West Coast / PNW Tour 2018: Alley Cat Books, San Francisco. Final reflections from Richard Loranger.
We finished the great weather for MEDIA 2018 West Coast Tour at Alley Cat Books in the Mission District of San Francisco amidst a wild, chaotic, cacophonous Day of the Dead celebration.
I opened the reading with “Mission Street Manifesto” by Juan Felipe Herrera. ‘Nuff said.
I’ve gone on the great weather tours out here all but one year since their first excursion in 2012 to SF’s Beat Museum, the Last Bookstore in LA, and a boisterous poetry and music house party in Portland. This year the tour was, in many ways, the best and most satisfying yet – the others were without question terrific and joyous, always a lot of fun, period – but 2018 revealed peak after peak of amazing work read amazingly, an abundance of new faces and voices and connections at every turn, and a burgeoning of eager and happy audiences in every town.
David Lawton felt the ground thirst, and, unless your heart throws with a big fat spliff, hunkers down and dreams a shadow moment from some movie playing the next room, a unfortunate sequel continues like wallpaper, substitutes the bad action of your choice, fills the emptiness of your thought, technicolor static clouding your eyes, looked so fine, saved the little boy, swallowed us all up in desire, called out blues for the brutalized, a commitment to the truth his fragility could not contain.
The tour kicked off with such energy at Beyond Baroque in Venice that as emcee I found myself literally leaping to the podium to introduce each reader. (Anyone catch a blurry pic o’ that lunacy? I’m the only one who didn’t get to see it.) Also had the sudden notion to blog the reading not through bits of content, as I have in the past, but with phrases and words, tones and rhetorics culled from each reader and strung together to represent them. Two nights later on the patio of Stories Books in Echo Park, a similar group of readers were eerily interrupted by hovering police copters that blasted the reading with governmental decibels. It was as if the universe realized that something interesting and incipient was going on down there, and wanted to check it out.
Kit Kennedy gave her eyes to photograph abandoned things, faint chalkmarks, ungainly crows taking flight to steal joy, is fairy tale, personal no less than your blue bowl, takes on the contours when sorrow slipped in, listens for the readiness of light, is temporary lodging, will never be the same in the mythic time, in the spirit of a cat’s eyes, walk into a cathedral, learn to count, you’ll never be alone, the sun is rising for the childhood thrill of forest, a diagonal of light.
And the universe was right – something interesting and incipient was going on down there. Something was forming, coming to life. great weather for MEDIA has insisted all along that one of their great goals is to form a community of writers, locally, nationally, and internationally, and more than ever that really feels as if its coming to be. Portland gave a blowout reading at The Waypost, a grrreat new venue for us and I hope hope hope we get to keep it, I wanna cuddle with it. Old bonds were definitely renewed and strengthened, and new ones definitely formed. Everyone had a freakin blast, and left pretty much levitating.
Mary Mackey kisses snakes, swallows cyanide-laced peach pits, who the fuck needs it, run as fast as you can at nine in the evening, open-mouthed, naked, lives shadows on the bottom where love was once a short summer night, went into the jungle seeking hallucinations, danced with a dozen auras, the stars uncoiled, tasted the future for hours, ripped a hole in the air, birds with human faces wept blood, bear witness, the others fed her, taken for plumes, once trees, pillars of temples served in fire homes, it happened by accident, they stopped singing, stopped bearing, tiny brown birds could remember a time when a coyote danced.
Seattle, which often feels to me like the serious older sister to Portland, was just as amped, if a little less wild and more composed. But not so composed as to deny the electric current that ran through the readers, through the writing, through the room. And there were other currents too, not just those caused by sheets of rain that came down over the couple of days we were there, but human currents as well. One of the readers arrived elated to report that she’d met a best friend for life at last year’s reading, and it had changed her life. Community, coming to be. Electric. And how useful for the band that came in after us and set up an actual and elaborate electric chair to electrocute a member of the audience. I won’t say, Only in Seattle, but I will say, Oh, Seattle.
I shouted of a schizophrenic diner and a healing heart through broken air and dizzying drums. And the drums were victorious. My ghost was in the street.
Oakland showed us the power vector that it currently is, with readers from all over the Bay Area caught up in its tremendous NRG at Octopus Literary Salon. That crowd can already boast camaraderie in many ways, and welcomes (and re-welcomes) you with open arms, while a populous open mic brought new voices interested in and of interest to the press. But the reading in San Francisco, the final reading of the tour, that did something different. You want this story to end with a reading that caps all cappers and blows the roofbeams out and that’s that. But it does not. It ends with the unexpected. Because right in the middle of the reading, SF’s annual Dia de los Muertos Procession went right by the venue itself with thunderous noise and joy, mixing with the energy in the bookstore, blending with us and leaving us in a very different place, a different space than we had planned or ever anticipated. So much for expectations.
Zoë Christopher is not among the current litigants, makes simple conversation, is criticized, advises victims to reconcile, smoldering and heavy, is at a podium, wants to unravel, traces the line, conjures, applauds the priors, helps both them and their victims, draped in black robes, can’t remember bursting on weighted vines, unfolding snapdragons, giggling at the cat, swooping impatient, splays all succulent pregnant night skies, storms filled with promise.
Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead for non-Spanishers, is a big festival and a big deal in San Francisco, celebrated annually in the Mission District for more than forty years. It is a Mezo-American tradition, corresponding to some extent with the Western culture’s All Souls Day on November 1, which honors our departed friends and loved ones, allows us to carry on our relationships with them from beyond, and at the same time vigorously celebrates the cycle of life. I lived in the Mission in the mid- to late-80’s, and as a naïve early 4th-wave gentrifier, on several occasions I attended the mostly Hispanic parade, filled with skeletons and flowers and floats and music. I didn’t completely understand it at the time, but I got that there was a spiritual core beneath all the apparent fun. I left the city for fourteen years and returned in 2007, after the tech and hipster colonizations, and found the Muertos Procession swollen with numbers much like the city, and much more of a pan-cultural art show and gigantic party than I’d ever seen. I’m not one for dense crowds (at all), but beyond that I found myself feeling very conflicted over the diminishment of the core Hispanic presence and meaning, and the great gush of glamor and self-importance that seemed to overlay most everything those recent populations brought. I went just the once in 2007, soon moved to Oakland, and hadn’t been back to one until the great weather reading this year.
Calder G. Lorenz was Denise, was city, spun long yards, talked to strangers, tattooed her knuckles, retired from her thoughts, was honest with herself, landed in Toronto a sort of vapor, upended memories, brought what she needed essential to her exit, translucent the lawyer picked her up, watched the metropolis fade, passed all the things a big city needs, started to worry, continued to change, she might be the root, sat on stools, towns half-built behind them, talked about nothing, how people were werewolves, wanted her to show something, looked at her watch, pressed at the center, let him pass as he wanted.
Here’s what happened. The bookstore, like most businesses in the vicinity, had been anticipating the festival for weeks, and when we arrived were a little distracted by the proceedings outside, everyone was, with more and more people gathering in regalia and mirth. It’s a human thing that drew you in whether you wanted to be or not. So we had to focus to stay top of game, as we had been all tour and damned if we wouldn’t be that night, got chairs arranged, greeted folks, and got the reading up and running. Meanwhile the parade outside got underway, and slowly approached the store – the beskeletoned hordes and their accompanying tumult grew and grew – it was amazing and for a brief time deafening, with countless drums – and a curious thing happened inside, as sometimes happens at readings when the audience and readers are excellently present despite an outside distraction – everybody leaned in, tuned in to every word and really, really listened. Listened hard and strongly. And the drums surrounded us, and the readers’ words went inside us, and for a while we were all in two worlds at once, not in-between worlds, but in both, just like the Festival of the Dead.
Jane Ormerod surges, swells within, not huddled in the heart running the full infirmary, says no to treacherous division, harsh sun wax lungs and the birds will surely come, contains distance, contains water, may be constant, know antiquity, proud of tenderness, is unmade credence, experiences differences, will not add to your crimes, waves of love beyond geometry, scattered about parking lots, no latch, gated, untitled, whispered before the fall of arms, connected to the regular family, sat and admired three thousand species, calls home a springtide snow, was four when she died, hatless rabble rousers have no choice but to rise.
Afterward, four of us, the great weatherers and I, wandered into the thick, cheered throng, passing fantastic faces with earthly eyes, each of us in our own world, elated and full. The tour was ended, as all tours do, and there’s always a sad edge to it, even more so when they’re particularly good, watching your happy-go-lucky Temporary Autonomous Zone evaporate into thin real-world air, and the world crowds back in, as this one did, and we wandered through the festival deep in thought. I thought about the dead, of course, many in the last few years, family, and poets; I thought about the great weather angel-poets (shout-outs to Brant Lyon, Bob Hart, Frank Simone, and Jackie Sheeler – those of you not top of mind, come remind me in my sleep), and all the dead and living as one does. I thought about New San Francisco, with its layer of gentrified and wealthified indifference, and about the parts of its soul that seem to have died, or have gone into a hibernation to wait out the culture storm. I thought about the struggles of the working people, and marginalized peoples, across the Bay Area, and this forlorn country, and the irrational human world, the struggle to live, and to enjoy living, and to celebrate it amidst all of this madness. And I looked around at all that happening right there, right then, with all the music, and dancing, and costumery, and the beautiful altars, glowing and festooned, encircling Garfield Square like, honestly, so many halos, and I thought of all the celebrating that we had done, in six cities for twelve days, of this book of many voices, and the brilliant words that had leaked, poured, streamed, meandered, rivuleted into the world as so many chrysanthemums. And that were gathered carefully into this book, crafted lovingly by several, as a suitcase for anyone to open. Several days later, it dawned on me that the book was, is, in a fundamental sense, an altar to those voices and to the humanity within them, not because they had passed, but because they had passed through, had made their way into the world. And with that altar had arrived something else, something that had been coming for some time, a thing alive, not in the altar itself but in the community surrounding it, finally manifest and growing, and I wondered if just maybe those two worlds we felt, we were in, were not just the mixing of fervent words with the chaos of Dia de los Muertos, but a sense of something being born, moving from one world to another, and we were with it.
William Taylor, Jr. had a thing for the artists, studied the way they held, stereo tuned loud, forever on fire, hoped to burn in a way that nobody else had a chance to, again and again at a sidewalk table across the street, in on it the whole time, made a peace with things like everything wasn’t falling apart, like evil wasn’t living, could never quite let it go, glowering, wrestling, laughing like kings even if it’s sad, even if you think it isn’t there, the sigh of the night shift waitress not answering the phone, if you ever hope to sing, wander the city giving voice to the ancient sorrow, searching and screaming the ancient eternal lowliness of things, you get a feel for the melody, swaying, you know all the words.
So here we have an altar. And here we have a life, a new living thing, a many-petaled bloom, a song, a harmony, a choir, a lone voice humming in the wilderness. And here we have a stage. And here we have a word. And here we have a book. And they multiply, they multiply because we feed them, and that is the cycle, that is the rain, that is the deep soak of earth and the urge of flesh and mortality and birth and a clue to what we are and what we can be, wishing us all great weather for being.
If you liked reading this tour blog, you might enjoy Richard Loranger’s monthly posts at www.richardloranger.com.