Cranky Lightning

I’m at the Quiet Lightning reading in a VERY CRANKY mood ready to liveblog. It smells like pot in here and I’ve had a gin and tonic and about 100 hipsters with scarves on are blocking my way to the bathroom so get ready for me to bitch like hell and become even more unpopular. So far halfway in I’ve wanted to slap everyone except Bucky Sinister. The format is a nice idea, rapid fire switching readers with no introductions and MC-ing or writerly apologias for work to come. The writers hop up on stage and read in order as declared on the event’s handy postcard flyer. At least in theory. The organizers make a tiny perfect-bound anthology every month and as we all know, the perfect-bound book published by someone who isn’t actually yourself is the Holy Grail, and regular readings are good, so I guess this is a literary scene now.

two handfuls of baby owls

Alia V. read a very annoying memoirish “fiction” about being the Spanish-English interpreter in a doctor’s office while a mom explained that her physically and developmentally disabled 9 year old son has a huge penis and is hitting puberty early. Alia intermittently rambles about her own teenage son and how they don’t talk about anything, then goes back to obsessing on and sniggering about the 9 year old’s huge penis and laments with “irony” that Pablo will never have a lover so his gift is wasted. The audience actually “hmmmmed” as if she had said something profound instead of bigoted and ignorant. Whatever, heinous ableist HIPAA-violating wench, even if it’s “fiction” you can blow me and I see why your teenager doesn’t talk to you. What a waste of ink.

Bucky Sinister read a sweet amusing well structured piece of prose, Grey Side of the Moon, about leaving arkansas on the tornado and saying Fuck You Dorothy for going back to your grey land while meth girls with homemade tattoos and dudes with cat whiskers die for technicolor. He did not quite say that but close to it. “Dorothy walks into Rainbow Grocery wearing ruby red Doc Martens. I’m looking for the good witch. Everyone raises their hand.” Oh Bucky you are so punk rock and I’m sorry your friends fucking died from ODing and AIDS. The audience laughed in all the wrong places. I even liked the Fake Tits Haikus in the middle. You know how some people can write about their lives like “Oh, I did so many drugs. Body fluids. The end.” and it’s so pretentious because the bit past “the end” is probably “and now I am a Ruby developer and complain loudly if my pumpkin latte is not quite right”? Bucky’s stories don’t do that. Instead they make me feel the world right here is simultaneous with the rest of the world. Bucky is good. You should go to his Wednesday night comedy show at 8pm at the Darkroom.

Jonathan S. earned my instant tired loathing for some kind of fake-ass audrey hepburn Bostonian theatre class accent mixed with other accents all horribly dominated by jim morrison-like doggerel recited in the portentious tones of the Slam Poet as the audience Hmmmmmmmed. Humdrum poets! Quit that! go start a band or something! Fuck! People Hmmming all over like something deep was expressed. OMG someone just shit out a little rabbit pellet of emoto-philosophy in rhyme! Quick! Everyone hmmmm!

Ian Tuttle. A sweet poem to the road, like a route 66 paean, too young and earnest to be annoying. I liked his Death Valley poem and think he has a nice line break once in a while. Suddenly I worry that some MFA program will ruin his soul. He could stand to go listen to my friend Arntsen’s bursts of geographical brilliance. And either pack more density of ideas into a long poem or take it somewhere; ie think of it as a narrative.

Ali Liebegott did the forbidden intro about being a paleontologist or something. The sweetest dinosaur that ever lived. I pretend he was a cardigan wearing painter, an effeminate dinosaur, a friend. When people weren’t assholes, because there weren’t any people. Okay this is fucking great. Hahahhahahah. Got me. Then an excerpt from a novel called “Cha-ching”. About her boss that called everything “you fucking faggot”. The faxed prices of semiconductors entered on a prehistoric computer. Reminds me of zines about “unworking” from 1992. “I pretended to be Nawal El-Saadawi….” Ahahaha . I just snorted out loud. That was pleasing. Insane bookkeepers and swishy nylon sweatsuits with a booger-eyed white terrier and the desperation of scarfing breakroom donuts. Dude I’m flashing back to my 80s and 90s temping days. “My life was sad in Yonkers.” Not like fake-edgy, but actually reality-bending! Someone remarks that Leibegott is the poor man’s Michelle Tea, which seems a bit unfair. Anyone who pretends to be Nawal El-Saadawi while being oppressed by data entry is good enough not to be compared all the time to Michelle Tea.

