Friday, September 27, 2013

A Writer Moves West, Part 2: San Francisco in the Disco Era

I grew up in New York City, but my family first visited San Francisco during the Summer of Love in 1967. I didn’t meet many writers during that brief stay in the Bay Area in my teens.

That started to change in 1978, when I followed my poet girlfriend to San Francisco, arriving on the last day of rainy season. I bought an umbrella and didn’t use it again the entire seven months I was in San Francisco, to my amazement. I grew up with summer storms with fists of thunder and prongs of lightning, something you almost never hear or see in California. I lived that year in a communal apartment, again in North Beach. I bought a used, manual typewriter from a guy outside City Lights Bookstore and banged out poems in my “pad.”

That summer I spent much more time dancing than at literary events. It was the height of the disco era, and North Beach, where I lived for the second time, had several great disco clubs. There was one called Dance Your Ass Off on Columbus Avenue, which was sometimes fun, but my favorite was a club called The City, right on Broadway, about a block east of City Lights. You could either listen to singers on the ground floor, or dance upstairs. The singers included the legendary Sylvester, who had just released “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” making him an international star. The disco dancing went on till about 2:00 a.m. with a very mixed gay and straight crowd, pretty unusual, even for the disco era. Lots of flashing lights and mirrors, and a great DJ who kept things jumping with vinyl songs that went on forever. 

Marquee of The City disco in North Beach
San Francisco in the late 70s had not yet entered the era of AIDS. It was the height of the sexual revolution, and many relationships began and ended quickly.

I hung out a lot in Noe Valley that summer, which was then the hot neighborhood for artists, before it got gentrified. I was warmly and generously welcomed there into two very different literary circles. I took writing workshops with Robert (Bob) Glück at Small Press Traffic Bookstore on 24th Street. Bob is a thought-provoking teacher with a wry and mischievous sense of humor. Small Press Traffic was then the center of a growing school of writers that included Steve Abbott, Dodie Bellamy, Bruce Boone, and Kevin Killian. Those writers were interested in breaking down the conventions of narrative, and in exploring sexuality in an explicit way. Small Press Traffic Bookstore was so politically correct that they actually had separate sections for male and female writers. The workshops were held right in the dining area of the person who ran the bookstore, who lived upstairs, and she would appear occasionally during class to grab a plum or a yogurt from her refrigerator.

The original Small Press Traffic Bookstore in Noe Valley, San Francisco
I also got to sit in on a fiction workshop that used to meet in Noe Valley in the Victorian home of Ruthanne (Roxie) Lum McCunn. Though they only met a few blocks away, that group was very different from the Small Press Traffic school. The younger fiction writers at Roxie’s—who included Jay Schaefer, Carol Tarlen, Genevieve Belfiglio, and Chris Davis—were exploring narrative but taking it into new subject matter that did not appear in traditional fiction. Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s novel, Thousand Pieces of Gold, which told the story of a Chinese woman in the West during the Gold Rush, was a perfect example of that.

I also got to hear some good San Francisco poets that summer, including a reading at Fort Mason of sexy new work by Summer Brenner and Jana Harris. There was a sign-language interpreter at the event, which I hadn’t seen yet on the East Coast. I also got to hear Genny Lim, a dynamic performer who combines jazz, politics, and poetry.

Though I tried my best to find out about the literary scene in San Francisco during my stay in the Disco Era, I still didn’t know many people in California. I was starting to miss my friends in New York, and I only stayed on in San Francisco until just before the rains started in the fall. Then I moved back to the East Coast. The next time I relocated to the Bay Area, though, it was for keeps.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Writer Moves West, Part 1: The Summer of Love, San Francisco, 1967

I grew up in New York City and spent almost all of my life there until I started hearing about the beginnings of the hippies in San Francisco in the mid-1960s. I mostly knew about the hippies from reading Ramparts, a political and arts magazine based in San Francisco. Many issues of Ramparts brought reports on the radical experiments in lifestyles going on in the Bay Area, from the collective called the Diggers distributing free food; to the solarized, DayGlo posters for the Fillmore Auditorium’s rock concerts with the letters rippling like flames. I was hooked. I had to experience all this firsthand. 

Rock poster, San Francsico, 1960s
I was only 15, but I had a mom who was an adventurous free spirit, and it didn’t take too much convincing to get her to agree to leave New York and spend June, July, and August in San Francisco in 1967. I might be the only person who went to the Summer of Love with his mother.

My mother, my sister, and I arrived in San Francisco in early June with no clear idea of where we would stay. We found a hotel room near Union Square when we first arrived, but that proved expensive. Our search in the San Francisco Chronicle for short-term rentals did not yield any results. Wandering around North Beach one day, we happened by chance to pass the offices of Ramparts magazine. On an impulse we went inside and my mother asked the receptionist if she knew of any places for rent for the summer. It turned out the receptionist had an apartment nearby, and offered to rent it to us for the summer, while she moved in with her boyfriend. Kismet!

It turned out that the original hippie scene had pretty much peaked in San Francisco by the Summer of Love. Many of the early hippies had left the increasingly violent Haight neighborhood to move to communes in the country. Haight Street itself was bumper-to-bumper with rubbernecking tourists gawking at the latter-day hippies who were still in town, hawking copies of the Berkeley Barb alternative newspaper to sightseers. There were head shops selling posters of Che Guevara and the guy on the Zig Zag rolling papers package, who looked vaguely similar.

We went to the opening of a show by the artists of the psychedelic rock posters: Stanley Mouse, Victor Moscoso, and others—artists I idolized. By then, they were selling their work in a fancy Union Square gallery, signing posters while they yakked about what they were charging for their surrealist collages.

