Waiting for Nothing

Tom Kromer wrote about his life tramping during the Depression, the tricks he used to try and rustle up a free cup of coffee, to get people to give him enough money to flop somewhere warm for the night. He made it out to Santa Rosa by 1931, harvesting grapes and by 1932 was working the fields in Napa. The book was written in 1933 while he was enrolled in the California branch of the Civilian Conservation Corps at Camp Murphys in Calaveras County (north of Angel’s Camp).

One great story in here about a trick he learns from another tramp—to buy a donut, drop it on a corner where women wait for a streetcar, wait for a different group of ladies to arrive, walk up to the donut and stare at it, then scurry away to eat it behind a telephone pole. Women would come up and give money to him after seeing that act. Tales of bums huffing the gas that runs the heating system, gas hounds who soak a handkerchief full of gas and drip it into a glass mixed with water, called “derail.” Bums hunkered down in an abandoned building to sleep in the rain, hustled out by cops. Taking pennies and trying to barter for half loaves of stale bread hoping that the baker would just give you the loaf. Walking into fancy restaurants and loudly asking the manager for a meal so he’d make a big deal of being generous in front of customers. Riding the rails out west where it’s at least warm and hiding money in his bandaged arm. And the mysterious chapter 4—which disappeared from some versions of the book—where a he accepts hospitality from a “fairy” dressed up in women’s clothes who offers him a meal and a warm bed.

Leaves of Grass, 1855 edition, prose introduction

It’s taken me about a week to slog through the 24 page, 30 paragraph, nearly unreadable “prose” introduction Whitman tacked onto the first edition, written after the poems when he was starting to puff and bloat. Crowley calls out Whitman’s “rather bumptious American nationalism” as the new prophecy he begins to promote in that text. Indeed, Walt seems very proud to be an American, continues to marvel at the fact that the President must tip his hat to us instead of vice-versa. What fun to travel back in time when that was the case, before the U.S. experienced its own bloat and gluttony.

Despite the confusing, swollen sentences, there are bits of gold dust to be panned and savored. Walt commands us, “This is what you shall do:… read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem…”

I did like his phrasing around appreciating immigrants: “To [the American poet] the other continents arrive as contributions.”

Not a huge fan of how he seems to relegate women to their one role of birthing babies, but that’s the patriarchy for you. Since it’s Walt, it’s filled with “goodshaped and wellhung” men, masturbation (onanism), foolish women.

Earlier, he contradicts himself, “The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters is simplicity. ” But he’s barely able to contain himself, as shown in the below snippet. Crowley calls it “Whitman’s age-old habit of never saying in three words what might be said in six.” Is this something you’d want to read?

A Poetry Handbook

Another book I’ve been sipping from for weeks, and one I’ll likely keep reading continuously. I picked up at the Beat Museum, on my list to buy after another poet (Hoagland) called Oliver “the Miss Manners of poetic convention,” so I rose to defend her. This is a helpful book that drills down on technique, inviting students to mimic other writers to try on different styles, to pay attention to SOUND, to the line, whether or not to go for free verse or something more restricted, the role of imagery, tone, voice, the importance of revision.

She recommends consistent writing to allow inspiration to know when to show up. You “promise to be at your desk in the evenings, from seven to nine. It waits, it watches. If you are reliably there, it begins to show itself—soon it begins to arrive when you do. But if you are only there sometimes or are frequently late or inattentive, it will appear fleetingly, or it will not appear at all.”

Imagery

“The poet must not only write the poem but must scrutinize the world intensely, or anyway that part of the world she has taken for subject. If a poem is thin, it is likely so not because the poet does not know enough words, but because she has not stood long enough among the flowers—not seen them in any fresh, exciting, and valid way.”

Line length

“The pentameter line is the primary line used by the English poets not for any mysterious reason, but simply because the pentameter line most nearly matches the breath capacity of our English lungs—that is, speaking in English—and thus it is the line most free from any special effect.”

