On a warm Sunday night in April, sweaty poetry lovers sat shoulder-to-shoulder on the carpeted floor of a community space in downtown Oakland. The room wasn’t big enough to accommodate the excited audience; late arrivals spilled out of the space. At the front of the crowd, poetry superstar CAConrad presided with wild authority. Dressed in an iridescent green shirt, with painted fingernails and a headband holding back his long hair, he waved a wand of incense and recited “Your Banana Word Machine,” which instructs readers (or in this case, listeners) to strip naked and look at pictures of jungle creatures while rubbing a banana on their solar plexus — with pen and paper on hand.
This wasn’t your stuffy old-school poetry reading where audience members stared thoughtfully into space and clapped politely after each solemn transmission. Here, they were buzzing with questions and eager to respond, sometimes erupting with bursts of good-natured call outs. Maybe they were emboldened by Conrad’s personal history. He described himself as “the son of white trash asphyxiation whose childhood included selling cut flowers along the highway for [my] mother and helping her shoplift.”
If it’s been a while since you attended a poetry reading, you may not be aware that there are literary tricksters like Conrad instructing readers and listeners to “Touch Yourself for Art,” as one of the pieces from his A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon does.
Conrad’s participatory reading was hosted by The Public School, a radical educational and community center that has no affiliation with the actual public schools of Oakland. Supported by an expanding grassroots literary community, it is just one of many artist cooperatives, bookstores, poetry reading series, and presses that are not only surviving, but flourishing in the East Bay.
In fact, the East Bay, particularly Oakland, is experiencing a literary renaissance. If you’re a culture enthusiast planning a night out, your options are now as likely to include poetry events as films, concerts, and galleries. Those poetry events may themselves feature not only writers reciting their texts, but also films, music, and art, often interspersed in unpredictable combinations. The trend is toward mixing genres to create a new experimental format. And in the East Bay, that’s less likely to be a medley of delicate sentiments than a gritty, rebellious amalgam.
The most recent and obvious sign of the East Bay’s literary uprising is the opening of two new independent bookstores in Oakland in the past year: Book/Shop, located in Temescal Alley, and E. M. Wolfman General Interest Small Bookstore on 13th Street near Broadway.
Some theorize that this surge is due to the rapid recent growth of the tech industry in San Francisco. Gentrification and rising rents are propelling refugee artists across the Bay Bridge to find cheaper digs and an atmosphere more hospitable to their creative pursuits.
“Most of the cultural activity in the Bay Area is happening in the East Bay right now,” said Evan Karp, director of Quiet Lightning, a popular San Francisco poetry series that recently made the jump to the East Bay. Karp is also a literary critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and founder of Litseen.com, a database of all the Bay Area’s literary events. “It’s where all the artists are — the home for all the young people looking to lead a creative lifestyle. Writers are moving to Oakland. As I have compiled Litseen in the past year, I’ve seen a dramatic shift. The majority of events are now in the East Bay.”
Nobody reads any more? Hard copy books are becoming obsolete? Independent bookstores are a dying breed? Don’t tell any of that to Erik Heywood. Last year, he launched Book/Shop, a store devoted to rare books and literary paraphernalia. Located at the end of North Oakland’s sun-dappled Temescal Alley, the store feels like a museum. When you slip in past the brick-lined facade, you are greeted by a minimal scene of carefully arranged vintage books on white shelves next to elegant prints and potted plants. A framed poster reads, “To acquire the habit of reading is to create for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.” It’s a quote by the playwright and novelist W. Somerset Maugham.
Heywood curates a constantly changing selection. Every time you go, you see curiosities that weren’t in view on your last visit. There aren’t multiple copies of every item, just one of each. On any given day, the array might include Stan Persky’s 1967 book Lives of the French Symbolist Poets, Allen Ginsberg’s out-of-print book First Blues: Rags, Ballads & Harmonium Songs 1971 – 1974, and a vintage poster advertising Charles Bukowski’s 1979 book Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit. Chances are all these items will be gone the next time you walk into the store.
But the Book/Shop is not just for collectors of literary memorabilia and older academics seeking nostalgia. Heywood said his clientele is varied —and often young. Many are avid readers who consume media on their iPhones but still know the irreplaceable value of an old book.
