Faggot Gossip

A drawing by Allyn Amundson in Sebastian Quill No. 2, 1971. Courtesy Ithuriel's Spear Press.

A drawing by Allyn Amundson in Sebastian Quill No. 2, 1971. Courtesy Ithuriel’s Spear Press; all images from the author’s personal collection.

Dancing uphill to that fabulous bar on Grant Street, The Capri, you’re tweaked out of your mind. You shoulder your way into the crowd around the bar’s only table, working into the center of the scene. A friend’s there — a friend: you probably slept together or maybe all you swapped were reds for yellows. You two, you’re playing up everything gross and poetic, whatever outrageous thing you can think of to make the others wiggle left or right, to relent from their stations around the table and give you room. People are dancing, though there’s no cabaret license. Cops are harassing people, though the owner, Arlene, paid them off.

There are celebrities if you want them: John Waters lurks up in the front window; Janis (Joplin, of course) tipped off the Hell’s Angels, and now your friend has rushed over to break up a brawl. There’s that guy who named his cow Ocean Peace, spinning out a memory about Jack Spicer. There’s Black Karl Johnson and White Karl Johnson, winding up their libidos before their next fist fight. You’re in the rubble of an earlier counterculture, and it’s time to invent your own clichés. Then the drugs really kick in. Here comes Goldie Glitters to gather dirt for the latest issue of Kaliflower. There’s even more, but you miss it, you’re so close to it. Cockettes, Angels of Light talking shit and sequins, shit and sequins swarming: “a swarm of mayflies,” your friend Bruce will say one day. Aaron Shurin will write, “In a gathering political synthesis still liminal but impinging, I sensed a common ground with radicalizing elements at large, and though I couldn’t yet precisely see the purpose we shared, the flower had already cracked the bud in me and was unfolding.”

But you’ll be gone from the living by then. After the millennium has passed and Aaron’s “In the Bars of Heaven and Hell” is published, you’ll have been dead for just over a decade. Yet we’re here right now, communing to some degree, and I accept the heat of your demand on the present. I accept it in the ways I can feel it and know it, how it’s been made sensible to me — magic, poetry, faeries, and fuckery. I can write it in the second person, the relation itself, so that someone else might feel its impossibility. I hear your voice. You tell me: what is this power — to write this, impossibly?

A drawing by Giles in Sebastian Quill No. 1, 1970. Courtesy Ithuriel's Spear Press.

A drawing by Giles in Sebastian Quill No. 1, 1970. Courtesy Ithuriel’s Spear Press.

On and off for the past month, I’ve listened to Forrest Baker’s oral history of The Capri, a bohemian gay bar in North Beach that peaked from 1968 to 1972. Though to call it a “gay bar” isn’t quite right — as Forrest underscores at one point, with perverse delight, “We weren’t gay back then, we were faggots.” Forrest’s Capri Tapes were passed along to me by James Mitchell, who had digitized the originals given to him by Bruce Boone. I’ve been astonished by the flourishing underworld revealed during just a few hours of interviews with friends. Having spent so much time with the recordings, I now am engaged in trying to donate the Tapes to a local archive, where they might be of use to others. Without permissions, however, and with so many of those on the Tapes having died during the epidemic, a successful donation seems unlikely. For now, they remain ephemeral, like New Narrative might have been — carried by gossip, chance, and brief sketches like this one.

Forrest talks about The Capri as a meeting place for men who weren’t served by the Rendezvous, which was a competing bar of the Polk-Gulch variety, one frequently and ungenerously cast as the glittering axis mundi of the “hairspray fairy.” In contrast to the post-beatnik patrons of The Capri, who went in for cheap vintage and long hair, this other old guard of homosexuality was made up of show tunes, v-neck sweaters, and penny loafers. Also feeding into this division was the reception of “genderfuck” drag; according to Forest, unlike the places that hosted galas with five or six queens elegantly posing as the Diana Ross, The Capri was teeming with weirdos who denaturalized the fiction of an otherwise inviolable production of gender by way of trashy discards picked up on the cheap and maximally unrealistic wigs. Or just a face covered in spotted feathers, feathers blown aside to ask, Hi honey, did you know it was me?

