I Didn’t Even Know I Was There— Spoken Word Memories

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“Nothing stays on the margin forever, nothing stays in the middle forever either.” — Justin Chin

“It’s always been my belief that every generation has to take responsibility for itself-documenting its own interests and experiences.”  — Jennifer Joseph

I didn’t know it was a scene, or that I was part of it, whatever that spoken word thing was that happened here from about 1996 to 2001. That it would be legendary in a way and forgotten in another, a shining bright moment in San Francisco’s literary history.

I came in late for what was happening but too early for whatever was coming next. I was new in San Francisco, living in my car above the Castro, twenty-six, broke, and nowhere to go back to. I did what I always did in a new town during the years I spent criss-crossing the country: I went to an open mic. I wanted to say something and I wanted to hear something and I wanted to meet new people. And I did.

I met Daphne Gottlieb first at the Cafe Du Nord poetry slam and we had something resembling violent sex down the street in the bathroom stall of the Lucky 13. She sat on the toilet looking down on me as I lay on the floor, touching her boot.

“Usually,” she said. “I’m a lesbian.”

I saw Beth Lisick do her thing on Folsom, reading from memory, stalking the room like a long-limbed spider. She opened for Lydia Lunch at the Transmission Theater on 11th Street. It made sense, the link between what we were doing and the people we grew up listening to: Lydia, Exene Cervenka, Jello Biafra, Henry Rollins. Everything we were doing was an extension of the punk rock movement splashed with Beatnik paint. Cervenka even wrote the intro to Bambi’s book, The Unsinkable Bambi Lake. Bambi was intermittently homeless, turning tricks in the Tenderloin, a spoken word genius on steady decline. She’d been around longer than most of us, a fixture of the SF scene from the seventies, but I didn’t think about that. And anyway the links to 70s rock were fading fast, the new slam poetry was moving closer to hip-hop.

When I got the courage to say hi to Beth, it was at the Tip Top. I asked her if she would come listen to me in the other room where the open mic was happening. I was somewhere in the middle of the order and she was at the bar having a drink with Tarin Towers. I read a poem about erasing my boss’s voice mails and stealing a stapler. I think she said it was good.

Bucky Sinister was out of control back then and Michelle Tea was chopping lines, starting Sister Spit, and about to break out with Valencia, a classic coming-of-age novel/memoir set in San Francisco’s Mission District, filled with manic, window-breaking prose.

We didn’t hang out together. Instead we met at the various bars that sponsored these events, mostly quiet places South of Market or dark taverns near the courthouse with a small room in the back. We were like kids heading to the playground, checking to see who was around. Our readings were listed in the Bay Guardian at the bottom of the performance page with the almost sad disclaimer: There are literary events in San Francisco just about every night of the week.

The last great series of the time was hosted by Jennifer Joseph, at the Paradise Lounge. There were two featured readers followed by an open mic. She also ran Manic D Press and wrote the indie book column for theGuardian. There were no celebrities at the Sunday readings at the Paradise. Not really. But there were people like Dominique Lowell, Sparrow 13, Marci Blackman, David West, and Jon Longhi as well as David Lerner, Julia Vinograd, David Gollub. The reading offered everything, a community, an audition for one of the feature spots, and a chance to be discovered and published by Manic D. Beth Lisick would become a best selling author with HarperCollins, but not until after publishing Monkey Girl and This Too Can Be Yours with Manic D. Tarin Towers published one of the greatest books of poetry I’ve ever read,Sorry, We’re Close, also from Manic D. “I got a pulse,” she said one night at The Uptown, “I got a problem.”

“Larry Weaver was the bookkeeper for the Paradise Lounge,” Jennifer wrote me. “He sat at the bar every Sunday night for 13 years – he just loved the poetry and the poets. He was our angel and the only reason the readings were allowed to go on for so many years. God bless his soul, he died of cancer just a few months before Robin Reichert shut down the business.”

We were all desperate to publish but we weren’t connected. We didn’t know how that kind of thing worked. We were slam poets, open mic literati with stapled chapbooks laid out and cut into squares at Kinko’s on Market. I came out with a slim novel from Boneyard Press. They misspelled my name on every other page. I followed that with another one from MacAdam/Cage. Daphne debuted with Pelt from Odd Girls Press and followed with Why Things Burn. Justin Chin put out something brilliant almost every year, most recently Gutted, by Manic D, which is still publishing great books.