Tone

“In order for the tone of the poem to change, the line had to change. Now a line was needed that would sound and feel not like formal speech but like conversation. What was needed was a line which, when read, would feel as spontaneous, as true to the moment, as talk in the street, or talk between friends in one’s own house…. Speech entered the poem. The poem was no longer a lecture, it was time spent with a friend. Its music was the music of conversation.”

 

Bounjour Tristesse

Francoise Sagan’s novella from 1955 is a charming delight, translated from the French by Irene Ash. A 17-year-old woman who enjoys life with her bachelor father (widowed for several years) takes a vacation on the Mediterranean. He brings his latest lover, and the three of them get along fabulously. Then in swoops Anne, a friend of the dead mother, who lures the father into proposing marriage. The daughter plots a way to break them up, accidentally causing Anne’s death and returning them to their normal state of affairs. A delicious snack of a read.

Best bookstores in San Francisco

As a local who actually reads books, I wanted to throw my own list of the best bookstores into the mix, a long overdue paean to the literary lights piercing SF’s legendary fog (which is back with a vengeance this morning).

The Green Arcade

Market @ Gough

Top prize for the best curation of books goes to Green Arcade. Dipping in there week after week, I always discover new treasures. Their interests mesh well with mine, plenty of pro-bicycling, anti-tech, pro-labor, local SF/California, nature, poetry, and art books. A bit lean on the fiction side and very rare to find a used book on the shelves, but otherwise a stellar shop staffed by friendly older dudes.

Readers Bookstore

@ Fort Mason

A hidden gem at Fort Mason, Readers is operated by the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, diverting all profits to help fund our seriously amazing library system. Books that get donated to the Friends are curated to end up here (I think the ones that don’t make the cut are saved up for the Big Book Sale, also operated by Friends). Which means all sorts of oddities are in store for you. My first stop is the table by the front where the latest stock of weird books are displayed, followed by a quick scan of the back shelves. Then I check out what’s been added to the Essays section, peep into the fiction shelves, the walking/nature section, poetry, philosophy, and art books.

Bird & Beckett

Chenery @ Diamond in Glen Park

It took me forever to start exploring this section of the city but once I found Bird & Beckett I had a reason to hike over to Glen Park. Great collection of used and new books, usually with someone playing music to accompany your browsing. I beeline to the back room where I once found a fabulous book on color theory, so I head there always hoping to discover more art book treasure. Lots of poetry, essays, fiction, local guides, cookbooks.

Dog Eared Books

Valencia @ 20th

A must-stop whenever strolling through the Mission, Dog Eared is packed with great used fiction, plus excellent recommendations via the staff picks shelves right across from the register. You can also get great deals on new books that were over-ordered(?). They do a good job curating and marketing the books so you can breeze through to see if anything catches your eye. Don’t miss the small zine section or the carousel of pulp books near the front.

Dog Eared Books (Castro)

Castro @ 18th

I also really like the Castro version of Dog Eared, with a heavier focus on LGBTQ books and a different selection of magazines. A smaller store than the Valencia branch but sometimes contains nice surprises on the shelves. And I love their postcard station where you can write to various local, state, national politicians to give ’em hell or shower them with praise. They collect the postcards then mail them in large batches to the various representatives, so you can peruse other people’s rants and thoughts in addition to leaving your own.

Green Apple

Clement @ 6th

No surprise to find this perennial favorite on the list. The original location is teeming with amazing used books to discover either in the Fiction Annex or in the main store’s labyrinthine layout. Staff picks on the shelf in the main store right when you walk in always has good recs, in addition to the Must Read shelf near the stairs that lead to a warren of philosophy, history, nature, poetry. For years this has been my go-to for selling books that I weed from my shelf.

Green Apple Books on the Park

9th @ Irving

I appreciate this location for taking over the space that was once the beloved Le Video, an extensive movie rental place that went out of business. The Park location also hosts author events where I’ve seen a myriad of writers, Anne Boyer most recently. Everything is a little too fresh and new here, not as many used items, not dusty enough like a bookstore should be, but still a great shop.

