The Creative Writing Industry and Aesthetic Criticism

Or, Maybe, a Bitch Session

The title of this entry sounds grander (well maybe not now that I’ve added the “or” and all that follows it) than the brief note here can live up to. I’m rewriting a chapter of a manuscript that includes the following:

In the 1988 article entitled, “Aesthetic Tendency and the Politics of Poetry: A Manifesto” published in the journal Social Text, the co-authors Ron Silliman, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Steve Benson, Bob Perelman, and Barett Watten constructed a direct response to the types of criticism lobbed at this group of writers. They write:

While we are flagrantly writing this article as a group, the perceptive reader will already have noticed that until this point neither the ‘Language School’ nor ‘Language Poetry’ have been named. This is no accident; the politics of group identity are a problem (and challenge) particularly for those alternately identified within and without it (272-273).

The authors go on to point out and criticize the fact that the machinery of public reception for poetry–its publication venues, contests, etc., is predicated on an ideology of transcendent excellence, making opaque and natural its criteria for selection and distribution. Thus, the project of these writers who read each other’s work, who are a community, is to return poetry to a locus of collectivity where there is transparency in terms of the ideologies that traverse and structure communities and writing projects and their availability in the literary market place.


I’m not evaluating here this statement vis-à-vis these writers.

I would like to connect this to one piece of student feedback (read evaluation) that I’ve recently heard about. The student writer expressed grave concern about any feedback the student got from an instructor that began with “this might just be my aesthetic but....” and it brought home to me how some students trained in the creative writing industry through participation in writing workshops have consumed the ideology of pure, unsullied critical judgement. The workshop industry tends to promulgate this view–there is good and bad writing–and the difference between the two will be crystal clear. Or rather, the illusion of excellence demands opacity. To suggest that there are different aesthetic principles for evaluating writing destroys that glittering illusion. Probably certain nodes of the creative writing industry are more responsible for this than others? I don't know. Most places would likely prefer that those who teach in such programs not talk about these complexities, discrepancies, etc.

I’m not trashing creative writing workshops here. I’ve been in them and I’ve taught them. There is value there. But, there must also be a place in them for a critical component. This means even a place from which the project itself can be self-reflexive, self-critical, self-aware. Exhibitionist even.

What’s behind that gold standard? Maybe it is not gold at all but a dark and loamy standard. Maybe beauty is a disarray, a dishevelment that reveals something else. Cacophony’s vibrato.......Does that make someone uncomfortable?


SPT's Poets Theater Fest 23 Jan 09

What is poets theater? What makes it different from theater generally? These are questions we might ask. We might answer, we know it when we see it. We might say it has a history that one might trace to Gertrude Stein and Frank O'Hara, and to others in Boston, New York and San Francisco though poets theater has been cropping up elsewhere recently, in Chicago and because Carla Harryman is in the Detroit area, one assumes poets theater is happening there as well.

In San Francisco, the last number of years at the beginning of each new year, Poets Theater has been a recurring pagan fête, like some kind of post-holiday tantalizing glitter and glut. What could be better?

First: I am so sorry to have missed last week's plays. For a Reader's Report on them, see Brandon Brown here. After some reputedly nearly nude performances, some have been engaging in a daily ritual of sit-ups. Also, part of the post-holiday glitter and glut....now, I am feeling like a gossip columnist!

But here's what I began to think about on my way home last night with regard to the question of what makes Poets Theater different from theater generally, especially when some plays are full length productions (w/ some kind of narrative "arc" even if asymptotic)and not written in any kind of "verse" or necessarily "poetic" language, though some pieces certainly do contain these elements.

One feature of Poets Theater as I have experienced it in San Francisco is its local, communal nature. The plays are written and directed and acted by writers and artists and other people in the larger alternative creative scene in the city. Those in the audience may have been, at one time or another, on the stage, and usually those who end up on the stage have almost certainly been in the audience at one point or another. Now last night, the first play (see below for program notes from SPT) was written by a Los Angeles writer, Vanessa Place. I don't know anything about Vanessa but I loved her piece. And maybe she's never been in the SPT Poets Theater audience, so perhaps my claim about the local communal nature of Poets Theater doesn't always hold true. And one might say this about Raymond Pettibon's play too: Pettibon lives in LA not San Francisco, but maybe the audience feels like we are acquainted with him because we might know his art and we certainly know about Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy's appreciation of his work. Nevertheless, the people who directed and acted in the pieces are local, part of the community.

Some of the pleasures of Poets Theater include the fact that we might know the actors and enjoy seeing them turn up in various guises and personalities. In one play Jocelyn Saidenberg might be a woman from Iceland, then she's "the King of Turkey" in court dress, and then later Patty Hearst. Sometimes too, the plays poke fun at the community itself, making fun of poets, artists, academics, writers. Some plays inhabit current or recent events (see The News from Zimbabwe below [and, oh, how I wanted to call out STOP! during this production which included Abu-Ghraib style torture]) and popular culture (say in almost anything that Kevin Killian does), or they might reference some of the history and drama of the Bay Area's "poetry wars," or the various incestuous and overlapping relations between members of the community itself. The plays are magnets for local history and relation. They are sticky. Vaudevillian.

Let me swerve asymptotically here for a moment:

I've been rereading Nightwood and recently gave a lecture on it (and The Postman Always Rings Twice) at UCSC. Nightwood is replete with theater and circus.