And the ambiance of the place is the opposite of somber and insular. “We don’t have readings here,” Heywood said. “I’m not interested in doing the same old routine — the folding chairs, the podium, the wine and cheese, and then you have to buy a book and that’s that.”
Heywood dismissed the idea that literary events have to cater to tradition. “A while back we featured a beautiful menu from a Swiss Air flight that traveled from New York to Zurich in 1964,” he said. “It was signed on the front page by the poet W. H. Auden. We worked with a chef to put together that exact menu again, and served dinner in the shop. We had a speaker who told us about Auden’s traveling habits. Much of what we try to do is reach out and show people books are fun, colorful, and life-affirming.”
At another Book/Shop event, the entire store was stripped down so it was empty except for vintage French poetry books and a chocolatier serving fine chocolate. “The smell was amazing,” Heywood said. “The books were gorgeous, and they were only out for that night. When you came in the next morning, you’d never know it even happened. We want to create that kind of magic.”
Book/Shop also sells reading accessories, such as watercolor-patterned book sleeves and brass-and-leather goatskin bookmarks. But like many items in the store, the $95 price tag is not for everyone. Books range from $10 to $500, and tip toward the higher end.
This upscale approach is not a typical feature of the East Bay’s bookstore and literary resurgence, however. What’s happening elsewhere is multi-faceted, highly accessible, and low-cost.
According to the media, the future of reading lies in Kindles and eBooks. Heywood begs to differ. And another voice of dissent has risen from a second new indie bookstore in Oakland: E. M. Wolfman General Interest Small Bookstore. Located in downtown, it is a funkier, cheaper response to the question of how to enliven the bookstore environment.
When you arrive at the store, you might encounter a “Reader in Residence” who sits in a chair by the front window, next to a pile of books. A reader is on duty most days, and you can ask him or her questions about books and authors, or have him or her read out loud to you.
In the back of the store, a gallery hosts monthly visual art shows. One recent offering, dubbed California Radiation Sickness Summer Camp 2014, featured psychedelic poem paintings that spelled out messages like “Free Love in the Blood and Shit Covered Streets of Oakland” and “Doing Dishes in the Bathroom Sink at 4 a.m.” Another show, All of the Secret Spots, consisted of 275 photos retrieved from an abandoned bag. It revealed the beloved stairs, railings, lips, and curbs where Bay Area skaters love to test their art.
The gallery space is home to monthly events, as well. Like those at Book/Shop, they depart from the tradition of the staid literary reading. One night I stopped in and people were making necklaces with twine and uncooked pasta while drinking free beer. This was the prelude to the main event: four writers reading their pieces from the recently released zine Macaroni Necklace. Everyone in attendance got a free copy of the zine.
“What’s great about this place is that I can say ‘yes’ to everyone,” said E. M. Wolfman’s founder Justin Carder. “Everybody who wants to do something, I can facilitate that. There’s now a platform. There’s space and time.”
Carder has been in the store five days a week from 11 a.m.-7 p.m. without fail since the bookstore’s opening in January. “One of the reasons why I didn’t open Wolfman in North Oakland, where there are more galleries, is that I wanted there to be more things going on in [downtown] — alternative spaces,” he said.
The store recently hosted a Hell and Demonic Possession Zine Release Party. Contributors presented material from their comics, essays, and short stories. One writer read her essay on art vandalism while in full corpse makeup. Another played heavy metal music backward to reveal the satanic messages hidden therein. A third reader recited over ambient drone music.
“Once we had four bands play in-store,” Carder said. “After their performance, we chose a random person and asked everyone in the audience to write a letter to her. We collected twenty letters by the end of the night. It was a weird invitation to do something different with the show format.”
Wolfman has a large experimental poetry selection curated by the Berkeley-based literary arts organization Small Press Distribution. The current assortment features Dodie Bellamy’s TV Sutras, a spiritual text generated using the author’s television, and Camille Roy’s Sherwood Forest, a book of erotica-tinged experimental poetry.
One section of the store features books from local publishers. Highlights from the Oakland small press Mondo Bummer include a copy of CA Conrad’s “Touch Yourself for Art” and Mills College MFA Poetry graduate Brittany Billmeyer-Finn’s chapbook (the geraniums). Offerings from another local publisher, Oakland’s Timeless, Infinite Light, include Zoe Tuck’s Terror Matrix, complete with hand-drawn spells, and As They Fall, which is Ivy Johnson’s deck of divination card poems, which functions as a tool for do-it-yourself fortune-telling.