Adobe Books

24th @ Folsom

I’m really glad that Adobe Books survived the move from 16th street, saved by a group of regulars who turned it into a co-op. There’s a tiny art gallery tucked away toward the back and this has proven to be hands-down the best bookshop to eavesdrop in throughout the city. Here is where I learned that a mayor of SF, Frank Jordan, hopped naked into a shower with 2 DJs on a live radio show in 1995. In the old location, I loved the art project where they arranged the books by color.

Bound Together

Haight @ Masonic

Anarchist bookstore Bound Together is run by volunteers and thus frequently closed, but when you luck out and the door is open, there are always treats inside. Large zine section, lots of books on labor and feminism and technology, plus a program that sends books to prisoners. Features lots of books from the AK Press, a collective now run out of Chico after a fire burned down their Oakland warehouse.

Browser Books

Fillmore @ Sacramento

Cozy bookstore Browser Books also worth breezing through when walking past. Good selection and I’ve previously seen someone getting their Tarot cards read in the back section. Now has a new lease on life since Green Apple purchased it.

City Lights

Columbus @ Broadway

Of course I had to put City Lights on here—there’s a reason it’s on everyone’s list. It’s a historical gem that has an incredible, huge section of poetry in the upstairs room. Push past the tourists and head to the basement for history, labor, philosophy, women’s studies, and the classics—plus the basement dates from pre-1906 fire days! I’ve gotten many a recommendation from the staff picks section—unfortunately placed in a high traffic area that you’ll clog as you scan the shelves.

Forest Books

Buchanan @ Post

Forest Books is an oasis in Japantown. Am I correctly remembering the sound of an indoor fountain, peaceful water soothing the shoppers? Also a great location for used fiction and nonfiction, plus amazing eavesdropping to be had.

Russian Hill Bookstore

Polk @ Broadway

I like the new location’s layout, much more user-friendly than the maze of the last store down the street. When you come into the shop, a ton of local-interest books is on your left while first editions are under glass to your right. Always interesting characters shopping in here, and I occasionally find a used book I’ve been looking for.

David Wojnarowicz: A Definitive History of Five or Six Years on the Lower East Side

It seems a bit obscene to indulge myself in a time traveler trip to the early 1980s Lower East Side but I couldn’t resist. A time when artists were swirling around each other in the streets, collaborating, riffing, nudging, encouraging each other on. A time when you could “get real blood for a buck fifty at this butcher on 13th Street” and so everyone was making gory films with pigs blood and staging exhibitions with blood splatter.

This book of interviews is an attempt to pin down the elusive David Wojnarowicz—artist, writer, painter, activist, wanderer—who was briefly at the heart of the scene until fame jumped in to ruin everything. In an interview with Carlo McCormick, he explains why David stopped making art for a long while: “His whole idea was that when the media flashbulb goes off and burns everything away, the only way to stay creative and be an artist was to exist in the margins, in the dark recesses of the underground. We all felt totally invaded: the East Village scene had become a horrible thing.”

Lots of interviews with artists and friends and comrades of the period. Tales about 3 Teens Kill 4 (David’s band), early punk days, road trips, the Ward Line Pier project where artists took over abandoned and decrepit warehouses near the piers to fill with art and installations in 1983-4.

Like all humans, David was full of contradictions, both generous and stingy to a fault, obsessive about his art yet wanting to linger for hours over diner coffee. Unlike most of us, he was wildly productive and fought for what he believed in— hugely active in Act Up. There were horrible stories about how people died from AIDS, painful lingering deaths or planned suicides in the case of Haoui Montaug. Despite the danger, I come away with a pang for what was a free-moving, open, creative scene that seems to be in the past.

Some of my favorite of his work is the Arthur Rimbaud in New York series of photos. He took photos of a friend who was wearing a homemade mask of Rimbaud in various locations around NYC.

