We used to meet in the Mission district at Cafe La Boheme every week. Clara and Dan simply rolled down a hill or two from their respective flats. Don and Carlos walked over from their separate digs in el barrio. And I traveled on the #49 to the Mission, or a combination of the #47 and #14.
"Come on," they said, "hang out with us." And so I did. I was the new kid but I quickly learned the ropes. Come early, pick a good table, drop your jacket and books in the wooden chairs, then order from the menu posted above the counter. Specialty sandwiches, Moroccan beef stew, corn chowder, spinach salad, midnight cake, baklava, Turkish coffee, cardamon iced tea, sangria, mimosa.
And always order the chicken soup first, before it runs out. No matter what your mood or situation that week, you felt better after consuming the chicken soup. Since Latte Da in San Leandro had closed, Cafe La Boheme in the Mission was the best place in the Bay area for poets in search of the Muse.
When we finished eating, the serious business began. Clara picked poems by Chinese poets and read them aloud in Mandarin. We then read to ourselves the official English translation which appeared alongside the poem. Because she knew both languages well, Clara would offer critical comment on the translation.
After she explained her vision of the poem, what the Chinese poet from another century might really be saying, we were charged with creating our own interpretation of what the poet meant. Industrious writing by hand with no computers at the table. Chess players occupied one large window nearby, newspaper readers sat in the other one. The silence was golden in its felicity and fecundity.
When we finished writing, everyone read around the table, and Clara offered encouragement with occasional praise. She particularly liked my interpretation of "Endless Yearning" by the poet Li Po. In fact she took my poem with her to show to friends living in Turkey, where she travels often.
At some point the inevitable happened. Gradually, too soon, we found employment. Most returned to teaching -- Carlos and Dan to public schools, then Don and I to nonprofit educational institutions. Clara continued to balance family responsibilities with managing a retail business near North Beach and hosting a popular spoken word event.
We still run into each other on public transit and at literary events. It may be unspoken but it is understood that Clara's poetic posse at Cafe La Boheme that year fed our souls at least as much as the chicken soup fed our bodies.
such words we spoke
memories of Chang-an
breathed into our skin, our flesh.
golden light bathed us through open curtains.
sounds of autumn chirped a warning
at our well of happiness.
Thank you, Clara.
My poem "Endless Longing (Li Po)" appears in the book WORD DANCING.
Causes Jeanne Powell Supports
Union of Concerned Scientists, VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against War), Doctors Without Borders, Waterkeeper Alliance, PSR (Physicians for Social Responsibility...