Poets share raw, unfettered material at New Sh!t Show

Sam Sax reads his poetry during the New Sh!t Show, a bi-weekly poetry open mic at Viracocha in San Francisco's Mission District on Oct. 24, 2012. Sax is also the host of the show and hosted a poetry workshop for the first time before the open mic began. Photo by John Ornelas / Xpress

Beyond old books and baubles in the depths of a basement performance space, New Sh!t is happening every second and fourth Thursday.

The New Poetry Mission, also known fondly as The New Sh!t Show, has a decade of history in San Francisco, but was inherited and refocused by Sam Sax and Nic Alea just two years ago. The event at Viracocha, an antiques store on top of a Valencia Street performance space, is a show for writers of various styles and experience levels to take the stage and present unheard, often raw and unedited material.

“It’s like breaking the ice over and over again for people who have been performing for years,” Alea, a graduate of SF State’s creative writing program, said. “It’s scary for everybody. It’s a vulnerable state. So I think it’s a good place to jump off for people who haven’t had much experience.”

As active members in the literary community, Alea and Sax noticed that many poets were recycling the same work, so they set out to challenge people to write without waiting on inspiration. Sax calls this “killing the muse.”

“I think to rely on this sort of known specter of inspiration doesn’t really make sense for me,” he said. “I’d rather have the work that I do be intentional instead of some odd object from somewhere in my sub-psyche.”

To further encourage the creative flow, Sax facilitated the first preshow writing workshop before Oct. 25 performances. Expecting a low turnout, he was pleasantly surprised to have  about a dozen writers attend, who each left the session with a new poem.

“We were supposed to write about something we overcame and mine was a flu that came from me growing a mustache because I didn’t have enough airflow to my nose,” Jesse Christian, a third-year communication studies major at SF State, said.

After the workshop, the open mic set begins. There is no heckling or booing in the low light of the Viracocha stage on these Thursday nights, but constructive criticism is usually welcomed. First-time attendee Patel Krupa expressed some discomfort with racial issues brought up within some of the performers’ work.

“I really like the space, but I think some of the poems have a lot of whiteness embedded into them, which made me flinch,” Krupa remarked. “But I enjoyed myself.”

Krupa particularly enjoyed writer Joshua Merchant, one of the featured performers for the Oct. 25 show. Much of Merchant’s work deals with the intersections of queerness and black identity, as well as his family and his home in Oakland.

“I want to acknowledge that I’m ushering the audience into a space that’s challenging,” Merchant said. “But I feel like it’s still my personal life, my experiences, and I’m not going to discredit any of that — they’re still valid.”

The other featured performer of the night was Caitlin Gill, who has become a staple in the San Francisco comedy scene. In the only stand-up act of the night, Gill mused about how poetry open mics are better than comedy ones, because poets work with more emotions.

“There’s a lot of benefit to artists just hanging out with each other,” Gill said. “It’s nice to rub shoulders with poets. I do it on purpose a lot because it’s different from my medium, and it’s nice to appreciate the inspiration and reflect on what drives people to create different art than my own and see how that influences what I do. And I hope vice versa.”

Diving into a show like this may sound daunting, but poet Tatyana Brown insists that it is a rewarding experience. She encourages newcomers to step up to the mic, not just for themselves, but to keep the literary community alive.

“If you stop expecting the experience to be perfect and you just let yourself be excited about the fact that you’re doing something new, it really is one of the more exciting new experiences you can have,” Brown said. “And it only gets better!”

The next New Sh!t Show will be at Viracocha Nov. 8. Nic Alea will facilitate a workshop beginning at 7 p.m., and the show will start at 8 p.m.

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