Category Archives: San Francisco Writers

I don't mind! Why would I mind? It's fine! Everything's fine! Reject me! Go ahead and reject me! There's always tomorrow! The future is bright! Don't give it another thought. Just go about your day like nothing happened. I'm OK. Really. I'm fine! It's a miracle!

Poets and Writers Live: Of writers and political conscience

I write from passion and desperation; my heritage is as a punk and a hippie, a fan of visionary and beat poetics, a lover of revolutionaries and rebels. I also am drawn to the severe aesthetics of writers like Nabokov and Wallace Stevens. I straddle worlds.

But let’s have a little context.

The Friday before the Jan. 10, 2015,  Poets and Writers Live event at the Brava Theater in San Francisco, I walked up and down 24th Street distributing cards and posters  for my business of giving writing workshops and arranging international retreats.

I went to Adobe Books, Alleycat Books, and Modern Times. At Modern Times I ran into journalist Denise Sullivan, and asked her about prospects for survival at the venerable progressive Modern Times bookstore. Prospects are tolerably grim as usual. This, of course, brings to mind the volatile cultural and economic changes we are living with but let’s not go there quite yet.

I mentioned to Denise that I was going to the Poets & Writers event up the street the next day. Denise mentioned that Modern Times is hoping to find a coalition of public and private support to continue playing its role as a purveyor of books geared to left and progressive sensibilities. I thought that maybe one of the panels dedicated to talk about community and support might touch on this issue but I did not formulate any plan to bring it up. I just sort of thought it would be an obvious issue. That’s not so smart, really, but it’s the truth.

So, Poets and Writers magazine is sort of the main trade magazine for graduates of writing MFA programs. I have come to love Poets and Writers magazine, actually, despite occasional exasperation at its quiet tone. It lists all the major literary competitions and who won them, as well as all the upcoming submissions deadlines for writers hoping to have their work accepted by journals. This is indispensable career intelligence. Its articles, to my mind, are a bit mild. But as I said, I burn with impatience and long to read mad, hallucinatory, transcendent voices.

This matter of taste is not evident always in my role as an advice columnist, though I have used the column as a platform to soar when possible. Nor is the fiction and poetry I write openly “political.” Yet it has always been difficult for me to sit in a room full of writers talking about process and not feel like screaming. Especially those writers who have prestigious degrees, awards and publishing arrangements. So it was difficult to sit in the Brava Theater and listen complacently.  Yet I lacked the courage to ask those questions I considered important. I thought it was more important to behave, to try to be an adult about it.

Kevin Larimer, editor in chief of Poets and Writers, opened the event by introducing former poet laureate Kay Ryan. Kay Ryan was charming and her poems were enjoyable. But neither mentioned recent events in Paris that have rocked the world.

I should have stood up and said, What about the 12 murdered cartoonists in Paris? Can we have a moment of silence?

But, timid, half-asleep me, being a good student, I sat quietly in the balcony, remembering the early 1980s when Laurie Parker (who went on to become a movie producer!) and her sister, who worked there and always carried sandwiches, would let us in to the York Theater and we would smoke cigarettes in the balcony and watch  matinees.

I sat up there in that same balcony, enjoying Ryan’s poems and reminiscing sleepily. And the whole idea of writers’ roles in the larger society, the immediacy of it and its omnipresence — the fact that it’s not a writer’s role sometimes and not other times but all the time —  got away from me. I never spoke up or even raised my hand. I just kinda went with the program

To be fair, it was a beautifully run event in terms of efficiency, the politeness and well-behaved nature of the audience, the sticking to times, and the focus. Any political discussion would have been, in this setting, a disruption. Yet disruption is necessary at times. That is what writers are supposed to do, isn’t it? To disrupt? To speak the disruptive truth? To hurl insults from the balcony at power?

It was surprising that no one stood up and gave a speech or hurled insults, or cried or shouted.  Isn’t this crazy San Francisco? Maybe the $100 price tag kept out all but the most determined, commercially minded, career-oriented young fiction writers and poets? Anyway, I felt out of place in the  well-behaved crowd. Of course, if one feels generally out of place anyway, that’s part of it. But here is my beef:

I believe at gatherings of writers that some mention ought always be made of the larger global political context in which we work. Is this an outdated expectation? Perhaps the Poets and Writers staff discussed whether to mention the slaughter of 12 cartoonists in a Paris office building less than a week ago and decided to avoid getting sidetracked? It’s possible. This is not a reported piece so I haven’t asked them. Anyway I sat through the three morning panels,  skipped the first two after-lunch panels and returned for the last panel with Joyce Carol Oates, which involved Oates reading a poem that has been published in the New Yorker, musician Ben Arthur playing and singing an “answer” to that same poem, then a film using the poem as a leaping off point and then a dance performance, or maybe the other way around.