Leaves of Grass (1855 edition)

Almost a week of December has slipped away and I’ve only posted one book here, what could I be up to? I’ve been sipping slowly and deliberately at this delicious Whitman concoction for the past few weeks and finally decided to pop it up here, although I don’t think I’m going to ever stop reading it, a few lines a day maybe, briefly considering the effort it would take to memorize some of it, wouldn’t that be divine to be able to summon Uncle Walt’s words at a moment’s notice? So far I’ve only managed to memorize “Washes and razors for foo-foos…. for me, freckles and a bristling beard”—a line that Whitman excised from the “Deathbed” edition of his much-revised poems, which tells you everything you need to know about which version to read (this first one, of course).  This Penguin edition I’m reading has an intro by Malcolm Crowley from 1955 wherein he calls this first edition a “buried masterpiece of American writing” because everyone ignored it before his resurrection I suppose. Walt himself insisted that the 1892 Deathbed edition (a bloated 383 poems instead of the pure 12 included here) was the version he preferred and recommended, but I’m on Crowley’s side with this one.

This version seems more pure, a simple clarity with “no twistified or foggy sentences” as Whitman himself put it. After 1855 he fell under his own spell and thought himself a prophet, puffed up his prose and overedited things into shambles. Crowley calls this period when Whitman was “inflated.”

The only thing I’ve yet to really appreciate is Whitman’s original introduction to the 1855 edition, written after the poems and when he was catching a bit of the puff of himself. It’s 19 pages of blathering that I need to gird myself to go back to, when I’d much rather frolic in the verses themselves. “My words itch at your ears till you understand them.”

Sidenote, not from anything I read in this edition but my own convoluted knowledge of strange things: Whitman’s idea for the cover art (Flowery letters of gold overlaid on green) came after he saw his pal Fannie Fern‘s book cover- Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio (to whom he owed a bit of money that he never repaid, by the by).

 

Weight of the Earth: The Tape Journals of David Wojnarowicz

I read Wojnarowicz’s memoir earlier this year and was excited to see this new offering, an edited transcription of some of the tape journals he used to record in the 1980s. It’s gotten me excited about his work again, this writer, artist, poet, photographer, filmmaker. He begins with lots of musings about a new guy he’s seeing, Bill, and wondering where their relationship is going. His anticipation and excitement and tenderness about the new feelings are heartbreaking to witness.

He wonders if by hanging out with people older than himself—either when he was a young teen hustler or even in his twenties—he caught a fear of being old and penniless from hearing them all worry about it. “Yet here they are, penniless, homeless, or on the verge of being so. And they’re in their later age, and it’s that period of later age that I think scares most people into a solid relationship that they’re not even sure they desire but that they take in order to fight off any sort of fear of being alone.”

“I like ugly people or people with some sense of derangement, and that’s something I’ve always felt. Not necessarily deranged, but somebody who’s off in some way, somebody who’s interesting, who has character, through lack of beauty or whatever.”

Later, as he lives on in Peter Huljar’s house after Peter’s died of AIDS and now that David realizes he has it too, he seems to create art at a frenetic pace, philosophizing and writing and talking and dreaming and wondering whether or not he wants to die (he doesn’t). Struggling to understand how his entire group of friends is disappearing into death so soon, he has a moment of clarity on the toilet:

Illuminations

Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations (1875), translated by John Ashbery in 2011, is a wonderous thing. I love Ashbery’s word choices and the decision (always wise) to publish the French and English side by side, allowing me to test my rudimentary French skills and roll the words around in my mouth.

In part 5 of the prose poem, Childhood/Enfance, “I am the learned scholar in the dark armchair. Branches and the rain hurl themselves at teh library’s casement window. I am the walker on the great highway through dwarf woods; the murmur of sluices muffles my steps. I gaze for a long time at the melancholy gold laundry of the setting sun.” (la mélancolique lessive d’or du couchant– gorgeous!)

I confess most of my knowledge about Rimbaud comes from The Day on Fire: A Novel Suggested by the Life of Arthur Rimbaud which was excellent.