I don’t know when it ended exactly. Nobody had an MFA, though some of us would get one later, and continue on to teach creative writing at the area colleges. In 2001, the last year of the Paradise reading, I got a fellowship to Stanford’s creative writing program, officially entering the mainstream. But there were nights I’d be reading with Bucky Sinister, Daphne Gottlieb, Michelle Tea, Tarin Towers. Justin Chin would be featuring and I had no idea how special that was.

“The readings were our workshops,” Bucky said. “We were reading things that would one day be books. Completely outside of academia we developed our voices. That’s what makes it so magical in my memory.”

Eventually we would all be connected. Our books would fetch whatever they were supposed to on the fair market, which doesn’t mean we would make a living with our writing, or stop publishing with small presses, but that we had other options and when we published with a smaller press it was because that was the right place for that book to be, not because we didn’t know anybody with an agent.

Most of the people from that scene are still around. A lot of us are clean and sober because the drugs took their toll and crystal meth is only good for so many poems before your veins start to itch and you can’t string together a decent sentence anymore. Too much crank and you stop trying to make sense of the world, which is what a lot of our writing was about.

Since then a few of us have gone mad. Broken, walking indictments of literature’s failure to heal. Poetry’s no defense against biology, family histories filled with depression and mental illness. I heard of Bambi Lake standing in the middle of South Van Ness screaming at the top of her lungs, “Money! Money! Money!”

I was thinking of all this when I drove my Carshare into the Safeway parking lot and Bucky’s new CD, What Happens In Narnia, Stays In Narnia, came on the college radio station. Bucky’s been sober for years now but he’s a preacher’s son and he was as eloquent on the radio as he ever was at The Chameleon, the Mission’s long-closed poetry Mecca. He talked about being poor in San Francisco, because he was still poor and holding on anyway, like so many of us have thanks to rent control and reaching a point in life where you no longer want to start over so you make the necessary sacrifices to stay where you are, which sometimes results in finishing what you started.

Bucky spoke about the over-priced health food at Cafe Gratitude near his house, where you have to order dishes by name like “I Love Myself Today.” And Bucky suggested a new dish called “You Took All My Money And I’m Still Hungry.”

I sat in the parking lot for half an hour and it came to me. I was part of this group. Somehow I thought I was part of some other group. Our dreams seem small in retrospect but they were big at the time. We wanted to be featured readers at the Paradise Lounge, or win ten dollars at the Cafe Du Nord slam. We wanted to publish books, paperback originals that we could sell by hand.

But what a glorious explosion of literary art that was! Have you readValencia? Or Why Things Burn? Or Bite Hard? Have you heard Beth reading over a three-piece band in her first CD The Beth Lisick Ordeal? You should. America deserves a second book by Tarin Towers. All those self-published manifestos we put up for sale in the special room at City Lights, returning every month or two to collect our six dollars. We thought we would be discovered, that someone would come along and help us out. We were DIY, below the radar. But the work survives, as do many of the people that created it, still putting art in the world. We were maintained by our early audiences, which was primarily each other. A collection of work published by the open mic readers in San Francisco at that point in time would shine in any library, a shelf full of urban classics.

I don’t know what happened next. That is, we all got older. The Paradise closed. The poetry slams were taken over by real performers, many of who wrote beautifully, but non-actors couldn’t compete with just words. The bubble burst in 2000 and the stupid money those companies were willing to pay creatives who had no interest in their survival went with them. The new tech boom is savvier. The rents have risen way past what a young artist with an attitude and no college degree is able to pay. A lot of the people that made that vibrant but unknown literary scene of the mid and late nineties actually arrived in the city earlier, when it was still possible. Of course there are still great young writers coming into San Francisco, but the circumstances are different. Without a safety net it’s a longer fall.

I wish I had known, but I don’t know what I would have done with the knowledge. Perhaps just to revel in it. We were desperate and lonely, seeking out a spotlight bigger than a table lamp, hungry for something worthy of our anger and affection, the incredible generosity of our emotions. I don’t know if any of us had enough of a sense of what was going on to stand in the middle of that ray of sun that was actually a dark bar reeking of beer, and thank God we were there.


Stephen Elliott is the author of seven books, including the memoir The Adderall Diaries and the novel Happy Baby. He is the founder of The Rumpus. His feature film debut, About Cherry, was distributed by IFC. More from this author →