Poetry is Alive and Well on San Francisco’s West Side

By Becky Lee

For Barbara Berman, writing has always been a vocation. 

“It was never a hobby,” she says, tucked into a corner booth at The Little Shamrock, an Irish pub in the Inner Sunset. Berman is originally from New Jersey and met her husband at The Little Shamrock on a visit to San Francisco decades ago. 

B Berman profile pic

Poet Barbara Berman’s book of poetry, “Currents,” is a collection of “quiet, profound moments.” Courtesy photo.

Today, they live together in the Richmond District, where Berman, a published poet herself, is a poetry reviewer for “The Rumpus,” an online literary magazine. 

As a child, she started writing on her grandparents’ typewriter. Later, she became an editor for her school’s literary magazine. The magazine’s advisor once changed a line of her poetry and printed it without asking her. 

“I’m still not over it. You remember stuff like this, if you really care,” she recalled. 

In 2018, Berman published her first full-length collection of poetry called “Currents” (3 Mile Harbor Press). “Currents” is a collection of quiet, profound moments. Some poems are rooted in a sense of place – an island monastery, a Berkeley wedding, a “stunned September street.” Some reflect on distant memories; others imagine inner monologues. She also experiments with prose as well as found poems, or the act of creating poetry from existing texts.

Eavan Boland, director of the Creative Writing Program at Stanford University, describes Berman’s poems as “touchstones of a felt world.” 

Part ethnographer, part philosopher, her work is both observant and contemplative. In a poem titled “The Brittle Star,” the simple study of a starfish becomes a musing on bigger questions of nature and science.

“The Brittle Star” by Barbara Berman

Covered with hundreds of tiny perfect eyes, 

it is about the size of the average human hand.

Magnified hugely, calcium scaffolding resembles

a translucent philodendron leaf.

In dreams begun on laboratory benches

responsibilities are born

with speculation about applications

while I wonder if eyes

might one day be enabled to engage

in the pleasure-tasks of palms.

Berman’s path to becoming a published poet was nontraditional. She never got a master of fine arts degree but developed her craft by surrounding herself with fellow writers. In the 1970s, she lived in Washington D.C. and managed the poetry series at the Women’s Art Center, a nonprofit that supported women in the arts. 

“I made some very special friendships with people who would read my stuff, and I’d read theirs,” she recalled. 

Berman spent much of her early career building a writing community on the East Coast and found it hard to leave. The summer she moved to San Francisco, she was given a copy of “Poetry Flash,” a Bay Area-based literary review, and immediately recognized two poets whom she knew. 

“That was just really special. I feel a special debt to ‘Poetry Flash,’” she said. 

Now a longtime resident of the City, Berman is part of a thriving community of writers who “push you just by what they’re doing.” She attends poetry readings at local bookstores, discovers authors of all genres at the public library and stays motivated by “being a really ravenous reader.” 

“I like a smaller city,” she said of San Francisco. “You have a certain density of culture, but you can also walk and think.”

Amid the dominant narrative of rapid growth and gentrification, many find it refreshing to hear San Francisco still described as a home for writers and even poets. Berman thinks it may have something to do with the hills. 

“It’s a geography that really lends itself to small bookstores,” she said. 

Before heading home, Berman walked around the corner from The Little Shamrock to Green Apple Books on the Park, where she had stopped in earlier and left her umbrella. The front desk staff immediately recognized her and gestured toward the center of the shop. Her umbrella was still hanging from a shelf in the poetry section, right where she left it. 

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