Writing Gay Liberation in San Francisco, 1968–1972: James Mitchell and Eric Sneathen in Conversation
From his earliest years as a poet and an editor, James Mitchell has demonstrated a great commitment to under-served writers. In the late 1960s, after years of graduate work, Jim rode into San Francisco for the Summer of Love and immediately ran into Bruce Boone, sealing his fate as a key figure in the micro-ecology of gay publishing that was then beginning to emerge. Today, Jim continues to show this commitment through Ithuriel’s Spear, which has published dozens of books by local writers, including reissues of Bruce Boone’s My Walk with Bob and Robert Glück’s Elements, as well as Richard Tagett’s poetry collection Demodulating Angel and Hunce Voelcker’s novel Logan. It was my treat to meet with Jim at his apartment in the Western Addition in April, where we talked about the sense of urgency and possibility that unfolded for gay identity and gay literature during the 1970s in San Francisco’s bohemian demimonde.
— Eric Sneathen
ES: Let’s talk about your journal, Sebastian Quill.
JM: It actually all started before Stonewall. Of course, everyone looks at this and says, “Ah, that was the result of Stonewall,” but it wasn’t. By the time Sebastian Quill came out I’d known Bruce for three years. I met Bob Rivera and Michael Ratcliffe in the Haight-Ashbury in 1967 or ’68, Bob Glück a couple years later through Bruce. Gay hippies, if you want, though I don’t like that term so much. Bruce uses it, but the Reagan administration gave it all such a negative connotation. That’s why I prefer “Gay Sunrise” as a way of talking about this period in gay history. Our energy, our collective platform, which is how I saw Sebastian Quill, was so different from that of the homophile organizations, who had been saying since the 1950s, “Well, we’re not really such bad people, us homosexuals.”
ES: The homophile argument often goes something like, “We’re no different from you.”
JM: Exactly. When I looked recently at all this Hoddypoll Press material, I’d think “Yeah, let it lie, don’t get involved with it.” But looking at it now, I realize it was a significant part of this larger historical social and cultural environment. Still, though, I don’t think anyone cares much about it. I mean, I applaud your enthusiasm and your energy, but it’s hard for me to imagine there are people out there who think it’s that important. Gay historiographers just ignore almost everything from that era except for the Cockettes. And forget literary styles — once postmodernism set in in the late ’70s, poetry itself had changed so enormously. Forget the rest of it. Even politics, forget politics.
But in San Francisco I see a real political continuity that starts in ’66 with the Compton Cafeteria riots. And from then on, ’67 to ’68, we were trying to get organized. What do we have to do? We have to come out, that’s one big idea. The other big idea was to promote the idea that “gay is good.” This coincides somewhat with Flower Power and all those more idealistic undertakings of the hippies. I can remember Hibiscus from the Cockettes in ’68, running around in Golden Gate Park wearing wigs and nails and lighting sticks of incense, all of that stuff. It was all so romantic.
But, what I’m trying to suggest, simply, is that if you want to know about the history of Gay Liberation, then you’ve got to focus on San Francisco, because that’s where it really all happened. Same thing with political representation, Gay Pride marches, same-sex marriage. Whatever’s going on, it’s had a longer history in San Francisco than anywhere else.
ES: You came to San Francisco in 1967 for the Summer of Love. But you must have known gay writers back in Boston? You say that the title of your book Good Gay Poems refers to the loose cadre in Boston called the Good Gay Poets, a group that I associate with Aaron Shurin.
JM: There was a magazine in Boston called Fag Rag, and it was among the first of these underground gay papers, usually run collectively. Certainly nobody involved had any money. Most important about these early gay underground papers — which included Gay Sunshine in San Francisco — they were a way to really come out. Because if you were convinced by Gay Liberation’s political call to come out, you had to think, Well, how am I going to do that?
One way, if you were a writer, was that you’d write about it, right? So, then, how are you going to get published? Back then, there was no way to get published. Here on the West Coast, you couldn’t publish novels because there wasn’t any way to do it, as it was generally cost-prohibitive in the underground or samizdat press environment of the 1960s. This created a certain problem for the possibility of creating gay literature — either you had to network with people in New York or you had to go there, since that was the center of US publishing.