Those two items reflect Timeless, Infinite Light’s intention to represent a variety of East Bay genres. “There’s an occult vibe that’s rooted in witchcraft,” said editor Emji Spero. “There’s a queer vibe, with an attention to the body and its porousness. There’s a California horoscope yoga thread, and a performance art practice thread.”
E. M. Wolfman was one of the thirty venues for the third-annual Beast Crawl, a literary festival that took over Oakland’s Uptown District on the night of July 12. The event featured 130 writers and drew upwards of 1,500 audience members. The name of the event is a play on words of the Pig Latin term for “beast,” which is “East Bay” — inspired by what the event’s website describes as “the classic Oakland image of the giant cranes that stalk our shore.”
Beast Crawl founder Paul Corman-Roberts, author of four books himself, called the event “a scavenger hunt for shared consciousness and meaning.” The goal is to build community by being accessible, free, and as diverse as possible. In the interests of expanding inclusivity, this year’s Crawl even featured an open mic component.
“There’s something pretty cool about seeing a classic academic poet reading in a dive bar along with students and reprobates, or seeing wild young experimental performance artists bringing a sense of excitement or even tension into high-profile places like Picán or Ozumo,” Corman-Roberts said.
Among the 29 curators for Beast Crawl were all of the most intriguing outfits in the East Bay poetry scene, including Tourettes Without Regrets, Berkeley Poetry Slam, Poetry Flash, SKINLESS: New and Raw Writing, and Youth Radio.
So what’s behind this profusion of riches? “Every art and performing art scene in the East Bay is experiencing incredible growth due to the unique economic situation in San Francisco,” said Corman-Roberts. “The East Bay still has a lot of fluidity in its economics — enough to where artists can still find a multitude of niches. San Francisco used to be like that too, but the available number of bohemian niches on that side of the water are shrinking.”
I asked Corman-Roberts if there were any commonalities that run through the East Bay’s rich poetic diversity. “It’s hard to generalize, since the scene is going through such a huge growth spurt and, of course, attendant growing pains,” he said. “But East Bay poetry probably follows the same course as most East Bay art scenes: a little grittier, a little more snot-nosed. Even the experimental poetry circles have a bit of that punk edge to them.”
There is another element that might surprise those who haven’t sampled the East Bay’s rowdy and oddly hopeful scene. “What really impresses me about the younger poets I meet,” said Corman-Roberts, “is how well they balance cynicism with sincerity. Their identities seem informed by both aesthetics, and to me, that’s really refreshing.
Book/Shop, E. M. Wolfman, and Beast Crawl are major elements in the East Bay literary revival, but there are many others. The poetry spectacular known as the East Bay Poetry Summit took place in May, as did the twelve-year-old Berkeley Poetry Festival. The annual National Poetry Slam, a five-day competition between teams from all over North America, will take place in Oakland from August 5-9.
The Omni, a huge new space for poetry events and other collaborative ventures, recently opened on the site of the old rock venue at 4799 Shattuck Avenue in Temescal. Billed as a “collective of collectives,” it will eventually offer workshops, a hacker space, a wellness center, a free school, and a live talk show, as well as readings.
On July 1, Timeless, Infinite Light, released It’s Night in San Francisco But Sunny in Oakland, an anthology featuring more than sixty East Bay poets. “The poetry community in the East Bay feels very alive right now,” said editor Emji Spero. “It has a DIY aesthetic and a sense of openness and possibility.”
Karp of the poetry series Quiet Lightning is convinced that the resurgence of the East Bay literary scene is also a harbinger for literature in general. “All the statistics are very clear,” he said. “More books are being sold. More books are being read. Indie bookstores that are innovative are thriving as never before. Small presses are thriving. It’s so easy now to make a quality book; the costs are low. The only thing that’s dying is the publishing industry as we know it.”
Small Press Distribution (SPD) is another hotbed of literary activity in the East Bay. A fixture in Berkeley since 1969, it has acquired a national reputation. It’s the only distributor in the country dedicated exclusively to independently published literature. It carries the work of more than 330 East Bay authors. “[W]e sell over 150,000 books a year and our sales are up 25 percent,” said Laura Moriarty, deputy director of Small Press Distribution.
