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By George

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FILM/LIT It’s anyone’s guess how many films and videos George Kuchar made before his death in 2011 (Portland’s Yale Union is valiantly attempting a comprehensive retrospective, which they estimate will take seven years), but there’s material for at least a hundred more in The George Kuchar Reader (Primary Information, 336 pp., $27.50). Tracing a singular life in movies from the Bronx-bound 8mm melodramas Kuchar made with his twin brother, Mike, on through the boundlessly nutty video conflagrations emerging out of his classroom at the San Francisco Art Institute, the book collects handwritten screenplays, letters, underground comics, meteorological observations, and UFO diaries. Reader editor Andrew Lampert will be in attendance at two special screenings in the coming weeks to report on these deep-sea dives into Kuchar’s self-described cinematic cesspool.

That Kuchar’s literary artifacts should be hilarious and not a little wise is no surprise, but it’s worth pausing to note the extent to which the writing itself illuminates Kuchar’s creative methods. Take the letters of recommendations he wrote for his SFAI students — an obligatory form of writing if there ever was one, but for Kuchar an occasion for uninhibited characterization: “This winged spirit, reared in semitropical heat, can banish the chill that has descended upon your patrons; so turn up the heat and witness what only equatorial nearness can nurture”; “His unbridled lust for livid living endows the fruits of his labor with intoxicating incense. Sniff these works at your own risk as the aroma reeks of secret scents from a Garden of Eden gone mad with flower power”; “He’s a lone figure swimming upstream to a different drumbeat.” No cliché is safe. Kuchar’s persistence in slugging it out with these once familiar figures of speech surely says something about the way he approached a dramatic scene.

Implicitly skewering heroic strains of avant-garde poetics, Kuchar’s accounts of his own filmmaking almost always turn on the body. Take this metabolic account from a 1964 article for Film Culture:

“Many nights I lay awake in my sheets burning with the fever of a new movie script … Sleep only comes when extra sugar is pumped into my body due to the excessive emotional tension that grips me during these celestial periods. The sugar makes my body hot thereby opening its big pores. Then the sweat of my ordeal seeps out in a stink of creativity and new germ has been born. A germ that will grow into the virus of 8mm movies. In the morning I awaken, fresh, vibrant, but constipated with the urge to release a lump of cinematic material.”

So filmmaking is fever, open pores, sweat, stink, germs, and viruses; the film itself, a load of shit. One begins to sense that the many Joycean digressions on “exciting gastric distress” peppering these pages are less a matter of any particular tummy trouble than Kuchar’s underlying conviction that the creative muse is ineluctably bound to more basic drives.

Bodily fixations notwithstanding, Kuchar was plenty canny about film aesthetics, whether pinpointing the underlying motivations for “these gigantic, moving billboards” (“IT WAS LOVE AND OBSESSION”) or situating his own fortuitous ascendancy in the 1960s avant-garde: “You’d develop them [8mm films] cheap at the local camera store and in five or 10 years the emulsion would crack and chip in time for the 1960s, avant-garde film explosion. No need to bake your footage in an oven like so many artists were doing: your home movies had already deteriorated into art.” Not that Kuchar wasn’t grateful: An early letter to Donna Kerness evinces little enthusiasm for his work as a commercial artist but adapts a more familiar exuberance when describing his latest 8mm production about a brawling ménage-a-trois.

The final 50 pages of the Reader are dedicated to a poignant last testament stitched together from the “endless emails of unexpurgated excess” Kuchar sent Kerness in 2010-2011. Even in his teenage letters to Kerness, it’s clear that Kuchar felt unusually at ease writing to the star of his Corruption of the Damned (1965). Describing an earlier melodrama, he writes with unusual candor how “I was very inspired by Arlene and her kin. They are very mixed up and sometimes they are damaging their lives but I like them anyway probably because I’m just like them.” Fifty years later, sick with love and cancer, Kuchar treats Kerness more as a confessor than a confidante. “Anxious to reveal secrets I usually kept under wraps,” Kuchar doesn’t spare any detail in describing his yearning for a long-time “midnight caller” named Larry: “Instead of realizing that he’s just what you call a sex buddy, I turn the whole thing into a live or die, Victorian romance.”

Even in his hour of darkness, Kuchar couldn’t help but seeing his own trials as material for a grand melodrama. “Being the egotistical movie director that I am, I want the motion picture of my life to be an X rated, inspirational saga of the nerdy Bronx kid who walked the red carpets of Hollywood while flirting with the red light districts of Sin City.” In a more reflective mood he writes to Kerness, “Expressing all this in certain chosen words and constructed sentences made the mental and medical troubles take a back seat to creative engineering: an arrangement of letters and punctuations to coalesce the chaos that contaminated my cranium.”

Kuchar writes of depressive anxiety, rampant insecurity, sexual hang-ups, and plenty of confusion in the face of “getting old and dreaming young” — but not a word of boredom. “Since I’m an actor anyway, I see the personal issues I penned (or typed) as emotional motivations in an ongoing (for a time anyway) B-movie.” B-movies aren’t really a wellspring of inspiration; that was all George. A final photograph shows him standing in front of a Denny’s, eyes on the skies like always. 2

 

OFF THE SCREEN: MOVING PICTURES AND WRITTEN WORDS: CELEBRATING THE GEORGE KUCHAR READER

Oct. 15, 7pm, free

Exploratorium

Pier 15, SF

www.exploratorium.edu

A CRIMINAL ACCOUNT OF PLEASURE: THE GEORGE KUCHAR READER

Oct. 18, 7:30pm, $8-10

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

www.ybca.org

The Doctorow is in

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arts@sfbg.com

LIT Like the Internet itself, Cory Doctorow seems to be everywhere all at once.

Novelist, essayist, activist, and co-founder of the influential website Boing Boing, the Canadian-born, London-based writer is having a particularly peripatetic autumn, traveling from the UK to various locations throughout Europe and North America.

October finds Doctorow — author of the science fiction novels Makers, Little Brother, and Homeland — making two stops in the Bay Area. First, he’ll be in Berkeley to sign In Real Life (First Second, 192 pp., $17.99), a graphic novel produced in collaboration with El Cerrito-raised, Los Angeles-based illustrator Jen Wang, then to San Francisco to discuss (with his Boing Boing business partner, David Pescovitz) his forthcoming nonfiction title, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age (McSweeney’s, 192 pp., $22).

In Real Life is based on “Anda’s Game,” a 2002 Doctorow short story. While living in the Bay Area in the mid-1990s, Doctorow heard programmers and other techies expressing their anxieties about the trend toward outsourcing jobs to India. Having grown up in Toronto, not far from where the North American auto industry was headquartered, Doctorow was reminded how, in the years after NAFTA, car workers who were losing their jobs felt great animosity toward Mexican workers.

“Which I always thought was tremendously misplaced,” he says. “I mean, it wasn’t Mexican workers who moved the jobs to Mexico; it was the bosses living right around the corner.”

Some of those memories informed “Anda’s Game.” Its comics adaptation, In Real Life, follows a high school student as she learns to navigate Coarsegold Online, a massively multiplayer role-playing game. Anda loves being a hero and a role model in the digital word, but when she befriends a poor Chinese kid who works incredibly long hours on behalf of wealthier players from developed countries, she begins to understand the inequities of the system. When she pushes her new friend to stand up for his rights, Anda can’t foresee the consequences of her actions.

Wang, the author-illustrator of the graphic novel Koko Be Good, says she was introduced to Doctorow by First Second. Her adaptation of his original work required some back-and-forth by e-mail, and she ended up scrapping approximately half the book at one point and starting over.

