By Wayman Barnes
I have been to a lot of poetry open mics in my day, but never one like the one at Café Prague. This reading is … different. There is no stage. No microphone. No sign up sheet. Nothing to tell you that something is happening.
The host sits at a table in the middle of this restaurant. He speaks in a loud, bombastic voice, so there is no way to ignore him. People who are there just to eat the goulash find themselves in the middle of a show whether they want to be or not.
As I walk in, there is a thin, timid man with a long beard begging to be allowed to read. The host is being obstinate, but, finally, after much negotiation, lets him perform. As the bearded man performs his poem, the host makes comments, jokes, asides, and grunts of approval or disapproval for each line of the poem. I keep expecting someone to tell him to shut up, but no one ever does. It soon becomes apparent that he does this all the time. Each poet gets heckled in turn, and it is all just part of the show.
Café Prague is a restaurant/coffeehouse in North Beach near the City Lights bookstore. The interior is dark and the staff friendly (and cute). The menu is filled with a variety of Czechoslovakian dishes. I order the apple strudel, but make note to return sometime for some dumplings or goulash. Both look very yummy. During the poetry reading, the place is very full. I can't tell who is there for the reading and who is there just to eat. Whenever one poet finishes reading another poet stands up and asks to read. If the host says it is all right, the poet performs at their table. I wonder what the nonpoetry people make of all this. Is it just taken as being part of the San Francisco experience?
Which, I must say, is part of its charm. It feels like what I'd imagine the readings to have been like back in the days of the beatniks. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a similar type of reading taking place in this exact same coffeehouse. There may have even been a loud, opinionated host critiquing each poem's worth, heckling the poet, and spouting off on the politics of the day. All while people are sitting around trying to enjoy their dinner. I can't imagine a reading being any more Beat than this one. (Maybe, if there were berets, bongos, and finger-snapping happening, but as far as I know, that was just the Hollywood version).
If you were around back when North Beach was the center of the Beat universe, please go to this reading and tell me if it is anything like the readings back then. For those people like me, who have spent lots of time reading about the Beats and wishing you could have been around back then, go to Café Prague. It might be as close as you'll get to be a part of that history.
And the apple strudel is good, too.