Kim A. gets a lot of frat boy cheers from the crowd. Her poem is called Blues for Robert Johnson. That inspired dreamy voice. I swear i will never fucking do that… shoot me if so. It’s an okay poem. With harmonica. Why does everyone read in that VOICE? Shooooot me. What if people just went around always talking like that? It’s like I imagine the elocutionist sounded from Anne of Green Gables. I could read this paragraph like a slam poet elocutionist and people would applaud it. She plays the harmonica charmingly! I applaud the harmonica part. Then a poem about the great penis famine of 2008 and a dick-tater joke. Penis blues. I feel impatient for this audience. This poem would get an A in a creative writing class. I feel fairly certain she’s grownup enough to have written something much better than crowd pleasing BS. Now a train song on the harmonica, very good! Awesome! Robert Johnson would approve.

Intermission. Starved-for-pussy 60 year old silver foxes in black turtlenecks with 20 years out of date pickup artist techniques consider me and back slowly away. Correctly spotted, old dudes! I do not get invited to any tantric zen sex poetry workshops by any of the facelift set. They found other prey. Instead I talked with Monica Storss my new neighbor & a poet who just moved into a boat called Bohemia and who was sporting an epic tiny velvet hat with peacock feathers and jewels on it, and her awesome cleavage; talked with Sara Moore who is also a literary translator, and Charlie Jane. I gave them all inside-out books. Saw Stephen Elliot but did not manage to get across the room to say hi. People were talking vigorously and having a nice time! Books were for sale at a table near the bar.

Baby owls in a little hutch animated gif

2nd half

Andrew D. A chapter from his novel about a homeless man on ecstasy. Written in 2nd person. “You can feel the ocean. This is the moment. This is home. Not where you grew up in Montana.” If you go back to Montana, turn to page 37. If you stay here by the ocean, turn to page 129. The elocutionists’ intonation. I wonder what this would sound like if I just read it out loud as I do books at bedtime to my son. That might improve it. The intonation stretches out vowels and weirdly de-emphasizes the ends of sentences. It’s half an octave higher than people’s normal voices. It has a little sing-song to it as if an echo effect is about to repeat each line for a disco chorus. Anyone who writes about “The Homeless Man” as a sort of metaphor character should be fucking slapped. It’s like the magical negro. But metaphorical homeless guy. When did “homeless man” become this particular placeholder rather than “hobo” which had something a lot different to it while perhaps over-romanticizing the jumping on boxcars aspect of poverty at least you could make a good blues song out of it yourself, rather than hanging out on the sidewalk waiting for some haight street aspiring novelist to dehumanize you in immortal, boring prose.

Lauren B. “First, do not be beautiful.” Trauma! Drama! Dating! Do not be a nice young writer lady who dates married guys while you both pretend not to be damaged and maybe sort of don’t have an Affair. We are not all Anais Nin. We mostly regret this. It’s fine to try. I will never understand heterosexual women.

Peg P. Nice boots. Yes… yes the protocol IS that you are supposed to launch into your reading. OMG, not kiss ass on the organizers. We already applauded them. Okay read something. We applaud the organizers for her again. Whatever. Shut uuuuuuup. Read it! Story about some young heterosexual college people in some town somewhere smoking weed. I think they are about to go bowling and have some trauma on a lacy bedspread or a backseat. The mic has screwed up and half the audience is rowdily unconcerned while the other half, who have produced their own readings and shows and music for untold ages, itch and sigh that it is not rocket science to run a mic. Uh oh! What will happen at the bowling alley! Check, check, one two. Check. Start over! Tony and Joey down by the schoolyard, redux. Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson. Exposition. Exposition. I expect someone will be named Vinnie next. Scenery description. Glass ashtrays. We are in a pizzeria’s back room smoking some weed. Rather than some kind of saturday night live gang rape scene in the back seat of a car we are suddenly in a conversation about Jane’s poetry. Existential moment. Sex is mentioned only obliquely. The mary sue insertion college student is still talking about her poems. Mary Sue Waspy Snotbag is now gawking at some working class italian lady’s house decor like she’s never seen a cut glass candy dish in all her born days. Maybe you had to be there. I’m glad I’m not a writing teacher. I have lost track of who Courtney and Zach are but I so don’t care. OMG Tony will not have sex with her right in the bedroom while his mom is calling from downstairs. I was right about the lacy bedspread. Write what you know I guess! The end!

