The daily demands and tides sometimes make me forget that there is a vast, unexplored territory inside our collective hearts and imaginations, and people are posting these every day: little jewels hung on the web for us to find.
The daily demands and tides sometimes make me forget that there is a vast, unexplored territory inside our collective hearts and imaginations, and people are posting these every day: little jewels hung on the web for us to find.
Founded by Gravity Goldberg and Eric Zassenhaus in 2004, Instant City is a biannual journal that publishes fiction, non-fiction and art about San Francisco. Instant City 7, published in spring 2010, is a departure from the journal’s usual theme-based collections. For this one, the editors decided to let those mysterious muses that whisper into pens and keyboarding fingers dictate the theme. What were those muses whispering about? Naughty, cheap, objectionable, crass, misguided, desperate, hilarious, absurd, delinquent, questionable, base, wicked and in short, completely riveting bad behavior.
For those readers who live or have lived in San Francisco, there is something unspeakably satisfying about knowing the places where these stories take place. If you thought you were the only person who recognized the 38 Geary bus as a confrontation magnet—you’re wrong. Or maybe your experience picks up where someone else’s leaves off, as in Lincoln Mitchell’s story “Waiting for the 43,” where the narrator imagines the bus disappearing to exotic places named Prague and Geneva, after it leaves the Haight. Even if you have lived in San Francisco for many years, (or are one of its seven natives) you will never know the city the same way another person knows it. The idea that your stomping grounds also belong intimately and emotionally to someone else is an uncanny sensation, akin to fitting together the pieces of a metaphysical jigsaw puzzle, or maybe just to shopping at Out of the Closet. And for those who don’t live in San Francisco, the place names and specifics won’t matter, but the parallel experiences will. Stories, particularly those about people doing what they are not supposed to do, are as universally compelling as playing ding-dong ditch or making prank calls.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Instant City 7 is the nature of the bad behavior people are writing about. It’s strange to see, quite clearly, the imprint of economic fallout and its accompanying stifling of a sense of well-being almost unilaterally across these stories: a former convict working as a drug counselor is now being blackmailed for an amount of money he can only obtain illegally; the forced happiness of dirt-streaked, stumbling and sloppy recreational drug-taking; trying (and failing) to be slutty on craigslist; the ugly truth of waking up in a post web-designer, post job, job market.
San Francisco’s misbehavior of 2010 is not the glamorous, rock n’ roll to-hell-with-it bohemianism of the 60’s and 70’s, nor the cocaine and cash driven Top-Gun mentality of the 80’s, and definitely not a 90’s parachute-panted, can’t-touch-this, SUV-infested, bling-driven impropriety . We’re even past the air-brushed and trout-pouted shenanigans of the early 2000’s. San Francisco of the moment seems to be a little dazed, a little tentative: less into escapism and more about survival, which makes sense when Burning Man has become a tourist attraction, or when a life and death near miss might be as simple as accidentally stumbling into a drug deal, or when a sack with a live duck in it seemed like a bright idea until the reality of the knife enters the equation. It seems from these stories, that San Franciscans are feeling an undercurrent of solemnity and exhaustion, like people posting wanted posters on telephone poles that say, REWARD: LOST FUN. Last seen so long ago we’re not sure of what it looked like.
Still, even with the more shell-shocked nature of these stories of folly, this is still San Francisco: the Barbary Coast, Baghdad by the Bay, the City that Knows How. It’s the place where the best role-model you ever had could best be described as “Rosie Greer meets RuPaul,” and where “the sidewalks sometimes sparkle.”
Want another take on Instant City 7? SF Literary Culture Examiner Evan Karp’s got VIDEO.
Contributors: Robert Arnold, David Becker, August Bleed, Charlie Callahan, Scott Carroll, MK Chavez, Joshua Citrak, Sherilyn Connelly, Amanda Davidson, Sonya Derman, Dylan Dockstader, Andrew O. Dugas, Cathy Fairbanks, Kimia Ferdowski, Rona Fernandez, Casey FizSimons, Philip Franklin, Cody Frost, David Fullarton, Charles Gatewood, Peter Hermann, Beau Knight, Kyle Knobel, R.J. Martin, Rob McLaughlin, Christopher McLean, Cynthia Mitchell, Lincoln Mitchell, Alex Nowik, David Plumb, Aaron Rodriguez, Mary Taugher, Kevin Thomson, Stephanie Vernier, Atom Wong and Chris West.
