As part of my independent study for the summer, I am documenting my travels around San Francisco. I was not sure if I wanted to document this experience online or not. After some reflection, I think that this space is the best place to document my experiences while I'm in the city. Another portion of my study is devoted to ecotourism and the Redwood trees of Muir Woods. I will not have internet access in that space, but for now, as I sit in Vesuvio in San Francisco, drinking my Stella and typing away in the upstairs loft, I figure I might as well document my experiences online for all the world to see.
I'm a little behind. I'm also not traveling in any particular order. I might return to some places more than once. But to kick off my initial study of the Beat poets, I discovered that Diane di Prima, lady beat extraordinaire and San Francsico's Poet Laureate, was reading as part of the RADAR Reading series. RADAR is produced by Michelle Tea and places an emphasis on queer art. Below is my experiences before and after attending the reading on July 7th.
I have been in California for one week so far. The first week has been stressful while we tried to find an apartment in the city. Luckily our phones could sync up with Google Maps and our GPS and we got around this new landscape. San Francisco, like Pittsburgh, is a city of neighborhoods. However, unlike my steel city, San Francisco's neighborhoods and their inhabitants aren't put off by the lines drawn in the sand. Folks from the Mission travel into the Lower Haight. People from Russian Hill visit the Castro and I have been to many neighborhoods, making note of their distinct characteristics, while also noticing the broader characteristics of the general city. People enjoy eye contact here. There is an openness to the people of San Francisco that has had me startled. Intimidated. There is not focus on what seems proper or expected, but on what is reality. Sometimes I feel I have to hide parts of myself in Pittsburgh: my queerness, my godlessness, my liberal politics and my artistic thinking. Pittsburgh might be fine with these things, but I'm not sure. It's like Pittsburgh is my mother. I'm not ready to be that person in front of Pittsburgh just yet. But in San Francisco, I can be whoever I want. And truly, no one cares.
By "no one cares" I mean, if I wanted to leave the house wearing a hot pink tutu and a tank top that reads "I like to kiss girls (and boys too)" no one would care. I can openly give affection to my current partner and know that while I might get some attention, but more likely the beautiful drag queen at the other end of the bar is getting more attention than me. And this is not meaning to sound stereotypical. There are plenty of just "regular" mainstream people here. Although I do find myself longing to either cut my hair, pierce my nose or tattoo something on my wrists.
After our apartment hunting excursion, we found the loveliest place in San Francisco, situated in a quiet off-street in the Lower Haight. The online maps were such a success, I've begun to create a map for all my excursions around the various parts of the city for my Beat Poetry studies. While doing research for my map, I was referred by a friend to the RADAR Reading series. Once I checked out their website I realized that the beat writer and poet Diane di Prima was reading at the main library branch in the city. Since we had yet to move from Mountain View, I decided to face my fear of public transportation and take the CalTrain toward the city, with a quick switch onto the BART system that took me directly to the library branch holding the reading. I got there so early I had time to get some dinner, sign up for a library card and check out the poetry section. I breathed a sign of relief to realize it was quiet extensive and that I would not have buy too many additional books for my study.
I went downtstairs for the reading about 10 minutes before it was set to begin. There were only three people there and they seemed to be the folks that organized the reading. I left, got a bottled water, used the bathroom and by the time I returned the seats were filling up. I quickly snagged a front seat and did not move from it the entire reading.
RADAR Reading Series featured Diane di Prima, Tony Tulathimutte, Mica Sigourney and Ryka Aoki, their first winner of the Eli Coppola Poetry Chapbook Prize. Diane read last. All of the readers were pretty incredible. The first thing I noticed about this reading was how prepared all of the readers were to do their writing justice through performance. Perhaps this is part of the beat movement rubbing off on them. Perhaps it seeps into the writers and poets in the air.
The first poet, Mica Sigourney, was irreverant, funny, sweet and overly-concerned with the volume of his speaking. His work was like little portraits of "a day in the life of a gay man" and later described his work as such. He said (and I paraphrase) that he steals his work from his friends and the things they say. He just wants to document the cool and funny and fun things he and his friends say and do. Document what it's like to be a gay man in San Francisco. A number of his poems were named "Faggot" and it almost became a running gag. His poems were narrative and surreal and funny and grand and specific. I enjoyed them.
Tony Tulathimutte, a fiction writer, read a selection from his novel. Tulathimutte will be attending the Iowa Writer's Workshop in the fall on the Truman Capote Fellowship. Bastard. He's really talented. His work was amazingly detailed and really peaked into the mind of a character who was so cut off from the human experience, so throughly obsessed with organizing and documenting his porn collection, yet somehow we had the greatest sympathy for him. Because this character had somehow taken sex and followed it around through pornography and digital re-imaging and back around again to real human experience. Fantastic.
Ryka Aoki was my favorite of the new-to-me writers at this reading. Her work was just SO honest and real and straightforward, yet also mired with familiar religious imagery and often taken to surreal landscapes in the sky, in the mind, in the emotions, in the voice, in the transitory places, in between things. Her honesty about being a trans-person and being an abuse survivor was so compelling. She managed to balance being overly confessional with just being real. There was no exhibitionism, it was just personal experience that was somehow made universal and mystical and wonderful.
To the final reader, I cannot do justice to her presence. Diane di Prima got up wearing a simply black cotton shirt that was falling off her shoulder, revealing the fact that she was braless at 72-years-old. She began her reading with a few songs she wrote earlier that day and some anecdotes about her husband, who's back had been thrown out and he was at home, lying on the floor. She sang in a voice that was gravely and too low for her vocal range. But it didn't matter. We were at story time. The room was packed, standing room only in the back, and people egged her on to read more and more. She decided to read primarily from her yet-to-be-published memoir about her life as an artist in San Francisco. Her first memoir, Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years, I have yet to read, but if it was anything like the selections she read from tonight, I cannot wait to pick up a copy. Her stories were funny, part how-to guide for artists, part grandmother telling you her life story, you could not stop listening. She only read for a few moments, but the story she told us was more than enough from which to glean inspiration about how to truly live a rebellious artists life.
Afterward, I cannot say how I felt, except that the room was bursting with intellectual questions for the Q&A session, bursting with personality, humility, hospitality and creativity. The audience was comprised of a fascinating mix of people that, were I to describe them, I would fail miserably by placing them into strange stereotypes of modern beatniks and hipster-queers and hippie-lovelies. I will say they were diverse and warm and I felt very comfortable in this space.
If this reading is any indication of what the current poetry scene is like in San Francisco, I cannot wait to get out there and attend another reading. This really set the bar high for me.