In a fabulous article: "Circuses and Spectacles: Public Culture in Nightwood" in the Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Summer, 1997), Laura Winkiel writes the following:

Barnes contrasts the mysterious and perplexing public life of the circus performers to the alienating effects of spectacle as they are figured by Robin Vote, a contrast that critiques the transformation of public culture from local, heterogenous sites of entertainment to the capitalized, homogenized culture industry.4 On the level of plot, Robin's solitary wanderings are an aspect of her self-destructive alcoholic behavior, yet the language used to convey her character and her explicit rejection of the circus (she flees the circus and later abandons her circus-decorated apartment) link her to Barnes's earlier critiques of mass culture spectacle. Barnes interrogated aspects of mass culture as early in her career as 1915, when she interviewed Arthur Voegtlin, the artistic director of the Hippodrome, an enormous theatre that subsumed the circus into its spectacular displays. This historical transformation from circus to spectacle rematerializes in Nightwood as its hybrid (what Barnes terms "Elizabethan") aesthetic provides the theatre for the combination of spectacle and circus. This aesthetic compensates for mass culture's alienating effects even while, at the narrative level, it expresses the loss and isolation endured by the main characters (8).

Here's the connection: Poets Theater is akin to the kinds of local, bawdy, participatory theater, circuses and vaudeville productions that existed prior to the advent of spectacular displays, "the capitalized, homogenized culture industry." Guy DuBord's writing on the spectacle is important here. (Brandon mentions spectacle in his piece too. Check it out.)

But, what does this mean for the future viability of Poets Theater beyond its local and contextualized moment and place? I think it has a future. Don't you?

Hannah Arendt on polis:

The polis, properly speaking, is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies b/w people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be.

SPT Program Notes for Poets Theater Fest 23 january 09

A Mummer's Play by Vanessa Place
directed by the lovely Yedda Morrison
set design: young and up and coming Una Lomax-Emrick & Steve Emrick
Swords: Jonas Brash
Score: Frank Brash

Mummers Plays (alson known as mumming) are folk plays performed by troupes known as mummers (or guisers, or pace-eggers, guysers, tipteerer, etc.. They are performed in the street or as houst-to-house visits. They date back to medieval England, with variants in German & French carnival customs.

Father Xmas Dana Teen Lomax
Twing Twang Una Lomax-Emrick
The Doctor Samantha Giles
Jack Finney, The Doctor's Man Norma Cole
Bellzy Bub Tanya Hollis
St. George Wendy Kramer
The King of Turkey Jocelyn Saidenberg

The News from Zimbabwe: A Re-Enactment
conducted by David Buuck & cast

Setting: Midnight in the Harare Central Police Station.
Souce Texts: Dambudzo Marechera, Robert Mugabe, Chenjerai Hove, Cont Mhlanga, Anthony Tongani & Silvanos Mudzvova, & the Los Angeles Times.

Cast: Lara Durback, Dennis Somera, Mary Diaz, Tom Orange, Dillon Westbrook, Erika Staiti, Lindsey Boldt, Rebecca VanDeVoort & David Buuck.


Flow--Winged Crocodile/The Trains (Act One)written & directed by Leslie Scalapino

Inside a bedroom, three young women demonstrate simultaneous conflict and serene balance between the left and right side of a person's brain.

Left Side of the Brain Leslie Scalapino
Right Side of the Brain Anna Weisman
Tanya (Patty Hearst) Jocelyn Saidenberg
Crocodile-Michelin-Rhino M. Mara-Ann

Only the Money is Realby Raymond Pettibon
from a treatment by Regis Ginn
directed by Kevin Killian

In this thriller an offbeat art historian is hired by a laconic attorney to authenticate a collection of priceless Old Master and Impressionist paintings on behalf of his client, socialite Marilee Larimer. Intrigue, deception, violence ensue. For reasons of time we will only be showing the first few scenes of this full-length play.

Hardin Jordan Kantor
Clitterbuck Kota Ezawa
Marilee Larimer, 40ish woman Dodie Bellamy
Monica Stafford, astronomy prof. Suzanne Stein

Leslie Scalapino in Flow-Winged Crocodile/The Trains (Act One)

Dodie Bellamy and Jordan Kantor in Only The Money is Real

Jocelyn Saidenberg as Tanya (Patty Hearst) in Flow-Winged Crocodile/The Trains (Act One)

David Buuck and Dennis Somera in The News From Zimbabwe: A Re-Enactment

Wendy, Jocelyn and Tanya (and the back of Alli Warren's head!)

Norma Cole and Jocelyn (on the floor) in A Mummer's Play


Various & Sundry

Here's a glimpse of Jim Brashear, author of My Side of the Mountain, at mi casa in San Francisco January 2009. He's at the dinner table and offering Alex (beyond the frame) a chance to explore the mysteries of the iPhone.

I missed so much of what was going on in the Bay Area this past weekend! And there's more and more to come.

More Poets Theater at Small Press Traffic this Friday featuring:

Flow Winged Crocodile
by Leslie Scalapino

Only the Money is Real
by Raymond Pettibon
directed by Kevin Killian

A Mummer's Play
by Vanessa Place
directed by Yedda Morrison

The News from Zimbabwe: a re-enactment
conducted by David Buuck

and then the following Friday 1/30 for video & intermedia works by Linh Dinh, Ariana Reines, Heriberto YГ©pez, Konrad Steiner, Henry Hills, Paolo Javier & Dennis Somera, Dillon Westbrook, Karla Milosevich, Cassie Riger & Amanda Davidson, Bill Luoma, Claudia Rankine, & more!

Also, in Santa Cruz,at UCSC:

Fri, January 23 / K. Silem Mohammad / SEMINAR - "Bad Form" / 4pm, Humanities 202
Fri, January 23 / K. Silem Mohammad / POETRY READING / 7pm, Felix Kulpa Gallery


Robin's photo and me in My Side of the Mountain

You may recognize this photo from an early entry, called "Brrrrrrrr--Summer in San Francisco." Now it's the map for an online poem.

Remember, wherever the cursor turns into a hand, you can click. Especially over red dots.