 

My Name Is Lucy Barton

Could anything be better than cozily reading Elizabeth Strout on a rainy morning? This delicious piece of fiction was so tender and intense and yet flitted away perfectly over a few hours, dropping me into the world of Lucy Barton. She’s recovering from a mysterious illness in a hospital room that has a view of the Chrysler building which is spectacular at night. Her husband hates hospitals and so leaves her alone most of the time, but does summon a visit from her mother. Lucy’s mother sits at the foot of the bed and tells stories and they reconnect over the five days she’s there. Strout weaves in other strands of Lucy’s life, her becoming a writer, her childhood struggles and poverty, staying late at school simply because it was warm, running into a published author at a clothing boutique and loving her style then taking her writing workshop. We all have one story, we can tell it a million different ways. Beautiful work, I can’t believe I haven’t read Strout before.

The Tempest

Just a quick dip into Shakespeare, flipping through the ultra-thin pages of my mom’s copy of the complete works. Appreciating the hijinx of Stephano pouring wine down Caliban’s throat when he thinks the four legs (one pair belonging to Caliban, one to Trinculo) are a monster, and the ensuing nonsense. “Here is that which will give language to you, cat.”

Prospero creates a storm to trap his brother, who has unfairly snatched up his dukedom and left him to die. He finally admits to daughter Miranda about the circumstances of their leaving Italy many years before, and arranges it so Miranda falls in love with her shipwrecked cousin Ferdinand. Ariel’s the spirit who earns his freedom from helping Prospero while Caliban is a spirit freed from a tree and then enslaved by Prospero, who turns his loyalty toward the sack of wine that drunken butler Stephano wields. As always, the fun characters are the most interesting.

In the Dream House: A Memoir

Carmen Maria Machado details an abusive relationship she had with her first girlfriend, a woman whose moods swung wildly and incomprehensibly, muttering threats and making Carmen weep. It’s a good reminder that bad relationships come in all shapes and sizes, including between same-sex partners. Many nights locking herself in the bathroom to escape the yelling, the verbal abuse, the manipulation. Oddly, there was a 3rd woman in the love triangle and this woman ultimately ended up marrying Carmen, so happily ever after? I wasn’t a fan of the style she chose for the book, each section a different flavor of literary device, riddled with folk tale elements. Definitely hated the choose your own adventure section, which seemed to just fluff up the page count. But decent writing on an important topic.

A Beginner’s Guide to Japan

Yes, at the beginning Iyer has a “grains of salt” section wherein he explains he has no business writing about Japan and the “beginner” is both himself and the reader. I find it odd that he’s lived there for 30 years and hasn’t picked up any of the language (he claims to speak at the level of a 2-year-old). I guess his Japanese wife carries the burden of communication with the outside world for him. Mostly a bland book compared to his other great travel writing like Video Night in Kathmandu. Frequent quotations from Oscar Wilde and SF Zen master Shunryu Suzuki. Little bits of sentences, short paragraphs a concession to our evaporated attention spans?

Application for Release from the Dream

My wavering appreciation for Hoagland returned a bit stronger with this 2015 collection of poems. He’s still problematic, of course, but you can tell he’s trying to own up to his white male privilege, even if he gets to wink and nudge his way there: “I probably should not have called my class in feminist literature Books by Girls.” And his strange White Writer poem where he flips the designation, hating to be known as a white writer when he’s so much more.

“There is no single particular noun for the way a friendship, stretched over time, grows thin, then one day snaps with a popping sound.”

“The flaring force of this thing we call identity as if it were a message, a burning coal one carries in one’s mouth for sixty years, for delivery to whom, exactly; to where?”

My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education

Great collection of essays about growing up Cuban-American in Miami, being the first generation to go to college (and not knowing how long her parents were supposed to stay for orientation so they had booked a whole week of vacation expecting to go as a family to all the events), getting married and divorced, dealing with hurricanes and the end of rides at Disney World, living in a space that rented out for weddings on the weekend and hearing the same exact playlist every night, laying down truths at visiting colleges about how they needed to hire more people of color to teach and talking over the white woman’s tears in the front row who said that was racist.