Anchored in the wrenching history of the native Chamorro people, [saina] is a book about the plastic, ever-shifting nature of recorded history and identity. Perez composes this story by incorporating what has previously been unincorporated: the amalgamated, bypassed, excluded, adapted, redacted voices that make up the personal and political memory of the island of Guam.
Saina is the word in Chamorro for parents, elders, spirits, ancestors, and [saina] the book, begins as a divided, fragmented text built out of four languages (English, Spanish, Japanese and Chamorro)which quote the voices of family members, military decrees, tourist brochures, records of official transfer, creation stories, government exercises of eminent domain, and reports on the contemporary physical and emotional state of the Chamorro people and their lands. Perez takes these seemingly disconnected, disembodied voices and gives them a conjoined body, a paper skin they must inhabit together:
“territory ceded to united states in accordance with treaty of
peace between the united states and spain signed paris 12/10/1898
proclaimed 4/11/1899 known as island of guam in marianas
islands shall continue to be known as guam
during typhoon season she would tell us the story of i guihan dangkolo:
in days of
our before time
in days when chaifi…
not yet come…
“i don’t remember who told me that story ilek-ña
maybe my mom your great grandma
“so many typhoons
pakyo pakyo pakyo every year she sighs
‘guam is hereby declared to be an unin corp orated territory of the united states’
from typhon ‘whirlwind’ ‘father of the winds’
from tufan ‘big cyclonic storm‘”
Perez has a power of vision in this book that is breathtaking to experience. If a native culture has been unincorporated, if Catholicism has grafted itself into its creation histories, if various powers have made of it alternately a disputed occupied territory, a military base, a fetish tourism destination, and most of its native population was forced to leave long ago, if all that is left are pieces of pieces– what can hold together what has no corpus, no body?
where no last detail
with so many
customs to recover
the whole house
assumes a posture
of prayer until
becomes what holds it”
An answer takes place within the poetry itself: the breath, the rhythms shift, and a kind of transubstantiation occurs. The voices on the page are no longer colliding, running in parallel streams, speaking over one another, but form a continuous, inhabited, resonant energy, a song-like beam that illuminates the power of story as a regenerative power:
“…somewhere beginnings persist that were never simply given never simply taken
maybe this is more than lost cargo maybe this
is only where light comes to breathe from afar no exact location
disclosed because no breath ends
is it true that you can live with thirst
and still die from drowing only to have words
become as material as our needs
i want to ask you it it still possible to hear our paper skin opening [we]
carry our stories overseas to the place called ‘voice’
to know our allowance of water”
It is impossible to read [saina] and not feel moved by Perez’s capacity to take pain and truths that should be embittering, even crippling, and fashion light out of them. As Perez puts it, “we belong to more than a map of remote scars.“
The Takeaway Bin
by Toni Mirosevich
(55 pages/Spuyten Duyvil/ New York City 2010)
Any archaeologist will tell you that you learn the most about a culture by what it throws away. In her new book of poetry, The Takeaway Bin, Toni Mirosevich takes the odds and ends of our post-analog language and sends them through a mystical generator inspired by Oblique Strategies, a dilemma-based game invented by Peter Schmidt and Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno (aka Brian Eno, godfather of ambient music.)
Writerly gamesmanship, in the hands of a lesser poet, might alienate the reader- offering a wink and an ironic jab to the hopes with which many readers approach poetry: to be compelled, surprised, expanded in some way. But Mirosevich is more than worthy of the task: handed a dilemma, she neither plunges her head into the sand, offering up easy but empty salvos, nor takes the academic chicken-exit, barricading herself behind impenetrable and inaccessible word-play. What Mirosevich does is demonstrate that there is a sweet spot in poetry where wit, defiance, warmth and irreverence embrace:
“No one told the bird dogs. Their eagle eyes spot the morning dove and they start up. The neighbor yells “noise pollution!”and before you can say Jiminy Cricket someone else joins to pollute the argument. “You’re polluted,” she said to her hubby when he returned from the bar with six pints in him. She’d been fuming in silence on the couch, waiting for the big shebang which never came. The neighbor calls for her orange tabby, Fluffy, Fluffy,and when that doesn’t work, screams Fluffy, you prick! and the holy night is broken.”