Saturday January 10, 2009 Tribute to Jack Spicer at San Francisco Public Library

It was an unexpectedly bright and balmy Saturday afternoon when I arrived at the San Francisco Public Library for the celebration of Jack Spicer and the newly published My Vocabulary Did This To Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian. I work as a floating reference librarian at SFPL and had been scheduled to work but pleaded to get the day off to attend this event. I'm so glad! And I'm glad that Clay bought me the Spicer book for my birthday.

The Koret Auditorium was packed and people stood at the back. Kevin was the master of ceremonies, as he so often is at so many Bay Area literary events. Here he is here.

It has been more than 40 years since Spicer died in 1965 at the age of 40. He was an enigmatic and probably difficult literary companion. But his work shimmers. We are lucky to have this collected poems. Kevin explained that the collection was ready for publication some five years ago and then Robin Blaser found a cache of Spicer papers in his attic, and there was MORE to collect and edit and ultimately, for us to read. Kevin told us the book is selling well and recounted the difficulties of getting some of Spicer's work back in to print. He noted that one rather famous academic critic suggested that there was no need to bring out Spicer's work. It would appeal only to a few homosexuals in Callifornia. This is my paraphrasing of Kevin's paraphrasing.....astonishing, and yet, not. The book's sales record thus far proves this critic wrong.

The afternoon's readers included: Kelly Holt, Scott Inguito, Jason Morris, Coler Jacobeson, Laura Moriarty, Cedar Sigo, Bob Gluck, Larry Kearney, Lyn Hejinian and Lewis Ellingham.

Lots of Bay Area writers and artists were in attendance, including Beverly Dahlen, Nick Robinson, Norma Cole, Fran Herndon, Wendy Kramer,Taylor Brady, Jocelyn Saidenberg, Suzanne Stein, Francesca Rosa, Rob Halpern, and many, many others. Out of towners--Tom Orange and Kaplan Harris--were also visiting and on hand.

Kelly Holt read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Landscape, an early poem I really loved even if Kevin suggested something about its appropriateness as part of a soundtrack for Sixteen Candles! Here's Kelly.

People read from: After Lorca,(poems I never get tired of: Poetry and prose combust), Psychoanalysis: An Elegy, Billy the Kid, selections from Language, The Heads of the Town Up to Aether, and more.

Laura Moriarty read from Billy the Kid and Kevin called her poem Spicer City one of the best poems written on Spicer's work.

San Francisco being the city that it is--so full--outside in front of the library a rally demanding the end of the violence in Gaza:


From The Angels of Light to New Narrative and Labor Activism

"...garden-variety anarcho-syndicalist (with bourgeois tendencies, of course)"--F.S. Rosa

An Interview with F. S. Rosa by Robin Tremblay-McGaw

RTM: Tell me how and when you came to San Francisco.

F.S. Rosa: I moved here in the 1970s from upstate New York after high school and crashed with a friend in the Haight, who was a supernumerary in the Angels of Light and lived in a commune in a big flat on Stanyan. Then I moved into an apartment on Central Avenue right off the Panhandle. And of course many more apartments after that. Quite a few of my friends from back east had moved here. When I arrived most of the storefronts on Haight Street were abandoned and boarded up and speed was all over the neighborhood, but there was still lots going on. San Francisco was a place where people wanted to be, just like it always is. It was very cheap to live here. I had visited SF as a child, when my father moved to CA and I visited him some summers from Connecticut. He lived on the peninsula but of course we visited SF as tourists and I decided I wanted to live in SF when I was around eight. It was only a matter of time to grow up and get here from the East Coast. Other than Ramallah or the East Bay, I’ve never really wanted to live anywhere else although I have a weakness for the Connecticut shore in the summertime.

RTM: How did you get involved in the writing scene in San Francisco?

F.S. Rosa: I make for a pretty awkward scenestress, any way you look at it and I don’t think there is or was one scene, but lots of them. Over the years I’ve gravitated to a greater or lesser extent to different groups. In the 70s artists, writers painters, musicians, underground filmmakers were swarming everywhere all over each other to get at that cheap San Francisco rent, not to mention that the city was so much nicer and freer and more fun than most other places. Gentrification was already happening, it’s most famous icon the International Hotel in old Manila Town, and before and after that there was the Redevelopment Agency devastation of the Western Addition and across Market Street in SOMA, what is now called Yerba Buena, which at one time was a working class retired seaman’s community. But it was still possible to live here very cheaply if you weren’t one of the targeted working class communities or communities of color sitting on land the Redevelopment Agency or big Hong Kong real estate conglomerates et al, wanted. We were to a certain extent unwitting shock troops in the gentrification process, including in the Haight, but that is another story. Later it happened in the Mission, but much later.

In the 1970s, anyone with the slightest literary or otherwise creative bent would have to be half dead not to be involved in some kind of scene because it was happening everywhere and you didn’t have to devote 9/10 of your life trying to pay the bills. That freed up tremendous amounts of energy and the effect of that on individuals and communities cannot be underestimated. Small bookstores and cafes with open readings were on every other street, along with storefront performance spaces and tons of little art house movie theaters. There was always a Buñuel film at one theater or another, which to me is the sign of a healthy creative metropolis since if Buñuel is always showing that is a good indication that the philistines have not completely triumphed. For fiduciary reasons, my favorite movie theater was the Times on Stockton near Broadway, or maybe it was Broadway near Stockton, that showed double features for 99 cents. It was very funky and there was no ventilation. The smoke of various kinds would get so thick by the middle of the second feature you could hardly see the screen if you were sitting in the back, but the price was right and the screener had excellent taste. Heavy on the foreign films. I learned a lot. I’d go home and write really bad poetry about all the films I’d seen. I haven’t seen it in years, and I have no idea what I’d make of it now, but El Topo really got me worked up. This was pre VCR/DVD so if you wanted to see whatever wasn’t shown on the three TV networks and public television, and Channel 36 (where Carol Doda was reading these amazing editorials on school busing or energy policy and such, with her reading glasses perched on her nose and here décolletage down to there—as surreal, or more, than anything Andre Breton could have thought up) you had to venture out into the world. It all helped get me started.

