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Buried Memories 

San Francisco is home to one of the largest and most renowned poetry archives in the world. Where? Well, right now it's in some guy's apartment.

Wednesday, Nov 29 2000
It makes sense that a collection of materials related to beat generation poetry calls San Francisco its home. But "home" is a nebulous term when it comes to the Cloud House Poetry Archives. Its owner, Steven Kushner, is the obsessed curator of the collection, and he's been forced to keep his materials in the close confines of his own home. Cramped in a three-bedroom apartment in Cathedral Hill, the Cloud House ranks as one of the most comprehensive collections of materials related to American poetry in existence. Every inch of space in the apartment that isn't devoted to walking is filled with poetry mementos and beat-inspired ephemera: a wax cylinder recording of Walt Whitman's voice; the ashes of beloved local poets Jack Micheline (Kushner's godfather) and Bob Kaufman; autographs and first-edition works by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and others; and even video of last week's slam poetry revue (in the '90s alone, Kushner taped about a thousand poetry events). When Peter Kirby of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art went looking for recordings of San Francisco beat poets for its ongoing "Made in California" exhibit, his first trip was to the Cloud House. "There's nothing I know of that has the range and the depth of what he has," says Kirby. Or, as Ginsberg once wrote in a rare professorial tone: "There are university centers who have performed distinguished parallel services, but Cloud House is unique in its historical focus on [the] San Francisco Renaissance era to the very lively present, encompassing poetics from street level across to academia."

Problem is, few get to enjoy the Cloud House's possessions; meant as a museum, Kushner's archive hasn't been open for public viewing since 1994, when it resided in a Lower Haight storefront. An eviction notice changed all that, and that has inspired Kushner's present goal -- to remove the Cloud House from under lock and key in his own home and bring the spirit and power of American poetry to a San Francisco that today is more engaged with the spirit and power of the NASDAQ.

When Kushner was growing up in New Jersey, his uncle worked for RCA Victor, which inspired a lifelong interest in archival recording. His interest in poetry came from living near the childhood home of Walt Whitman; as a teenager, he once spent a long day on the steps of the house, reading Leaves of Grass out loud, in its entirety. Collecting poetry ephemera has been his interest ever since his days as a student at Bard College in the early '60s, where he attended readings at St. Mark's Place and got to know Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. The first Cloud House opened in New York City (the name comes from Native American mythology), and soon after, random folks were leaving him with interesting pieces of history. A signed frontispiece from an early edition of Whitman's Leaves of Grass came from one donor; a Blake etching came from another. And all the while Burroughs and Ginsberg were passing along materials.

The heart of Kushner's collection, however, is the films and videos of readings that he has personally recorded. His "war room" is a state-of-the-art film and audio editing suite, crammed with rows of filing cabinets stuffed with digital videotapes of readings, or sound recordings going back to his St. Mark's Place days, which he is in the process of transferring into digital form. Museums like the San Francisco Art Institute and SFMOMA have called upon his resources; when Rhino Records released its Allen Ginsberg box set, Holy Soul Jelly Roll, two years ago, Kushner provided tapes of Ginsberg's earliest readings, including the first complete reading of "Howl" in Berkeley in 1956. Though he hasn't yet been able to confirm their authenticity, tapes in Kushner's possession are purported to be beat poetry's Holy Grail: Ginsberg's landmark first reading of "Howl" at San Francisco's Six Gallery on Oct. 7, 1955.

Because the Cloud House has been moved out of the public eye, rumors have abounded regarding Kushner's intentions for the archive; when it comes to his possessions, some say that Kushner can be, well, possessive. Beat historian Gerald Nicosia says the Cloud House has film materials he has contributed to that he has never been able to see despite his best efforts. "He can be moody and difficult," says local playwright Mel Clay of Kushner. "He shows up all the time and makes videos of readings, but you have to go through hell to even look at them." So for a while now, the local scuttlebutt has been that Kushner is hoarding his cache in the hopes of selling it off to a university or similar institution for a hefty sum.

But Kushner finds the notion of selling off his stockpile ridiculous, if not utterly disgusting for a stout, spiritual-minded man who has done time with the Diggers and the San Francisco Mime Troupe. "I'm not interested in hoarding huge treasures only I can live with," he says. "That's totally contradictory to the idea." A university or museum, he says sneeringly, "would only want to salt it away in a basement. And then the copyright attorneys would show up with marketing plans."

Kushner's own plan is for what he calls the San Francisco Poetmuseum -- a public space for his archive, unmolested by outside institutions, where the spirit of Leaves of Grass would be on permanent and living display. He has established a nonprofit to support the creation of a space that would be part museum, part archive, and part work space for any poet who wishes to use it. The ambition is a modest one -- he figures he only needs about 1,200 square feet, the size of his apartment. He has applied for a space at the nonprofit art and theater organization Project Artaud in Potrero Hill, which has had a studio space vacant since January. Project Artaud's board of directors will be interviewing Kushner and other artists early next year, and will fill the studio in February.

The fact that Kushner is competing for a home in a tight rental market for artists isn't dissuading him. A beatnik idealist to the last, he believes what he is doing is essential to this particular city in this particular time. "Poetry is an antidote to whatever ails society," he says. "The body needs poetry. The most endangered thing of all today is experience; we're living in edited realities. We're in a world that's very anti-spiritual, and poetry is all about spirit."

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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