But Mirosevich isn’t just playing just for play’s sake: beneath the wit, beneath the snappy turns of sentence, arch reversals, and tumbling teases, the rumble of deeper workings can be felt. The Takeaway Bin arises out of an ultramodern language aftermath: the fragments and shards of language we are currently left with in an age of verbal foreshortening, where Photoshop has imploded the failsafe idea that “seeing is believing,” and Wikipedia has shifted the idea of fact into the realm of a constantly updating consortium. This melee of reference points is the Takeaway Bin’s fuel, and the profound plasticity of modern reality is the engine Mirosevich harnesses:
“Even though it would be nice… to go buck naked into the world… there are veils and shadows and shadow puppets in the firelight glow, someone’s hands all over the strings, ghosts who manipulate… the past is clearly no longer of use… yet what is no longer serviceable clearly persists, like a cough, or a mangle.”
Mirosevich has a bat-girl-worthy toolbelt, hung with sing-song sayings, back-woods phraseology, drunk-uncle slurrings, pop-lyric retorts, nautical arabesques, down-home cliches and uber-intellectual tongue-twisters: each of which she snaps, skins, and tosses into Eno & Schmidt’s machine, which is really a helmet the poet dons in order to unthink the norm.
“…somehow a slight infraction became an infarction, we turned one cheek, then the other, and soon we were spinning, face forward, then butt ugly. It’s a vertiginous life,said the prophet, a guy who’d lost his footing more than once. Before we could stand upright someone stepped on our knuckles, shove came to shove, and we went ape over the debate, creationism versus crustaceanism. You say you want an evolution, well, we all want to change the world. “He was a cretin,” Eve, said, after her first date with destiny, “a fumbler, a stumble bum.”
What comes out is heartfelt nose-thumbing. Flippant and sincere, showboating and shadowboxing, sincerity and shrugs: Mirosevich is sifting through the rubble and word-noise of language and cultural legacy and coming back with a hollaback that though all thought seem pre-thunk, though all feelings used, all insights, conclusions and hopes at times seemingly mass-produced, all words only rearrangements of the same few letters, and therefore all meaning seemingly mere rearrangements of the same few words– the key is in remembering who is steering this juggernaut:
“Question what is handed down, deconstruct, then sand it down… Toss aside the roof, the joists, the rafters… Sweep the darkened closet clean: of moon boots, bow ties, leisure wear… all garb in which you cannot move.”
At the heart of The Takeaway Bin is a twinned idea: that reclamation and invention are not opposites, but parts of the same process, that all that distinguishes junk from jewels is the process of seeing anew.
In 1980, eight years before the beloved, and now defunct-in-print Onion, was founded, Paul Fericano and Elio Ligi co-created Yossarian Universal News Service, a parody news site devoted to mussing Ronald Reagan’s carefully coifed politics, perpetrating literary hoaxes Charles Bukowski himself described as “ass boggling,” and refusing to recognize the emperor’s new clothes.
As if running end-patterns around political galumphers, windbags and wormtongues were not enough, Fericano also brought down Barabarella‘s ire by writing a satiric poem that touched a nerve in the California senate during the comparatively literate, pre-governator years. Fericano even took on the literati themselves, or those who purport to judge them, by inventing his own poetry prize, The Howitzer. In a twist of fate only Vonnegut himself could have penned, this award is currently listed among Fericano’s credits on the Poets & Writers website, the very venue he dreamed up the fake prize to hornswoggle.
In addition to Fericano’s tricksterish bent toward lampoon, he is also a poet with a deep appreciation for the work of other poets. Every year, hundreds of books, anthologies, journals, zines and blogs publish remarkable poetry that, because of the small marketing budgets of micropresses or narrow circulation, reach only a limited audience. Unwilling to see notable poems disappear so quickly from view, Fericano edits and publishes The Broadsider, an annual, limited collection of author-signed broadsides.
Volumes 1 and 2 of The Broadsider include some well-established names– Diane di Prima, Ted Kooser, Billy Collins, Robert Bly, and Wanda Coleman– along with emerging poets like Sara Larsen, Debbie Yee, Tom Stolmar, Angelica Jochim and leah angstman. Thematically, the work selected favors the meditative and pastoral. The following lines are representative:
“the sky’s summer lustre”
“the night wind hard in the open doorway of a boxcar”
“the orange half-light that comes between the evening and the day”
“that blue of certain hydrangeas”
“young men with light in their faces”
Though there are slightly toothier moments:
“Crone broth, swam broth, whatever doesn’t kill you”
“a sawed-off sinatra is a dangerous weapon at close range”
“you move the joystick in the direction of the spin”
“holy enor saxophone filling empty beercans with voodoo”
“crisp starches sagebrush narcs crawling campuses”
the poetry of melody forms the bulk of the collection, with few edgier or riskier offerings to pose a counter-note. Traditional free verse is also the rule in the 2009 and 2010 issues: maybe the 2011 volume will branch out to the thriving community of poets out there working in other modes.