Moriarty also was pleased to hear that I was writing a piece about the current literary scene. “Saying positive things about poets and poetry in a journalistic context is really good because journalists typically hate us. They think that we’re stupid.”
Another Bay Area institution, Berkeley’s Poetry Flash, has been seeding the literary scene for almost as long as SPD. It’s a quarterly publication that has offered reviews, interviews, essays, and calendar listings since 1972. Its current print run is 22,000 copies.
According to Poetry Flash’s associate editor, Richard Silberg, the East Bay poetry scene is characterized by “its vibrance and diversity, the high level of its sophistication and talent. There is tremendous energy and variety here.”
On any given Friday, you can usually choose from at least three East Bay readings that eschew the stereotypes of poetry readings as stiff, dry, and pretentious. “I was very conscious of going to readings and being bored,” said Karp of the experiences that led him to try a different approach in shaping Quiet Lightning’s format. “People rambling, thanking everybody in the room: No matter how endearing they were, there wasn’t enough of what I came for, which was the art.”
At Quiet Lightning’s packed New Parkway show on May 12, pure poetry gave way at one point to a woman singing wistful twee pop accompanied by drum machine beats. The event concluded with a ten-minute film debut on the theme of combustion. Many East Bay readings, in fact, now incorporate music, film, and artwork into the event.
The East Bay has always been San Francisco’s more down-to-earth, grittier counterpart, and many of its poetry readings reflect that. All over the East Bay, poetry events for almost everyone’s tastes abound. The Woolsey Heights series and the Manifest series take place in people’s homes. “That used to happen in San Francisco, but it doesn’t anymore,” Karp said. “Now it’s all in the East Bay. The intimacy and the casual nature of such events make the banter and socializing less inappropriate because we’re all just sitting in a living room and it feels right. There’s not that stiff formality and hierarchical elements that come with a designated reading space or formal institution.”
Zack Haber hosts The Other Fabulous Reading Series at the Long Haul Info Shop, an anarchist resource and community center. Alt-poetry royalty like Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian read there regularly. Pretensions slip away in a scattered back room lending library that doubles as a reading space where anarchists come to study.
The n/a event space in Oakland hosts the Red Element series, which focuses on poetry with queer themes. Or if you want to eat Indian food while listening to poetry, there’s Poetry Express at Priya restaurant in Berkeley. The Bay Area Generations literary events, meanwhile, require all readers to read with a colleague of a different generation. And Words of Resistance is one of the best poetry open mics in the East Bay.
During the four-day East Bay Poetry Summit, events popped up at a variety of non-institutional spaces for poetry, including Speakeasy, Woolsey Heights, Tender Oracle, and The Omni. The Summit’s premise was to invite a wide variety of poets from around the United States and Canada to give readings, lead conversations, mix cocktails, and flirt. The proceedings concluded with a poet softball game and barbecue. Each reading brought together writers who had never appeared together on the same bill, and some of them had never even met before. Newly appointed Los Angeles poet Laureate Will Alexander sent electricity throughout a packed living room when he recited lines from his surrealistic poem “Compound Hibernation,” inspired by astronomy, alchemy, and physics: the mirrors in my skin like haunted salamander fluid/like cells bereft with cooling centigrade rotation.
Through an Indiegogo campaign, the Summit was able to raise $5,300 to reimburse all the poets for their travel. The event included a trip to the newly discovered final resting place of iconic Bay Area poet Jack Spicer. Inside the mausoleum, poets honored his memory with a reading.
“All of us were really moved by the community support, and maybe a bit surprised,” said Summit co-organizer Brandon Brown. “It is a real testament not just to the enduring importance of poetry and community, but also to the particular community here in the Bay Area, where most of the support came from.”
Poetry in the East Bay is certainly of enduring importance, but it also seems to be of growing significance. More people are creating it, and more people are seeking it out. That may have to do with the fact that at it’s spilling out of its old containers. As always, it’s thought-provoking and educational, but now, increasingly, it dares to be entertaining, unpredictable, and even fun.
“A lot of people recognize that a poetry reading can also be a party, and that doesn’t take anything away from the art,” Karp said. “In fact, the party’s vitality may be an essential element of the poetry.”