Backyard Backpacker: San Francisco International Poetry Festival

21 Aug


Dunya Mikhail, with her translator, sharing her work

In one of my previous posts, I discussed my intention to spend more time exploring my own city and surroundings as opposed to always looking to my overseas adventures for inspiration for my travel writing.  To that end, I have decided to start a new feature on my blog–Backyard Backpacker–that will focus on the fun and exciting events and activities that I have found locally, no passport required.  My first entry in this series is about an event in my city that surpassed my expectations in many ways: the San Francisco International Poetry Festival.

Initial apprehensions

I’m not going to lie–I wasn’t initially excited about attending this event.  I had visions of random people muttering nonsense in front of an odd-duck audience that would show its appreciation for the poets with finger snapping instead of clapping.  In fact, the only reason that I decided to go was that I was invited by a brand new friend that I had met in the city, and I had already passed up two of her prior invitations in favor of studying for the California Bar.  If I wanted this burgeoning friendship to last, I figured, I needed to show up this time.

Getting proven wrong by great poetry

Fortunately for me, the readings were incredibly good.  To be fair, when I first walked in, I was greeted by the stereotype of the poetry and audience reaction that I had expected.  Boo.  However, that reading ended shortly after my arrival, and, after a short break, an awesome collection of poets from around the world shared their work.  My favorite poet from that session was Dunya Mikhail (pictured above), who had fled to the U.S. from Iraq due to increasing harassment during Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Dunya and her translator shared poems from Dunya’s book The War Works Hard.  The one that sticks out most in my head is one that builds a metaphor involving a chess game.  I wish that I were poetic enough to explain more fully here; suffice it to say that you should check out Dunya’s poetry for yourself.  Seriously, I am generally skeptical of poetry (it took a college-course introduction to the fantastic work of Wislawa Szymborska before I realized that I didn’t hate all poetry, after all), so when I say that I recommend Dunya’s work, I mean it wholeheartedly.

The best part: running into an old friend, 20 years later!

However, Dunya’s work wasn’t the highlight of the session.  For me the highlight was Sasha Pimentel Chacón.  She was the last poet to read during that session, and, when I first heard her name called, my ears automatically perked up.  While I didn’t recognize her married name, her maiden name clicked far into the recesses of my memory.  In all honesty, I didn’t listen as closely to Sasha’s poetry as I should have because I was too busy searching her face and words for clues–I was SURE that I knew her, but I wanted confirmation.

After Sasha’s reading, I pulled her aside, and she graciously agreed to talk with me.  I hesitantly asked her if she had a brother named such-and-such and if she had spent part of her childhood in Georgia, one of the places that she had mentioned in her poems.  The answer to both of those questions was yes.  My hunch was right: here, randomly, after two decades, I was running into my best friend from the fourth grade!  Absolute craziness.  Sasha had to run, so our reunion was very brief, but we exchanged contact information and agreed to be in touch.

Oh, San Francisco.  Even though I sometimes come close to getting fed up with you, you have an odd way of setting things right with a well-timed surprise or delight.  My experience at the poetry reading just goes to show that, if you explore outside of your comfort zone, you can always find something new or unexpected, no matter where you are!

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Have you ever run into a friend in an unexpected place, either during your travels or while exploring your home base?  If so, please share in the comments!



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