Charlie Jane reads a story about Audrey and her unrentable donut-shaped apartment after her breakup with Mary. The chain of their broken promises. “We’ll only eat candy we make ourselves!” Not. Audrey sits down at the computer to search for new roommates and is addicted to internet porn. She finds “master doug and lady bee” who want a live in part time sex slave, french maid, and nanny. Her vanilla ex doesn’t understand. “Maybe you should go to a Munch!?” says Mary as they continue to codependently call each other, post-breakup. The suburban squalor of Master Doug and Lady Bee’s cul de sac house in Alameda. I didn’t think you’d have so much stuff! I hope you can fit it into your hutch! Sara and I are cracking up. The maid uniform is from the Halloween store. Audrey longs to be subsumed in lifestyle D/S and scoured clean of her doubts. But suburban slavery doesn’t transfigure her. At least not yet. Creepy and funny and sad!

Charlie Getter. He likes to yell. We’re radioactive! I prefer the yelling to sing-song daydream twee-land. He’s preaching it. Walls fall. A couple of people call & respond and go “Yeah” at the right points. Gravity! Why is this place so messy! Rant on! This man has been in church with some snakes. Or can fake it from watching it on TV. I don’t care if your stock options have risen to 300 dollars a share because we are on a mountain and gravity expands and contracts like the heaving chest of a sleeping puppy! And we might be its dreams. Yes you heard me. A puppy. You probably heard Mr. Yelly too. New poem. (recite-yelled.) The ocean. Landlocked places. The audience attends! Bolivia… well actually Bolivia is sort of not landlocked or it wasn’t and it does have that one patch of beach. He does not like Kansas either and is probably Bucky’s friend. At least this is not boring, and has an Idea. I like more density of ideas though, and something that is more of a new idea. Or at least one new idea slammed into an old idea. However, cannot help but clap for walls falling and the awesomeness of oceans. Unless you’re Bolivia.

Thus ends my critique.

I’m curious to go back to Quiet Lightning and see what new writers pop up! I wish for this event to take its own format more seriously. The publishing venture is impressive & a good thing. I enjoyed that many of the stories and poems were San Francisco-centric with recognizable Bay Area landmarks and culture at their heart.

Next reading of any sort that I go to, I’m going to record the “hmmmmm” noise so as to make fun of it better.

The Collected Works of Marita Bonner

I’m reading Frye Street & Environs: The Collected Works of Marita Bonner. Marita Bonner was a writer of the Harlem Renaissance who graduated from Radcliffe in 1922, moved to Chicago, and wrote a series of stories about a street of immigrants and African-Americans and their social dynamics. The short stories are pretty great, though very depressing, as the characters mostly come to bad ends; jail, the electric chair, social diseases, suicide, murder, soul-crushing poverty, rape, prostitution, adultery, boyfriends and husbands killing cheatin’ women, heart attacks from overwork, and a lot of babies who don’t get very good babysitters & grow up on paregoric syrup. They’ll definitely stick in my mind.

Here’s a list of the stories and plays:

On Being Young–a Woman–and Colored.–The Young Blood Hungers.–The Pot Maker: A Play to Be Read.–The Purple Flower.–Exit, an Illusion: A One-Act Play.–The Hands: A Story.–The Prison-Bound.–Nothing New.–One Boy’s Story.–Drab Rambles.–A Possible Triad on Black Notes.–Tin Can.–A Sealed Pod.–Black Fronts.–Hate is Nothing.–The Makin’s.–The Whipping.–Hongry Fire.–Patch Quilt.–One True Love.–On the Altar.–High-Stepper.–Stones for Bread.–Reap It As You Sow It.–Light in Dark Places.

I didn’t so much love the plays; not my thing. But it was interesting to read her stage and casting instructions which depend so heavily on casting someone of exactly the right shade of dark or light or bronze to express their character. A lot of the characters would fall into the category of “tragic mulatto”. Basically if you’re light with blond hair and violet eyes in a Bonner story, you’re out of luck and probably have several Social Diseases along with your silk dresses and bath salts (for the women) or handsome chiseled features and natty suits (for the men). Bonner tells stories about black people criticizing and fighting with other black people over social class and education, keeping her harshest criticisms though for people who are trying to be up and coming but who mistake expensive stuff for the way to do it. Other characters like Lee in “Hate is Nothing” have a sense of aesthetics balanced with their education and morals. Lee, like so many of Bonner’s characters, wants some excitement and escape. She goes driving off into the night to the nightlife of Tootsville, but instead of meeting a bad end she gives a ride to a lady in distress, helps bail her daughter out of jail, and comes home to hash out some of her issues with her husband and mom-in-law. Lee likes “nice things” but they’re presented by Bonner as being refined and artistic — silk cushion covers and a fine china tea set from Lee’s grandmother. I was relieved that Lee got a happy (if melancholy) ending.

