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A hotel for rock stars rolls out the red carpet for poets 

Four individuals pose separately against a red and white striped backdrop, each exhibiting a distinct fashion style.
From left, dancer Gabby Wei, Maïté Azarov, Jess McCallum and Xxhe pose for portraits at the monthly poetry series Poolside Poets hosted by the Phoenix Hotel. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

“We have a special guest tonight,” said Jake Rabeck, gesturing to the darkening sky on Thursday night, “la luna.” 

Rabeck, a rotating host of the monthly Poolside Poets series, stood beside the aquamarine swimming pool at the Phoenix Hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, where a crowd of around 30 had gathered on the moonlit patio to enjoy the city’s newest—and most fashionable—poetry night. 

“We wanted to get away from the stereotype of poetry readings in bookstores full of moth-eaten sweaters and corduroy,” co-founder Liz Cahill said. “Let’s make it glamorous, give people a reason to dress up.” 

A woman poses before a striped backdrop at a nighttime outdoor event, with plants and ambient lighting around.
Kylee Hawley poses for a portrait at Poolside Poets. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

Dress up they did at the Phoenix, the famed hotel beloved by touring musicians like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana and Mazzy Star, which welcomed local poets and their fans and muses in the open-air courtyard. The fits were on theme—attendees were told to embody either the sun or moon—as were the verses, many of which focused on the heavens above. 

“People always get more than poetry,” Cahill said of the series that she and co-founder Rhea Joseph started together last October. 

Joseph wore a long black-and-white dress with a glittering silver forehead medallion, and the evening’s musician, Xxhe (pronounced “zhay”), appeared with blue face paint that looked like ice crystals. There were gold sequins, crushed velvet numbers and oversize hats. 

Two women pose in front of a red and white striped backdrop, one standing, the other seated, amid greenery and venue chairs.
The co-founders of Poolside Poets, Rhea Joseph, left, and Liz Cahill on Thursday night at the Phoenix Hotel. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

The curated event features live music and dancers, along with a different host each time, which Joseph said adds to the diversity of voices. 

“It’s a lot of poets’ first booking,” Joseph said. “It gives us a thrill to provide that opportunity.” 

Introduced by host Rabeck as an “inter-galactically recognized poemstar,” the poet Shai Yeshanov held aloft his book of poetry as he read lines like, “Music does not sound better with one million followers” and “I used to do drugs at parties, but now I do medicine at ceremonies.” 

He was followed by first-time reader Stacy G. and by poet, rapper and breakdancer Joshua Marttila, with the ethereal “ice music” by Xxhe breaking up the sets. 

The gathering has become an incubator of sorts, where artists can try out works for the first time—Cahill read a poem she wrote that week, and Xxhe performed a song they had written that day. 

Neon sign reading "THE PHOENIX," a lit-up tent with a person, and string lights against a dark backdrop.
The Phoenix Hotel, where bands like Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Mazzy Star have stayed, hosts the Poolside Poets monthly poetry series. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

Diego Plascencia-Vega read some “new shit,” and Kiril Bolotnikov delivered powerful lines on our post-post-modern condition with his head bent back and his long hair flowing. All of the funds generated by the donation-based event go straight to the artists, with the Phoenix offering its poolside patio and stage for free. 

Past themes have included concepts like “Meet Me at Sunset” and “Power Shift,” with a lot of leeway for interpretation—both in words and fashion. 

“We had everything from power suits to mob wives,” Joseph said of the Power Shift night.  

Two dancers perform beside a speaker at an outdoor evening event.
Maya Cowan performs at Poolside Poets at the Phoenix Hotel, accompanied by dancers Gabby Wei and Éline Castro. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

Joseph and Cahill first met each other in 2022 at another poetry event, the Thursday night open mic at the 16th Street BART Station, where the crowd “was mostly older men,” Joseph said. 

The pair crafted the poolside poetry series in hopes it would draw in more people across the gender spectrum. Joseph has a day job in marketing; Cahill works for the nonprofit Decentered Arts, which sponsors Poolside Poets and whose mission is to build resilient communities through arts of all mediums. 

Split image: left shows a person reaching up mid-dance outdoors at night; right shows a man holding a book, speaking into a microphone.
Dancers Gabby Wei and Éline Castro, left, both students at Lines Ballet, and poet Shai Yeshanov perform at Poolside Poets. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

Seventy-five years after the Beats moved into San Francisco’s North Beach, Cahill and Joseph spoke of the renewed strength of the city’s poetry scene, calling out third Thursdays at the Mission bookstore Medicine for Nightmares and Sundays at the Center, a tea shop and yoga studio in the Lower Haight. 

“You can write something, and it doesn’t sit,” Joseph said. “You go somewhere and perform it.” 

A singer performs on stage next to a dancer with flowing fabric, surrounded by an audience under string lights at night.
Xxhe performs at the Poolside Poets monthly poetry series at the Phoenix Hotel. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

Even with the news that the Phoenix Hotel is up for sale, the duo say they’re not concerned about the future of their series. They’ve led poetry nights at other locations throughout the Bay Area—Sluts and Good Mother Gallery among them—and they’re confident they’d find a new home for their series, even if it would no longer be poolside. 

“Poetry can be anywhere,” Cahill said. “And it should be everywhere.” 

The next installment of Poolside Poets will take place on April 11 at the Phoenix Hotel.