Kaplan set the scene:
30 years ago, Christian Fundamentalism was creating a monolithic message-controlled media empire using the very tools of technology that had previously been seen as signs of a godless modernity. 30 years ago advocates of social programs were besieged again and again by the red baiting of Cold War rhetoric. 30 years ago the film Cruising brought audiences the silver screen fantasy of a serial killer who targeted gay men in S&M bars of New York. 30 years ago Kramer vs. Kramer swept the Academy Awards after it dramatized the changing gender roles wrought by second-wave feminism – never mind that the show's host that year, Johnny Carson, mocked President Carter in front of his live television audience for the ongoing Iranian hostage crisis. 30 years ago a secretarial revenge fantasy called 9-5 was the second-highest grossing movie. But 30 years ago adventure stories about white men dominated weekend box office returns: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman II, Escape from New York, and yet another installment in the James Bond 007 saving the world from communists.
30 years ago Thatcher and Reagan were swept into office by a wave of free market ideology that dominated economic superpowers of the West. 30 years ago an army of conservative think tanks and industry lobbyists were hard at work preaching the virtues of privatization. 30 years ago during the first year of his administration Reagan nominated Milton Friedman to his Economic Policy Advisory Board. 30 years ago the Reagan and Thacker administrations launched an all-out coordinated attack on labor and social welfare programs that had been established since the 1930s. 30 years ago was the moment that Paul Harvey has called the "turning point" in neoliberalizing of the U.S. economy.
30 years ago Time magazine named Ayatullah Khomeini its Man of the Year. Ronald Reagan won the honor the following year. 30 years ago Arnold Schwarzenegger won Mr. Olympia for the fifth and final time. 30 years ago IBM introduced the IBM PC. 30 years ago computer geeks were on the rise. 30 years ago the mystery of who shot J.R. was solved. 30 years ago John Lennon was murdered. 30 years ago the start of the fall television season was delayed by a 3-month strike of the Screen Actors Guild. 30 years ago Derrida published The Post-Card (1980), Foucault wrote his history of sexuality, and the Oakland Raiders won the Super Bowl (in January of the new year). 30 years ago when the clock was ticking down to the start of a pandemic that would be called AIDS. And 30 years ago gay bashing and anti-feminism were very much part of the American vernacular.
Changes in the culture. Change in the political economy. Where would the battle be fought?
And then introduced the conference:
It was against the backdrop of these events that Steve Abbott and Bruce Boone organized the LeftWrite Unity Conference at the Noe Valley Ministry in February 1981. Their goal was to bring together diverse writers with heterogeneous, often competing aesthetic agendas. In imagining a more democratic, inclusive agenda for the Left, the conference was far ahead of its time. There were workshops for “Radical Asian-American Writing," “The Political Impact of Lesbian and Gay Writing,” "Translation as a Political Tool," "Native American Writing," and more. What today is sometimes called ecopoetry was the main topic of a workshop titled, "Take It To the Streets/Living Leaves of Grass." [Schedule] The conference steering committee was comprised of several familiar names: Robert Gluck (logistics), Bruce Boone & Denise Kastan (Finance), Steve Abbott (Agenda), John Mueller (Publicity). Denise Kastan was then the director of Small Press Traffic. Workshop coordinators: Robert Gluck, Wendy Rose, Deborah Major, Jack Hirschman, Ann Finger, Francisco X Alarcon, Ricardo Mendoza, Rosa de Anta, John Curl, Susu Jeffrey, Merle Woo, and Bruce Boone.]
The attendance numbers vary depending on the different accounts. Hilton Obenzinger wrote a conference report describing 250 attendees. Conyus wrote a conference report describing 150 people in the audience for the opening panel. He added, "There was a noticeable absence of blacks, Asians, and Latins present" (Conyus 91). Robert Glück has written about the conference. He recalls, “To our astonishment, three hundred people attended Left Write, so we accomplished on a civic stage what we were attempting in our writing, editing and curating: to mix groups and modes of discourse” (LN, 33).
The LeftWrite conference was visionary for mean reasons but not least because it brought these groups together under one big roof. In the decade before the conference, the different coalitions held many rallies and protests for their individual causes. The reading schedules and announcements in Poetry Flash can provide a brief survey:
February 1973 - Farmworkers Reading
March 1973 - Poetry Celebration for International Women's Day (at Jewish Community Center, SF)
March 1973 - Benefit reading for the People's Community School (at Berkeley Art Center)
8/31/1973 - Benefit Reading with Creeley and Kyger (Unitarian Church at Geary and Franklin)
Chilean Refugee Benefit Reading - with Fernando Alegria and Michael McLure (SF Museum of Art, spons. Poetry Center)
12/2/1973 – Benefit reading for the Greek Resistance at the Berkeley Unitarian Church.
2/13/1976 Benefit for the Balasaraswati Music and Dance School (with Gary Snyder at the SFSU Poetry Center)
April 1976 - Tin-Tan Benefit reading took place at Intersection;
6/5/1976 - Pro-Prop 15 reading/rally (Stricter regulation of Nuclear Power Plants – Prop. 15 – Measure was defeated.)
