Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Kitchen Sisters


There were clues early on that this may not be the typical book reading at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books on this Monday night in San Francisco. The small space was transformed - the podium possessed not one, but three microphones and ample-sized speakers stared down at the audience. Easels with montages of glossy posters flanked the podium. Off to one side, platters of tasty finger-food and bottles of wine stood waiting. I overheard light-hearted apologies for the food: “Well, it's not from the stove in the kitchen.”
People started streaming in. The local celebrity vs. average book buyer ratio was climbing by the minute, unusual for this casual, cozy venue. Armistead Maupin, Alice Waters, and Don Novello were among the group. This was a reading to celebrate the release of Davia Nelson's and Nikki Silva's book, Hidden Kitchens, and the two warmly greeted the attendees they knew, which seemed like half the crowd. It had the feel of a reunion of close-knit friends. My thoughts echoed the palpable sentiment: Nelson and Silva, both Bay Area residents, are beloved and admired in this community.
Nelson and Silva, known as The Kitchen Sisters, have been a story-telling team for radio productions since 1979. They created the Hidden Kitchen radio series for NPR's Morning Edition, the basis for their book. They kicked off the event by reading a passage about the inception of the Hidden Kitchen radio series. The passage recounted how, in San Francisco, Nelson happened to keep riding in taxis with drivers who came from a Brazilian town called Goiana. Conversations eventually led to discovering the hidden kitchen of a Brazilian woman who would stake out her tent-kitchen near the taxi company's office late each night. Nelson and Silva conducted interviews amidst the Brazilian music and Portuguese banter, and then broadcast the story. This led to a request for other hidden kitchens, resulting in 2,079 messages. A radio series was born.
We then heard the taped voice of George Foreman, heavyweight boxing world champion, boom from the speakers. He said, “I dreamed of having enough to eat.” This childhood memory morphed into the production of the very popular George Foreman Grill. We listened to taped testimonials from people living in SRO (Single Room Occupancy) hotels or living on the streets, passionately describing how the grill is a safe and affordable way to cook. Another type of hidden kitchen.
The authors injected spontaneity by surprising a few of the local celebrities with requests to read. Don Novello, the former Saturday Night Live's character Father Guido Sarducci, read the passage about a man who spoke lovingly about his memories of his “Big Grandma” and “Little Grandma.” Novello, who has a deep voice and rich accent, described how the grandmothers' styles of cooking reflected how they lived their lives and ultimately, how they died.
“Lou the Glue” Marcelli, an imposing 77 year old with a sturdy build, captivated the group with his own hidden kitchen story. As the custodian for the Dolphin Club, a San Francisco Bay swimming and rowing club founded in 1897, he frequently cooks his legendary calamari pasta with tomato sauce, among other dishes, for the old-time members who want to tell their stories, drink wine, and eat his food after a swim in the bay. Affectionately referred to as an “old stove,” he's been cooking for the community for decades. Marcelli swims in the bay four days a week without a wetsuit, regardless of the weather. He said, “You just look it [the water] in the eye and go.”
Armistead Maupin, writer and author of the book series Tales of the City , was asked to read message #341 from a woman living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As a lesbian, she had felt isolated until she heard of local potluck dinners. Maupin then quipped, “I wonder why I was chosen to read this one.”
We next listened to a taped story from their broadcast. While listening, wine was served to the audience. This was no ordinary wine. It was homemade by “Angelo” who is also featured in the book. Nelson and Silva serve his wine at all their readings, no matter how cumbersome to transport. His hidden kitchen is in his wrought-iron forging studio in an industrial part of San Francisco where he cooks food inspired by his Sicilian upbringing.
Alice Waters, owner of the Chez Panisse restaurant and founder of the organic and local-grown food movement, was last to read. (Waters wrote the foreword for the book.) She read a story about a woman who fondly remembered a Long Island fisherman selling fresh fish from his cart.
Nelson and Silva took questions before signing books and closing the reading. The authors' knack for engaging radio listeners transformed a rather predictable literary format to a much larger experience. Heartfelt cooking and feeding others has a unique power and magic to soothe and create community where it doesn't exist. The authors showed us that connection.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Poetry & Pizza