Bruce and I went there for a half year and decided we didn’t like it. Who wants to live in a hellhole like New York? And that’s what it was in those days.
ES: When was this?
JM: ’68. By late ’67, ‘68, the Haight-Ashbury scene had collapsed, and we’d had to seek other alternatives. But we didn’t go to New York with each other, and we weren’t together at that point, just good friends. Like, we were roommates who had sex together a few times kind of thing, you know? I’d met Bruce on June 10, 1967, the same day I arrived in San Francisco for the Summer of Love.
ES: I love this story. You arrive in San Francisco and Bruce is there and your fate is sealed.
JM: It was at the Club Rendezvous, which was this place downtown on Sutter Street — it was one of two popular gay places for young people. All that Polk Street and Tenderloin stuff was for the older World War II generation, let’s say politely. You had to go up this long staircase to get to the top. It was full of all these — we used to call them “hairspray fairies,” wearing mohair sweaters and all this kind of thing. [Laughter] A lot of college students too among them. It was a very — how shall I say? — old-fashioned way for young people to be gay. I don’t know. It wasn’t a terrible place or anything, and I’m sure we all tricked there occasionally, but there was nobody to talk to really.
But I met Bruce there the very first night I arrived in San Francisco, after being on the road for a week or ten days. I saw him drinking a beer and leaning over a jukebox, and he was the only guy in the place who had long hair and was wearing these nerdy eyeglasses. I said, “that looks like my kind of person,” and we started chatting. [Laughter] Long story short, we moved to Berkeley and lived together for a couple of months.
ES: Throughout The Capri Tapes, people talk about long hair as this sign, a definite line in the sand.
JM: It was a big divide, and it certainly had its uses. I mean, you knew who was who. When it caught on with the straights, then there started to be cafes and restaurants where people with long hair went. So there was that sense of community. If you wanted to go to Berkeley, you’d just hitchhike, you’d stand at the freeway on-ramp on Fell Street and get picked up moments later by the first person who drove by with long hair. You could easily hitchhike across the entire country that way, which I actually did a couple times.
ES: Before you go to New York, you have these two books, correct? Tales of Thorn and Tales of Sagittarius —
JM: No, this is the way it worked. I got to San Francisco and soon wound up in the Haight-Ashbury. But there comes a time when the sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll wears off, you know what I mean? [Laughter] And I wasn’t completely that sort of person to begin with. You gotta remember that I studied five years postgraduate in Berlin and Munich. So I’m already sort of a hyperactive intellectual, just reading a lot of books, but also out for a good time. Since the Reagan administration, hippies have such a tarnished image, but there actually were a lot of bright people running around doing all these interesting, fabulous things. It’s not like everybody was as dumb and superficial as they were made out to be by the media.
I was playing Telemann flute duets with my friend Kenny Murphy, who lived right on Haight Street. We practiced every morning for one or two hours, then we’d get stoned in the evening and go to a rock concert downtown at the Fillmore. It only cost $3 and there were new bands every week, so we got to hear the best British bands — like Cream, Jethro Tull, even Hendrix — anybody that you think of from the ’60s you could’ve seen in San Francisco for $3 in these old dancehalls left over from the Big Band era. Light shows, everybody hallucinating on some form of psychedelic or other. Marvelous good fun as long as it lasted!
I had started to write poetry because I didn’t know what else to do, frankly. I didn’t have any money, and the nice thing about poetry is it that it doesn’t cost anything to produce it. Later, when I got a little bit of money from somewhere, I published my first book collecting the poems I wrote in 1967 — was that the one I called Tales of Thorn? I can’t remember. I was gonna call everything Tales of something-or-other. Anyway, much of that wasn’t particularly gay because I didn’t know how to do that. But then I started meeting some gay poets, people at The Capri. One person would say to me, “Oh, you should know so-and-so, he’s writing gay poetry,” and on like that.