I had stopped listening and was scribbling away in my notebook, defensively.  That was interesting: That my creating is sometimes a defensive move, a way to reclaim creative space in response to the creations of others. Like I did as a kid!

Also had major realization about songwriting: need to jump in passionately again. So it was useful in that way. As to taste, I guess I just didn’t get it.

What’s not just a question of personal taste is this:

What customary obligation obtains for prestigious publications for writers to make space for vital political matters?

Is it not heartening at gatherings of poets to hear at least a token acknowledgement of world events that affect us? Does it not reaffirm a crucial truth? I think it a custom worth upholding. It says, to the uninitiated, that those of us who write recognize our global role, our responsibility to speak on behalf of others. And it reminds those of us involved in the daily practice that we are indeed doing it in a larger context.

As I was walking to the cafe this morning thinking about this, and the possible reasons no mention was made of the Paris murders, which are so in my mind and in the minds of commentators, I thought of the years that financial difficulties brought me to work for  one of the world’s largest oil companies. One of the things that shocked me, and left me feeling I’d been naive, was the unspoken assumption that what went on inside that building had no connection to what went on in the streets outside. When protests occurred outside the building directly targeting the company’s practices, it seemed that we ought to acknowledge and discuss the matter, and that the company ought to make some kind of explicit statement of its position. Instead there was silence. The message was that we completely ignore the world outside.

This is the corporate way. In the interest of efficient running, the keeping of timetables, corporate workers ignore “outside matters” and stick to what is functional: getting it done on time, sticking to the schedule. It allows corporations to ignore crucial issues and I think it’s a bad way to run a company.

I expected that a gathering of avowedly creative people would be different, more chaotic, more charged with energy. By the end I felt like a squirming teenager, eager to get out into the fresh air, wanting to shout, to rock and roll, to drive fast, to shout insults at those who had held me captive and whose placidity seemed to gain them the rewards we all wanted: the acclaim, the position, the security and acceptance.

It was an interesting moment. Then it ended. I went downstairs, ate one cheddar cheese square in the lobby “mixer,” I gathered up the remainder of my printed marketing materials, and fled into the fresh night air of 24th Street for a quesadilla suiza at El Farolito.

I Tweeted a little bit about this this morning. Maybe there is a conversation to be had about this.

For I am in a position full of contradiction. As I rail against the institutions I am at the same time courting them. I am diligently attempting to master the art of applying for fellowships and grants, submitting my work to journals and contests, writing queries and pitches.

That is why, actually, I so appreciated Kay Ryan’s quip about not being a joiner and assiduously avoiding such events as the one for which she was presently delivering the keynote. “Even a writer who doesn’t come to these things and loathes the whole enterprise still wants to know that they exist — that there is still a community to disdain.”

We all laughed. But no one said anything more about the contradiction, about our own, personal disdain for the messy and irritating job of self-promotion. It all went on in the background, all these ideas — how the democracy and freedom that allow us this privilege are being eroded, how the bookstores that were our lifeblood of community are threatened by economic change, etc.

And what was I there for in the end? Talk about contradictions. The $100 I spent to attend the Poets and Writers Live event was a business marketing expense. Leaving cards and fliers all up and down 24th Street was a marketing activity.

Although, to be fair to myself: I also attended as a matter of conscience and identity, as a writer of fiction and poetry interested in having my work read more widely.

It’s just a shame there was no  Jack Hirschman ranting in the lobby.

Does anyone else feel as I did — that there are some matters of soul, of conscience, that are present always and always ought to be voiced?

 

I don't mind! Why would I mind? It's fine! Everything's fine! Reject me! Go ahead and reject me! There's always tomorrow! The future is bright! Don't give it another thought. Just go about your day like nothing happened. I'm OK. Really. I'm fine! It's a miracle!

My screed for the Poets & Writers Live event

I felt so strongly about reaching out to San Francisco writers at the Poets & Writers Live event, such a strong sense of localness that I found myself staying up late the night before writing this long screed, pouring out my heart in the matter of what it’s like to be in San Francisco today, having moved from the Mission to the Outer Sunset, having seen Salon.com move its operations to New York, having seen the streets and the restaurants change. I printed out a bunch of copies and left them in the lobby of the Brava Theater, which I, being a longtime guy, cannot help recalling as the York Theater.

You can also find it as a pdf here. A Note to Fellow San Francisco Locals.