“We did this all online,” she says. “So this will be the first time I’m meeting him, when he comes to do this book tour.”

Of collaborating with Doctorow, Wang says, “The biggest challenge for me was working with someone so [well-known]. I wanted to capture Cory’s vision, even though I was doing all of the drawing and writing, to produce something he could be proud of.”

In Real Life works well for both teen and adult readers, making its political points amid exciting depictions of digital battles. Wang’s manga-influenced style complements Doctorow’s subject and theme while finding a colorful vitality all its own.

“Jen did all the hard work and such a great job,” Doctorow says. “All the stuff that is less than salutatory in there I’m sure is my fault. Everything that is brilliant is hers.”

A former European director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Doctorow plays an entirely different game with his latest book-length nonfiction project, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free. The volume explores the uses and abuses of copyright and presents a manifesto for creators of all stripes who want to succeed in the 21st century.

“It’s the latest incarnation of things I’ve taken a lot of runs at over the years,” he says. “I’ve been involved in information policy for a long time. I’ve written lots of articles and have a couple of collections of essays on the subject, but I really wanted to do something book-like and substantial.”

The inspiration for the book came in the wake of a 2009 O’Reilly Tools of Change Conference. Doctorow spoke at the event about how video game companies, the music industry, and film studios were all trying, through digital rights management and other strategies, to limit the public’s ability to share the information and entertainment they enjoyed. He proposed the following law: Any Time Someone Puts a Lock on Something That Belongs To You and Won’t Give You the Key, That Lock Isn’t There For Your Benefit.

After the speech, Doctorow chatted with his agent, Russell Galen, who also represented Arthur C. Clarke, famous not only for 2001: A Space Odyssey but for his Three Laws of science fiction. Galen told Doctorow, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you can’t just have one law. You have to have three.”

Doctorow was able to complete the triad, and the new rules are part of his new book. They deal with the methods of capturing and holding attention on the Internet and what copyright means (Information Age: Fame Won’t Make You Rich, But You Can’t Get Paid Without It; and Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, People Do).

During his appearance with Pescovitz at the JCCSF, Doctorow is likely to address questions from the book, such as whether lesser-known artists can flourish on the Internet and how giant entertainment companies can avoid alienating their customers. In both In Real Life and Information, Doctorow pays much attention to how the present-day Internet, with its ability to connect people while also spying on them, can be used for both liberation and suppression.

“Regardless of our own individual fortunes or needs, our primary allegiance needs to be to a free and fair society,” Doctorow insists. “The arts should always be on the side of freedom and fairness and free speech.” 2

IN REAL LIFE

Oct. 16, 7:30pm, free

Mrs. Dalloway’s

2904 College, Berk

www.mrsdalloways.com

INFORMATION DOESN’T WANT TO BE FREE

Oct. 29, 7pm, $25-35

Jewish Community Center of San Francisco

3200 California, SF

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Polly’s sexual (r)evolution

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steve@sfbg.com

There’s been more than one Polly, the author and namesake of the new memoir Polly: Sex Culture Revolutionary. That may be true for each of us as we engage with different interests and identities during our sexual development, but Polly has distilled her psychosexual journey down to three distinct personas that she assumed along the way.

The Polly I’ve known for years is Polly Superstar, the fabulous hostess of Kinky Salon parties in her luscious and sprawling former Mission Control pad, community-minded sparkle pony in the Burning Man world, and a mindful feminist promoter of various sex-positive entrepreneurial ventures in San Francisco (including this independently published book, which took a massive Kickstarter campaign to get into print).

But the Polly I know passed through two previous Pollys — the Polly Whittaker she was born as in London in 1974 and the Polly Pandemonium that she became when she arrived in San Francisco 15 years ago on Folsom Street Fair weekend — on the way to becoming the woman she is today. And that woman was feeling very vulnerable as we met for lunch recently.

“I’m terrified,” she told me as she prepared to speak at Bawdy Storytelling that night and anticipated the general release of her book on Sept. 22. “I feel really exposed, I wonder what my motivation was to be so raw and open with this.”

A book that began four years ago as essentially a sassy guidebook for the Kinky Salon events that have now spread to another half-dozen cities around the world at some point turned far more serious and personal. Sure, we get to follow Polly through her crazy sexual antics, soaking in the sexy world of Mission Control.

“The crisp silhouettes of their bodies showed every detail: how the woman on all fours took his cock in her mouth, how the second guy traced his finger around his lover’s nipple, how the woman tucked underneath gently explored the body above her,” Polly wrote about a scene from Kinky Salon. “There were no wanted wandering hands, no staring eyes making me self-conscious. I became overwhelmed with a sense of pride. Fuck yes. This feels right. It feels good. These are my tribe — these crazy pleasure seekers. These brave pioneers of love.”

But those aren’t the “raw” bits that Polly referred to. No, as she wrote this book, Polly came to place her father’s slow and painful death from a brain tumor while she was a teenager at the center of the narrative, an event that propelled her subsequent sexual journey, for good or ill. She sought comfort and pleasure in the pain of the London BDSM scene, continuing that path here in San Francisco before morphing her fetish parties into sex parties that were more artsy and playful. Yet this sexual superstar still couldn’t achieve orgasms with her partners, a secret source of shame before she dealt with it more openly and honestly, helping other women along the way.

This memoir is less a wild tell-all by a high-profile libertine than intensely human story about a woman raised in a sexually liberated household (her mom was a sex therapist, her dad a hot-air balloonist, many of their friends swingers) who nonetheless struggles with her own sexual identity and ambitions against the backdrop of personal tragedy and smaller set-backs.

Polly relays and celebrates San Francisco’s storied history as the center of the American sexual revolution, from the old Barbary Coast days through the North Beach strips club, free love in the Haight-Ashbury, and gay liberation in the Castro, to the AIDS crisis, rise of BDSM, and creative ways of expressing sexuality.

But even for Polly and others who make their sexuality such a central part of their lives and personal identities, sexuality is still a nuanced, evolving continuum that regularly raises challenging questions and issues.

“It’s a complicated, really complicated, issue, and it’s at the core of the cultural shift that is happening around sexuality,” Polly said of the delicate balance between female sexual empowerment — which she’s all about — and sexual objectification, which this feminist strongly resists.

Growing up in the fetish scene and becoming a latex fashion designer, Polly can happily play the alluring sex kitten, as long as it feels playful and fun. But she’s quick to tear into scenes or situations that display women as sexual objects just to turn the boys on or sell products.

“I think one of the biggest problems on the planet is the sexual objectification of women,” she told us, noting the fine line she’s walking as she promotes a sex book with deeper themes. For example, at her book launch party, “We’re going to have a burlesque show, but you’re also going to get the lecture about sexual objectification.”

And even today, with her Kinky Salon community taking center-stage in her book, that community has been uprooted by the same forces of gentrification and displacement that are roiling the rest of the city (the monthly rent for their Mission Control space tripled after they got ousted).

“The sexual revolution didn’t happen in Oakland, it happened in San Francisco, and we are part of that lineage,” Polly tells us, noting that Kinky Salon, now rotating among temporary underground spaces, is still having a hard time finding a new home.

“If Kinky Salon has to move to Oakland, that will be telling of the state of San Francisco sex culture.”