ES: [Pulls out a copy of Tales of Thorn.] This says 1968.
JM: Yeah, that’s stuff I wrote in ’67, published in early ’68 before I moved to New York. My God, where’d you get that?
ES: Bolerium Books over on Mission Street. [Flips through several pages.] I love that there’s no authorship until you get to the end of the book, and to even call it “your” book is —
JM: This is Bob Clark, a hippie photographer. He took all of the pictures in my books. This was already daring. This one of a nude hippie couple would’ve been considered pornographic or obscene in many quarters. It shows you how difficult it was to undertake a publishing career in San Francisco if you were interested in this kind of thing. That’s me…
ES: That’s you? I would never have known. [laughter] But there’s no long hair here.
JM: No, it’s ’67 so people were just starting to grow their hair. By ’68 it had really gotten out of control. [Laughter] I mean it takes three months to grow a head of hair. [Continues to flip through pages.] Bob took all these pictures, like these Renaissance prints on Haight Street. And this is the guy I played the flute with every morning, Kenny Murphy, you know. That went on for the whole Summer of Love. The poetry in here is pretty strange. I never republished it, and it’s not in my Good Gay Poems. It’s too primitive.
ES: [Laughter] Primitive?
JM: If you’re a literary person, the Germans have this nice word for it — Jugendsünden, the sins of one’s youth. A couple more chapbooks like this came out, then I knew enough poets that I thought it’d actually be much more fun to put us all together, and that started Sebastian Quill.
The influence of older San Francisco poets was almost negligible. You couldn’t find Jack Spicer’s writings to save your life, although a couple of people we published, like Hunce Voelcker and Paul Mariah, actually had known and respected him. Spicer didn’t hold official workshops, but he held court in North Beach on a certain night of the week or something. So a couple of our published poets had, going back to ’65, hung out with him a bit and were impressed by him.
ES: So he wasn’t an influence, then?
JM: Not at that time. Black Sparrow published his Collected in 1975, and that worked out perfectly because that was the time, roughly, when what I’d call the postmodern poetry movement started happening.
But what were your alternatives in 1968 or ’69 for Bay Area writers? Robert Duncan, but nobody liked him much, his was just a whole different vocabulary, let’s say. We felt ourselves more modern than that. Allen Ginsberg was always an influence but, well. You know, that’s another thing. He wrote “Howl” — did it here — and the first big gay obscenity trial happened here. That’s another element that you have to add in this long process of San Francisco gay literature.
ES: Do you consider Ginsberg to be a Bay Area writer?
JM: No, of course not. [Laughter] It’s interesting that he came and lived in Berkeley for a year or two, and that he wrote his masterpiece here. Ginsberg was always an influence, but nobody could write like him. He was just sort of sui generis. But still, Ginsberg’s personality, history, ideas, politics and writings were very important. This reminds me of that interview that Ginsberg did with William F. Buckley on Firing Line in 1968, that is just one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. It was in that interview where he’s asked, “What is the Beat Generation?” and he says, “There isn’t any, it was just a bunch of guys trying to get published.” I mean, you could say exactly the same thing about New Narrative. This was really something that Bruce and Bob thought up carefully.
Before that it was all Robert Lowell and a lot of other academic American poets. You find some irony in Lowell, but that’s pretty much it. There was often a subtle kind of humor, but it was always an in-group kind of joke for English majors. With Ginsberg, all of a sudden you can use realistic language, and you could also have real humor in your poetry, which was extremely lacking. Poetry could be delightfully vulgar. You could look at pop culture or use common language in your writing. So anyway, Spicer is dead, Duncan didn’t impress young people, Robinson Jeffers was passé. Excepting Kenneth Rexroth, there was almost nobody left in town.
ES: And what about the New York School? Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery…
JM: Ah yes. What influenced us? The New York School did big-time. Once Lawrence Ferlinghetti finally published Lunch Poems — a long and perhaps interesting story unto itself — I mean it just triggered a whole movement, you know? And it was very popular with straight people. Nobody cared whether he was gay or not, the writing was so delightful and so unexpected. So you get all these second generation New York writers — Ron Padgett and Ted Berrigan and Joe Brainard — some of the more famous ones, but also Anne Waldman and many more.
