When I was 19, I thought I would move to San Francisco, go to open mike poetry readings and see Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg on the sign up sheet. I figured I'd read at the same readings where they read, they'd notice me, and that's how I'd become a famous poet. But it didn't quite work that way. Most of the people on the open mikes were wingnuts with a pen, some paper, and a lot of free time. Aside from Jack Micheline, Julia Vinograd, and Jack Hirschman, there were few well-published writers that read at the open mikes. Writers that I associated with San Francisco, such as many of the Beat writers, lived in other cities by the time I got here. The writers who did live here didn't seem to get out much. The events at Litquake are much the way my 19-year-old self imagined San Francisco writing events would be.
Litquake events are just that: EVENTS. They're more than readings or signings, they often have the feel of something bigger. Even if it's at a venue such as Porch Light, the crowds will be more populous than normal. Litquake's Pub Crawl turns tiny bar readings in the Mission district into a crowded walkaround neighborhood of poets and readings.
I went to Between the Bridges last Friday, this year's festival kickoff event at the Regency Ballroom. It was a night spotlighting musicians inspired by literature. What better theme for a literary festival than "irony?" That's what I could figure, as they chose to open a literary festival not with writers, but with musicians. I enjoyed much of the music from Penelope Huston, Jill Tracy, and Dan Hicks, who performed songs inspired by specific pieces of writing. But in a festival already cramped for space, the coordinators chose to devote their prime hours to musicians who don't really need more promotion, like Lars Ulrich, co-founder of Metallica, a band that has sold 90 million albums at last count.
Why include a hippie blowhard like The Doors' Ray Manzerek? Does he have anything to do with literature? He babbled on in a "Reverend Lovejoy" type voice inspiring the well-dressed woman sitting next to me to exclaim that she wanted to beat him with her shoe, and then do something to him I can't print here, but if you know what a "Cleveland Steamer" is -- that's close. Naming his band after an Alduous Huxley reference (almost 40 years ago), doesn't make him literary.
Session musician and former Green on Red band member Chuck Prophet ridiculed literature altogether. He said that he had started some books before, but never finished one. Great, Chuck, thanks, this is an event ABOUT books, now get off the stage. I would've been more excited staring at a metronome. Mark Eitzel, who stated plainly that his music had nothing to do with books, at least admitted to having read a few.
Frank Portman, an actual author, closed the show with a bang. Frank's new novel, King Dork, is now out in hardback. He read a hilarious exchange between two high schoolers who are forced to talk to each other using only the few French words they know. Then he closed by playing a song that one of the characters plays in the book. So it actually tied in to the evening's theme AND he slaughtered the crowd.
I have to mention the pulled pork sandwiches at the afterparty, and direct you to the caterer's blog.
Saturday I was off to the Koret Auditorium to check out Visual Language: Authors in Words and Images, which I thought was a graphic novel group, scheduled before my own reading there. I enjoyed Lev's short cartoons, which were very stylistic, funny anecdotes from his own life. Then photographer Erick Davis discussed his photobook, The Visionary State: A Journey Through California's Spiritual Landscape. The problem is Davis thinks in pictures, has devoted his life to the pursuit of the image, and had no ability to speak out loud whatsoever. He "walked" me. As a man who has sat through tortuous poetry many times, to walk me you have to be more than boring.
In what may have been the best Litquake gig I've gotten since the festival's inception, I was grouped in a program called Noisy Lit: Writers Who Have Been There and Back with Bay Area performance artist Josh Kornbluth, which thrilled me until I found out he wasn't going to be there, and not only that, I was looking at the audience when they made the announcement, and saw the looks on the faces of people as they realized The Guy They Came to See wasn't going to be there. Following this disappointing news was...me. Thanks for the set up. Geez. But I'm glad I didn't have to follow the others. Kate Braverman, Daphne Gottleib, and Kirk Read were all on top of their game that night and tore up the audience. Michael Tolkin, most notably the author of The Player, was a bit mis-grouped, but as he is one of my favorite screenwriters I was honored to be on the same bill. Ben Fong Torres, the long-time editor of Rolling Stone, filled in for Kornbluth.
There are plenty more good readings to come: Thursday, October 12 at the Edinburgh Castle join Alan Black and others in the Sports and Circuses: The nasty, brutish, and shorts of it program and Saturday, October 14, the infamous Lit Crawl runs 6-9:30pm through various Mission district dives.
Litquake runs October 6-14, 2006 at various San Francisco locations. Visit Litquake dot org for more information.