A Note to Fellow San Francisco Locals

(Subtitled: Really Just How Far Out is the Outer Sunset Anyway and Why Would Anybody Go Out There Except to Take Their Parents to the Cliff House Which Technically Speaking is Actually the Outer Richmond or Sutro Heights anyway?)

Dear Fellow San Francisco locals attending this Poets & Writers event,

My name is Cary Tennis and I came to San Francisco on a Gray Rabbit Bus from Florida via Manhattan in 1976 for the same reasons thousands of others came during those years – for the cultural and personal freedom unavailable elsewhere and to be around writers and musicians. I went to grad school in creative writing at San Francisco State. I ended up on the staff of the SF Weekly in the 1980s and wrote for the Examiner, Focus, San Francisco magazine, East Bay Express, Berkeley Monthly, Frisco and the Bay Guardian. I formed a band here called the Repeat Offenders and we played our first gig at the Hotel Utah. I drank here and got sober here. I read Herb Caen. I lived through the Loma Prieta quake and the East Bay Hills fire. I’ve been up and down and over and out and I know one thing: This is my town.

I came here with no money. I am one of those people who came here when a person could just come here. There was a nice lady at the Greyhound station at 7th and Market from Traveler’s Aid right when we pulled into town. Imagine that: A welcome wagon for hippies on a hippie bus. The Grateful Dead’s electrician who lived downstairs from us at 1492 Fulton showed us how to apply for General Assistance. We got jobs as bike messengers. Scholars on bikes. We learned the streets.

If you live here too and feel this magical city changing, we are probably here at this P&W event for some of the same reasons, and I would be happy to talk about it but I believe, as perhaps you do, that it’s not as simple as stopping the Google buses. And also I have a suggestion: If you are wondering what happened to the city you thought you lived in, get on the 71 bus downtown and ride it to the end of the line at 48th and Ortega and you will see a city you may have forgotten about. Plus, my house is right down the street at 1966 48th. I do writing workshops there. It’s quiet out there and the ocean air is fresh and the waves are big in winter.

The writing workshops I do are not for everybody. If you are a working writer with a solid practice and are happy with your routine and have easy access to your deepest emotional and psychic resources it might just seem silly. Writers used to work alone. I used to work alone. I worked alone for 30 years, or 40 years if you count the decade during which I was becoming a writer. But writing as a solitary pursuit can break you down, too. It broke me down. I finally sought support and community through Pat Schneider’s Amherst Writers and Artists method. I needed something warm and welcoming. That’s what the AWA method is. It’s not for everybody but it works for me and thousands of others.

But the thing is, I am also demanding and precise and volatile and impatient, schooled in daily and weekly journalism to get to the point and to get pieces drafted, edited and published, and though I sought refuge in the AWA method from the demons of ambition and fear and grandiosity, it didn’t cure me of those things, nor was it supposed to. I am still ambitious and grandiose and impatient.

So I started a second thing of my own creation called Finishing School, which is all about getting it done. Not about being cool or brilliant or accomplished but just about getting it done before it’s too late.

Time goes fast. That’s one reason to seek help getting written the things you feel you must get written. We lived right in this neighborhood before we moved to the Outer Sunset. Our move was dictated by gunfire. A bullet came through our window. We witnessed a shooting on 24th Street, on this very block, actually, back when Brava Theater was the York Theater and showed movies and you could smoke in the balcony. People were running down the street screaming and bullets were flying and my wife Norma said enough. We moved in 1993. We bought a house out there in 1997 when it became clear that no leftwing coalition was going to protect us from the economically motivated decisions of landlords and if we wanted to stay in the city we loved we were going to have to own something.

So, loving this town as I do, and feeling sad and afraid about how it is changing, I just wanted to reach out and say, wherever you live — in the Mission, in Cole Valley, the Haight or the Lower Haight, or the Fillmore, or South of Market, Inner Sunset, Downtown, Tenderloin, North Beach, Russian Hill, Pacific Heights, Dogtown, Bernal Heights, Potrero Hill, Glen Park or wherever – I invite you to come out to the Outer Sunset.

Take Muni. Or drive. There’s easy parking. You can park maybe not right in front of our house but on our street, or definitely on Lower Great Highway. Come early before the workshop and go to Trouble Coffee on Judah and 46th and have one of the best espressos ever, plus dig the very hip clientele and baristas. Eat at Outerlands. Amazing food. The owners Dave and Lana are sweet brilliant people, as is Julietta from Trouble Coffee. (We don’t have kids or tattoos or we’d also be into Small Talkers and that tattoo place.)

