A howl-out to San Francisco’s Beat Museum for National Poetry Month

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(photography by Gary Geboy)


Nestled between neon-flashing strip clubs on the corner of Broadway and Columbus bordering San Francisco’s Chinatown is a homing beacon for poets and a haven for hipsters.



It’s called the Beat Museum and it sits diagonally across a tawdry intersection from the infamous City Lights bookstore – literally in howling distance from the definition of obscenity.

Unlike most contemporary museums, visitors don’t exit through the gift shop. They enter through it – an eclectic collection of cool chap books, postcards and extended play LPs. I forgive the crass commercialism when admission only costs $8 and comes with a personal invite to a “beat conference” in June.


The museum is so unpretentious it’s like stepping into a 1960’s living room with scrapbook-style exhibits curated by a proud mom who saved every souvenir of a child who turned out to be famous. There’s even a comfy tattered sofa to tune in and drop out for a while. The effect is unexpectedly intimate and revelatory.


Take Ginsberg’s early draft of “Howl,” for example. The epic poem now associated with stream-of-conscious venting of cool didn’t just spew forth in a drug-induced fit of unfiltered genius.


Look closely at the tormented typewriting. You can practically smell the white-out correcting fluid. The best minds of Ginsberg’s generation started out mystical instead of hysterical. They hallucinated anarchy before he settled on Arkansas. Any writer who has ever been returned a manuscript bloodied with red ink feels instantly soothed, even buoyed when able to study the suffering of a giant.


Another exhibit is the balm that must have soothed Ginsberg himself. Every writer should be sent a telegram from Lawrence Ferlinghetti quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?”

Who knew? Even South Carolina Educational Television was once beat
Who knew? Even South Carolina Educational Television was once beat

Eat Soft Shell Crabs, then come listen to poetry

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April is National Poetry month so this Saturday Otram Slabess will be staging our annual outdoor poetry reading at the Charles St. Gallery. I know, I know, there’s a lot going on in Beaufort this weekend. All the more reason to take a time-out at three in the afternoon and let the metered words of some wonderful writers soothe your hurried soul. Trust me, standing in line for an hour for an over-priced soft shell crab in Port Royal will make you crave a glass of wine, a chair, and the artistic shade of Lyals and Georgia’s gallery garden.

Before we open up the microphone, each Otram Slabess member (founders Warren Slesinger and Quitman Marshall, plus Steve Johnson, Jacquelyn Markham, Karen Peluso and me) will read a piece they’ve written, and one by a poet from the larger universe. I don’t know which I’m looking forward to more – my fellow writers are so accomplished and lyrical and entertaining that I joined the group just to hear their works in progress every month. I don’t even write poetry, but I love how these part-time teachers, publishers, parents and artists tangle with thoughts and words and even commas. They don’t make a living off of their poems (oh unjust world) but poetry is what grounds and inspires them. To listen to them read their own work is an invitation to see the world as they do. To hear them read their muses is an interior window and just as revealing.  

I’m going to be reading a poem by Starkey Flythe, an award-winning South Carolina poet who spoke at a meeting of the Poetry Society of SC in Beaufort this February which Warren and Quitman hosted and arranged. He’s a brilliant and funny octogenarian; he advised the poets in attendance to have their portraits taken while they are young and said that education is meant to bore children to death at great expense. I find his poems as charming as he is, yet for the workshop he had us read poems about defacing graves and wrestling angels. His point was that poetry is more than rhymes of love and odes to azaleas. He encourages writers to tackle not the grand but the intimate.

Which is why I love the annual Otram Slabess poetry reading at the Charles St. Galley. It’s intimate. In Lyal’s garden you are close enough to jasmine to get drunk on it, you sit near enough to your neighbors to see what poems make them smile or cry or both at the same time.

To get you in the mood for Saturday, I highly recommend subscribing to a free email/facebook/twitter offering by Knopf Poetry. Every day in April, and we still have a few, they’ll send you a wonderful poem by known or emerging star in the world of poetry. You can friend or follow them, or try the e:mail address that appears in my mailbox everyday:


See you Saturday!

Duncan’s poem

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(A quick note — if you haven’t read the comments from Avant-Garde in Beaufort, make sure you check them out. My sisters-by-Byrne have the whole scoop on that wild party and the woman who threw it.)

Since so many of you loved seeing the footage of Byrne’s love, Duncan Miller, at the Beaufort 3 Century forum, I thought I’d share an idea to honor him. I never knew Duncan well. He was sliding down the slope of Alzheimer’s when I met him and I remember him mostly through the stories Byrne told. Theirs is still the best love story I have ever known. Married twice, once in secret, devoted to each other for 60 years, him watching her get dressed each day of those 60 years and telling her she was marvelous.

Byrne had very few regrets in life, but the one she shared with me is one that I hope I can erase. Duncan was a writer. A dedicated writer. One who completed six full-length novels without the reinforcing, confidence boost of publication. He kept at it, rejection after rejection. Byrne was his believer. She typed every manuscript (before computers) and every query letter to agents and publishers. She kept those manuscripts for years after his death. She felt she’d failed him – by not getting him published.

So here’s my idea. With the help of a few of my siblings-by-Byrne, and the Otram Slabess poetry group, I culled through some of Duncan’s manuscripts and pulled, from them, an assemblage. The common thread through six novels. It’s how I’ve ended my memoir. If an editor out there likes the manuscript, then Byrne would say “Duncan darling, at last you are published.”

And so, here is Duncan’s love for Byrne, drawn from lines the world rejected.

I’m hanging with my fingertips on the lip of a big idea.

I must grab hold of the earth,

or be swept away through an endless sky.

The air is so still that summer scents lie coiled close to the ground.

The palm fronds splinter and tree toads cry.

The night sobs for me.

My mind returns to those moments when I first began to know you.

Seeing  through your eyes,

dancing on the edge of dreams.

I was a river coursing through your soft green banks.

We love each other for the sum of what we are.

Implicit with movement, even in repose.