Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: San Jose Poetry Slam Finds Its Dive Bar Soulmate

Writer, educator, performer and poet Joyce Lee (pictured) is one of a myriad talents to grace San Jose's monthly poetry slam with her presence
WORDS WITH FRIENDS: Writer, educator, performer and poet Joyce Lee (pictured) is one of a myriad talents to grace San Jose's monthly poetry slam with her presence. Photo by Rob Pesich

When poets have nowhere else to go, they wind up at the Caravan on San Fernando Street. This is not a figure of speech. Beginning at 7pm on June 9, the San Jose Poetry Slam, with a history of producing national award-winning performance poets, will relocate its monthly hoedown to San Jose's greatest dive bar, the glorious Caravan.

The recent past of the San Jose Poetry Slam is one of endless struggles to find a long-term home. The slam spent a few years migrating from nightclub to nightclub, just trying to get one slot a month, usually on an off night, but couldn't secure a long-term commitment from any one particular venue. A few years ago, the slam found what looked like a perfect spot—Monday nights once a month in the Pilsner Room behind Gordon Biersch. Then GB closed down, leaving the slam without a venue. Cafe Stritch then filled in the gap, allowing the slam to unfold on Sundays once a month. Then due to unforeseen circumstances, Stritch closed on Sundays, leaving the slam homeless yet again.

As a result, Caravan came to the rescue. Already a gritty bastion of punk and metal shows for years, and even more recently a popular joint for burlesque gigs and stand-up comedy, the bar will now add slam poetry to its repertoire of counterculture activity.

"It's not a huge place. It's not the fanciest-looking place we've been at, but I feel like it really fits us," says Scorpiana Xlent, the slam's official director and Slammaster.

Slam poetry differs from the literary type of poetry one might read in books or study in school. It's more performance-based. You won't see anyone in a turtleneck and sport coat lecturing about the Petrarchan sonnet or the Pyrrhic foot. (Although after five drinks at Caravan you might witness hyperbole, dramatic monologue or people prone to free-verse onomatopoeia.)

Some slam poetry overlaps with the material one finds at spoken-word open mike nights, where anyone jumps on stage and does whatever he or she wants, but slam events feature a random selection of judges who provide scores for each contestant. Felt pens in hand, the judges scribble down their verdicts and hold their signs in the air following each poet's performance. The winners are announced at the end of the night.

"A poetry slam is basically taking the spoken word you would do at an open mike and turning it into an Olympic sport," Scorpiana says.

Even better, the history of The Caravan verges on poetry itself. From 1959 to 1961, the bar operated inside the San Jose Greyhound Station, which occupied most of the block between South Almaden and South San Pedro, from Post Street almost all the way to San Fernando. During those first few years of Caravan's existence, its address was 58 S. Almaden Ave. Owned by Leo Chargin, the bar was one of a chain of Caravan Lounges doing business inside Greyhound depots up and down California. When Greyhound 86-ed the Caravan from the station, Chargin relocated the business down the street to its current location on the corner, which was previously a used car lot. Chargin bought the car lot property and built the free-standing structure that still exists today. Since 1962, the Caravan has operated at 98 S. Almaden Ave.

Over the years The Caravan has gone through a few ownership changes, and today the place is quite cleaned up from what it used to be, even as recently as 10 years ago. Old-timers will wax nostalgic about the red vinyl booths that once sat adjacent to the south wall, but in any case, it remains the definitive neighborhood bar that refuses to go away. As conniving real estate syndicates continue to colonize the neighborhood with tasteless tech bros and WeWork weenies, the Caravan seems immune to such nonsense. With decades of stories pouring out of the walls, it is a joint designed for itinerant wordsmiths of every sort. Any relationship between the Caravan and the San Jose Poetry Slam is long overdue.

"Slam poetry is raw, it's edgy, it's very rock & roll,' says Scorpiana. "And Caravan is raw and edgy and rock 'n' roll. It feels like the perfect space for us."