The house we bought in 1997 is pretty big, not huge but bigger than some of those little Bernal Heights houses, and plus we tore down some walls so the house itself is open and homey, a welcoming space for Saturday afternoon writing workshops. My wife, Norma, is an exacting and inspired cook, and she bakes amazing things, and we have cheeses and other nice things to eat. Plus we have not only the greatest drip coffee machine (Mocamaster) but also the amazing Nespresso. And I make green tea — gen mai cha, the kind with little roasted rice grains.

Pack a book and take the 71. Ride it to the end. It takes you half a block from our house. Or drive.

I do writing workshops out there.

Like I say, it’s not for everybody, but it might be for you.

Cary Tennis. Writing Workshops out at Ocean Beach
1966 48th Avenue (Pacheco/Ortega) SF CA 94116
cary@carytennis.com 415-308-5685 www.carytennis.com

 

 

 

 

Cary14

Three recent occasions upon which I should have tweeted and could have tweeted but did not in fact tweet

It was at one time understood that to be noble one must not draw unseemly attention to oneself or glorify oneself or make oneself seem, in a crowd, to be the most important person, or to seek glory only for oneself at the expense of others, nor to seek to draw the fame of others toward oneself for one’s own gain.

But today, all good citizens must tweet and tweet widely. One must take selfies and tweet these selfies widely. This is well understood and does not reflect poorly upon the tweeter.

And yet, things hold us back. Prior scruples, outdated mores and education, notions about what is proper and good, about how the self ought to be portrayed, about the self itself, how it once was a unitary thing and yet is now an atomized thing, an amalgam of a million tweets and bytes, a decentered, fluid phenom of the video multiverse.

I confess that on three recent occasions I was near people whose glory exceeds my own and should have therefore taken selfies and tweeted them widely but indeed did not. I had my iPhone in my pocket but did not bring it out. I betrayed my sacred duty. I froze up. I forgot my true mission. I had conflicting teachings. My father on his deathbed said to me, “Son, do what you have to do, but don’t overdo the tweeting. It’s bad for your eyes.” This admonition, wise as it was, held me back.

Yet when it is time to tweet, one must tweet. One must overcome. So herewith, three occasions upon which I should have tweeted and could have tweeted and did not in fact tweet. May the subjects and recipients of these tweets now, in response, retweet and widely retweet, so that these tweets may cover the earth and the cause be glorified.

1) Stanley Bing aka Gil Schwartz, upon the publication of his new book, The Curriculum:

There I was in his home, in the bosom of his family, among his many friends and his lovely wife. I could have embraced Gil Schwartz, aka Stanley Bing, taken a selfie and tweeted it widely. Yet I did not. Why not? Apparently I was doing what used to be called “having a good time.” I do not know what that is called now but I found myself sitting in his living room playing his guitars, joking with him and Laura and guests, and eating red beans and rice (or jambalaya, as later Norma and I had a rather detailed discussion involving some not inconsiderable amount of Internet research o the question of jambalaya versus red beans and rice). All that time, I could have been tweeting about his hilarious new book The Curriculum. I could have put my arm around him and his lovely wife Laura Svienty and we could have posed for a selfie-plus two and it would have only taken a second and might, as it journeyed around the globe, have inched his already impressive Amazon sales ratings just a tiny bit higher. I could have and did not. What is wrong with me? I think that Gil, Aka Stanley, might look into my eyes and say, Cary, my friend, you’re just trying too hard. Get with the flow. And I think he would be right.

So go buy his new book The Curriculum. If you do not, I just may buy it for you. It is as of this second Number 1 in Amazon in the category of Books > Business & Money > Management & Leadership > Training

2) Gary Kamiya’s Cool Gray City of Love:

So that was Saturday night. Then on Sunday afternoon Norma and I thought we would go down to the San Francisco Public Library to see what authors would get awards from the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association this year, because among our many friends up for awards was the inimitable and brilliant Gary Kamiya, whose Cool Gray City of Love was up for best regional nonfiction, and which, among many fine nominees, was indeed the winner. Again, I had my iPhone and while embracing Gary it would have been an ideal opportunity to take a selfie and tweet it but I did not.What is wrong with me? So imagine, if you will, the handsome Gary Kamiya receiving his award and reading from his book, and then go and buy the book so you can enjoy it yourself. It is now of this second Number 13 in the Amazon category of Books > Sports & Outdoors > Hiking & Camping > Excursion Guides! Oddly enough, but there you go.

3) The Write On Mamas collection Mamas Write:

Finally, on the Thursday preceding, we were at Diesel Books in Oakland with the Write On Mamas for the publication party for Mamas Write,  their collection of essays on writing and parenting which Norma and I had a hand in producing, as I provided some minimal copy editing and Norma designed the book. Again: I could have whipped it out and taken a selfie with Janine but I did not! What is wrong with me? I will endeavor to do better in the future, without, of course, appearing to work too hard at it.