UP THE REVOLUTION: LAUNCH PARTY FOR POLLY. With Porn Clown Posse, Trash Kan Marchink Band, DJ Fact50, and more Oct. 4, 9pm, Venue 550, 550 15th St., SF, www.pollysuperstar.com

A broad abroad

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cheryl@sfbg.com

LIT In her 20s and 30s, Kristin Newman had built an enviable career writing and producing hit shows like That ’70s Show, How I Met Your Mother, and Chuck. But her personal life proved far less satisfying; after breaking up with her first love, she bounced between relationships while watching her friends settle down and spawn. Fortunate to have a job that allowed for months-long vacations between TV seasons, she began pursuing her wanderlust tendencies in earnest — emphasis on the “lust,” since her travels to places like Brazil, Iceland, Israel, and (especially) Argentina often included flings and what she came to call “vacation-ships” with locals and others she met on the road.

Along the way, she did some soul-searching — but fear not, her memoir What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding (Three Rivers Press, 291 pp., $14.99) is hardly a touchy-feely treatise along the lines of Eat, Pray, Love (more on that later). Instead, it’s a raunchy, witty, relatable look back at journeys that helped guide her into the next chapter of her life, at her own speed, with plenty of disasters and stirring moments along the way. I had to meet the woman behind the book, so I called her up in Los Angeles (her current project is upcoming ABC comedy Galavant, which has a fairy-tale theme and was created by Dan Fogelman, who wrote 2010’s Tangled).

SF Bay Guardian What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding is an evocative title. How did you come up with it?

Kristin Newman I thought I’d just write a few funny stories, kind of as writing samples, to get my next sitcom job. All of a sudden, I had 70 pages. It all happened the same month that I met my now-husband, and my stepmother died, and it just kind of poured out of me.

As I sat down to write, I realized [with all these trips and relationships], I wasn’t just biding my time and being silly while waiting for something to start. What I had been doing was actually its own important thing: finding a new way to be happy. My friend, who has a kid by the way, suggested that I call it What I Was Doing While You Were Having Stupid Babies [laughs]. I thought that was going to turn too many people off. So we went with Breeding.

SFBG The title might lead some to believe that you don’t like children, but anyone who reads the book will realize that’s not the case.

KN I always wanted to have kids. But deep into my 30s, I absolutely was not ready yet. Biology kicks in at a certain point, and I felt like I saw so many people around me jumping into things just because of their age, after waiting so long. I knew that I theoretically needed to figure things out, but I just wasn’t feeling it yet. I was always cool with adopting, and I write about freezing my eggs, because I felt like, I can’t let this number dictate what I do. It’s too big of a decision.

SFBG The book is a personal memoir, but it’s also a guidebook of sorts. What’s your travel philosophy?

KN The biggest thing is: Go where the guidebooks don’t tell you to go. Find locals and ask them where their secret places are. Dating a local is a great way to get advice from a local — that’s why I love a vacation romance! If you’re traveling alone, don’t go for the high-end places, even if you can afford them, because that’s not where single people go. It will be all married old people who aren’t going to want to hang out with you. If you’re not 21 and don’t want to hang with the backpackers, shoot for the mid-range.

Always say yes! And then find out how many amazing things happen as a result of accepting invitations to places, or checking out something new that somebody you meet one day suggests. The best things always happen because I say yes to something. Then, it empowers you to do that when you get home, too. Even when I can’t jump on a plane, I take a book and read alone at a restaurant, which I never used to do. I’ll walk into parties alone, or take myself to a museum. I do a lot more things alone in my own town, and that changes everything. You just feel like, “I can handle it!”

SFBG Do comparisons with  Eat Pray Love drive you crazy?

KN I wrote about that book in my book, because I knew that people would compare the two. It doesn’t drive me crazy — that book touched a lot of people, and that’s great. I had a complicated relationship with that book, as I think a lot of people do, dealing with the concept of “misery of the entitled person.” I think that all kinds of people who have entitled, lucky lives can be horribly miserable — look at Robin Williams. So I don’t blame [Elizabeth Gilbert] for her self-created misery, as someone who creates her own misery on a regular basis.

But I wanted to try and take myself a little less seriously, and have a much more comic, self-deprecating approach to the silliness that was my tail-chasing. That was my goal, to have it be fun. Also, by holding off on having sex for most of that book, I feel like she missed out on a really easy way to feel better! [Laughs.] *

KRISTIN NEWMAN

Sept. 20, 1pm, free

Book Passage

51 Tamal Vista, Corte Madera

www.bookpassage.com

 

A high price

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cheryl@sfbg.com

LIT Andy Hall was five years old in 1967, a kid living at the base of Denali, North America’s tallest peak. His father, a National Park Service veteran, took a job overseeing Mount McKinley National Park (as it was then called) just months before a climbing party known as the Wilcox Expedition encountered a freak storm near the summit. Seven of its 12 members died in one of the mountain’s most enduring tragedies.

Hall, who grew up to be the editor and publisher of Alaska magazine, was always haunted by the incident, which he chronicles in Denali’s Howl: The Deadliest Climbing Disaster on America’s Wildest Peak (Dutton, 252pp., $27.95). These days, he lives north of Anchorage in the small community of Chugiak. I called him up to discuss his book, a page-turner that’s as much about memory as it is about mountaineering.

SF Bay Guardian Why did you decide to write a book about the Wilcox Expedition?

Andy Hall I’d been working at a magazine for about 16 years, and I started feeling like I needed a change. I’d been close to this thing because my dad had been the park superintendent, and I’d run into a lot of people who’d been involved in it one way or another. I saw how it affected them still. I thought, “Well, I’ve got a great story sitting right here in my lap.”

At the time I started [writing the book], my dad had died five years prior. Some of the guys who’d been involved were getting up there in age. I thought, if I’m gonna do this, I gotta do it now. There were times I regretted not sitting down and having a formal interview with my dad about it, but I had talked with him enough that I knew what happened, and I knew there was a lot more material I could dig into.

SFBG Beyond the folks in your community, how did you track down your sources?

AH Some of the key players I did already know. But the ones that I really wanted to find were more difficult. For example, I wanted to find Gary Hansen, who’d managed the Alaska Rescue Group, the civilian rescue organization [that had attempted to help the climbers]. He left Alaska in the early 1970s, but I knew he was an architect, and I’d heard he’d gone to California. I’m not a detective, but I just thought: Look for someone who’s licensed in both Alaska and California. He got on the line after I called his office and said, “You found me!” Once I connected with him, he made even more recommendations, and it went on from there.

SFBG How did you extract the truth from the various stories you were being told?

AH Memory was definitely a big player. [Survivors] Joe Wilcox and Howard Snyder had both written books; I read both, and there were conflicts. If I could investigate [discrepancies] in person, I would. Then, there were original letters, documents, and journals, and I read what everybody wrote, but I would go beyond that. In the National Park archives, there were longhand accounts that had been written immediately after the incident.

In my dad’s desk, I found a reel-to-reel tape that had interviews with the would-be rescuers from the Mountaineering Club of Alaska. It was their firsthand account of finding artifacts [from the Wilcox Expedition], and then finding [the first three] bodies. So I had these early-as-possible accounts, and I would compare them to what was written later. Some people maintained a pretty solid account of what happened throughout, while others were less consistent.

In the case of Joe Wilcox, I think he wanted to make sure that people didn’t think the men on his team were incompetent. I don’t think he needed to do that, but I think he really wanted them to be portrayed in a positive light.

SFBG Building off that last thought, Denali’s Howl opens with a section listing each man’s climbing credentials. They weren’t inexperienced by any means. Did clashes within the group lead to their downfall?