I also used to spend a lot of time in the basement reading room of City Lights books, with that great chapbook section. I didn’t have any money, so I’d just read the chapbooks there. I was mesmerized by them. Publishing a chapbook seemed like the most extraordinary, unattainable thing to me. You could sit there for hours and hours since there were plenty of tables and chairs and they wouldn’t throw you out or expect you to buy anything or get bent out of shape if you came back day after day and did the same thing. The store was a lot smaller then. A tiny upstairs part and then this big basement. A real refuge.

You could go to the Church of John Coltrane on Divisadero, and they’d feed you. I didn’t go there a lot, but I did go there. The beat and the Jazz scene, even though so much of the jazz scene in the Western Addition had been destroyed by redevelopment and the Beats had long been superseded in SF by the whole psychedelic scene, etc, was still extant, and nurtured a lot of us, even if we weren’t always consciously aware of that. North Beach was more like the Mission is today. Not quite so commercialized although well on the way there. Intersection was still in North Beach then.

The Angels of Light and their delirious offshoots were performing regularly, and in their early days they were really jaw dropping, visually spectacular; gender bending in ways that can’t be very accurately categorized by today’s standards, and they made everyone around them want to be artists and performers too. Of course there was a lot of music going on. Since tickets to concerts were beyond my budget I didn’t get to as many concerts as I would of liked, but I got to see all kinds of musicians—Tuxedo Moon performed regularly, and there were musicians and dance troupes everywhere, because they had space to practice and plenty of free music and theater in the parks.

People were not so distracted by electronic media, because it did not exist. A mixed blessing. I cannot now conceive of my life without my lap top or the internet. But it created a different dynamic involving people having much more time to meet face to face and write or paint, or perform or whatever they were doing.

Drugs were everywhere. Not just the controlled substances, but what the doctors were prescribing. Unfortunately, a few doors down from the doors of perception many people were strung out, dying a lot with the massive influx of heroin, speed and coke and later Angel Dust, or being shipped off to the psych wards. It was a very intense time—this manic, relentless creativity by people who were inventing, not following, and then these ongoing O.D.’s, accidents, suicides, murders.

AIDS did not happen until the early 80s, but there was still a lot of death by the late 70s. San Francisco, as many of us knew it, disappeared with Jonestown and the murders of George Moscone and Harvey Milk in 1978, and there were other things as well. We all had our private horrors, and then a few years later, the first onslaught of AIDS. So there is a shadow San Francisco to many of us, just behind the one that exists now. Comforting and disconcerting by turns, depending on one’s mood. Plenty to write about.

RTM: You were in Bob Gluck's Small Press Traffic workshop, yes? What was that experience like and how did it inform your writing?

F.S. Rosa: When I first joined Bob Glück’s writing workshop in the mid ‘80s he was teaching several workshops through California Arts Council Grants. Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian were very involved. This was before they were married or even a couple. Kevin was publishing Mirage, and Shy was either just about to come out or had just come out. Dodie had just published The Debbie’s I Have Known and was starting to work on her Mina Harker letters. Mike Amnasan was there and had just published I Can’t Distinguish Opposites and was now doing a lot of writing about his life as a construction worker. Camille Roy joined around the same time I did and really started developing her style and worked on her first plays in the workshop. Bruce Boone was coming less to the actual evening I attended. I think he was probably still going to the one of the other workshops, but he was a very definite presence and influence hovering over the entire proceedings. I read My Walk with Bob ,of course. We all did. Bruce could be inscrutable and very abrupt at times, and at others he was the most wily and charming raconteur with this daunting scholarship. Once he got on a roll, he could really wrap you around his finger, whether you were one person or an audience at a reading. Bob had recently published Elements of a Coffee Service and was just about to publish Jack the Modernist. Sam D’Allesandro was going to one of the other workshops I think, or at least he and Dodie were pen pals. I knew Sam in other contexts, through my friend the painter Jono Weiss, but also got to know him more as a writer through other members of the workshop. He was working on the stories that later became The Wild Creatures, published posthumously and edited by Kevin Killian.

Other writers, I’m not sure would have defined themselves as New Narrative, or can be defined as such, but who were doing very good work were John Norton, Phyllis Taylor, Richard Schwarzenberger, Tom Tolfa, Clara Sneed, Edith Jenkins and you, of course, though as I recall you didn’t come in come in until later. Edith Jenkins, and her husband Dave Jenkins (who ran the California Labor School and was a member of the ILWU), had both been blacklisted in the 50s, and she was writing a memoir about those times in addition to her poetry. I was fascinated by her work and life and that of her husband. They had known Harry Bridges, Paul Robeson, the Oppenheimers, Edward Weston, Jessica Mitford and tons of other people besides. She was big part of the workshop for me.

Bob would bring in something at the beginning of every session, from Flaubert, to Maurice Blanchot, Bataille, and so on and read from it. Heavy on the French but a lot of other things as well. It was a good way to start out the session and exposed us, or at least me, to things I wouldn’t necessarily have read, or even heard of otherwise. Then several of us would read what we had brought in that week, and the group would critique it.

Small Press Traffic was at the original space on 24th St, then moved down the street, and ended up eventually at Bob’s house. Bob was doing all this cutting edge sexual stuff with the literary theory thrown in, this really kind of revolutionary writing, but at heart he was a Victorian housewife as he will be the first to tell you, and he kept and keeps a lovely home, and is an excellent cook, so it made for a fraught but at the same time cozy atmosphere.

All the literary theory was very compelling, and irritating to me by turns, but it helped definitely make the workshop what it was. It put into high relief a lot of one’s basic assumptions about writing and how one views reality. The core of the new narrative group were all such good writers, and all so smart, and eccentric, in the best sense of the word, it made me work much harder than I otherwise might have. It was all very experimental, with a real definite degree of intellectual rigor. All the business about Post Modernism, the Frankfurt School, French Structuralism, Mayakovsky, etc., very heady and provocative. You really had to pay attention.

RTM: Did you find a community there? What did you want from it and what did or didn't you get from it?

F.S. Rosa: A literary community, most definitely, for quite a few years. Earlier I had been more around performance artists, actors, some filmmakers and a lot of painters—I was not an Angel of Light but a fellow traveler, and was doing a great deal of drawing and painting. Some performing myself in a group called ‘Warped Floors’ that was like a non-singing, non dancing auxiliary to the Angels, and I started doing a lot of staged readings and was in one of Marc Huestis’s early films, his underground comedy (for lack of a better term), ‘Whatever Happened to Susan Jane?’ (WHSJ). All very interesting, but at a certain point I decided to focus on writing. A literary community was what I was really looking for. Scenes proliferate in San Francisco, but community is hard to find. I couldn’t do everything and earn a living too, and I definitely had to earn a living, so once I was in Bob’s workshop it became obvious that this was a place where I could really develop my craft. I stumbled on the workshop because Edward Guthman, who had played a reporter in WHSJ, and whom I had become friends with (although I haven’t seen him in years), insisted that I read Jane Bowles’, My Sisters Hand in Mine, Two Serious Ladies, and so on. Millicent Dillon had written a biography of Jane Bowles—A Little Original Sin—and was doing a reading from it at Small Press Traffic. This must have been in ’82 or 83. Edward insisted that I go with him to the reading, and Bob Glück was mc-ing the event. That was where I met Bob and decided to go to one of his workshops, which I think he plugged at the reading, or maybe there were fliers posted around. Later I also did a number of staged readings of Jane Bowles’ and Millicent Dillon’s work, some with Edward and some others. Local performance artist Silvana Nova, who long ago moved to NYC was involved in some of those readings. We did a collaboration—a staged reading with Ellen Sebastian of some work during an evening when we also did some staging of Gertrude Stein short pieces in a reading series Dodie Bellamy had set up at Small Press Traffic.

I write fiction very slowly, and discard most of what I write, but over six or seven years Bob and the group vetted all the stories that eventually showed up in Post War and Other Stories, as well as other stuff I had the good sense to ditch. Dodie and Kevin helped me publish a chapbook with e.g. press, Davis Highsmith’s old press, and I published a few things in ‘Mirage.’ I did readings with Sam D’Alessandro, Camille Roy, Bob, David Lugn, John Norton and others and for several years went to readings and plays and staged readings all the time. Steve Abbot was not in the workshop, at least not the one I was in, but he was organizing a lot of readings and events. I really liked his book Skinny Trip to A Far Place, but he didn’t publish that until ’87. Roberto Bedoya ran a really good reading series out of Intersection. Going to a lot of readings is something I really miss. I just don’t have the time anymore.

Eventually the California Arts Council Grants dried up and our Republican governors decided that expanding our prison system and harassing all the undocumented folks who harvest our food and clean up after the mess the rest of us make was much more important than supporting the arts, so Bob started running the group out of his house. Around this time he became Director of the San Francisco State Poetry Center for three years. The workshop started meeting every other week rather than once a week. After the two stores closed, he moved the workshop to his house. I started working on my novel The Divine Comedy of Carlo Tresca after I finished Fred’s, and that turned into a far longer term project than I ever possibly imagined, even for a slow writer like me.

At a certain point, the group changed—once Bob became a full professor at San Francisco State it became more of an advanced class for his grad students even though he still held it at his house. I still attended because Bob’s editing was so important to me and I made some good and lasting connections at that time, most notably you and Rob Halpern. But it was just a different time, with a different group, no doubt invaluable to the core participants, but almost all the people I had started out with were gone. But the first seven or eight years were crucial for me and made a real literary community for me. It made me a writer.

RTM: Tell me about your political work and the variety of things you've been involved in over the years.

F.S. Rosa: I’m a long time rank and file labor activist, sort of a garden-variety anarcho-syndicalist (with bourgeois tendencies, of course). For most of my adult life I’ve earned my living in the trenches in private non-profit organizations, which are absurdly underpaid, so I’ve helped organize a few and have been active in my union and my local, currently Local SEIU 1021. I’ve been a shop steward, on the contract negotiation team, picket captain when we were on strike, etc. I just finished up a seven-month leave of absence from my job working for my union in the private non profit sector and the political department. Currently I’m a member and rank and file delegate from my local to the San Francisco Labor Council , arguably the most progressive Central Labor Council in the United States.

I cut my teeth on the Vietnam War, that was my first civil disobedience arrest, in high school, and of course I am against the current U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I am a member of U.S. Labor Against the War (U.S.LAW) , Bay Area Labor Committee for Peace and Justice, and the nascent U.S. LAW Middle East Task Force. In 1982 the invasion of Lebanon, the scatter bombing of Beirut by the Israeli military and the slaughter of thousands of mostly women and children, and old men in the Palestinian Refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla, (paid for by the U.S. and orchestrated by Ariel Sharon) really woke me up to what was going on in Israel/Palestine/Lebanon, and later in the Middle East as a whole, all paid for with our tax dollars. The level of misinformation on this issue, as it is distorted through the lens of the corporate media, U.S. Foreign policy, oil money, and AIPAC is shocking. Then there is the censorship in academia among other places—witness the denial of tenure to scholar Norman Finkelstein (child of Holocaust survivors and author of Beyond Chutzpah and The Holocaust Industry) and Mehrene Larudee of De Paul university recently, due to their work on this issue. People have to speak out and research what is going on beyond what the corporate press is telling us.

I went to the West Bank for six weeks with the International Solidarity Movement in 2003 . Now I work with a few groups on various projects, preferably small practical projects that yield concrete results: Arab American Union Members Council sometimes, and Jewish Voice for peace (though I am not Jewish ) are two such projects. Currently, on a volunteer basis, I work with the ad hoc labor committee of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) to bring their USDA certified organic fair trade olive oil from Palestine to the San Francisco Labor Council. Bay Area JVP sells a lot of olive oil to lots of people, but I am their point person along with Mo Shooer for local labor. Members of the SF Labor Council can make donations toward bottles of the olive oil. The donations go back to the Palestinian farmers in the form of various projects. Last year a playground was built in Tuwani; this year the proceeds go to sponsor a women’s West Bank embroidery project. Labor Council members can support this project and also learn about what is going on in the region, and different campaigns such as the Caterpillar Campaign from the small pamphlet attached to each of the bottles and by going to the JVP website.

As a rank and file SF Labor Council delegate, not a high level official, it’s possible to get things done if you understand the territory in which you are working. Not always easy, but possible. Bay Area Labor Committee for Peace and Justice (LC4PJ) has an informal sister union relationship with a PGFTU local (Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions) in East Jerusalem, and helped arrange for the president of that local, Manawell Abdellah, to speak before a very well attended SF Labor Council breakfast when he was in the Bay Area recently, and we also have raised money for much needed computer equipment for his office. LC4PJ also co-sponsored several events when Mohamed Khatib of the Bilin Popular Committee Against the Wall was here. Khatib is frequently referred to as the Martin Luther King of the West Bank.

RTM: In addition to a lot of discussion about writing (and particularly poetry) and community, writers are very much interested in writing and its relationship to politics; for example, there was a recent article in The Nation about poetry and politics, and the Small Press Traffic conference in May 08 on Aggression and poetry and political antagonism, etc. I'd like to hear your thoughts about this nexus of things--writing, community, politics.

F.S. Rosa: I missed the conference—although I’m certainly glad it happened— and the article, so I am not able to comment on those things themselves, but as for the mixing of writing, community and politics, I’m all for it. I don’t think it’s the only way to be a writer, or any other kind of artist. There’s no one way to be an artist or writer. But mixing it up with community and politics is one way. We can always use more Pablo Nerudas.

RTM: How do you see your political activities as related to writing?

F.S. Rosa:I think we all get our assignments. Not sure how, but we do. I am a big believer in aesthetics for their own sake, and the development of the writer and artist outside of any constraints or context of the state or politics. No one should be scolded because they don’t participate in that realm, but that is not my assignment. I am also convinced of the importance of the writer as agent of social change. Within this context, my patience is minimal for those who think that good politics automatically makes for good writing. It doesn’t matter how good your politics are, if you are reciting platitudes and PC clichés. What is interesting is where the politics and aesthetics intersect whether it is fiction or non-fiction and if you can pull off the unexpected and make the work interesting as literature or non fiction as well, and if you apply some rigor and discipline to the deployment of your craft. One thing that interests me is how individuals function in relation to each other and their attempts to retain and negotiate their humanity within the context of late stage corporate capitalism gone wild. I retain archaic notions of a working class intelligentsia. I recently discovered the work of Victor Serge. Don’t know what took me so long, but his writing and politics are inseparable, and he is one of the great writers of the last century.

RTM: You were part of The Cockettes in San Francisco, yes? Tell me about that.

F.S. Rosa: No! I most definitely was not a Cockette. That was a signal honor reserved for the very few, and they’d already broken up by the time I moved to San Francisco. The best sources on the Cockettes are the documentary film The Cockettes by David Weissman and Bill Weber and also Pam Tent’s book Midnight at the Palace: My Life as A Wild Cockette . Both highly recommended. The Angels of Light were in ascendance when I moved here in 1972. I crashed for about a month with a good friend of mine from back East, Charles MacMillan, who had a room in Scrumbly Koldewyn’s apartment off the Panhandle. Scrumbly, the anchor of that household, was a former Cockette and was (is) a great pianist and songwriter, with a vast musical repertoire. He was the set builder and all around den mother to the Cockettes and generally acknowledged as the most together and responsible of the group. He and Pam Tent married and had a child. Not your standard wedding or relationship. I moved here shortly after that. All kinds of people would drop by that house—Divine, John Waters, Sylvester, Mink Stole and so on. This was before they were as well known as they are now, but they all had an underground audience. It was a huge flat and, of course, the rent was a couple of hundred dollars a month. Scrumbly was a great cook too. Still is, I expect, although I haven’t seen him in years.

The Angels of Light were a kind of splinter group from the Cockettes, but also a new thing entirely. My second night at Scrumbly’s we all took a big field trip to Rio Nido up North and I got to see my first Angels. Mindblowing does not begin to describe it, especially for a seventeen year old who has just escaped from Clarence, New York. My friend Charles was in the chorus. The performance was extraordinary, and of course enhanced for many in the audience by all kinds of controlled substances. That was not me, that came later, but the contact high was pretty impressive.