By Wayman Barnes 11.4.05

Maybe I should have been paying closer attention to what was happening, but when the poet said he would be doing his “zone out pieces” he wasn't kidding. My mind was somewhere else entirely when I noticed most of the audience was walking out the door. Had I missed something? The host was still at the microphone introducing the next poet. She was standing over to the side with chapbook in hand ready to go on. The show was clearly not over. Yet, all these people were being extremely rude. Had the previous poet been bad enough to have caused this mass exodus? I couldn't bring myself to look over at him. What must it feel like to know your poetry has cleared a room? I can't imagine (and I hope I never have to find out).

Although I had not been listening to the poetry, I had been enjoying myself. The reading was called Poetry & Pizza, and, in my humble opinion, names don't get any better than that. As soon as I saw the ad I knew where I was going to be on Friday night. I figured if someone was going to go to the trouble of combining my two favorite things together, the least I could do was show up.

For some reason I imagined the reading would be at a hard-to-get-to, greasy, mom and pop pizza joint filled with finger-snapping teens doing wannabe hip-hop or “imsoanguished” diary-style poetry, but it was neither. To my surprise, it was slightly upscale. The venue was an Escape from New York pizza restaurant (nicer than all the other ones around town) in the Financial District. There was even a poem by Galway Kinnell written across one wall (“If one day it happens …”) and a jazz guitarist playing. Some of the audience members were dressed in the obligatory black and I must admit I started feeling a bit intimidated. I was afraid that I might have to actually use my brain.

The restaurant had been closed at 6 and reopened for us at 7. The admission is a five-dollar donation, which includes the reading plus all the pizza, salad, and coke you want. I later found out that all the money would be going to a charity of the Featured Poet's choice – on this night it was going to the Zen Hospice. After several servings of gourmet pizza (Potato, Pesto, and Garlic – crazy!) this reading was already an A+ in my book.

Unfortunately, the poets weren't as good as the pizza. By their own admission, they were not performers. This was evident, not so much in how they read, but in how they used the microphone. They would either hold it too close or too far away which made their voices garbled and hard to understand – never a good thing when listening to poetry.

Every reading has an off night, and, judging by the size of the crowd (the place was packed at the beginning), I am assuming this had to be one. I will certainly be going again. The fact that it is being done for charity is reason enough for me. I think it is important to support a show like that. Besides, with a reading called “Poetry & Pizza” there is always a 50/50 chance that you will like at least half of it.

*The reading on December 2nd will be an Open Mic.

Litquake 2005: Humor at the Purple Onion

By Cindy Bailey 10.11.05

What better place to host a gaggle of humorous readings than at the Purple Onion, San Francisco's landmark comedy club in North Beach? I'm talking legends have performed here: Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, The Smothers Brothers – all at this original location. Today, the place still has that intimate feel, with low ceilings, dim lighting, cozy booths, small tables, and the periodic, comforting sound of the martini shaker coming from the bar. The perfect setting for Litquake's Humor Me event (Litquake being San Francisco's annual, week-long extravaganza of literary events).

While we waited for the room to fill and the show to start, Purple Onion's regular maestro, Geoff Foster, played (and sang) beautiful ballads on the piano. Once we were huddled cozily and well into our two drink minimum, Jane Ganahl, co-founder of Litquake, took the stage. She talked about Litquake, thanked the sponsors, and introduced the emcee, Bucky Sinister . And the show began.

Sinister, in his T-shirt and tattoos, holding the microphone in his fist and bursting all over the stage, opened the evening with – of course – a few jokes, saying he could just hear Lenny Bruce tying off in the bathroom (Lenny was a heroine addict). Sinister also wondered why if Hunter S. Thompson “was going to off himself anyway, he didn't do it by taking a shot at G.W.” He speculated that “that would make being Republican dangerous again.”

And then on with the readings.