Cary14

My reading is private–so why start reviewing novels?

Into my awareness a few weeks ago came this strange, unbidden thought: My reading is private. I don’t really want to talk with you about the books I love. I just want to love them in my own way. I mean, I like you and you’re interesting to me, but the reading I do is mine, all mine, and I don’t even all that much want to share it.

Is that bad of me?

The truth is full of paradox, of course. Because in practically the same breath I’m going to say: I’ve decided to start writing about books.

People expect you to want to talk about the books you’re reading. Why is that? Is it because books are supposed to be important? Is it because of a presumed duty, as a citizen, to sharpen your perceptions, to make sure you’re not misguided, or to share your insights with others for their enlightenment? That takes the fun out of it. Reading novels and poetry and short stories is one of the few pleasures left in which I do not incur an obligation. All I have to do is read. What a glorious pleasure! Why mess that up with a duty to discuss, analyze, explain a viewpoint and defend it? Aagh!

And yet. And yet I am interested in my own thoughts about why books do what they do, and how. And writing is a nice way to explore one’s own thoughts.

But here’s the real impetus behind my decision to start “reviewing” books. I want to be a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

It has to do with my longing to belong. I may not want to talk to you, but I want to belong to your club. So I was sitting in Java Beach writing my weekly Wednesday advice column this morning when, because I got on the mailing list for the NBCC at the AWP Conference (I can see the more I get involved, the more the acronyms are going to pile up), an email came from the National Book Critics Circle and I read it and suddenly I wanted to know who all these writers were that I had never heard of. I mean, I’ve heard of the ones that it’s obvious I’ve heard of and you’ve heard of them too, but the other ones I haven’t heard of and it made me curious and even a little excited. Of course, I’m used to massive disappointment, too, so it’s a guarded interest.

I’ve been on a kick lately, see, to find books I really like, and writers I can meet and talk to. Mostly it started when I read a San Francisco Magazine piece on Litquake and it was so disgustingly clubby and mutually congratulatory. This bothered me. But rather than simply make a face and take an attitude like a high schooler, I decided to embark on a project. I decided to be an adult and read all the novels by San Francisco Bay Area writers that I could stand, and be really, really honest about my own reactions, and see if I could find some that I really, really liked.

So far I’ve only found two novels. Well, three actually. To be honest. I read some interesting things but I only found three novels, lately, from the Bay Area, that I really could say I loved. Oh, and I found one short story collection that I really liked. Then I went up to the author of that short story collection after a reading and told him one story made me think of John Cheever and he said kind of dismissively—but also maybe self-protectively, as it’s a drag to hear the same old dumb first impression, when your work is much deeper and more complex than that—that he’d heard that before.

I’m still looking for more. I’m checking books out of the library all the time, whenever I hear of something I might like. I don’t like much. And I’m only going to write about novels and short story collections that I like. I mean really like. Like when I was a kid, when I read just because I liked it. I might mention books of poetry too but I don’t know if I can really write about poetry.

I guess writing only about books I like would make me not an official critic. That’s fine with me. I don’t want to be a critic. I’m not out to enforce my standards or influence the world’s taste and judgment. I just want to join the NBCC and get their magazine discounts.

I’m not really all that interested in having a dialog with you, either, about the books that I like. I say what I say and you read it in private and that’s that. That’s how it used to be. Your enthusiasms are probably different from mine, anyway. Mine are strange but also at times very quotidian. I don’t know if you’ll enjoy what I have to say about the books I like. I’m not doing it for that. I’m doing it so I can have three reviewer’s clips and then maybe they’ll let me into the National Book Critics Circle as a charter member sort of. And then I can get those magazine discounts.

Like I say, to tell the truth, I’m just one of those people who just wants to belong. I want to be in the club. You can be in the club with me. I’d like that. I just don’t want to have to explain and agree and disagree and all that. It’s like, the cool thing is, I’m not getting paid for this, so I can do it however I want! Isn’t that great! No more pretending!

Oh, and also I figure it’ll show book editors and agents that I know a little bit about how novels achieve their effects. Since I’m writing one myself, I ought to know. I think I kind of do.  I think I kind of know how to do it, I think. So I’ll enjoy talking about that.

Soon I’ll do my first one. I hope it’s not too hard, like a test, or an assignment in school. I don’t think it will be. I’m not trying to prove how smart I am or anything. I already know where I stand with that whole business.