Instant City: a literary exploration of San Francisco, Issue 7

Instant City: a literary exploration of San Francisco, Issue 7

Instant City 7
Editor: Gravity Goldberg
(107 pages/Instant City, San Francisco)

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.

The Broadsider: an annual magazine of rescued poems, edited by Paul Fericano

The Broadsider: an annual magazine of rescued poems, edited by Paul Fericano

The Broadsider: an annual magazine of rescued poems, edited by Paul Fericano

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.

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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.

2009: The Broadsider, Volume 1, Series 1-30.

2010: The Broadsider, Volume 2, Series 1-17.

American Tensions, edited by William Reichard

American Tensions, edited by William Reichard

American Tensions: Literature of Social JusticeAmerican Tensions: Literature of Social Justice by William Reichard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

American Tensions, edited by William Reichard

In his 1782 “Letters from an American Farmer,” Jean de Crevcoeur, a French-American writer who immigrated in 1755, wrote that, “[in America] individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”

The seductive simplicity of this idea caught on. Other writers latched onto the vision of American identity as the result of a great melting pot. In 1875, Titus Munson Coan wrote:

“The fusing process goes on as in a blast-furnace; one generation, a single year even– transforms the English, the German, the Irish emigrant into an American. Uniform institutions, ideas, language, the influence of the majority, bring us soon to a similar complexion; the individuality of the immigrant, almost even his traits of race and religion, fuse down in the democratic alembic like chips of brass thrown into the melting pot.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson called it a “smelting pot”, while Henry James saw it as a, “vast hot pot.” Israel Zangwill, who popularized the idea of the melting pot in his 1908 play of the same name, projected that America would be an increasingly homogeneous society bound together by its national identity.

American Tensions: Literature of Identity and the Search for Social Justice, is an anthology of fiction, essays, and poetry written in the last three decades that directly challenge this ideal. Editor William Reichard built the anthology around the idea of tensegrity, an architectural term coined by R. Buckminster Fuller to describe a kind of structural stability created by a balance of tensions. Through this analogy, American identity is the result, not of a trajectory toward sameness, but of the fragile, yet flexible cohesion created by, “isolated components in compression inside a net of continuous tension.”

If the experiment of “God’s Crucible,” had gone as planned, 21st century American literature should reflect those earlier writers’ projections of a uniformly-complexioned, homogenous national identity. Instead, the perspectives in American Tensions say otherwise:
“I think perhaps my identity, our place in time, the muddy river of reality, all this is bundled in shadow.” (Louise Erdrich)

”We were
afraid, and like a pack of hungry
dogs, we marked
each other – safety pins and blood,
scratched things like best friends
forever then vomited
bile into the mud.” (Nickole Brown)

“As the gods in olden stories
turned mortals into laurel trees and crows
to teach them some kind of lesson,
so we were turned into Americans
to learn something about loneliness.” (Tony Hoagland)

“Say help is coming, say help is coming,
then say that help’s running late.
Shrink from their clutches, lie to their faces,
explain how the levies grew thin.
Mop up the vomit, cringe at their crudeness,
audition their daughters for rape.
Stomp on their sleeping, outrun the gangsters,
pass out American flags.” (Patricia Smith)

“Make it like it never happened, the commercial promises.
Even if I glued the shards together, I would comprehend
The fissure webbing the porcelain, the pressure points of weakness,
Which is my undoing.” (James Cihlar)

“In spring I would lie down among pale anemone and primrose
and listen to the river’s darkening hymn, and soon
the clouds were unraveling like the frayed sleeves of field hands,
and ideology had flown with the sparrows.” (B.H. Fairchild)

“Now scientists are saying that crib death is caused by a virus. Nobody knows anything, Leroy thinks. The answers are always changing.” (Bobbie Ann Mason)

The writers featured in American Tensions are both established and emerging, some with many publications, some with only a few, but what binds them together is that they are embodiments of the legacy of that melting pot sales pitch. Their stories reflect that American identity may owe a great deal to the constant reminder that it is not an assimilated, uniform everyperson, but a “messy, fractious web of cultures, myths, relationships, and races.”

There’s a lingering irony here: the original ideal of the melting pot, though rallied around by politicians and romanticized in popular culture, was originally created by American writers. Appropriately, it is now being torn down by their descendants. Thirty years from now, a new group of American authors will pull apart the current viewpoint: which is, perhaps, the nature of the tensegrity Reichard is pointing out. Poet Nick Flynn describes it this way:

“starlings
fill the trees above us, so many it seems
the leaves sing. I can’t see them
until they rise together at some hidden signal
& hold the shape of a tree for a moment
before scattering.”

American Tensions
edited by William Reichard
(309 pages/New Village Press, 2011)
ISBN: 978-0-9815593-8-4