AH One of the things I wanted to do with the book was contextualize the climb in the day, in the environment. In the 1960s, climbing was something you did as a group. This wasn’t a guided climb. Joe was the organizer, and he did try to lead, but he wasn’t the guide. Today, a hired guide could look at you and say, “You’re getting the early stages of altitude sickness,” and send you back down the mountain. He’s in charge, and you have no choice.

In this incident, it was a bunch of guys, essentially peers, some of whom had more experience than others, but they were climbing together. There were conflicts, but I don’t think there were any more than in successful climbs — and I don’t think they were the deciding element of the tragedy.

SFBG The book really shows how mountaineering has changed.

AH Denali National Park is now a major destination. There are more climbing rangers on the mountain at this moment, probably, than in the entire park in ’67. Back then, there were an average of about 20 people climbing the mountain in a given year. Today, a couple of thousand summit each year. It’s an industry now. There are satellite phones, [high-tech] weather reports, and a high-altitude helicopter standing by ready to respond. In 1967, these guys went up in what Joe called “the age of self-reliance” — they knew they were up there on their own. *

ANDY HALL

Thu/19, 7pm, free

Book Passage

51 Tamal Vista, Corte Madera

www.bookpassage.com

 

Brilliant exodus

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marke@sfbg.com

VISUAL ART/LIT

Passover ended last week — Bubbe’s back in Florida, gefilte fish leftovers have been composted, and matzoh crumbs no longer spangle your favorite hoodie. But the saga of an oppressed people throwing off its shackles under the auspices of a vengeful yet baffling god remains timeless. Arthur Szyk and the Art of the Haggadah, a magical exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (www.thecjm.org) through June 29, displays the story of the Jews’ ancient exodus from Egypt as illustrated in one of the world’s most beautiful books.

Szyk (1894-1951), a Jewish Pole who emigrated first to France in 1927 and then to the UK and US, was an ambitious and popular illustrator and artist whose work became more politically engaged with the rise of National Socialism in Germany. As early as 1933, he equated Hitler with the pharaoh of the Torah in his work. This eventually led to a fully illustrated Haggadah, the Passover dinner ceremony guide that retells the story of the Jews’ flight from Egypt.

Taking what seems like equal influence from illuminated medieval manuscripts, Art Nouveau style, Eastern European folk art, and satirical cartoons, the 48 exquisite illustrations teem with contemporary references — for example, the “wicked son” in the story of the four sons sports a Hitler-like mustache. (Many of the drawings also prominently featured swastikas, until they were painted over upon the book’s release in 1940, perhaps in capitulation to the British publisher.)

Beyond the prescient political bite, though, of this classic book — like many Jewish kids, my husband received a replica as a bar mitzvah present — lies its sheer artfulness. The small pages, Mughal miniature-like, brim with gorgeous calligraphy, eye-popping design elements (Szyk based his layouts on graph paper), touching portraits, and a veritable bestiary of symbolic animals. It’s an epic piece of storytelling, which has become part of the epic story itself.

Lucifer is such a drag

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steve@sfbg.com

LIT In this workaday world we live in, it’s good to inject a little weirdness. Mix in moments of the metaphysical and dabs of the divine into our banal, everyday existence. And you can start by grabbing a copy of The Weirdness (Melville House, 288 pp., $16.95) and letting novelist Jeremy P. Bushnell do it for you.

The Faustian premise is a familiar one, with Lucifer showing up in hapless aspiring writer Billy Ridgeway’s living room with that timeless offer of earthly greatness in exchange eternal servitude. Or something like that, because Billy is skeptical and won’t sit through the Devil’s PowerPoint presentation (yes, this is Faust in the Information Age) even though it comes with really great coffee.

From there, the journey begins, a slow buildup of character development to what becomes a wild ride navigating the battlefield between the Adversarial Manifestation and the human forces secretly arrayed against him, à la Harry Potter. But the real appeal of The Weirdness isn’t the plot, as fun and fantastical as it may be.

No, the moments when I found myself enjoying this novel the most, the times when I laughed or smiled to myself with appreciation at the strength of the writing by this debut novelist, was when we peeked inside Billy’s mind as the weirdness was unfolding around him.

Self-absorbed and filled with doubt, preoccupied with petty gripes and grievances, obsessing about that last tiff with his girlfriend, and wondering whether he’s doing it right, the world inside Billy’s mind is a comically hilarious counterpoint to the epic clash of good and evil that is unfolding around him. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to slap the kid and give him a big hug, but either way it was the stuff that really elevated this novel.

In many ways, this is an illuminating parable for these times, particularly among the young technology and finance workers here in San Francisco, who obsess about the latest deal or app or foodie delight, oblivious to the epic struggles around them except for when those strange societies of passionate warriors confront them, when Billy and those who want nothing more than their own personal success and happiness are made aware that there are larger struggles going on in the world.

And then, Billy is mostly just irritated by the inconvenience of it all. When members of the Right-Hand Path try to help Billy break free from the clutches of the devil, he just won’t be told what to do or trouble himself with taking a stand, even though the secret cabal is based on the set of his favorite sci-fi television show, Argentium Astrum.

After all, these nerdy do-gooders took his cell phone and won’t give it back, so Billy thinks that maybe he’s better off working with Lucifer, who is at least offering to get his novel published, even though his own father turns out to be a top tier warrior against Satan, which causes poor Billy to feel more betrayed than loved or saved.

Don’t worry, Billy is a piece of work, but he grows on you, even if you want to smack his whiny ass at times and maybe find yourself hoping the ever-charming Lucifer wins and subjects this kid to eternal hellfire. But by time Krishna shows up to save the day, you’ll just wish you had more of this delightful novel still left to read. *

 

Earth reads

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WEST OF EDEN: COMMUNES AND UTOPIA IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA (PM PRESS, 2012, $24.95)

Edited by Iain Boal, Janfrie Stone, Michael Watts, and Cal Winslow, this fresh history of radical communitarians and their cultural impact includes essays that encompass the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Alcatraz occupation, and the Black Panthers, as well as famed (and doomed) communes like the Albion Nation along the Mendocino coast and Morning Star in Sonoma. There’s an emphasis on storytelling, roots activism, and personal relation to the earth here, as well as a bracing re-evaluation of what it meant to “get away from it all” and live free in the ’60s and ’70s.

 

THE SIXTH EXTINCTION: AN UNNATURAL HISTORY BY ELIZABETH KOLBERT (HENRY HOLT, 2014, $28)

Environmental staff writer at The New Yorker and author of the essential Field Notes from a Catastrophe, Kolbert turns an epochal eye toward our environmental fate. Proposing that, after the five major extinctions that have occurred in the history of life, the sixth one is us, her book guides us through the devastating effect we’re having on most of the planet’s species — and provides startling examples of animals almost gone, like the Panamanian golden frog and the great auk. After reading this, you will never snort ground-up black rhino horn as a party drug again.

 

THE BAY AREA FORAGER BY MIA ANDLER AND KEVIN FEINSTEIN (FORAGING SOCIETY PRESS, 2011, $24.95)

Miner’s Lettuce! Prickly Pear! Sour Clover! Blue Dicks! Where to find them, how to find them, when to use them, and how to eat them — all is revealed (along with some kick-ass recipes) in this wonderfully illustrated tome.

