Emerald City

Emerald City:

Since Gary and I and many of our friends have all had the experience of living on the west coast, and we often talk about how different it is to live and be a poet there, every trip back there for me is an exercise in constant comparison: flat vs. hilly, plain slices vs. sundried tomatoes, brick tenements vs. painted ladies, humidity vs. fog, irony vs. PC, pragmatism vs. eccentricity, and so on. If NY is suffused with excitement (and rage), SF is filled with a kind of dreaminess (and, well, smugness). Honestly, it’s kind of horrible to have had the full bicoastal experience. One wants the best of both, to “divide one’s time between,” if only such a thing were possible. At least I had a beautiful four days there, thanks to the kind organizers of the first all-Bollywood neo-benshi event, Summi Kaipa and Konrad Steiner, and I was lucky enough to be there for a warm, pre-wintry stretch that included an exquisitely balmy Halloween.

I acclimated on my first day wandering Telegraph Ave, photographing the unchanging scene of Julia Vinograd by the Café Mediterraneum, and buying at Moe’s Stephanie Young’s terrific new book, Picture Palace, which occasioned my meeting with the charming clerk, David Brazil (who would later dress in a blue sequin gown at Rodney’s reading on Halloween and regale us with trippy plots from Star Trek: TNG on the way back from the neo-benshi event in Stephanie’s car). Then I met with my dear friend Elia, whom I’ve known since I was nine years old, and sat among the redwoods in Tilden Park, thinking, this is where I’ll build my house, even if it displaces a fairy ring. Bambis roamed nearby and the panorama of the Bay Area spread twinkily out like, yeah, the Emerald City. In the evening I hung out with Chris Stroffolino at the Merritt Bakery and talked about, among other things, Wallace Stevens.

Chris Stroffolino at the piano

The next day I walked around Lake Merritt, which my mother’s apt. rather conveniently overlooks, reveling in purple blossoms, cormorants, and twisty tree trunks. I went to the city and strolled the foggy, pre-Halloween fervor of Haight Street and its funny, goth shop windows before meeting dear friend Eve, her partner Mark, and daughter Tara. Then off to dinner with Liza and David and their bubbly new baby, Jacob.

window on Haight Street

On Halloween day, lucky enough to see a parade of kids from the local elementary school in costume, I lunched with Pat Reed, who told me of her old-time fiddling exploits. Then back into the city to go over my benshi at Konrad’s and hear Rodney and C.S. Perez read at Sara Larsen’s apt. C.S. Perez read a piece about the colonization of Guam interspersed with his address to the UN on the same topic. It was informative and moving. At first I thought Rodney had some sort of rosacea until I realized it was scary makeup. The thing is, these days he looks too much the Portland mountain man to be truly scary. His reading was warm (he seemed to be glowing to be back with this posse), dramatic, and flourishy as always. His biggest hit of the evening was a list of song titles from Diane Warren, hilarious in its inanity.

hair on Mission St.

C.S. Perez

the inimitable Rodney Koeneke


the best costume: (a) “Sage”

Stricken with a hypoglycemia headache, I walked with Konrad down to Church and Market to get some food, my camera at the ready, taking photos of the costumed celebrants. San Francisco on Halloween! Who could ask for anything more? Even our waiter was got up to look like Sweeney Todd.


On the next day, my mother and I shopped in the rain at the Emeryville mall. I remember when there was nothing in Emeryville but the mudflats, where my ex-boyfriend and I would hang out as teenagers. Now, H & M! and Old Navy! Say what? They had images of the indigenous people (Miwoks?) exhibited in the parking garage, to appease the spirits of the shellmound, I guess. I noted that they look a lot like the current Bay Area residents in terms of their fashion choices. We couldn’t find our car in that same parking garage, and hence I was late to meet old Japan friend R. Tapp in the Mission before the benshi extravaganza.

indigenous Emeryville people

The benshi event was truly an exercise in genius. (For pictures, see here.) Every piece was totally engaging. For those of you who have never made a benshi, know that it is SERIOUSLY hard work. I’d seen Rodney’s Pyaasa piece, which deconstructs the dynamics of poetry scenes, a couple of times already, but I was as delighted by its precision and profundity as I was the very first time. Neela’s turning of Sillsilla, a film on infidelity with three of the most beautiful actors in Bollywood (Amitabh, Jaya, and Rekha, with her silken hair down to her knees and her eyes impossibly huge and hypnotic), into a homosexual romp, was not only precise and coherent, but raunchy, and gut-clenchingly hilarious. My piece rocked, but I’ll let someone else tell you about that. Emily gave us a mordant, post-colonial take on Gunga Din and Lives of a Bengal Lancer, including a still image of some rocks in an L.A. desert that have stood in for any number of exotic locales, including other planets. Summi’s version of Hare Rama Hare Krishna, instead of emphasizing the east=good/west=bad message of the original, very entertainingly examined the educational pressures of the south Asian family: pre-med=good/poetry=bad. Quelle nuit! And what fun to ride over the bridge back to the east bay with Stephanie and David and Sara, talking of science fiction…

5 thoughts on “Emerald City

  1. Don’t forget Brandon Downing’s video, which was the perfect substitute for a missing peformer, as it <>also<> portrayed a joyous, shared infidelity.

  2. I’m not sure if Brandon stoops so low as to read this blog, but if he does, he should know there was no slight intended by my unintentional omission. I have said to him very clearly that he is “one my favorite filmmakers.” Why, on February 10 of this year, I wrote this introduction for a screening he did of his films in our Segue series:“If a signal feature of some strains of the avant-garde is a studied distance from its subjects, a “direct presentation of the thing,” there is another strain whose practitioners regard their subjects with a complex kind of affection. Susan Sontag wrote in Notes on Camp thatCamp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of “character.” . . . Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as “a camp,” they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.Brandon Downing is a kind of neo-Campist, and he does, I believe, love his subjects. If he presents to us a patchwork of inconceivably mawkish awfulnesses, if is really not in the spirit of contempt. He presents human pathos and ridiculousness as things of beauty, or at least as objects of sincere fascination. The films are ludic parody, certainly, but folded into the satire are layers of murky, almost, dare I say it – Jungian –profundity (sometimes literally as deep ocean imagery). Sex, death, greed, savagery, technology, betrayal, hysteria – these are the modes through which each film passes, in the form of digitally processed early humans, huge wheels turning as karmic techno-retribution while below them couples dance in foolish mortal lust, and fake sharks rolling back fake eyeballs in fake oceans. I have seen these films many times, in many drafts, yet I am always eager to see them again, which leads me to conclude that they are truly drugs. It is with an awed and tender feeling that I welcome one of my favorite filmmakers, Brandon Downing.”

  3. Was going to reveal something, but perhaps I shouldn’t, so just this:Thanks for the photo of “the unchanging scene of Julia Vinograd by the” CAFFE MEDITERRANEUM.2008-11-09

  4. Hello Brian AJS,Please reveal to me backchannel, nada AT jps DOT net.I have to admit Julia is not actually in that photo. I took a picture of her, but from the back, and it wasn’t very clear. At this moment she was, I believe, crossing the street from Moe’s towards the café.

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