From these tapes, I gather that The Capri was a place of danger, invention, and fun: a packed house of perverts and criminals, mafiosos (like so many gay bars of the time) and lots of good drugs (ditto). A place for infidels and rebels who were alienated — at least temporarily — from even nascent identities and communities. It sounds pretty much like the world, albeit with a greater concentration of glitter. At one point in the recordings, there’s a brief discussion of the so-called “Glitter Wars”: throngs of sissies would rush into fetish bars to shower leather-clad tough guys with handfuls of anti-assimilationist sparkle.

Cover of the first edition of My Walk with Bob; Black Star Series, 1979.

Cover of the first edition of My Walk with Bob; Black Star Series, 1979.

Cover of the first edition of Family Poems; Black Star Series, 1979.

Cover of the first edition of Family Poems; Black Star Series, 1979.

When they self-published Family Poems and My Walk with Bob through their Black Star Series in 1979, Robert Glück and Bruce Boone had already been active members of the gay and literary communities of San Francisco for almost a decade. It is their friendship that animated several state-funded workshops, workshops that would eventually gather the future literary dynamos and assorted perverts on the fringe of San Francisco’s writing world, many of whom were relatively new to the city: Steve Abbott, Michael Amnasan, Dodie Bellamy, Sam D’Allesandro, Kevin Killian, Camille Roy, among scores of others.

Published only last year, Dodie and Kevin’s anthology Writers Who Love Too Much enumerates these others, putting back into print writing by the many who attended the workshops and the many who didn’t, but were then as now considered New Narrative’s fellow travelers. Dodie and Kevin’s notes for each of the individual pieces in Writers Who Love Too Much and the anthology’s introduction are worth the price of the book alone; in the notes to each of the entries, there’s a trove of gossip, no less artful or mischievously poised than Kevin’s thousands of Amazon reviews, while the introduction provides the most comprehensive — and moving — history of New Narrative since Bob’s own “Long Note on New Narrative.

Dodie and Kevin suggest several reasons for the uncertain emergence of New Narrative: “In the years since 1977 the roots of New Narrative have become obscured, partly because it was an ill-defined movement from the beginning, partly because its point(s) of origin are in debate, and partly because a welcome host of second and third generation writers later altered its character in significant ways.” After listening to Forrest’s Capri Tapes, rather than wanting to write a report of how New Narrative has been altered, I want to linger with its antecedents, a prehistory held in the amber of such fantastic gossips.

First edition of Metaphysics; Hoddypoll Press, 1977.

First edition of Metaphysics; Hoddypoll Press, 1977.

First edition of Century of Clouds; Hoddypoll Press, 1980.

First edition of Century of Clouds; Hoddypoll Press, 1980.

Certainly a prehistory of New Narrative would include The Capri, which was host to Bruce and Bob, though the latter only rarely. The Capri is remembered as a special literary and artistic hub by many on the Tapes (including photographer JD Wade, future Jack Spicer historian Lew Ellingham, sculptor-turned-handyman Bob Burnside, artist Michael Ford, and poet/editor/musician James Mitchell). And it is from the energies of The Capri and a few modest paydays that James was able to cobble together Hoddypoll Press.

Hoddypoll, which takes its name from an obsolete sixteenth-century word meaning “fool,” would come to publish chapbooks by Bob, Bruce, and several others, a few books (including the first edition of Bruce’s Century of Clouds and Bob’s poetry collection Metaphysics), and three issues of the hand-stitched magazine Sebastian Quill. Some might also know James as the publisher of Ithuriel’s Spear, the press responsible for recently putting Bob’s Elements and Bruce’s My Walk with Bob back in print. I can announce, with no little excitement, that Ithuriel’s Spear will soon be publishing Gay Sunrise, an anthology of gay writing from these rare Hoddypoll publications.

In the pages of Sebastian Quill, you can find early poems by Bob, Bruce, and James, as well as short plays, translations, photomontages, psychedelic line drawings, tantalizing nudes, and a zany comic strip blowing the top off of psychoanalytic theory. (In Rick Borg’s comic, titled “Oedipus Ritz,” a cartoon figure of Jesus looks on approvingly as a mother tries to seduce her son at an erotic nightclub — but he gets bored, has fantastic sex with his dad instead, and finally morphs into a disembodied, flying THOUGHT-being with blood pouring out of its eyes.) As even a quick scan of its contents demonstrates, Sebastian Quill combined, collaged, and assembled several art forms — certainly with a preference for the textual, but not without the flair of calligraphy, or the appeal of anonymous youths caught in inexpert poses, long hair falling past their naked shoulder blades. While some women and people of color did contribute to Sebastian Quill, the majority of contributors were white men. To some degree, this reflects what Bob described to me as the era’s “two gay politics,” which maintained, artistically and socially, a distinction between gay men and lesbians.