Firoozeh Dumas , author of Funny in Farsi , read a hilarious story of finding a potato in the shape of a cross and deciding to sell it on Ebay. Her family knew it was worth $60,000, but also knew that “large starting bids were the death on Ebay, and so we started the bidding at $5.”

The suave-looking Ian Lendler took the stage next, appropriately dressed in cocktail lounge attire to read from his book, Alcoholica Esoterica , the subtitle of which is “A collection of useful and useless information as it relates to the history and consumption of all manner of booze.” He chose to read about champagne, and how it came to be. We're not talking boring facts and historical dates, here. We're talking about a fascinating tale with a lot of humor interwoven throughout.

“Hipster humorist” Mal Sharpe said he's been pulling pranks since the early 1960's. He took us along with him on one of those long ago pranks and got the biggest laughs of the night out of me. First, he showed us the soft briefcase he used to hide the tape recorder and mic, and then he told us how he and his prankster-buddy walked into a pharmacy and asked the pharmacist for some sterilizing products because he (prankster-buddy) was going to operate on his friend's (Mal's) heart. He read the books, doesn't look so hard, it's doable. The reaction of the pharmacist, who voiced genuine concern and restrained outrage, was hilarious.

At intermission, Sinister entertained us by reading from his latest book, Whisky and Robots , telling us the difference between rednecks and hicks and the paradoxes of Nascar.

Jack Boulware , co-founder of Litquake , read a story about shopping for his mother's coffin, saying that he was continuing the redneck theme. There were taxidermy animals lining the walls of the funeral home, because this is southwest Montana after all. Loved one of his character's names: Butt-Crack Todd.

Writer and performer Merle Kessler (aka Ian Shoales) read a number of funny short pieces: one about an outbreak of politeness in San Francisco, and another in which he takes on the role of a 27-year-old applying for a job as a radio talk show host to replace Howard Stern.

Finally, Beth Lisick , author of Everybody Into the Pool , read a hilarious selection from her book, one about visiting her in-laws. She read that her parents and her husband Eli's parents do have something in common in that “they both live in a house with a roof on top” – and you get that similarities end there. On their visit, Mom Penny took her girlfriend Caroline to a “fisting” workshop (as in how to place a fist into a vagina) while gay Dad complained about not being told there would be boys at this fair. Beth gave us her usual high-energy reading.

In closing, Sinister, full of expression, read another comical selection from his book. In fact, all the readings were animated, and very entertaining.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Litquake 2005: The Hip Revisit of Howl

By Vené Franco 10.7.05
Original Photo by
Derek Powazek

In the words of our emcee, Jack Boulware, “Is it hot in here or is it me?” Well, it was both as nearly 1,000 literary fans packed Herbst Theatre for the opening night of Litquake and its Howl Redux presentation.

The event kicked off the Litquake 2005 schedule and marked the 50 th anniversary of the debut of Allen Ginsberg's epic poem “Howl”—a literary milestone credited as giving birth to the Beat movement. With a crowd somewhere between 150 and 200, the original reading—hosted by poet Kenneth Rexroth—took place across town at a small space known as Six Gallery. That location, 3119 Fillmore Street, is now home to a furniture store but has a new plaque marking its place in SF's literary history. According to the original promotional postcard, the reading was titled 6 Poets at 6 Gallery. Featured poets included Philip Lamantia, Mike McClure, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Phil Whalen. And among those attending were Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The postcard read, “…remarkable collection of angels on one stage reading their poetry. No charge, small collection for wine and postcards. Charming event.”

Litquake's Howl Redux proved itself as far more than just homage to Ginsberg and “Howl.” It was a celebration of several other revolutionary Bay Area authors, including Mark Twain, Dashiell Hammett, John Steinbeck, Jack London, Jack Kerouac, Gertrude Stein, Ambrose Bierce, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Randy Shilts, Ken Kesey, and Iris Chang. The lineup of celebrity readers was equally impressive and included Oakland mayor Jerry Brown, Armistead Maupin, Amy Tan, Michael McClure, James Dalessandro, Daniel Handler, Peter Coyote, Cintra Wilson, Andrew Sean Greer, Eddie Muller, and devorah major.