 

IN THE SIERRA: MOUNTAIN WRITINGS BY KENNETH REXROTH, EDITED BY KIM STANLEY ROBINSON (NEW DIRECTIONS, 2012 EDITION, $16.95)

Beloved San Francisco poet Rexroth (1905-1982) brought his cosmic playfulness and sly, erotic wit to his encounters with nature. Snow-freckled granite, wrinkled tableland, peaks like refrigerated teeth, “the ventriloquial belling of an owl” mingling with nighttime waterfalls: Rexroth maps out a familiarly strange mountainscape with an ethereal astrolabe. Selected prose writings, including those from his columns in the Bay Guardian and the Examiner, take on winter camping, the history of the Sierra Club, and proper furniture for horses.

 

CLIMATE CHANGE: WHAT IT MEANS FOR US, OUR CHILDREN, AND OUR GRANDCHILDREN (MIT PRESS, 2014, $22.95)

The folksy title of this MIT Press title may belie the eagerness of top scientists to reach everyday people before it’s too late. Edited by law professor and writer Joseph F.C. DiMento and energy specialist Pamela Doughman, the essays in Climate Change lays out up-to-the-minute information on the impending and present impact of our activities in practical terms of housing prices, taxes, and other relatable measurements in non-technical language.

 

A CALIFORNIA BESTIARY (HEYDAY, 2010, $12.95)

The pairing of writer Rebecca Solnit and muralist Mona Caron would cause major excitement even if it involved a book on differential equations. Here, however, is a gem-like compendium of iconic Golden State natives like the Chinook salmon, California condor, desert tortoise, and Mission butterfly. All seen through two of most important artists’ eyes. (Marke B.)

All titles available at Green Arcade Books (1680 Market, SF. www.thegreenarcade.com).

 

In the cut

0

LIT “Everywhere the gay narrative in this country is about freedom, but the reality doesn’t match up. I’m interested in exploring the corners that aren’t free — from bullied queer children killing themselves to the elaborate social prisons we concoct for ourselves online,” Randall Mann told me. “The landscape is definitely changing, but I’m not convinced that the most exciting, most pressing thing is to slap a smiley face over everything and post about ‘look how awesome my life is.’ I think it diminishes the present and the past.”

That may seem like a cynical take on the spurty arc of gay liberation. And a quick glance at Mann’s latest book Straight Razor (Persea Books), prickling with darkness, insecurity, suicide, longing, and Smear the Queer, probably bears that observation out. But the thrilling poems in Mann’s third volume are tenderly, uncannily, often hilariously on point when it comes to how we live our gay life now: the blundered hookups, halfhearted experiments, weird ghosts of old behaviors, buried childhoods, shady exchanges, unbelievable luck, the precarious balance of living at once in the glaring political spotlight and the throbbing shadows of history.

Or, as Mann exclaims with either surprise or sarcasm (or both) in “Teaser”:

 

Look at us — we’re smarter

Than our hair!

 

Mann and I met in the Castro near his house, at a posh wine bar in that increasingly upscale, mainstream neighborhood — a scrubbing that sometimes renders Mann’s gritty lines (As I skipped out this morning,/ skipping down Castro Street,/ the queens upon the asphalt/ were racks of hanging meat) into totems of nostalgia, no matter how recent they were written. But his electric language is so of the moment it carries the past into a timeless, shared present, as in one of my favorite poems from the collection, eerie AIDS-survivor ode “The Afterparty”:

 

I hover over the caviar, between

two spray-on queens, their asides –

 

eye cream, Pac Heights, microderm

winningly vulgar. And when someone turns

the beat around, pure disco,

 

we’re dated, we’re done for…

 

“Our walls are crumbling, but that also means we’re losing our queer space,” said the soft-spoken but impassioned Mann, who spent his childhood in Florida before moving here in the late 1990s. “Gay people are shifting from a very defined identity to an unknown, and we’re performing this shift very much on a public stage. I’m fascinated by the way we construct and perform our identities — but at the same time we’re always undercutting ourselves. That moment or mode of undercutting, of self-effacement, is the poetic moment I always find myself seeking out.”

The pivotal moment of undercutting, when the straight razor is lifted, provides much of the humor in the book, as in the wonderful “Blind Date at the Blue Plate,” in which Mann, in “Striped shirt, skinny jeans, new-old Chucks/ I am sporting the usual bankruptcies” awaits a possible mate by reliving his entire sexual past — who doesn’t? — finally wishing he could redo it all, “much richer, cleaner,/ yet still dark, dark, dark./ A Michael Haneke shot-by-shot remake of my life.” One guesses the date won’t top that.

Mann’s poems are direct and structural — he was enthralled by formal-leaning Modernist icons Bishop, Moore, Auden, Lowell, and Stevens in college, rather than the shaggy Beats or the hyper-experimental Language Poets most young poets his age were obsessing over. His biggest influence is the great gay poet Thom Gunn, who died in the Haight 10 years ago next month. Gunn cheekily set strict forms and an Elizabethan wit against often-raunchy contemporary subject matter. (His Man With Night Sweats is an AIDS-era monument.)

Mann’s not after that kind of irony; for him, “Structure is something erotic to me, it leads me places that free verse doesn’t, it gives me a definition that I can surmount, a path to take and sometimes step off from.” His loose forms and half-rhymes become a metaphor for a community that’s redefining itself against its past even as it clings to its history. One shiver-inducing poem, the horror-porn-meets-Judy-Garland riff “Fantasy Suite,” is literally an invert — the first half of the poem is repeated in the second half in reverse order.

“Structure also gives me a sort of permission to speak about the unspeakable,” Mann told me, in context of the Straight Razor poem that’s getting the most attention, “September Elegies.” That poem, heartbreaking yet hardly mawkish, is dedicated to Seth Walsh, Justin Aaberg, Billy Lucas, and Tyler Clementi, four young people who killed themselves after being bullied about their sexuality.

“I had to be very careful with that one, but I couldn’t be silent. I didn’t want to capitalize on or cheapen their deaths with useless sentiment, but I was driven to honor them in some way. I found that the repetition of their ages — 13, 15, 18 — and their final social media messages (“jumping off the gw bridge sorry”), those secondhand details, it became a kind of incantation, of bringing them back into our world,” Mann said.

“The words turn and turn on themselves,” Mann says in that poem — just like we turn on ourselves and each other, and the world still turns on us.

 

ERRATA

I’m a little punchy after all the lines

and torture-lite. And since this isn’t glitter underneath

my nails, pass me an emery board and the strip brush –

 

I’ll meet you out front, by the STD truck.

We’ll get Ray-Banned, and torch

a Castro twink, or three. And kee kee.

 

Enough with the ritual attachments. I prefer the steel

implication, the gash in the erstwhile

model’s face, the snip of the top chef’s tongue.

 

Your assignment is to lurk, but not

like that shower goblin at the gym. No. Like a cemetery

wildflower at Badlands. Like monogamy.

 

No use now for embarrassment,

the blinking-back-the-tears.

The administration will exempt each one of us

 

with a bathwater apology, an errata list…  

 

“Errata” by Randall Mann, from Straight Razor, copyright © 2013 by Randall Mann. Reprinted by permission of Persea Books, New York.

Writing in the dark

1

LIT True-crime fans will know the name Harold Schechter: the prolific author and Queens College professor has written books on such nefarious characters as H.H. Holmes, Albert Fish, and Ed Gein, as well as mystery novels centered around Edgar Allan Poe. His latest is The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, The Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation (Amazon Publishing/New Harvest, 386 pp., $24 hardcover, $9.99 eBook). It tells the disturbing story of Robert Irwin, a talented yet deeply troubled sculptor who slaughtered three people, including the mother and glamorous sister of a woman he was obsessed with, in 1937 New York City.