And just to continue the thought: you’ve got Gary Snyder and the Beats. Beat writers were very influential. They embodied the principle of verismo: do something interesting and unexpected, live an intelligent life, and then write about it. This was the total opposite of a poetry based on sheer imagination. Also a lot of Chinese translation started to come out, although we realize today it’s a lot more contrived than we originally thought. Where were we?
ES: Well, we were talking through New American Poets like Ginsberg, Duncan, Spicer, O’Hara, and the Beats. It’s interesting that Don Allen’s anthology, which is not at all marketed as a “gay anthology,” becomes this vehicle for a gay sensibility. Bob talked to me about this as well, how that anthology was his entry point for all of these gay writers.
JM: Well, if you’re gonna be a gay writer, you have to write about being gay. Modernists, by and large, didn’t write about their private lives due to social constraints. We know all these horrible things about Ezra Pound from newspapers, but we don’t know it from his poetry. And T.S. Eliot, my god. I heard him in Boston when I was a college student, and by that time he seemed like this wrinkled old man who could just barely get to the podium to rattle off “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
If you were a gay poet you had to write about your own life, something that poet pioneers like O’Hara and Ginsberg made possible and, perhaps most importantly, fun to do. Interesting in this respect, you can start thinking about how people’s lives changed in those years. Like, Bob Glück had written two or three poems for Sebastian Quill. But if you compare those poems with what appeared later in Angels of the Lyre — those later poems are really the raunchiest fuck poems you’ve ever read in your life. I would’ve loved to have those in Sebastian Quill. [Laughter] You’ll have to ask Bob what changed for him, what changed in his life.
ES: Can you remind me when you left San Francisco? You leave San Francisco and move to Germany at the end of the ’70s, is that right?
JM: In 1974 I decided to shut down Sebastian Quill. We’d had some minor grants from the California Arts Council and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, but the amount of time spent accounting for the tiny amounts of money was annoying, and the number of submissions I was getting in my mailbox every morning was nothing short of staggering — it was like every queen in America suddenly felt compelled to write a poem about some love affair gone bust and send it to me.
And hey, I’m a dilettante, I’m interested in all sorts of different things. I set up this chorus to entertain the workers at the food stamp office where I was employed. You gotta recognize behind all this poetry was my wish to become a musician. I thought: Why am I writing poetry? Anyway, I was a choral conductor at a high school, stuff like that, and then I set up a madrigal society, which would meet during lunch hour at the food stamp office. There weren’t many of us — six or eight — but that’s just enough people to do Thomas Morley songs, you know, “Now Is the Month of Maying.” I really liked it. Long story short, we had decided to set up a choir and got rehearsal space at the Church of the Advent in San Francisco — this ultra-High Anglican church, which still exists. Out of that came the Heinrich Schütz Society of San Francisco, funded heavily by the San Francisco Foundation, as well as several years of broadcasting music at KPFA, and a founding directorship of the San Francisco Early Music Society.
Kenneth Rexroth was a parishioner at the Church of the Advent. He was also an influence on many writers, myself included. He had that ecological sensibility which seemed new in literature in those days — he’d write about his Sierra camping trips in the same way Gary Snyder wrote about his experiences in the mountains. And he wrote some really spectacularly beautiful poems. He also seemed a little crazy, but that’s another story. You wouldn’t imitate him for his personality, he just wrote some really, really good poems, and some others which Anselm Hollo called “starchy,” which is a nice way to put it.
ES: You leave for Germany and you come back and leave again and come back. San Francisco is constantly throwing out this homing beacon.
JM: I always thought of it as home, even if for a few years I didn’t spend an awful lot of time here. [Laughter] For me San Francisco has been always been a happy arena of sunshine, culture, and free-spirited artistic license. And I could do all the things I wanted here, even with limited means.
