capitol—
will be remembered for their feats
of stamina, like the big language surge
planned for noon this Friday with the goal
of going seventy-two straight hours,
from which some will emerge
transmuted, or just needing showers.
The thing began in ’86
at the Java City there.
Coots, kids bear
witness, get kicks,
headlines could’ve said.
Practically everybody read.
This was before the Java Cities in
other states, and in Europe and in
Asia, let alone Sacramento,
where penniless although
richly caffeinated poets once roamed free.
Before extortionate lofts on top of Mikuni.
At ten, a nostalgic anniversary,
and now, at twenty, another—
if only because memory
is the muses’ mother,
and the engine of the chapbook.
Herewith, recollections: a scrapbook.
Bari “B.L.” Kennedy
founder of the World’s Largest Poetry Marathon
Once when I was promoting a Kerouac reading, my girlfriend and I were up in Placerville, sitting on a statue, just resting, having something to drink. All of a sudden, there’s this woman looking at me. I’m thinking, “What, are we not supposed to sit on the statue?”
She says, “B.L. Kennedy.” I say nothing. I’m worried. She goes, “In 1986 …” My mind’s going, “Who’d I sleep with? Oh fuck.” She says, “I was going through a divorce …” “Ohhh fuck,” I say to myself. “What did I do?”
She goes on, “And I was on the verge of suicide. I was in my hotel, watching the news. And I saw something about a poetry marathon. I’m alive today because of that poetry, and I just wanted to thank you.” She gave me a kiss on the cheek and walked away. I was stunned.
In the beginning, everybody thought we were crazy. “Poetry on the street? You’re going to do that in the middle of the night?” I went to Java City, and they all thought, “Who the hell is this guy? But OK, let him do it.” They didn’t know what to expect—they ran out of everything.
This community was pretty fractured. I was successful because I didn’t have a board of directors. I would go out on the streets and say, “Hey, come to a poetry reading.” Half the time they would come. The marathon brought all these factions together. All of a sudden, out of the marathon, all these other groups started forming. It was beautiful.
Later I said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we did a 10-year anniversary for the marathon?” Five hundred and eighty poets read at it. I had all the people pre-signed. But somehow the message went out, not on purpose, that anybody at all could just show up and read anytime. We got everybody. Everybody. Mark S. Allen, reading poetry. There was a film crew from Italy; in Chicago, they saw the marathon on TV. While on the way to San Francisco for a documentary about the beats, they stopped in Sacramento and spent four hours shooting me and the marathon. Then they never got back to me.
The ’96 one was historical in a lot of ways; there’s no way I’m ever gonna top it. At one time, D.R. Wagner had people drag me to my apartment and throw me into bed—and just then the phone rang: A person at the open-mic had collapsed. It just turned out that was the hottest summer Sacramento had.
Now people are all broken up, once again. There are all these individual camps. The marathon will come along and do its magic once again. This is the last marathon I’m going to do, ’cause who the hell knows if I’m gonna be around in another 10 years? If somebody else wants to do it, power to them.
author of The Persistence of Vision
The first one, in ’86, was just electric. It was readings around the clock. I had just quit a job, so I was there at 5 ’o clock in the morning. And 5 in the evening. I read everything I had written at that time, and then I started reading my journals. I met a lot of people there. People who were known and people who were not known, but after a while they became known. They kind of got into the poetry community—they got the idea that there was one. It had to do with Kennedy’s personality. He pisses people off, but he brought something.
Sid Garcia Heberger
manager of the Crest Theatre
That’s when I fell in with the poetry crowd. I had just moved to Sacramento in ’83. I’d go to whatever gallery had readings. Bari had said he was gonna do the World’s Largest Poetry Marathon. Java City wasn’t even on my radar, but after that, it was the place. There were a couple of nights that I slept on the sidewalk. It was just a really neat scene. Lots of wonderful poets.
I was working at Arden Fair Cinemas, which is now UA Market Square, and going to Sac City. At the marathon, I was introduced to Matias Bombal. It was really just a hello-my-name-is sort of introduction. It wasn’t this big kismet thing. Months later, when he learned they were opening the Crest, he started calling about me coming to work here. I came in maybe five days before it opened. And I started ordering people around. Within a few weeks, it was in my blood. In March of ’88 they made me a real manager.
I still see Bari with some regularity. In doing events here, I see a lot of the usual suspects I used to see back in those days. Sometimes it’s like nothing has changed.
We were all 20 years younger. Life has a way of taking people in different directions. I know I don’t have time anymore to hang out in coffee shops and hear poetry, but there will be somebody else who does.
artist, poet and lecturer for UC Davis design department
I like to do the early morning hours, from 1 to 4, because I like to see who’s out at that time. I’ve been all over the country, and this is one impressive city for the spoken word. I think it’s just amazing, the quality. With the marathons, no matter when somebody wants to stop by, they’re guaranteed to get something good. Where else do you hear all of the kinds of poetry that’s being produced in Sacramento at one spot?
We have more poetry readings than just about any city in the country. So many people are there, and they’re happy to see each other. It’s kind of a tacit agreement that there’s not going to be competition, and yet there’s a network that’s really thick. We’ve got some of the finest poets reading. It really requires that you love where you are. There really has to be a tremendous pride of place. I wish somebody would record it.
author of Tiny Teeth: The Wormwood Review Poems and 17 other books of poetry and prose
I was at the first one and the second one. Bari is wonderful to have set this thing up. It’s helped Java City. It’s helped the poets. It’s crazy, and it’s fun.
The first one, it was new; it was untried. People certainly responded. People looked at us like we were totally nuts. A woman started banging her head on the sidewalk. We weren’t sure if she didn’t like the poetry or was trying to get rid of a headache.
This one is more controlled. We probably won’t have policemen coming in because neighbors are complaining about the poets. We have to go inside Java City at 10 p.m. They don’t want us to be panhandlers of words, but they support us.
It’s come a long way. It’s good to see the new people that I don’t know. If someone else takes it over, it’s not going to be the same thing—and that’s good. It can’t be. Maybe the younger writers are waiting for us to get out of the way. Right now we’re just all so keyed up about doing this one. Every 10 years is special.