The killings — which took place in an upscale neighborhood that was, oddly, no stranger to violence — seized the public’s imagination, and the police investigation and Irwin’s trial were exhaustively covered by the tabloid media. Though the case has largely been forgotten today, the story still makes for undeniably compelling reading. I called up Schechter to learn more.

SF Bay Guardian How did you come across the story of Robert Irwin?

Harold Schechter For my last book — Psycho USA: Famous American Killers You Never Heard Of — I was looking at crimes that had generated a lot of publicity in their time, but had since faded from public memory. The Irwin case was one that I became fascinated with. I wrote an entry on it in that book, but the more I looked into it, the more substantial a subject it seemed.

Originally, [The Mad Sculptor] was just going to be about the Irwin case, but then I kept coming across references to these other tabloid-sensation crimes that had occurred in the same neighborhood, Beekman Place, in the span of 18 months. So that became the book.

maniacbook

SFBG What transforms a crime into a “tabloid-sensation” crime?

HS I just came across this really interesting quote from a well-known book that was published in the 1930s. The person said, referring to [1922’s highly publicized] Hall-Mills murder case, “The Hall-Mills case had all the elements needing to satisfy an exacting public taste for the sensational. It was grisly, it was dramatic, it involved wealth and respectability. It had just the right amount of sex interest, and in addition, it took place close to the great metropolitan nerve center of the American press.”

When I write my books, I look for crimes that have a certain kind of story to them. It’s not just the gruesomeness of the murder, or the number of murders. Some of the most famous crimes in American history, like the Leopold and Loeb case, just involved one single murder. But it had colorful characters involved, plus that combination of money, violence, and sex. In the case of Robert Irwin, the mere fact that the tabloids could call him “The Mad Sculptor” made it immediately gripping. It conjures up all of these horror-movie elements.

SFBG Other than newspapers, what were your research sources?

HS The psychiatrist who treated [Irwin], Fredric Wertham, was another thing that attracted me to the case. I’ve been interested in him for many years, partly because of his connection to the comic-book industry. [Wertham wrote 1954’s The Seduction of the Innocent, which accused comic books of contributing to juvenile delinquency.] Also, the second true-crime book I ever wrote was Deranged, about cannibal pedophile Albert Fish, and Wertham had been his psychiatrist, too.

When Wertham died [in 1981], his wife donated all of his papers to the Library of Congress with the stipulation that they not be made available to scholars for, I think, 25 years. But just when I started to work on the Irwin book, Wertham’s papers became available. There’s a tremendous amount of material in his archives, so that was a very important source. And then, you know, the New York Public Library, and different New York archives and historical societies.

SFBG One unusual aspect of the Irwin case was that victim Veronica Gedeon had modeled for true-crime magazines, like Inside Detective.

HS I was aware of those magazines, but I didn’t quite realize how many there were. There were dozens of these lurid pulp detective magazines and true crime magazines, and they always had very sensationalistic painted covers, generally of scantily clad women being threatened in various ways. But the articles themselves were often quite well-researched and skillfully written, and they were all lavishly illustrated, including some actual crime-scene photographs, and dramatizations of them.

Ronnie Gedeon had posed in a bunch of them, always wearing a negligee or whatever, about to be strangled or shot. And of course, all of the tabloids kept pointing out that there were all of these premonitions of her murder in those photographs. Again, you can’t beat that combination of sex, violence, the trendy neighborhood, this madman who was a sculptor, an artist. It was just, as I say in my book, a kind of perfect storm of prurience.

SFBG The Mad Sculptor is both true-crime book and history lesson. It really gives a good sense of what NYC life was like at the time.

HS I see my books really as social histories. I feel very strongly that you can learn as much about a cultural moment from the particular crimes that the public is obsessed with as you can from looking at what movies are popular, or what heroes are worshipped. The Manson case tells you as much about the 1960s as the Beatles do. The Leopold and Loeb case tells you a great deal about the underlying fears and anxieties of the 1920s.

SFBG Your books always have such great titles: Fiend, Deviant, Bestial. What’s the naming process like?

HS I started with Deviant, about Ed Gein. At the time, I chose it because I’d been doing a lot of thinking about horror fiction and horror movies. The narrative structure of so much horror has to do with somebody who’s kind of following the straight and narrow path, and then just takes the wrong turn, like in [the Gein-inspired] Psycho. Horror is often about deviating from your usual path and ending up in some nightmarish world. So Deviant was chosen for that reason.

Then, for some reason, I got it into my head that it would be cool to write a trilogy of books that begin with the letter “D.” Partly maybe because there were so many creepy “D” words. So I wrote Deranged, then Depraved. At that point I kind of ran out of “D” words, but I had already established this one-word thing, so I did Fiend and Bestial and Fatal.

At that point, I was starting to get away from just writing about serial killers. So when I wrote my book The Devil’s Gentleman, I kind of abandoned the one-word title. But I have to say, I’ve always been kind of proud of my ability to come up with cool titles! Of course, The Mad Sculptor — sometimes they name themselves. *

www.haroldschechter.com

The language of hope

11

 

By Fernando Andres Torres

arts@sfbg.com

LIT When Alejandro Murguía was named San Francisco’s sixth Poet Laureate in July 2012, he brought a fresh momentum to poesía en español, a movement with historical traction in the city. Murguía, the first Latino appointed to the two-year seat, is a noted bilingual poet whose sharp takes on the city by night, dark notes on tumultuous love, and verses raging against poverty have helped his work rise to prominence. The last lines of his 16th & Valencia: “And we were going to stay angry/And we were not leaving/Not ever leaving/El corazón del corazón de La Mission/El Camino Real ends here.”

Murguía’s post as San Francisco laureate builds on a recent trend, along with Juan Felipe Herrera — California’s current poet laureate — and José Montoya, who was Sacramento’s poet laureate at the time of his death last year. And if we sprinkle in Obama’s second inaugural poet, Richard Blanco, we could say that the national establishment is also paying attention.

Lately, Latino poetry written in both English and Spanish (or “Spanglish”) is blossoming with a vigor not seen since the 1994 passage of Proposition 187 — when many poetas surfaced to protest the vindictive initiative to prohibit undocumented persons from using social services. In this great moment for poesía en español, many fresh voices are rising up and challenging the norms of two intertwined languages.

“There are thoughts in Spanish, and maybe the next one is in English. My poetry is the rhythm of the speech; it is born while I walk, giving me a poetic sense,” says Silvia Parra, also known as Mama Coatl, who strolls the streets of the Mission with her poems and Mayan-Quiché spiritual teachings. Descended from Sonora, Mexico’s Yaqui people, Mama Coatl is also a performance-art activist, and a strong advocate of preventing violence against women; she co-presents Guardianas de la Vida, an annual performance and healing event in honor of San Francisco’s observation of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Girls.

“Poetas have always existed in San Francisco,” says Salvadorean poet Jorge Argueta. Many of us have come from Latin America. Bilingual readings are organized all over the city where poets express themselves in the way they want.”

In 1980, Argueta fled El Salvador’s brutal military regime for San Francisco, where he began mingling with the Mission District’s Chicano poets. He went on to publish his first chapbook, Del Ocaso a la Alborada (From Sundown to Dawn). Several books later, 2001’s award-winning memoir Una Película En Mi Almohada (A Movie in My Pillow) made him one of the top children’s book authors in North America.

