A reason to Howl: Five-day festival will celebrate Ginsberg and his place in Bay Area lore

When poet Neeli Cherkovski first met Allen Ginsberg in San Francisco in 1978, Ginsberg told Cherkovski, “You’re fat.”

“And I said, ‘You’re bald,’ ” Cherkovski recalls with a laugh. “And things were never the same.”

The poet and sometime-biographer is just one of the writers, artists and academics who will be sharing their memories  during the upcoming Allen Ginsberg Festival — five days of lectures, tours, spoken-word events and more.

Allen Ginsberg aboard the S.S. John Blair in New York harbor in 1947, from the exhibit “Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg” photo/courtesy of the cjm

Co-presented by the Contemporary Jewish Museum and several literary organizations, the event will turn the Bay Area into a celebration of all things Beat from July 11 to 14. The festival runs in conjunction with the CJM’s exhibition “Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg,” on display through Sept. 8.

Cherkovski wrote, among other books, a collection of essays titled “Whitman’s Wild Children” that contained portraits of Ginsberg, Charles Bukowski, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and others. At 5:30 p.m. July 12, Cherkovski will take part in “Beat Reunion: A Celebratory Night of Panels, Performances, and a Beat Café” at the Mechanics Institute in San Francisco, discussing Ginsberg’s impact on poetry as well as his roles in the Jewish and gay communities.

Other local figures participating in that event include writers Alan Kaufman (a poet who collaborated with Ginsberg in the ’80s and ’90s), Brenda Knight (who has written on women in the Beat Generation), Jerry Cimino (founder of San Francisco’s Beat Museum), Steve Silberman (a Wired magazine correspondent who was a close friend and apprentice of Ginsberg’s) and Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan (who officiated at Ginsberg’s funeral services at Congregation Emanu-El).

A panel at 6:30 p.m. July 11 will feature Bill Morgan, Ginsberg’s personal archivist, in conversation with David Meltzer, a poet who has also written on the Beats, at the CJM. The CJM’s public programs director, Gravity Goldberg, who spearheaded the festival’s planning process, will moderate.

“There’s been such an outpouring of generosity from the community,” says Goldberg of her collaborations with Ginsberg’s friends and contemporaries, as well as partnerships with the festival’s co-sponsors, including the Beat Museum, Lehrhaus Judaica, City Lights Books and Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco.

For the literary figures involved, says Goldberg, “I think there’s this excitement about poets even being recognized in a museum, and in return they’re really giving a lot of themselves.”

July 13 offers two unique events: a daytime “literary tour” of North Beach with Morgan pointing out Ginsberg’s old hangouts; and an evening “Poetry Shabbat” service at Sha’ar Zahav, with Cherkovski and fellow Jewish poets Sam Sax and Daphne Gottlieb reading original work. Wolf-Prusan and Kaufman will also speak.

The festival comes to a close with a look at the impact of the “Howl” obscenity trial in San Francisco, with a discussion of First Amendment rights and literary censorship, moderated by City Lights’ Peter Marvelis. Panelists will include Rebecca Farmer of the Northern California branch of the ACLU.

As for why Ginsberg’s legacy still speaks to so many, Cherkovski — who says he thought of Ginsberg as kind of an uncle figure — says he was, among other things, an open book. Ginsberg was generous with his gifts, as well as his time.

“He would sit down and talk, have a serious conversation, with a 14-year-old kid or an 80-year-old woman or a 50-year-old stockbroker,” he says. “And I think everybody who’s involved [with the festival] is passionate about Allen in part because of that. This is one of the last groups of people who had personal relationships with him … that does make it feel important.”


The Allen Ginsberg Festival will run July 11-14 at several San Francisco locations and at the Stanford Humanities Center.  For more information, a full schedule or tickets, visit www.ginsbergfestival.com.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.