The Broadsider is a unique offering: it rescues, distills, and redistributes. It is also a deeply personal gesture from both the editors and the poets involved. Unlike a mass-produced anthology (or the mass-produced thoughts Fericano elsewhere satirizes), it is an intimate, interactive collection created specifically for the pleasure of the reader.
by Joshua Marie Wilkinson
Polaroids by Tim Rutili
(103 pages/Sidebrow Books, San Francisco 2010)
If you have ever listened late at night to the sound of a river murmuring over rocks, or been somewhere very remote and heard wind moving through pines, you know the uncanny feeling that you are hearing a language that remains just at the periphery of sense. If that restless murmuring were translated into words and images, it would be Selenography, a new book by Joshua Marie Wilkinson, with Polaroids by Tim Rutili.
Selenography has a tidal energy comparable to those natural forces that only exist when in a state of motion: river, wind, coriolis. Ideas bloom out of spare lines that somehow contain more reverberations of meaning than seem possible in so few words. In a sense, these poems contain embedded information in the same way haiku do, except that Wilkinson’s poems don’t hold still with that self-contained, restrained delicacy, but detonate on the page:
“a curse has
all the ingredients
to be legendary if its
on their forearms for drawings
of what the curse
itself might do
nobody visits the sewn-up hole
in the ceiling with flashlights”
Tim Rutili, a musician and filmmaker, creates an almost backroads-film-noir harmonic with thumb-printed, fuzzed-out, Polaroid images that hone-in on emotion via their fugue-like haze. Unlike pictures we usually take– to document places or events in a way that is instantly recognizable to others– Rutili’s photos capture the fragments of consciousness that actually make up real experience: red party balloons in someone’s shabby living room, rearing white, plastic horses at what appears to be a truck stop, a dog behind a chain link fence in front of an abandoned church. Rutili is documenting mood, indicating the commonality of spontaneous glimpses of meaning, of how objects and places seem inhabited by a mystical quality that comes and goes at will:
“there is no love without
strangers in the street
with their murmuring
a knock at the
a chalk line to cross says the boy
with the trapdoor in his eye”
Together, Wilkinson’s verse and Rutili’s images offer a kind of portal into a landscape most of us only experience in dreams, where language is effortlessly made of light and dirt and focus and movement and feeling, and the only limits are how deep you are willing to go.
It’s difficult for me to over-emphasize the profound effect of this scene on how I experience the world, and any creative work I have ever done or ever will do.
By Heart is a new collaborative memoir by Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson. Tannenbaum is a poet and educator who has taught poetry in schools since the 1970’s and has been involved in teaching poetry in prisons since the 1980’s. Spoon Jackson is a poet serving a life sentence. The two met at San Quentin State Prison and formed the friendship that led to the writing of this book.
Through alternating chapters written by Jackson and Tannenbaum, the life stories of both emerge. Tannenbaum grew up in Los Angeles in an extended Jewish family where storytelling was an inherent family gestalt: her father’s “Bob and Emma” stories, fictionalized accounts of his own childhood, her Aunty Riva’s stories of “escaping Russia just after the revolution, tutoring the niece and nephew of the grand duke of Finland”, and transforming herself from “Riva Velinsky into Vera Villard” in order to “teach French to Beverly Hills matrons.” As a child, the precocious, highly sensitive Tannenbaum learned to tell herself stories as a way of harnessing her wild, imaginative energy. Through volunteering in her daughter’s kindergarten class as a young mother, Tannenbaum was lead toward teaching poetry as a way of “reflecting to others their own joy, beauty, curiosity, excitement and humor.”
Jackson was raised in Barstow, a California town at the edge of the Mojave Desert, one of 14 siblings, all boys. From an early age, he was deeply connected to the natural environment, and spent a great deal of time exploring the dry riverbed behind the “two-room, cement shack” where his family lived. “When I lay on the bridge, and a train ran across, I felt its power like a herd of elephants or bison stampeding across the sky.” “I had a secret spot beside the river, and sometimes I would whistle and semi-wild dogs would come running from all directions.” “Life seemed to go on forever.” Spoon’s childhood experiences with educators, unfortunately, were not positive: he seemed to be singled-out early on as a target of corporal punishment, and was beaten at home. “My hopes, my dreams, my desires—the whole world, everything around me—seemed violent: society, school, church, the pigeons, chickens, hogs, and dogs we raised at home.” “My father moved to California due to the racial violence of the time. My father hit my mom and they both hit me. I fought at school, fought with my brothers….the teachers gave beatings. My brother Jerry went off to war in Vietnam.”