According to renowned California poet Francisco X. Alarcón, author of 13 bilingual books, the growing interest in bilingual poetry has turned the genre into “a boom reflecting the linguistic and demographic of the times. Poetry is the only literary genre Latinos continue to write in Spanish. It has to do with life experience and emotions.”

Latino poets reflect their own reality in the language of their intimacy, he says. “Besides, English and Spanish are cousins, sharing the same Roman alphabet.”

But poesía en español is hardly a new phenomenon in San Francisco. By 1959, the beatniks were already looking to the south when Chilean poet Gonzalo Rojas visited City Lights Bookstore to invite several of them to the First Encounter of Writers of the Americas at the Universidad de Concepción. In 1966, Pablo Neruda’s UC Berkeley reading packed the house, with prominent poets and writers (including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Mario Vargas Llosa, Allen Ginsberg, and Fernando Alegría) in attendance. That night, many ended up at Alegría’s home, and it was a meeting of two different languages with one common denominator: poetry. It was also a historic gathering “of profoundly different movements, the counterculture of the Beats a contrast to the aspirations of Western acclaim of the Latin Americans,” writes author Deborah Cohn, who details the many points of intersection between Latinos and Beat poets since the 1950s in her 2012 book The Latin American Literary Boom and US Nationalism During the Cold War.

And what about those purists alarmed by the Spanglish? “It is ridiculous! Both languages are enriching themselves from each other,” insists Alarcón. Adds Argueta, “Sometimes newcomers are bothered; they see it as an insult. You can call it bilingualism or Chicanismo, but for me it doesn’t denigrate the language — it embellishes the language.”

Late Sacramento laureate Montoya, one of California’s most celebrated poets, mixed English and Spanish with ease. In 1969, he wrote El Louie; along with Corky Gonzales’ 1967 I’m Joaquin, it became one of Chicano poetry’s most famous works. Maximizing the natural rhythms of the languages, words intertwine in a ravishing dance. The poet crosses back and forth between English and his mother tongue, emerging with the language of California.

Which brings us to San Francisco, 2014: el poeta de las corbatas brillantes, the poet of the glittering ties, and the first Latino appointed as the city’s Poet Laureate, Alejandro Murguía. As part of its San Francisco Poet Laureate series, City Lights has just published Stray Poems, a collection of bilingual poems written on napkins, matchboxes, parking tickets and wrinkled pieces of paper over the past 12 years. He’ll celebrate its release at a reading next week, appropriately enough at the very bookstore where Rojas first met the Beats. *

ALEJANDRO MURGUÍA

Feb. 5, 7pm, free

City Lights Bookstore

261 Columbus, SF

www.citylights.com

 

Divining the entrails

5

arts@sfbg.com

LIT On the cover of Incurable Disorder (Last Gasp, 2013), an adolescent deer covered in a thick pelt of diamond-bright Swarovski crystals gazes calmly outward, as ruby-red rhinestone blood drips from the points where golden arrows sprout cruelly from its graceful frame. Upon opening the book we see the piece — The Folly of St. Hubertus, 2010 in its entirety. It’s a delicate, eight-legged anomaly, weeping, bleeding, and glittering all at the same time, housed within an austere glass-paneled case like a hunting trophy bagged in an enchanted forest, which many of Elizabeth McGrath’s strange creations resemble.

A bestiary of improbable wonders awaits within the pages of this confidently-designed coffee-table book: the mounted heads of tattooed rabbits and stags whose majestic horns are tangled with sails or telephone wires; bucktoothed rodents and circus bears with windows to alternate, dystopian landscapes planted in their chubby tummies; a cross-sectioned, gilt-edged pig with a pair of tiny, Victorian-style dollhouses firmly ensconced in its oozy-looking pink innards. Juxtaposition is the key word to many of these modernist mash-ups, and indeed, the LA-based “Bloodbath” McGrath is a favorite artist of famously outsider Juxtapoz magazine.

Inhabiting a territory too grisly to be labeled whimsical and too cartoonish to be labeled truly morbid, McGrath’s relentlessly askew dioramas and sculptures subvert the pop-goth ghetto of icky-cute by cutting just a little too close to the bone. Looking in the eyes of her mutilated menagerie inspires the same sense of fascination and bemused regret that accompanies the contemplation of roadkill or fetal pigs floating in formaldehyde. Her darkly incandescent aesthetic is reminiscent of Christiane Cegavske’s stop-motion tour de force Blood Tea and Red String (2006), wistful and powerful, playful and primal all at the same time

If twisting the familiar tropes of pop art appears to be a guiding principle behind McGrath’s dark menagerie, you can see the mechanics of a more classical approach in the equally haunting art of Laurie Lipton. Prosaically entitled The Drawings of Laurie Lipton (Last Gasp, 2013), the front piece of her book, a work entitled Round and Round (2012), demonstrates a folly of a non-sainted kind, a clutter of grinning skeletons driving in an endless circle around a lonely pair of old-fashioned gas pumps perched atop a wasteland of bones and pipes.

Lipton’s photorealistic, black-and-white line drawings bring to mind the highly-detailed engravings of Albrecht Dürer, an artist Lipton confesses an affinity for. But unlike Dürer, who favored woodcuts and watercolors, Lipton’s tools are charcoal and pencils, and her self-devised method of creating depth and texture with layer upon layer of incredibly fine lines and crosshatching gives her work a distinctive allure. Each white line is the result of the negative space being painstakingly filled in around each, rather than the judicious application of a white pencil (or, for that matter, an eraser), and this obsessive penchant for detail manifests itself further in the amount of same stuffed into each dystopian landscape: mountains of bones, webs spun from hundreds of threads, bushes covered in thousands of tiny leaves, each unique.

It’s precisely the intricacy of such details that makes Lipton’s work a challenge to fit into book format. The book itself is a handsome volume indeed, a compact 10 and a half inches by nine and a half inches, with a black, leather-look cover, and embossed silver lettering which subtly complements the many shades of gray employed by Lipton in her drawings. Many of the collected works are displayed with one page devoted to the full work, and another page with zoomed-in views of some of the most meticulous details. A drawing of a cobwebbed skeleton in royal court attire (Queen of Bones, 2009) gets a close-up of the knuckle bones that line her sumptuous brocade cloak, while The Three Fates (1997) gets one of a hundred tiny bodies crammed onto one small portion of an impossibly long conveyor belt passing in front of the gnarled figures of the titular Fates. But while these close-ups are helpful in decoding some of Lipton’s more ingenious inventions, the full impact of her larger works eludes the reader somewhat.

At a book signing at Varnish Gallery, one could get a slightly better idea of scale and composition via a slideshow, during which Lipton pointed out details we might have missed otherwise: flocked wallpaper decorated with hundreds of unsentimental clocks behind a baby carriage containing an elderly man in Second Childhood (1989); or a weathered, Maria Bello blonde peering frankly at her descending reflection in Mirror Mirror (2002) — the final figure of which is, Lipton assured us, an elderly woman, not quite visible in the book, but clearly delineated on the original.

Lipton herself is a gamine 50-something with a friendly, casual air. By her own account, she grew up in a supportive, suburban environment, but was drawn early to the shadowy themes and macabre images that typify her rigorous art. She described this apparent dissonance with the help of a visual aid: Pandora’s Box (2011), in which a delicate-looking porcelain doll clutches a wooden music box, from which a screaming horde of tortured and demonic faces issues, screaming, into the atmosphere. It’s unsubtle, perhaps, but artfully concise. For artists especially, external appearance means little. It’s what seethes inside that personifies them best.