ES: Can you say some more about the end of the ’70s and the rise of Small Press Traffic?
JM: In I think 1973 My friend Steve Lowell set up a used bookstore — Paperback Traffic — on the 600 block of Castro.
ES: Looking through his photographs and papers at the Historical Society, I must say he’s pretty gorgeous.
JM: Steve was indeed good-looking and fabulous in bed — we had an affair for a few months. He was an enthusiastic member of the Gay Liberation Front and played an important literary role which we could talk about next time we converse. We used to take motorcycle trips together and once climbed up Mt. Shasta.
Well, I talked Steve into giving me a shelf where I could stock some small press publications. We ended up calling it “Small Press Traffic,” and we stocked every local small press item we could find, emphasizing the gay stuff, of course. Because, after all, it was already an emergent gay neighborhood, right? We didn’t have much space: Small Press Traffic was just one or two shelves.
In 1974 I met Denise Kastan, a co-worker at the food stamp office. She had a connection with the Vanguard Foundation. Suddenly thousands of dollars materialized out of nowhere, and I mean, what the fuck, that would be like — in today’s terms — probably more like a couple hundred thousand or something! We decided to move Small Press Traffic to 24th Street because obviously we had enough bucks to pay rent on a store front for four, five years. There was a directory of small presses in the US back then, so we sent out a letter to a couple hundred of the listed small presses saying, “Send your material to us on consignment and we’ll offer it for sale, and if your book sells we’ll send you the money.” Our operation was totally non-profit and we wanted to provide a distribution point for small presses without exercising some kind of curatorial function. Nobody else in the country was doing something like this, and Small Press Traffic has existed in one form or another since then.
ES: And it’s from this moment that we arrive at Bob’s workshops and Ithuriel’s Spear?
JM: That bookstore, it really was a typical first-floor Victorian railroad apartment. The front part was the store and the back part was sort of this empty room that nobody used. Bob appeared on the scene to give workshops. And that was very interesting too. As far as I know he was practically the first one to have a writers’ workshop that wasn’t affiliated with some school or college. And he did it enormously successfully. Kevin and Dodie appeared there, notably, and Francesca Rosa, my Ithuriel’s Spear managing editor for a few years before her untimely death in 2016.
Ithuriel’s Spear is fiscally sponsored by Intersection for the Arts, and we’ve published thirty-two, thirty-three titles since I started it in 2005. I found out that you could print books for practically nothing compared to the ’60s and ’70s, when it had cost a modest fortune. So thanks to print-on-demand and computerization we started up a non-profit publishing project dedicated exclusively to San Francisco writers that’s worked out very nicely so far. There are still enough libraries left in the United States that will buy things like poetry books. [Laughter] So we’re successful on that level, getting these materials into institutions. Even more importantly, I think we’ve created a situation for many of these writers — this is their chance at publication, to see themselves as published writers and have some success as authors.
ES: I know that Gay Sunrise, the next title for Ithuriel’s Spear, will re-publish a lot of early Hoddypoll Press materials from the gay hippie era, including writing and artwork from Sebastian Quill. It’s a great coincidence that this series and Gay Sunrise will be released almost simultaneously. I’d love to hear more from you about what it’s meant to bring this work back into print, to resurface these names and mostly forgotten writings.
JM: Well of course I knew most of the artists and writers in varying degrees of intimacy, and a few of us are still around, but my real motivation has been to correct the historical record. It’s true as you say that the writings and artwork of the Hoddypoll Press have lain dormant for almost five decades, largely because poetry itself has journeyed elsewhere. What concerns me more than personal reminiscence is the unique historical context in which the writings originated: for example, they show that the ethical imperatives of Gay Liberation — gay is good, proclaim it to the world — were operative in San Francisco some years before Stonewall. From my perspective it was here in San Francisco that Gay Liberation started: What little gay literature existed before then had been the work of individual gay writers living in social isolation, while here for the first time a new gay literature emerged sharing a common ideological platform intending to defeat the misguided prejudices of the centuries.