If you are worried that this book is going to play out as “white woman saves black man” guilt-assuaging fantasy-rhetoric, do not worry. By Heart is not that kind of book. Spoon Jackson had already begun “diving deep” into self-reflection during the eight years he was in prison before his first poetry class with Tannenbaum. He had enrolled in high school and college courses. He took advantage of long weekends locked-down to read “books I never knew I could grasp.” He had already come to a spiritual crisis about his situation: “Silence, books, and letters showed me my path and kept me growing. Why did I have to kill someone? I nearly went mad trying to fix what I had broken. How could I make peace?” Jackson’s meeting with Tannenbaum is not about one person saving another, it is about two artist’s influence on one another’s work and lives.
If it seems difficult to let go of the idea that a person in prison is there to be punished, and seems like a turn-off to read a book that paints any prisoner in a positive light, consider this: like Art, and Love, the word Justice is an cultural cipher, an encryption or code that stands for a complex set of ambiguous, often emotion-laden meanings. A cipher itself has no meaning, it is a shorthand. It is all assumption and connotation. Justice, like Art and Love, must be de-ciphered in order to be understood. One way to start is to ask questions. Does the United States really have 2.5 million people who should be locked up and forgotten? Is it really appropriate (and a reflection of justice) that one in 100 people in the U.S. are in prison, or that the U.S. has the largest imprisoned population in the world? If we give up and ignore a problem, does it go away? Does it solve itself? Once a person is locked up, do we give up on them?
By Heart is a book that offers two people’s perspectives on de-ciphering Art, Love, and also Justice. As Tannenbaum puts it, “I pray to hold in my hands the paradoxical whole.” As Jackson puts it, “I am not happy, nor will I ever be happy, in prison… I will be released… one day, by a beautiful real life or by a beautiful real death. In either case I have found my niche in life which is something not even death can take away.”
By Heart is not selling anything. It is not a veiled attempt to push a political cause. But it cannot and should not avoid the inherently knotty questions of power and punishment, without which this story never would have happened. As a colleague of Tannenbaum’s put it, “The men that I work with have done horrible things. But in their work with me they are funny, bright, creative human beings who often make beautiful art. I can’t reconcile these facts. All I can do is hold them in my two hands.” Like all good books, By Heart disrupts our assumptions, causes us to question our preconceptions, and reminds us of a commonly held humanity that is always the subject of Art, the engine of Love and should be the only authority of Justice.
Please read the review at Litseen
Pacific poets Brandy Nālani McDougall and Craig Santos Perez have teamed up with the producer team of Hawaii Dub Machine to create an album of recorded poetry from their respective collections: The Salt-Wind, Ka Makani Pa‘akai (McDougall), and from unincorporated territory [hacha] and [saina] (2010, Perez). Recorded using only the poets’ voices and some creative reverb, distortion, and layering, and often offering dubs and remixes of some pieces, the album creates a range of effects, from the minimalism of a straight reading to ornate superimpositions of voices over voices and lines over lines.
Undercurrent’s themes focus on Native Pacific Island culture, as well as its historical and ongoing collision with the attitudes of the colonizer, from the brutal militarism of eminent domain—which overtly claims and subjugates—to the insidious branding of local traditions by tourism and the fetishization of culture by anthropologists who don’t recognize the inherent absurdity of questions like, “Do you now, or have you ever practiced human sacrifice, and/or eaten your enemies, or your friends/family?”
Though McDougall and Perez are most passionate and powerful as readers of their thornier works, there is also un-ironic and unselfconscious sweetness in tracks like “He Mele Aloha,” where myth and story and poets and listener are bound inextricably into a timeless now, and then cast forward, so that it becomes clear why poems are the bodies our stories choose to inhabit.
Like any good album, Undercurrent also contains the catchy track destined to become an earworm: in this case, “Spamification, [Hot & Spicy Remix]” will be difficult to shake, along with the tongue-in-cheek revelation that SPAM might, in fact, stand for Some People Are Missing.
Final word: Billed as amplified poetry, Undercurrent is a great companion to the authors’ respective books, but the remix idea could have been pushed even further. Consider it ripe for collaboration, ready for some of you poetry-loving, dub-step sorcerers to drop in some wobbles, breaks, and beats.
By Brandy Nālani McDougall and Craig Santos Perez
Produced by Richard Hamasaki and H. Doug Matsuoka