You could smell the pot in the air in Golden Gate Park, but beyond that, you could smell the freedom in the air. You could dress any way you liked (although the hippie rejection of style involved a style of its own), you could love anyone you liked, and you could give things away for free (definitely a no-no in the consumer culture of the U.S.A. post-World War II). At the Fillmore Auditorium, you could dance in a strange, free-form way, wheeling your arms in the air and clomping up and down, while blobs of colored oils throbbed on the walls in a projected light show. I remember my mother taking me to a gay bar on Grant Street (how many moms took their teenage sons to gay bars, especially in 1967?) and seeing two men partner dance to Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.” We heard the Grateful Dead and Country Joe and the Fish playing for free in the parks.

My sister briefly dated the son of Harry Bridges, the leader of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, so a whiff of the labor history of San Francisco also reached us. We socialized with the family of Earl Conrad, a radical novelist and nonfiction writer who lived with his wife in a very urban apartment in the Tenderloin neighborhood. We had met Earl in New York when he was researching a book that mentioned my dad, also a writer. 

Cover of a book by Earl Conrad, with a portrait of the author
Evenings we often took the N Judah trolley all the way to the end of the line near the beach, to watch foreign films at the now-defunct Surf Theatre, a great old neighborhood movie house from the 1920s that showed the innovative flicks of Bergman, Fellini, and Antonioni. The drenching fog at night in that part of the city resembled an apocalyptic landscape out of one of those films.

That first glimpse of the West was an eye-opener for me. It wasn’t that New York was devoid of culture and liberty—just the opposite. But something different was happening on the West Coast, a new kind of freedom that made for a bubbling arts and literary scene, more open to new ideas and lifestyles and to the cultures of the Pacific Rim.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4 
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6, Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

Friday, September 6, 2013

Why Are Certain Writers Popular in Other Countries?

I remember when I first started traveling abroad, if French people realized I was an American interested in books, they wanted to tell me how much they admired and enjoyed the novels of Chester Himes. “Chester who?” I would ask. Well, it may be that Chester Himes is a writer we should all know more about—he was an African American mystery writer of the 1950s and 60s, totally unknown to me or any of my acquaintances. In France, he was one of the most famous American novelists. It’s true, Himes wrote about race relations at a time when few were taking on that subject: “All that tight, crazy feeling of race as thick in the streets as gas fumes. Every time I stepped outside I saw a challenge I had to accept or ignore.” (from If He Hollers Let Him Go). But even if Himes deserves a closer look, he’s no Langston Hughes or Zora Neale Hurston. Why is Himes so popular in France?

Chester Himes
French readers also all seem to know authors of the Beat Generation, especially Jack Kerouac. But very few are aware of most of the terrific poets and novelists in the U.S. since the Beats.

Similarly, readers in the U.S.A. and all over the world are fascinated with Gabriel García Márquez. Márquez is one of my favorite novelists, too—Love in the Time of Cholera is right near the top of my all-time list. But there are other equally deserving classics in El Boom, the wave of magical realist writers, books that don’t seem to attract as large a following—novels such as Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral and Manuel Puig’s Heartbreak Tango; or Julio Cortázar’s stellar collection of short stories, All Fires the Fire. I believe that their reputations will equal Márquez’s novel in the long run.

Haruki Murakami, also a big favorite of mine, has millions of readers worldwide. But other Japanese authors such as Kenzaburo Oe, who, unlike Murakami, has actually won the Nobel Prize for Literature; or the poet Yosano Akiko, author of 50,000 tanka poems, are relatively unknown outside their own countries.

Why do certain writers attract readers in other countries, and others do not? Some of it may have to do with having a connection to a particular country. Chester Himes, for instance, moved to France in the 1950s, and he had the advantage of being able to publicize his books on the ground in that country. Jack Kerouac’s ancestors came from Brittany (the name “Kerouac” is like “Smith” in the Celtic region of Northwestern France), but I don’t think that’s the key to his success in the land of Sartre and de Beauvoir. There is something about Kerouac’s spirit of adventure and vitality that says “American” with a capital “A” to people in other countries, similar to the way that cowboys and gangsters do.

Haruki Murakami is immersed in the popular culture of the U.S. and Western Europe, even naming one of his novels after a Beatles song, “Norwegian Wood.” That might explain part of why readers in the West find his work so accessible, even though his books are mostly set in Japan, and the world of his novels often shades into fantasy, which only a minority of English-language novels do. But why is Murakami one of the ten top-selling foreign authors in Mainland China? True, he’s a terrific writer, funny, thought-provoking, moving, willing to take on the status quo and business as usual. Well, O.K., I think I just explained his global popularity to my own satisfaction. 

Haruki Murakami
It does seem to me that certain writers just translate better into other cultures, maybe because they play off the stereotype that we have of those cultures in a complex way. Love in the Time of Cholera is about a passionate, Latin lover, but Márquez takes that stereotype and inflates it so much it explodes into thousands of fragments, into meandering sentences that each has a life of its own. Kerouac’s On the Road takes place in the wide-open spaces of North America where the cowboys toted six-shooters and the buffalo roamed, but his bebop descriptions of the West in the 1950s create a new American myth that seems more applicable to our time. Haruki Murakami's characters refuse the image of the Japanese “salaryman” and stay-at-home woman and become instead existential heroes who buck the system, almost in spite of themselves. It’s these new turns on the old national and regional clichés that make these books accessible but still eye-opening for cultures outside the ones that give rise to them.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer