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[whitespace] Michelle Tea & Beth Lisick Tongues in Chic: Spoken word artists Michelle Tea (left) and Beth Lisick.


The stars of the spoken word scene have created a new local literary movement

By Michelle Goldberg

It is the curse of the San Francisco literary scene to be forever obscured by the towering legend of the beats. Ask most people about local authors, and names like Kerouac, Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti spring to mind--or, at the most contemporary, Armistead Maupin. But while the famed literary haunts of North Beach have largely devolved into tawdry tourist traps, a new San Francisco school has been flourishing in SoMa and the Mission. Four years ago, there were poetry readings every night of the week in the city, and at clubs and bars like the Chameleon, the Paradise and Cafe Du Nord a distinct San Francisco style began to evolve. Then, as scenes do, this fledgling bohemia cooled down--but it didn't die.

The writers were just hibernating and working, so that now there's a sudden outpouring of notes from the San Francisco underground. These are writers who know each other, who play off each others' tricks and stylistic tics, who dedicate their work to the same people and use each other as characters--a real San Francisco school. Among the best of these books are Michelle Tea's tragicomic memoir, The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, Jon Longhi's book of short stories, Flashbacks and Premonitions, and Justin Chin's collection of essays, Mongrel. And another hero of the spoken-word scene, Beth Lisick, has just released her first album, Pass.

"When it comes to mainstream media like the San Francisco Chronicle, they'll give huge amounts of space to Lawrence Ferlinghetti or other beat generation writers. But you cannot convince them to give the same amounts of space to younger writers who are way more exciting and dynamic and doing things now as opposed to 40 years ago," says Jennifer Joseph, owner of Manic D Press, the Bernal Heights-based publishing company that has nurtured many of these writers from the nightclub stage to the printed page. "There's been a really strong spoken word movement going on in San Francisco for the last 10 years. Spoken word is basically writers who perform their works, so the fact that there are books and CDs coming out now is just artists making the effort to document their work--to have a product to sell."

The works coming out of the San Francisco scene tend to be both breathlessly confessional and hysterically over-the-top. Hybrids of memoir and urban legend, they read like incredulous stories swapped in a dark bar late at night--which, in a way, they are. "I think that there should be more storytellers telling everyday weird stories about crap that happens to them. I love sitting there and listening to Michelle Tea tell her crazy-ass stories about her life," Lisick says.

Like much new San Francisco writing, Tea's Passionate Mistakes is autobiography turned into a kind of narrative poetry. Tea's writing is utterly accessible--in fact, it's so funny and juicily entertaining that reading it feels kind of naughty. The story of her life between the ages of 14 and 22, Passionate Mistakes follows Tea as she morphs from Boston goth girl into militant baby dyke and then, startlingly, into a hooker. Impressively, Tea's story never turns into a pat cautionary tale about the horrors of whoring or a tiresome sex-positive manifesto about the liberating potential of prostitution. Instead, Tea's writing has a deadpan honesty that's both raw and incandescent, capturing the hyperbolic whirlwind of a young girl's mind without letting the prose itself get too melodramatic.

"I couldn't believe I was having sex with this man. It was like a movie," she writes about her first trick. "Thinking of it like that made it kind of funny, and the more I thought about it the funnier it really was until it was hilarious, that a girl could sink to this, the ultimate depths of femininity right, the worst case scenario of womanhood, and that it meant absolutely nothing, this was funny. And strangely liberating, not in a I've-Reclaimed-My-Sexuality way because there was nothing of mine to be claimed here. It was the feeling of another societal myth shattering in my cunt, hitting bottom only to discover there was no bottom, only me, and it was possible to go to these places and come back unscathed like a Persephone eating not a few seeds but the whole bleeding pomegranate and flipping off Hades as she skipped out of Hell."

There's a rhythm in Tea's writing, a conversational cadence that comes from her background in spoken word. In addition to being a regular at readings around town, Tea also runs Sister Spit with local writer Sini Anderson. Starting as a weekly all-girl open mic, Sister Spit later went on tour across the country, bringing their brand of girlie street poetry to audiences in middle America. That tour started to prepare Tea for the huge difference between reading to a like-minded local crowd and to people outside our forgiving, sophisticated San Francisco bubble--something she has to be ready for now that anyone can buy her book from Amazon.com and learn the most intimate details of her past.

"I just got reviewed in the Village Voice, which is really exciting, but it was really weird to have someone talking about what was essentially my life and analyzing the characters in my life," says Tea, a tiny, beautiful girl with blue hair, cat-eye glasses and little red hearts tattooed on her knuckles. "I'll get up on a stage and I'll read something that's completely revealing, and for some reason it's still shocking to me when people in an audience come up to me and quote something that I just read. There's a total schism in my perception or something."

Tea tells one particularly disturbing story about being in Seattle with Sister Spit and reading a piece about her first time fisting another girl. "Our normal Sister Spit crowd is mostly queer girls, and this was a lot of middle-aged heterosexual couples. I read this story about fisting this girl. Then later, on the monorail, this old white guy with his wife is all like, 'You guys were great!' And I was all, 'Thank you very much,' and he said, 'So let me see how big that fist is!' I mean, how creepy!"

On tour, Tea says, "we have a lot of people who are coming for entertainment, not because they're lovers of literature or spoken word, and it's hard not to sell out to that. You want to write these wacky funny stories to make people laugh because it can be so jarring when you're up on stage, and to hear laughter can really calm you down. It becomes harder and harder to make yourself be vulnerable and write about difficult and painful stuff, which is my job as a writer--I'm not a stand-up comic."

It's a common complaint among spoken word artists--especially since the impulse toward performing is quite different from the solitary discipline that drives other writers. Spoken word is essentially a social art, which can be a good thing--it's likely why these artists are so entertaining, why they're almost never pretentious or overly elliptical.

"I think a lot of us are really frustrated rock & roll stars," jokes Chin, a small 29-year-old with little glasses, a bit of stubble on his head and tattoos snaking all over his arms. "We have absolutely no talent to be in a rock band, even a bad rock band. All those '80s two-chord bad punk bands are over--we can't even do that anymore. So this is the next step." Then, slightly more seriously, he says, "A lot of times people kind of confuse what spoken word is. For me, spoken word is a kind of writing where the primary medium of communication is not print, it is spoken." Then he says cattily, "A lot of times people become spoken word artists because they can't get published." And though Chin is a performer, Mongrel features a withering critique of that most clichéd of spoken word scenes, the poetry slam. "The slams seemed like a real physical coming together of poems," he writes. "Hundreds of writers from thirty-odd states and even a few from abroad gathered together to read poems and be in each other's company. But competition, conceit and the drive to win at all costs took over, and every whiff of society's injustices, prejudice, and ignorance was amplified in this setting."

Those who have managed to stand out among the thousands who pour their hearts out at open mics are those who have avoided letting the lust for audience approval warp their voices. "When the scene was really strong, if you wrote a piece, you could take it out to a reading and see if it actually communicated to people," says Longhi, who is married to Joseph. "A lot of the short stories in my new book almost got edited in front of a live audience. But if you perform too much for an audience, after awhile you begin to try and fulfill the audience's expectation and not your own. It's important to write to explore your emotions and your own experiences and not lose sight of that. For instance, in my novella [in Flashbacks and Premonitions], I was trying to get at really painful emotions, and a lot of the sections of that book aren't things I'd ever get up and read in front of an audience. They're not the kind of emotions you want to air in a bar. It's important not to forget those subtleties--which might sound strange coming from someone who writes like I do." It sounds strange because the thrill of Longhi's work is precisely in its lurid, hypersaturated grotesquerie, exactly the kind of stuff that's almost guaranteed to woo a drunken crowd. Some stories are only a few paragraphs, just a tiny bite of the most hilarious depravity. Here's the entire text of the tale "Two Peas in a Pod":

    Mary had two uncles who were brothers. Both of them left their wives to be in a homosexual relationship with each other. They moved to San Francisco and have been lovers ever since.

    "It's a real topic of conversation at family reunions," Mary told us. Last night me and Len were telling this story to our friend, Maria.

    "I keep looking for these guys everywhere around town. These two middle-aged queens who look really similar to each other," Len said.

    "Oh, that reminds me of these two uncles of my friend, Sara," Maria said. "They're gay twin brothers who live together in some rural town in New Hampshire and the two of them carve wooden ducks for a living. One of them can carve any species of duck in any pose. But the other just carves the same duck over and over. He's carved the same duck over and over now for more than twenty years."

Flashbacks, Longhi's third book, teems with these kinds of demented vignettes. "Bodiless Profession" tells of an anarchist who makes a living fellating himself at sex parties. "Heads Up" is a story about severed heads in which a girl named Virus blithely proclaims, "Now, almost everybody I know has a fetus in a jar, at least a human hand or body part, but everyone knows you're not supposed to sell them on the street!" But in his longer pieces there's seriousness, an edge-of-sunrise yearning that probably makes Longhi the scene's most direct descendent of the beats. The protagonist of the eponymous novella Flashbacks and Premonitions is positively Kerouacesque in his romanticized flight West, away from the drudgery and depression of the Northeast.

There's also a beatnicky flavor to his enchantment with the sordid side of San Francisco. "People move through the hallways around me like ants in a sick hive. The street is black and murmuring low as jazz at midnight," he writes. "Apartments creak. Beyond my plaster ceiling, in that darkness of mortar and wood around me are the lighted cubes of kitchens and living rooms where people sit smoking silently at tables. Higher up they drink beer and remember old stories. Laughter ripples near the roof. And above the alley, in that square I can see of sky, the stars babble like mouths speaking a language of pure light."

The connection between Longhi and the beats may be simply that each had the same subject, this incredible city. "San Francisco is a unique place," Longhi says. "Basically I've met so many fascinating people and had so many interesting experiences here that there's a never-ending well of things to write from. There was some article I wrote years ago where I called San Francisco a hallucinogenic artists colony, and I still feel that way. It's a creatively vibrant city filled with eccentric people experimenting with the boundaries of experience and personality."

Unlike many creative people in San Francisco, spoken word artists don't exhibit a pathological envy of New York. When they serenade the city, it sounds genuine--there's none of the shrill desperation of, say, local journalists who ceaselessly insist that San Francisco is the best place on earth because they're secretly afraid that they couldn't make it in Manhattan. A spoken word scene like the one here almost certainly couldn't have fermented as long as it did on the East Coast without a few stars busting out early, finding agents, publishing deals and spots on MTV. No poets here are making money.

That includes the star of the scene, Beth Lisick. The girl most likely to, Lisick has taken her writing in an even more accessible direction than her peers. With her tight, jazzy band, the Beth Lisick Ordeal, she's turned her urban storytelling into music and tricked local club audiences into digging poetry. She's opened for Jim Carroll and Neil Young and performed on side stages at Lilith Fair and Lollapalooza. A release party for Pass had the kids lined up for blocks outside the Cafe du Nord. She's written a book--1996's Monkey Girl--and was included in 1997's Best American Poetry anthology. And she's still got her day job.

"I don't care about being famous or being rich at all," Lisick says earnestly. "If I could make the same salary I make working my day job and I didn't have to go to an office, that would just be the greatest thing--set those goals really high! Realistically, it's not like I'm going to get some book or recording deal that's going to make me rich--that's just not going to happen."

Out of the publishing limelight, local writers have been able to cultivate their work without also working on their fame. "My feeling is that New York is the place for commercial publishing, but that doesn't have anything to do with creativity," says Joseph. "It's like apples and oranges. The thing that drives a lot of people in New York is 'I'll get to be on MTV! I'll get a record deal or I'll write a book that makes fun of Jewel's poetry and get written up in Publishers Weekly!' I found that a lot of the creative spoken word people in New York have their sights set on other goals, rather than the joy of what they're doing. I mean, I'm sure they take great joy in what they're doing--I'm not slagging New York. But here, because there's no connection to anything really commercial, people are doing it because they really like doing it. That's why they moved here. The focus is on the creative energy, not 'I'm gonna make it big!' "

That said, if anyone in San Francisco is going to make it big, it's going to be Lisick. Not only is Pass a hilarious chronicle of ironic city life, it's also musically innovative. Lisick's backing ensemble is more than just the desultory lite-jazz accompaniment many think of when they hear "spoken-word band." Mellow, groovy and multitextured, the music turns Lisick's narratives into full-fledged songs without obscuring her incisive storytelling. Still, while the Beth Lisick Ordeal is a fully realized band, it's Lisick's incomparable wit that carries the whole thing. With a voice full of deadpan amazement and a sneer tempered by sympathy, Lisick tells stories of urban and suburban misadventures full of observations sharp as razors and humiliations alchemized into high comedy.

Because she has a jazz band backing her, Lisick often hears the beat comparison. "I've seen write-ups on me where people mention beatniks, but I have nothing in common with them besides that I'm reading out loud. I don't feel connected to that scene. The last thing I wanted to do when I put a band together was to just have some crappy bongo player and an upright bass doing nothing. That's why I'm glad that I have really good musicians who can play a lot of different styles. But it's funny how the beatnik thing kind of looms."

Despite her successes, Lisick still has a hard time thinking of herself as any kind of artist. "In a way, I feel like an impostor," she says. "It's not that I don't think that what I'm doing is good--I like what I do. It's just that it kind of cracks me up, me who didn't start writing until a couple of years ago--I was a pastry chef--that I'm publishing and performing stuff out loud. Maybe I'm entering a new phase, after having put out the book and the CD and the Best American Poetry thing and done some tours. Maybe now I'm beginning to not feel like so much of an impostor. It was this hobby--this thing that I do--and now I realize that I don't know what I would do without it. I can't imagine not having something that I'm crazy about doing and that gives me license to do weird little projects and to spend my time creating. A lot of people feel like they can't give themselves that. They feel like, 'What do I have to say that's more important than anybody else?' "

That weird question is one that's repeated ad infinitum by critics bitching about the boom in memoirs--"What makes you think anyone cares about your life?" For 10 years, the writers of the spoken- word scene have rebuked that idea by simply being fascinated by each other's experiences. "Whenever people ask me who I'm reading, it's always somebody that I know, so that really is a major influence," says Lisick. "It's not like we all get together and have some kind of Algonquin round table of writers where we talk about ideas. We just gossip and drink beer and play pool. But no matter what your art or your profession is, it's cool to have people who are your contemporaries."

And it's amazing to be able to read people who are one's contemporaries. They're mythologizing the San Francisco of today so that, decades from now, we'll all be able to condescend to all the new kids moving here, insisting that we were here when the city was really alive.

The Beth Lisick Ordeal plays Thursday, Feb. 18, at the Cafe Du Nord, 2170 Market St: 11pm; $5; 415/861-5016 Jennifer Joseph's spoken-word series takes place every Sunday at the Paradise Lounge, 314 11th St; 8pm; 415/861-6906.

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From the February 15, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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