“Black Fronts” tells two stories of social class from three different points of view. in Front A an extended family struggles through the depression by going on relief, having three families under one roof plus taking in a boarder, while one of the sons tries to keep up his status of being a lawyer along with his partying wife, Rinky.

You know Rinky. The skin of civilization which covers the black worlds has been erupting her type for years…. no back – no middle – all front… Rinky was one of those still so bedazzled with their own fresh varnish of diction and degrees that they cannot discriminate between those born to the manor and those born to the gutter.

Bonner just cannot stand poor Rinky and her husband and their pretensions but she has some sympathy for their worries as they lie awake at night thinking over how they just spent their last $5 on a bohemian party for their friends with sandwiches and booze – how will they eat, or live, and what happens when their creditors demand to be paid up in full? Rinky frets awake about how to send a dollar home to her mother down south (though even as she worries it’s more about her social position in dispensing largess than about responsibility or concern.)

Front B has a top and a bottom story. The top is in the voice of a maid, Mrs. Jones, ironing some napkins and needling her employer for not being as generous or having as nice stuff as another lady she works for. As she irons she is abusive to the children she’s there to babysit and plots out how to steal some napkins and sugar and vanilla (for the church and baking for the preacher!) while seething internally with resentment at her employer for not being a white lady, for not taking care of her own kids and doing her own dirty work. Mrs. Jones thinks of it as shameful to work for another black woman. The bottom of Front B is the middle class black woman who employs Mrs. Jones on the phone with a friend and in her internal monologue, frustrated and trying to carve out a little time for herself in the day (and failing). She especially hates how Mrs. Jones criticizes her for not having enough nice things, then steals the nice things she *does* have. Front B was one of the best stories in this book, with the internal and external monologues of each character perfectly set and perfectly mixed.

The hard workers and penny pinchers don’t fare any better than the social climbers, either because they die from overwork, their babies die, they get raped by their white employers, or because while trying to save their kids from poverty, they interfere with the course of true love or hold their children back from ambition. Or if that doesn’t happen, their children grow up to be slutty teenagers who frequent pool-halls and then there is inevitably a knifing and someone fries in the electric chair.

I also admired “Drab Rambles” which has a short preamble on the basic damage to people of color in the U.S. done by racism. “I am hurt. There is blood on me. You do not care. You do not know me. You do not know me. You do not care. There is blood on me. Sometimes it gets on you. You do not care I am hurt. Sometimes it gets on your hands — on your soul even. You do not care. You do not know me. ” “A check-mated Hell, seething in a brown body.” The story is told in two unrelated portraits. The first is of a 50 year old coal shoveller, Peter Jackson, at a clinic because of his bad heart. The second is of Madie who is trying desperately to keep a job while she has a little baby (also named Madie) to look after. Problem is anyone who will employ her for more than 5 minutes wants to rape her.

Madie second was black brown. The baby was yellow. Was she now going to go job hunting or have a sister or brother to keep with Madie second?
Cold perspiration sent her shivering in the alley.
And Madie cursed aloud.

I can’t say I exactly liked “One Boy’s Story” but like the others it will stick in my mind. The little boy Donald lives with his mom who takes in sewing from the white women of the town. The local doctor, white, has an affair with his mom, which everyone but the boy knows about. At some point she tries to end it and another man shows up, who looks to be her previous boyfriend or sweetheart, but when he figures out the doctor is Donald’s father he freaks out and leaves. The doctor comes tomcatting around again while the little boy hears his mom freaking out. He hits the doctor in the head with a stone and then while hugging his mom and crying afterwards, the pin of her brooch goes into his tongue AND HE GETS GANGRENE AND HAS TO HAVE HIS TONGUE AMPUTATED and everyone is a little bit glad that he can now never tell what he did and how he killed his dad. The end? Man that was gross and depressing.

I’m curious now to read more about Bonner’s life and to look at the work of her and Georgia Douglas Johnson’s “S Street Circle” of writers. I felt a bit sad that she stopped writing and publishing in 1941. I respect how she didn’t just write about the problems she herself faced as a fairly middle class woman with an Ivy League education. She dove into all sorts of intersectional problems of race and gender and social class. Her stories are eloquent and masterful in language & character expression, definitely worth a read.

I got this book out of a free box outside a little branch library in West Oakland along with a lot of other cool classics of late 19th and early 20th century African American literature and felt a bit sad too that the library didn’t have room to keep these works.