The Angles believed in free theater and for many years refused to charge money for shows. At their best, and some of that credit must go to a lot of the costume work of Beaver Bauer, and the lighting and set design of Brian Mulhern, they were a visually indescribable spectacle and truly revolutionary—anarchic and fearless—not to mention hilariously funny with songs and dance numbers that were a lysergically enhanced hybrid between the Bacchantes and the Rockettes. A kind of controlled and at times not so controlled anarchy on stage that just split the world apart. At their worst, they were a disorganized, stoned mess upstaging each other in cool costumes, or upstaging each other by taking those costumes off, but that’s what made their shows so remarkable. You never knew what you were in for. Charles, who had gone from being known among friends in upstate New York as ‘Watertown Charlie’ and wore flannel shirts like everyone else, was now calling himself Charles Isis and wearing eyeliner and a silver lame loincloth, etc., when the occasion suited, and was developing rather too much of a liking for heroin—this latter quirk eventually ending with predictably disastrous results. All very disconcerting but he championed and had always championed my writing (and drawing and painting too), far more than it deserved, since I was writing a lot of bad poetry at the time. He himself was a wonderful artist and poet, and I wonder what he could have done with his considerable talents had he not been so determined to squander them. Some of the Angels paid attention to my work, and at the time, to me. It was like being praised by Cocteau or something. Adrian Brooks, also an Angel, gave me my first typewriter, this beautiful little sage green Olivetti portable that I pounded into the ground. Janice Sukaitis put me in one of her plays, ‘Mama’ a black comedy about her father’s death and funeral in Queens when she was in her teens It was a ‘Warped Floors’ production. I played her little sister. I got to know Marc Huestis, with who I am still friends, who was/is one of the co-founders of the Gay Film Festival, as it was called then, the first year of which consisted of super eights projected onto a white bed sheet in an old storefront. He went on to make a lot of indie films, the latest being Lulu Gets a Facelift, http://www.lulugetsafacelift.com and produces many events and fundraisers at the Castro Theater, whose participants range from Daniel Ellsberg to Ann Margaret and everyone you can think of in between.

Later I moved to another household on Central St. where Patrick Cowley lived. He became Sylvester’s keyboardist for several years and was responsible for that really distinctive keyboard synthesizer sound on some of Sylvester’s Albums although this was much later in the late seventies/early eighties. He was one of the first people in San Francisco to die of AIDS.

At the time, although I was in awe of a lot of them, I just kind of took it for granted that I was around all these brilliant artists all the time. I thought it would always be like that.

RTM: How much did you experience or participate in the "poetry wars" in the Bay Area in the 70s and 80s? How did it or not impact your writing and participation in the writing community?

F.S. Rosa: I was not on the battlefield, not even as a foot soldier, but I tried to decipher the regular dispatches from the field. And since language poetry was of such interest to Bob, Bruce, Kevin, Dodie, etc., it interested me by remove.

Any movement that has the good sense to take Gertrude Stein to its bosom and can produce a writer with the talent of Beverly Dahlen obviously has something going for it. Language Poetry shook thing ups, and sometimes things need to be shaken up and the old sacred cows chased around the literary pasture. It got a lot of people reading things, and thinking about things they wouldn’t have otherwise have been thinking. It challenged basic assumptions.

But I found a lot of it very insular and there was a level of smug self-regard among some of the more vociferous adherents that was extremely irritating. Many tempests in teapots, and the second string acolytes tended to take themselves very, very seriously without having done any of the heavy lifting— although they certainly had the lingo down, along with attitudes far in excess of their literary ability. I found their work, in particular, r=e=a=l=l=y b=o=r=i=n=g and without the intellectual rigor and glittering intelligence of the front line, as it were, irascible as some of them could be.

I am fairly populist by nature, and the idea that you had to go to grad school to be a poet, or to understand poetry—well I just didn’t buy it. Not that I have a problem with anyone doing that if that’s what they want to do. Many brilliant poets and writers function out of the academic realm, including some of the language poets. The academy is unquestionably one of the bulwarks against barbarism at any point in history (and we seem to be at one of those points now), but it’s not the only one— so is the voice from the street, and plenty of other voices too. So I did not think that language poetry was the sine qua non of literary excellence or intelligence, and that all literature and poetry before was just a pale precursor to this, the apotheosis of poetry. I also didn’t understand the insistence (not by all, but by some) of gratuitously dissing other writers (rather than leading by their own merits), including Diane di Prima, who was and remains one of my literary heroes. My Life as A Woman alone sets her reputation, but so does the whole body of her work and amazing life. It deeply offended me to see someone of her talents and contributions dismissed.

But overall, I think these skirmishes between formalism and romanticism, which is what a lot of all that seemed to be about, are inevitable, and probably healthy in the long run when things swing too far in one direction or the other. All that blood spilled and pens poked at the heinous opposition nourishes the field. It is heartening in this increasingly commodified existence, and commodified to an almost totalitarian extent through the alarming inroads of corporate media into our consciousness and subconscious, through their succubi & incubi of the advertising industry, that there are still people fighting over literary and philosophical ideas that do not involve large amounts of capital or real estate.

RTM: Your book, Post War and Other Stories from Ithuriel's Spear, a press for which you also serve as an editor, is very much influenced by new narrative in its use of multiple narrative frameworks, personal names. It also seeks to comment on narration and storytelling using what Bruce Boone has called text/meta-text. Did you self-consciously set about writing a new narrative text? Do you see yourself as a new narrative writer? How were you influenced by Gluck and Boone?

F.S. Rosa: I didn’t know I was a new narrative writer until Kevin Killian said I was one, but I was delighted by the news. I never set out to be a new narrative writer. I set out to be a good writer, and I was very influenced by the new narrative writers. They were obviously doing such groundbreaking work, and their work was really provocative, and they as individuals were definitely not standard issue and they paid attention to my work when no one else was, so it stands to reason that my work reflects theirs, in part, stylistically. The focus on narrative rather than plot, their use of first person and often present tense, the referencing of rarified, complicated ideas while the characters go about their quotidian daily chores—and all that screwing! It all fascinated me.

I was much more interested in developing a style, rather than adhering to a literary theory. I am flummoxed, to a certain extent by literary theory, as provocative as I find bits and pieces of it. I am not a parrot, or a mynah bird, so I don’t want to expound on theory just for the sake of repeating what others say, although I could probably fake it, at least for a little while. But my mind just doesn’t work that way.

RTM: Certainly your book has content that addresses various political issues. Do you consider that its form (for purposes of discussion I'm turning to this weird and inaccurate binary of separation--content and form--) is related in some way to politics?

