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Poets and Plumbers Convene at Keane's
By Kathryn Guta
Poetry at a drinking man's bar? It may seem odd, but that's exactly what's happening at Keane's 3300 Club, 3300 Mission St.
The bar is an authentic reminder of San Francisco's working-class roots, and yet the poetry here is some of the finest in the city. Best of all, you don't even need to vacate your coveted Noe Valley parking spot for a night on the town!
To find the "33," just take a walk down 29th Street. At the corner of 29th and Mission, you'll come to a building with venetian blinds in the windows and painted terra-cotta tiles reaching up like totem poles out of the sidewalk.
That's the club.
Go in at 9:30 in the morning and you'll see the longshoremen, plumbers, and other blue collar union men putting away shots and beers for breakfast. It's okay -- you can order an orange juice. Talk to the old-timers. Some of these guys remember the days of Prohibition in the city.
Say hi to bar owner and resident poet Nancy Keane. She'll toast you with her laughing blue eyes and generous smile. No doubt she'll also invite you back for a Tuesday evening poetry reading.
When you arrive for the poetry, order your favorite drink (it's after work, right?). Look around. You might recall some of the morning faces, but there are plenty of new ones, too.
Have you noticed the plates of vegetables, olives, and cold cuts on the table? They're for you. Sit down and relax. You deserve it. Maybe chat with the young blond woman in the beaded sweater. She has just returned from a year in Bali. She'll tell you about her volunteer work and how it felt to be evacuated during the recent Indonesian crisis. Fantasize about traveling to a faraway island. Vow to write a poem about it.
When Keane steps up to the mike to announce the first reading, you can hold onto your fantasies but please keep your mouth shut. Remember, you are at the 33 to voyage into the world of poetry, not to carry on conversation.
"If you want to talk, you have to go outside," Keane says, and she means it. The occasional nicotine addict gets away with lighting up at the bar, but if you don't stop your gabbing, you will encounter hissing snakes of Medusa proportions.
The atmosphere is calm, respectful, open, and friendly. A man smelling of beer pushes his sagging belly off the bar and starts to talk loudly to his elderly drinking mate. Twenty index fingers are raised to meet 20 smiling lips.
Camincha from Peru steps up to the mike. She is beautiful, dark, and voluptuous. Her poems are spiced with Spanish and delivered with the energy of Machu Pichu.
"Give me people!" she shouts into the microphone, "and I'll give you all the fishes and all the birdies of the world!" She is ecologically incorrect, yet entirely lovable. She has the crowd eating out of the palm of her hand -- like birdies.
Owner Keane is another featured act. She is a well-seasoned woman with long, strawberry-blond hair. Her first poem is a plea for freedom to smoke in bars. She imagines Humphrey Bogart offering a carrot to Ingrid Bergman on a Casablanca night and what a blatant turnoff that would be. "I guess she won't be looking at him anymore...kid!"
The smokers in the audience give particularly generous applause on this one.
Nancy Mifflin Keane, 62, has been writing poetry since she was 7. She was born and raised in Noe Valley at 421 Diamond St. One of 15 girls (her mom kept hoping for a boy!), she started writing poems to celebrate each addition to her huge extended family.
Poetry is definitely in her blood. Her mother, Ethel Mae Kingwell, liked to versify. She always lamented the fact that family responsibilities kept her from doing more poetry. Keane's sister is poet Geri DiGiorno. DiGiorno helped ignite the poetry nights by encouraging her sister to host readings at the club.
Keane and her husband Jack Keane bought the bar in 1958. For the next 32 years, Jack kept the bar as it had been -- working-class. Nancy was only allowed in to pay bills and pick up the mail.
When her husband died in 1990, Keane left her job at Wells Fargo and became sole owner and manager of the 33. The poetry readings were instituted in less than a year, even though Jack Keane wouldn't have approved. "My daughter was afraid that Jack would churn up the turf around his grave!"
But freedom of expression was important to Keane, as well as the freedom to be herself. (After all, she is a direct descendent of Thomas Mifflin, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.)
When she first took over the club, the regulars continued to call her "Mrs. Keane." It took them three years to warm up to using her first name. Keane worried about a culture clash between the two crowds. But to her surprise the evenings turned out to be quite harmonious.
Many of the older patrons have stuck around, and the poets' reactions have been favorable as well.
"People love reading here," Keane exudes. "We don't lean to one kind of poetry. Everyone is welcome. We have well-known poets like Kim Addonizio, Diane Di Prima, and Ruth Weiss, and also people who are just starting out with their first open mike."
The eclectic nature of the crowd is evident during the bar's open mike. There are young people with body piercings, middle-aged librarian types, and silver-haired beatniks. "I believe in holding the featured poets to 20 minutes and having an extended open mike," Keane says.
Keane is also an equal opportunity publisher, putting out a biannual anthology called Poetry at the 33 Review. "Ten percent of the space is reserved for poets who are unpublished," she notes. "I also feature homeless poets."
Joyce Jenkins, publisher of the Bay Area periodical Poetry Flash, writes that the 33 Review is "the kind of solid little magazine meant to inform, comfort, and celebrate what we don't see enough of in these high-stakes, hyper-literary, winner-take-all days."
Also available behind the bar, right next to the bottles of gin, are the poets' chapbooks, published by Keane's own 3300 Press.
"I want people to know that they can find their voices here. People are free to do their thing. They can even tap-dance if they want to," Keane says.
So how about it? Let's say we meet at the 33. I'll look for my tap shoes. You bring along your fantasy island poem. We can join the open mike or just listen.
The 3300 Club will hold four poetry nights in September, then take a break for October. The featured readers are Noe Valley poet Glen Chesnut (Sept. 8); actor Kevin Reilly, appearing as Dylan Thomas (Sept. 15); Mission District native Richard Beban (Sept. 22); and poet Jay Johnson (Sept. 29). All readings start at 7 p.m., and are followed by an open mike. Admission is free, and so are the snacks. For more information, call 826-6886.