The contributors to Sebastian Quill weren’t seeking fame or recognition — such celebrity would be antithetical to their ethic of social combustion. Instead, they saw their art as a function of getting free — whereby, perhaps paradoxically, getting free meant seeing one’s self in art’s mirror. It may be easy to dismiss this desire today, but at the time of Sebastian Quill’s publication, when the contents of the magazine were legally considered to be pornography, James had to sneak into offices after hours to produce the magazine clandestinely. Had James been caught at the offset printing machine, he faced losing his job, if not worse.

A drawing by Roger Stearns in Sebastian Quill No. 2, 1971. Courtesy Ithuriel's Spear Press.

A drawing by Roger Stearns in Sebastian Quill No. 2, 1971. Courtesy Ithuriel’s Spear Press.

The twinned histories of The Capri and Hoddypoll Press provide additional context for understanding the unique contributions of the writers who would eventually invent New Narrative, though the invention of New Narrative as a programmatic writing school or movement seems to never have been the goal. Rather, as James Mitchell suggested to me, we might think of Sebastian Quill, along with its more famous contemporaries Gay Sunshine and Manroot, as “instruments or modalities of the Gay Liberation Front,” which sought to transmit the then-subversive message that “gay is good.” As Brandon Callender has written of Sebastian Quill and Gay Sunshine, “These collections insist upon the urgency of our place within them. If some won’t settle for sex alone, however kinky and abundant, it’s because sex itself has yet to settle but still labors under the weight of what it must become.”

The earliest publications of those writers who would later be dubbed “New Narrative” by Steve Abbott in 1984 were part of this effort to make “gay” into a revolutionary — or simply viable — identity. That relationship to viability is important in part because it speaks to structural violence and not simply identification; it also allows us to disarticulate the significance of New Narrative writing apart from its antagonistic relationship with Language Poetry. Contributors to local Gay Liberation publications like Gay Sunshine, Manroot, and Sebastian Quill may have been skeptical about a politics of signification that did not address how the discourse of family values and the violence of representation were reified in their everyday lives, or made manifest in terms of disinheritance, alienation, and police batons.

Consider, for example, that all of Sebastian Quill was published before the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of disorders in 1973. These writers were “perverts,” disqualified from masculinity. To a certain extent, this disqualification was likely a relief, but it also carried with it real, physical danger. The threat of bodily harm was constant throughout these writers’ urban existences, and it was upheld and deepened by the violence of the State. Paul Mariah, editor of Manroot, would dedicate his book Personae Non Gratae to the “more than 200,000 convicts, felons, prisoners who were presently ‘doing time’ in these United States; more than 2,000,000 exconvicts, exfelons, exprisoners who have no vote in this democracy, that government which has the right to prosecute us; and more understanding about man’s inhumanity to man.” He concludes his short book,

We suspend ourselves
In air
Barely breathing

Their air allotted
Sacrificed
With midway snap

In hands which are not
Ours.
Theirs is a life we live condemned by.

Bob, Bruce, and Jim were iconoclasts, even within the gay world, a world that would consolidate around the Castro and Harvey Milk — but not just yet. Before the Castro, before Gay Sunshine even, fags were crashing through the deathly realism of the postwar American Dream. It was not all revolutionary praxis, but it was not all idealism, either. The archive of New Narrative is littered with marches, rallies, riots, fights against the church and the cops, fights against the normies (straight and gay), and fights against the tyranny of representation itself — all of it flashing up in a moment of danger wherein art and life might be mistaken for one another. This troubled division has long characterized the conditions of possibility for the emergence and extension of New Narrative: a moment in which one’s survival was most sensibly understood as a fiction.

Excerpt from "Oedipus Ritz" by Rick Borg in Sebastian Quill No. 3, 1972. Courtesy Ithuriel’s Spear Press.