F.S. Rosa: As noted, I am a fairly instinctual writer who is interested in the way that individuals navigate and maintain their humanity (or don’t) within the context of late stage capitalism, and militarism and an all encompassing corporate media that many people take for reality, and the way in which here in the technologically advanced 21st century we are still held in a stranglehold by millennia-old thought forms, such as the more fundamentalist and oppressive forms of organized religion, patriarchy, etc. Encountering the new narrative form allowed me to finally be able to approach these topics in a way which I think after much trial and error, has some stylistic integrity.

But I also read a lot of non- fiction and am really influenced by it; in my estimation some of the best writing is coming out the Palestinian Diaspora and the Jewish anti- right wing Zionist movement, there and in the U.S. Any thing by the late Edward Said, Norman Finkelstein’s extraordinary work, the work of the late Tanya Reinhardt, Amira Haas who writes from the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz and of course the journalist Robert Fisk. Trotsky’s biography, My Life, has stunning passages about nature—growing up on a farm and the animals there, and his place on the farm and how the peasants survived. Passages about escaping from Siberia by reindeer, and his writing about the reindeer have had a real hold over me for many years and form the basis of my novel, along with the work of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Bill Heywood and Emma Goldman and some of the work about Carlo Tresca: All the Right Enemies, The Life and Murder of Carlo Tresca by Dorothy Gallagher, and more recently Carlo Tresca, by Nunzio Pernicone.

But I also like to read popular genre fiction. I love good science fiction and mysteries—Walter Mosley, William Gibson, Ursula K Leguin, Steven Saylor, etc., and the whole rigor and discipline of writing well for popular genres fascinates me. I like historical novels. I get enormous pleasure out of all of the above, and pleasure is an important thing. And many of them I think are very subversive politically, in the best sense of the word, and they reach many people.

RTM: Tell me about your editing work with Ithuriel's Spear. How did you get involved in it?

F.S. Rosa: Ithuriel’s Spear is a small press underwritten by Intersection for the Arts. The publisher is James Mitchell who was also one of the co-founders of Small Press Traffic. I am co-editor with Jim. I didn’t know Jim very well before he decided to publish what became Post War and Other Stories, but we were fellow Zen students, and during the process of publishing Post War and after, we became literary colleagues, and he offered me the opportunity to bring other writers to the press, which he was trying to expand. I first introduced him to Richard Schwarzeneberger who published In Faro’s Garden with us in 2006, although I didn’t edit Richard’s work. Camille Roy approached us a couple of years ago and told us she had an old manuscript of Mike Amnasan’s—LIAR—which turned out to be the last copy anywhere. Mike had thought it lost. We would have been fools not to take it. Mike worked for years as a union sheet metal worker in SF, and is now finishing a PhD in philosophy at the New School in NYC. That is not a range of experience you find many places. It was my first editing project with the press, although Mike didn’t need that much editing, and he had also worked with Camille and Bob Glück on the manuscript. But I did make some suggestions which Mike incorporated, especially around the ending, and I shepherded the whole project through to publication. The next book was The Idol Lover and Other Stories of Pakistan, by Pakistani American writer Moazzam Sheikh which was a much more hands on editing project for me. I worked very closely with Moazzam on that book. We were all very pleased with the results.

RTM: What are some of your next projects?

F.S. Rosa: Jim has translated and published a 9th century German/Latin gardening book, On the Cultivation of Gardens, by Walafrid Strabo—our first book for 2009. Richard Scwarzenberger did the introduction. Jim is also working on a book of his own collected poems. We are also waiting for your manuscript which we look forward to publishing, when—ahem—it arrives. We will also be publishing poet Lew Ellingham in 2009; this is a very recent development, evolving out of meeting Lew at the December SPT Bev Dahlen tribute, and we really appreciate Kevin Killian’s backing of this project. We very much want to continue working with Moazzam Sheikh and with him to publish other South Asian writers since he is very involved in that community, and there is a thriving South Asian writing scene in the Bay Area.

I also just started working with John Goins, a very under published African American writer who grew up in Washington D.C., but has lived in the Bay Area for years. We hope to have a collection of his stories out in ’09 or ’10. We would like to publish more new narrative writers and new narrative fellow travelers, and more translation. We are unfortunately constrained by the usual small press twin goblins of limited time and very limited funds although we soldier on. We welcome suggestions and ideas around funding sources, foundation money, grants, etc.

RTM: What are you working on now? Do you send writing out for publication? Why/why not?

F.S. Rosa: I just finished my novel, The Divine Comedy of Carlo Tresca. I will definitely be sending it out for publication in ‘09. I am also working on some essays including some very short non-fiction pieces about my trip to the West Bank, a few of which I read at the SF Poetry Center this year and which I hope to be able to re-tackle when the novel is out of the way and hopefully finds a publisher. It’s a bit too much of a handful for Ithuriel’s Spear at this time.

I write very slowly. I am very distracted by earning a living and other things, so I don’t often send work out because I don’t have it to send out. Through a labor connection, I was invited awhile back by the small French Left online journal, Dialogue Review to do a book review of Jimmy Carter’s book – Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. It’s the only thing I’ve ever had translated—into Spanish, French and Arabic, since the journal publishes in those languages. It was in the April ’07 issue. I’d love to do more reviewing, but things like that don’t come my way very often. I would really like to write a mystery novel.


F.S. Rosa is the author of Post War and Other Stories and has lived in San Francisco since the 1970s. She is a co-editor of Ithuriel’s Spear Press with publisher James Mitchell and has just finished a novel, The Divine Comedy of Carlo Tresca. She is a rank and file member of SEIU 1021 and a member delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council representing same. She is involved in several human rights groups pursuing justice and accurate reporting in Israel/ Palestine and the Middle East.

For fabulous photos of The Cockettes, click here.