When Justin Bagnall was young, his grandfather always warned him that San Francisco was full of “queers.” Whether the old man was referring to the gay community in the Castro District, the hippies in Haight Ashbury, or the outsiders and oddballs who have always called the city home, the warnings did not have their intended effect.
Standing beneath the corporate glow of a Wells Fargo sign, surrounded by a crowd of poets, commuters and unhoused folks on the corner of 16th and Mission, Bagnall recites poems about same-sex oriented frogs, ex-boyfriends who were “bad eggs” and the exclusionary dating culture of white gay men, which he unpacks through an extended analogy about potatoes. He reads from a leather-bound journal and touches the little glass fish he wears around his neck.
Every Thursday night at 10 p.m., a poetry reading materializes around a chalk circle drawn on the sidewalk outside 16th St. Mission BART. Poets jump in the middle and begin reciting verses, resurrecting dead loved ones and railing against the establishment. Encircled by votive candles, they assume the posture of oracles in heavy overcoats—rhythmic, trancelike.
When Bagnall first heard about the late-night reading, he thought it sounded dangerous. But when he finally decided to venture out one Thursday in September 2021, he was instantly embraced by an encouraging and nonjudgmental community. He has been back over 20 times since.
Charlie Getter, a veteran of the group who has helped keep the reading going for nearly two decades, describes poetry as “an affliction.” Watching him perform makes it easy to understand why. He recites from memory, twisting his body, reaching out, pulling back, cigarette in hand. He strains his vocal cords. He roars, pauses, wrestles with his own breath.
“A lot of these poems are written for performance on the street corner,” Getter said, describing 16th St. Mission as a gritty wellspring of inspiration. “The poems have to be kind of crazy, lyrical, narrative. You have the lyric hook to catch people and the narrative to keep them. There’s this awesome Italian term called ‘sprezzatura’ which essentially means ‘working really hard to make it seem effortless.’ And if you can pull that off, then you got it.”
The reading draws a curious crowd: On a recent night, about 25 poets clustered around a flowering circle of chalk, as a man wrapped in a gray blanket on a nearby bench occasionally raised his head to listen to the voices. A trio of mariachis sang to the accompaniment of an accordion player across the street. Skateboarders careened around the circle. A motorcycle rumbled through the intersection, drowning out a line or two of a poem.
Brandon Loberg found that competing with ambulance sirens and people screaming in the streets made for a unique poetic training. To him, the reading represents two San Franciscos—both of which are quickly vanishing.
Loberg works at the Beat Museum in North Beach, across the street from City Lights Booksellers & Publishers. He has a lot of nostalgia for the Beats who settled in San Francisco during the 1950s and transformed the city’s literary scene into a dissident, experimental and nonconforming movement.
“Part of the reason that the Beat Movement was able to happen at all is that in the ’50s the city was a pretty cheap place to live,” Loberg explained. “You didn’t need to have a 9-5 job. You could be a poet full time and scrape together the rent at the last minute. That was possible. I don’t think that’s possible anymore.”
According to Loberg, the rising cost of living in San Francisco has impacted more than just the cultural legacy of the Beat Movement. Over the 18 years that he has attended the readings at 16th St. Mission BART, he has watched the Mission District transform. He recalls a time before gentrification when artists spilled into the streets at all hours of the night. More than 100 people would show up for the weekly reading back then, he said. Today, it usually tops out at about 25.
Still, Loberg’s nostalgia for the Beats is tempered by an appreciation for the present.
“I wouldn’t want to be reincarnated in the 1950s,” Loberg said. “The fact that this still exists gives me a lot of hope for San Francisco.”
For many, reading at 16th St. Mission is a way to feel closer to the city.
Lara Volski, a former National Park Ranger at Golden Gate National Recreation Area, began attending readings in 2021 to perform eco poetry and anchor herself in San Francisco.
“I have some anxiety about being a transplant here,” Volski said. “I wasn’t born here and I inherently take up space just by being in the city. I’ve been trying to figure out—sometimes through my own poetry—how to ethically exist in the city. That’s what drove me to read at these open mics. A lot of my poems are love letters to San Francisco and an attempt to understand my own relationship to it.”
Some of the poets feel that Thursday night at 16th St. Mission is one of the last vestiges of the real San Francisco, but the reading does not easily lend itself to a singular vision of the city.
The poets read by three different sources of light—the circle of votive candles on the sidewalk, the dim, municipal street lamps around the station, and a large Wells Fargo sign, which bathes the star jasmine in lurid, a corporatized yellow and red glow. In the darker corners of the station, members of the unhoused community shuffle around with their belongings, looking for a place to settle down for the night.
The city emerges from three different angles like a triptych: A financial center, a social crisis and a creative outburst folded into one.
“This truly is an open space for anyone and everyone,” Volski said. “You get a glimpse of an older San Francisco that is not always as visible anymore. But the fact that people from any walk of life can step into that ring of candles and say their peace makes it really precious.”
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