10/02/1976 - "Cotati Freedom Poetry Festival" - "88 poets" for the Folsom Prison Poetry Workshop (at Caberet Club)
11/19/76 – "Poetry from Violence Against Women – (at Glide Memorial Church)
3/7/1977 - "Doc" Stanley Defense Fund Poetry Jam - (at Earth People's Palace, Berkeley)
7/3/1977 – Prisoners' Benefit Reading with poems of San Quintin Prisoners (Burlingame Public Library)
12/23/1977 - Amnesty International Benefit reading
4/2/1978 - Women Writers Film Festival: A Benefit for Women's Building (SFSU)
6/6/1978 – Benefit for Tassajara (at Intersection with Philip Whalen)
6/17/1978 – Benefit for Native American Treaty Rights (against "nine bills in Congress abrogating all Indian Treaties," held at Grace Cathedral with nine poets, two speakers, light show, and music.)
6/27/1978 – Benefit for Small Press Traffic Bookstore (at Intersection with Leslie Scalapino, Mary Oppen, Tom Mandel, Bruce Boone, and Michael Palmer)
8/10/1978 – Benefit Reading for Cassandra Peten ("facing 7-10 years in prison on an attempted murder charge after shooting" abusive husband, held at Women and Women's Writers Union with Peten, Gloria Anzaldua, Sukey Durham, and others.)
12/10/1978 – Benefit Reading for New World Press (at Intersection with Ishmael Reed and nine other poets)
12/15/1975 – "Giant Performance Benefit for Native Americans in Jail" (at South of Market Cultural Center with more than twenty poets, slideshow, and music)
4/7/1979 - Anti-Nuke Rally with Artful Goodtimes Poetry Sideshow
2/11/1980 - “A poetry benefit to aid the Committee to Stop the Movie ‘Cruising.’ The issue: Violence against Gays in the Media," held at Small Press Traffic.[i]
Kaplan also provided the LeftWrite Conference Program (see below) and he explored the impact of homophobia and competing visions of the Left on the conference's work and outcomes.
Panel 1. "How Does Our Writing Arise From And Affect Our Communities?" (Nellie Wong, Alejandro Murguia, Judy Grahn, Robert Chrisman).
1. Past Political Lessons: An Overview of Left Writing (George Benet, David Plotke). Transcribed/edited by Calvin Doucet.
2. Native American Writing (Wendy Rose, Frank La Pena, Jack Forbes, Janet Campbell, Maurice Kenny). Transcribed/edited by Murray.
3. Black Writing (Deborah Major, Sha'am Wilson Hayes, Darryl Gauff, Clyde Taylor). Transcribed/edited by C.T. Hall
4. Translation as a Political Tool Against Poundism (Jack Hirschman, Stephen Kessler, Kosrof Chantikian, Michael Koch, Charles Belbin, Doreen Stock, Peter Kastmiler, Csaba Polony). Transcribed by Michael Koch
5. The Politics of Feminist Writing (Ann Finger, Gabrielle Daniels, Margo Rivera). Transcribed/edited by Steve Abbott
6. Chicano Latino Writing (Juan Felipe Herrera, Tomas Ybarra-Frausto, Yvonne Bejarano-Yarbro, Alejandro Murguai). "Rethinking Mobilization: Thoughts on the Left/Write Conference" by Juan Felipe Herrera.
7. Take It to the Streets/Living Leaves of Grass (Leslie Simon, Kush, Artful Goodtimes). Transcribed/edited by Steve Abbott.
Panel II. "How Can Writers Best Join in a Unified Political Struggle?" (William Mandel, Amber Hollibaugh, Ron Silliman, Diane DiPrima). Transcribed/edited by Steve Abbott.
8. Writers as Workers (R.V. Cottam, Inez Gomez). Transcribed/edited by Allen Cohen.
9. Radical Asian-American Writing (Merle Woo, Spencer Nakasako, Vicki Geraro). Transcribed/edited by Paula Herbert.
10. Political Impact of Lesbian and Gay Writing (Jeff Escoffier, Eric Garber, Roberta Yusbah, Amber Hollibaugh). Transcribed/edited by Calvin Doucet.
11. Criticism as a Political Tool (Al Richmond, Mirtha N. Quintanales, Richard Irwin). Transcribe/edited by Ken Weichel.
Steering committee: Robert Gluck (logistics), Bruce Boone & Denise Kastan (Finance), Steve Abbott (Agenda), John Mueller (Publicity).
John Curl (Conference Coordinator).
Workshop coordinators: Robert Gluck, Wendy Rose, Deborah Major, Jack Hirschman, Ann Finger, Francisco X Alarcon, Ricardo Mendoza, Rosa de Anta, John Curl, Susu Jeffrey, Merle Woo, and Bruce Boone.
Many thanks to Kaplan, Bob and Bruce for an engaging evening!