An admitted literary groupie, I was waiting for the doors to open promptly at 7 p.m. After a good hour of people watching, I stopped counting black berets after the first dozen and noted several people walking in with their own copies of “Howl.” The crowd included a few senior hipsters, and I wished there could have been a show of hands to see how many, if any, were in attendance on that night in '55. Was it really as magical as they say? And, to be honest, did anyone go home with Kerouac? How about McClure?

The evening consisted of nearly 20 readings, one right after the other, with an intermission halfway through – all in all, three hours. “Howl” tribute or not, you might expect a little shifting in the chairs, a little text messaging, maybe some early departures. But, no. Each reading was given its due respect and the pieces were so thoughtfully selected and moving that the audience seemed rewarded for its good behavior with one gem after another. As each reader spoke, photographs of the featured author were projected onto a screen behind them.

Some highlights:

New York writer Cintra Wilson, formerly of San Francisco, got things off to a saucy start, walking on stage in a figure-hugging, two-piece skirt and jacket ensemble. Hair up, retro cat eye glasses atop a well-powdered nose (think sexy librarian). Her enunciation was perfection as she delivered some amusing word definitions, taken from Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary .

Armistead Maupin, who followed Cintra Wilson, began, “Sitting on the side, looking at Cintra Wilson's ass is enough to turn a gay boy straight.” This joke took on a life of its own as several readers throughout tweaked it to best describe the derriere of the reader that preceded them. The Tales of the City author proceeded to read a Mark Twain piece on the 1865 earthquake, “back when it was still known as The Big One.”

Jerry Brown, dressed in a dark suit and silver tie, read from Jack London's The People of the Abyss, a moving commentary on poverty and the conditions of paupers and children in ghettos. The Oakland Mayor finished, adding, “It's pretty heavy, but it's still going on.” Jack London was also an Oakland mayoral candidate.

Daniel Handler, creator of the Lemony Snicket series, read from Gertrude Stein. He told the audience that on her deathbed, Stein reportedly asked, “What was the question?” He also announced, as he first stepped up to the microphone, that “looking backstage at the ass of Jerry Brown, it's enough to turn a straight boy gay.”

Eddie Muller, nicknamed the “Czar of Noir,” read from Dashiell Hammett, doing a fine impersonation of The Fatman as he purred the famous opening line, “Ah, Mister Spade…”

And so on and so forth…like I said, each reader presented a gem.

Michael McClure, now 73, still lives and teaches in the Bay Area. Handsome in black jeans and blazer, his silver white hair tousled back, he came out and bowed to the audience. The youngest of the original poets from the Six Gallery reading, McClure read four of the same poems he read that evening in 1955, including “For the Death of a 100 Whales.” Intense and dramatic, hands gesturing, McClure read with focus and passion. Of that historic evening, he said, “We knew it instantly…that we had created a spark.” Of “Howl,” he said, “It was a poem about the nature of a new society in America.” And of the night's celebration, he joked, “There are more people here tonight.”

I was surprised and saddened that the entire audience did not give McClure a standing ovation. I mean, I know San Francisco audiences are subdued but, People, C'mon! It's one of the original six. It's 50 years later. He's reading the same damn poems. What's it gonna take?

Realizing that no one could read Ginsberg better than Ginsberg, the organizers arranged for the final reader to be the man himself (on video) reading from “Howl.” The footage was from 1992, for the documentary The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg by Jerry Aronson. The filmmaker put together this short excerpt especially for the Howl Redux reading.

The Litquake evening may not have brought about revolution as it did 50 years ago, but it gracefully ushered in a week devoted to celebrating the city's current literary renaissance. Jack Boulware, Litquake's co-director, announced during the show that the mayor's office had declared October 7–15 Litquake Week. So now it's official. Litquake will, no doubt, continue to energize the city's literary scene, showcasing new works by contemporary writers, and providing a space for those who still remember how to, you know, howl.