Excerpt from “Oedipus Ritz” by Rick Borg in Sebastian Quill No. 3, 1972. Courtesy Ithuriel’s Spear Press.

Hearsay has played a big part in both concealing and holding together New Narrative as a body of writing and as a social body. As the people who attended those original workshops age and pass on, the image we have of what New Narrative was (or is?) shifts its textures, details, and intensities with each telling, each re-introduction. As New Narrative texts make their way back into print and new criticism extends our insights into the writers and worlds that made it all possible, we can be sure that the gossip surrounding these publications has only been getting juicier.

This series, “Life Blasted Open,” celebrates gossip’s adhesive qualities, and will include interviews and essays reflecting on the past and present of New Narrative. Among them are conversations with Bob, Bruce, and James about the years before New Narrative’s inauguration in the late ’70s, delving into San Francisco’s past, wherein social and artistic endeavors were seemingly coextensive. True to form, our conversations were constantly squirrelly about the timeline — though what lends the present its glamour more than the constant deferral of its arrival? Between my umm’s and amazing’s, our chats giddily breezed through Bob’s tenure at the Post Office in New York, James’s garlanded reveries of the Summer of Love, and Bruce’s missed connection with John Wieners. The series will also feature images of the late Jamie Holley’s assemblages, one of which was included in Matt Sussman’s gallery show of art from the collections of New Narrative writers. Bruce’s long-time partner, Jamie would collect colorful beads, plastic toys, and other detritus abandoned to the streets like the melting cake of Donna Summer’s “MacArthur Park,” and then spend long, hot hours with a glue gun composing them into humorous, overwhelming spectacles.

Complementing these interviews and images will be two essays originally presented as talks at Communal Presence, the recent conference on New Narrative writing held at UC Berkeley which I co-organized with Daniel Benjamin. It’s an honor to be part of bringing new writing by Gabrielle Daniels and Camille Roy to a greater public — not least of all because, outside of their excerpts in Writers Who Love Too Much, their prose is almost entirely out of print. (How can this be?!) Gabrielle’s essay, “Remembering New Narrative,” moves backwards and forwards in time to explore her connections with several Bay Area writing communities, culminating in an extended meditation on how New Narrative writers, including Bob, Bruce, and Steve Abbott, provided in-roads — experiential, emotional, and intellectual — for her groundbreaking scholarship on the literary canon of Black Americans. Written in the form of a diary, “Reading My Catastrophe” chronicles Camille’s last moments with her long-time partner and her survival of that loss. In an earlier Open Space entry, Maxe Crandall wrote movingly about Camille’s reading, suggesting ways we might think about New Narrative as a kind of “scarred aesthetic,” a body of work that might be valued as “a response to loss that experiments with forms of healing.”

But unlike the unknowable mass of party freaks gathering at The Capri, New Narrative also has a here and now — and it’s one we’re capable of being in, one we’re making together. This promise seems to be the wager of Bob’s philosophy of the present when he writes in his introduction to Biting the Error, “What is the present? The present has never been described — how should we describe it?” Following Bob, we can say that presence evades us, whether that’s a description of our own moment or an articulation of the past in the present. For Bob, these amount to the same thing — his stories are filled with distractions from this moment by the very next one, like an argument with a defiant runaway niece interrupted by the beauty of the barrettes in her hair. Or we might think of how often Kevin interrupts his own readings in order to explain a word choice, or to sing the song he’s alluding to, so that the line “fuck you, I’m off to another world that doesn’t have your stupid scrotum in it” syncs exquisitely with a choreographed flick of his wrist. You and I, may we keep up that beat.

Comments (2)

  • Bruce Boone says:

    Eric, this essay is a giant step up for you. It incorporates just the best if your first draft reverie then laminates it to tons of great scholarly material. Hats off!

    May I timidly enter one tiny quibble? Jamie and I were way poor, way way poor back then. So to make his assemblages he never could have afforded a glue gun even with me helping. It was plain store bought glue, Superglue mostly and you spread it in with a brush.

    All the best
    Bruce

  • Claudia La Rocco says:

    This might be my favorite correction of all time, Bruce … quibble duly noted, and we’re so glad you like the piece. Excited for your interview to run!

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