“I can’t drive, I can’t cook, I can’t put up shelves,” Lipton confessed, flashing a disarmingly bright smile. “All I can do is draw.” That much, at least, is unambiguous. *

www.lastgasp.com

 

Local heroes

0

joe@sfbg.com

LIT Comics have grown a lot since their humble early days, when superheroes seemed confused as to whether their underwear belonged on the inside or the outside of their tights. Now anti-heroes and tales of personal tragedy guide the ink on the page as often as not, and Berkeley-based publisher Image Comics leads the pack in pushing comic stories to wonderfully dark places.

This year’s Image Expo is an opportunity to rub noses with comic authors whose work is still cool, dammit, even if their work is crossing into the mainstream. We’ll forgive Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman for letting his comics get turned into a TV show and videogames, if only because they expand the captivatingly complicated, zombie-infested universe he first created on paper.

Image publisher Eric Stephenson attributes the company’s success to its creator-owned model, which might explain why the Telltale-made Walking Dead video games are so good — Kirkman owns the rights to his Walking Dead, allowing all the creative control that entails. Though Kirkman may be one of the shiniest stars at the expo (he gets his own panel, by his lonesome!), he’ll be one of over a dozen comic creators to nerd out over.

Heavy-hitters like Jonathan Hickman (East of West and The Nightly News), Matt Fraction (Sex Criminals and Satellite Sam), Nick Dragotta (East of West), and Kelly Sue DeConnick (Pretty Deadly) will all be on hand. East of West in particular has garnered critical acclaim, and made the New York Times best seller list in October. It has much to love, but the setting is as interesting as any of its characters. It’s an alternate reality-history-dystopian future yarn pitting the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse against the president of the United States. What’s not to love?

The expo also offers a good opportunity to meet newer artists too, if only to say you knew them before they were a big deal. Ales Kot is one of those up and comers, and his series Zero is an espionage and war story in the near future with disturbing echoes of the present — from Manning’s leaks to our near constant state of war. It’s frank about its brutality, neither glorifying nor hiding it away.

Locals are making their mark with Image as well. Bay Area author Antony Johnston and artist Justin Greenwood’s Fuse concept is “what if a detective story was set on Battlestar Galactica?” (Thanks Johnston, you’ve got me frakkin’ excited now.) It won’t be out until February, but a preview of the comic had my sci-fi loving self drooling over a Babylon 5-like cylindrical space station — but the story is almost Sherlock-like, a genuine whodunit.

With WonderCon’s recent move to SoCal, Image Expo’s Bay Area foothold is more vital than ever. But though it will no doubt yield a handful of cosplayers and swag-hunting fans, Image’s event — now in its second year in its current format — tends to be a lot cozier than WonderCon (or the mightiest behemoth of them all, Comic-Con). With just 600 attendees in 2013, compared to Comic-Con’s 100,000-plus, the comic creators were able to chat with readers at length.

Image’s Stephenson will be my main reason for bum-rushing the expo. Taking time away from his duties as publisher, he penned the recently anthologized Nowhere Men, which rocked, hard. The story of a Beatles-like group of scientists (because science is the new rock ‘n’ roll), it tells a tale similar enough to Frankenstein’s monster — but watching the characters justify their choices is fascinating. Sure, they end up ruining the lives of their test subjects and turning them into twisted super powered monsters, but they meant well, right?

The series will continue through the year, but it can’t come soon enough. (Maybe new Nowhere Men developments will be revealed at the expo?) Though there are only a dozen comic-creator attendees listed on the event’s website, an email from Stephenson hinted that unannounced surprise guests would bring the count of artists and authors to over 20. The slated panels center around the comic artists, the “eccentric” lives of comic authors, and an “interrogation” whose purpose is to deduce where comic creators get their inspiration.

“We have a very ambitious year ahead of us in 2014, and I think some of what we reveal at Image Expo is going to surprise a lot of people,” Stephenson said. *

IMAGE EXPO 2014

Thu/9, 9am, $20-$50

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

imagecomics.com/expo

On the migrant trail

0

P>From 2007 to 2010, Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez made six different excursions on The Beast, a rusted freight train that carries Central American migrants throughout Mexico on their journey to the Southern U.S. border. His vivid, eye-opening account is now available in English, in a recently published edition titled The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail, by Verso Books.

The Beast documents the lives and stories of some of the thousands of migrants who make the perilous trip annually. Whether they are heading north to flee violence in their home countries, or simply in pursuit of una vida mejor (a better life), the migrants who embark on this journey expose themselves to untold risk. The trail leads them isolated Mexican territories where the rule of law holds little sway, and bandits affiliated with drug cartels lie in wait of vulnerable targets.

Some of the figures are appalling: An estimated 20,000 of the quarter million Central Americans who journey along the migrant trail annually are kidnapped along the way. Rape is so commonplace in some areas that coyotes aiding women who venture north frequently give them condoms, with instructions to tell their attackers to use them. “They tell them, trying to fight isn’t an option. Not in that jungle,” Martínez said during a recent book reading at Modern Times, relating what he’d learned from migrants while riding The Beast.

Even more alarming is that the everyday violence afflicted against migrants received scant press attention until Martínez highlighted it. And there are dishearteningly few examples of prosecution targeting those who prey on migrants.

More impressive than the considerable risk Martínez took on to get the story was the level of depth and understanding with which he portrayed the migrants he encountered. He did this by getting to know them, spending hours in their presence, and relating to them by learning the slang used on the migrant trail.

Sometimes he would invent a character in order to slip past gatekeepers who sought to keep journalists out. He pretended to be a john when venturing into a brothel in Chiapas, to get the stories of the women profiled in a chapter titled “The Invisible Slaves.”

“Sometimes, you drink a beer and have a conversation, not an interview,” Martínez said during a book reading at San Francisco’s Modern Times Bookstore Collective. “The migrants, they are very kind to talk to me,” he added. “If you’re on the most dangerous trip of your life, why are you going to talk to a guy who asks you stupid questions for hours?”

Martínez produced the series for El Faro, an online publication based in El Salvador that seeks to produce in-depth, long form reporting.

He initially published a compilation of his experiences dodging narcos and killers on the train in a book titled Los migrantes que no importan [The migrants who don’t matter] in 2010. The Beast was named one of the best books of 2013 by the Financial Times, and has earned praise from the New Yorker.

“We spent a lot of time with the migrants beforehand,” he explained when asked how he gained the trust of the people he wrote about. “The project allowed us to do that. We had the time. That’s impossible to do with the rhythms of conventional journalism.”

Since El Faro is funded through private contributions and grants from foundations, it’s geared toward generating the sort of in-depth, well-researched, carefully crafted journalism that has the power to bring about real change.

“To understand, you need time,” Martínez said. It was only after six harrowing journeys, he said, before “I understood the train.”

Now he is working on a project with El Faro called Sala Negra, investigating gang-related violence in Central America. It’s a dangerous occupation, but Martínez believes he is fulfilling his obligation as a member of the press by bearing witness to the violence taking place in Central America. “Not talking about organized crime is not an option,” he said. “Organized crime is a part of the society.” 

 

On the veg

1

arts@sfbg.com

LIT The first thing you need to know about Isa Chandra Moskowitz is that she’s a punky legend in the global vegan community. She started the DIY Post Punk Kitchen public access show in Brooklyn and (perhaps more importantly) created the vegan hub website of the same name exactly 10 years ago. While maintaining PPK she has authored or co-authored eight popular cookbooks, right up to this fall’s unfussy workday vegan cookbook, Isa Does It: Amazingly Easy, Wildly Delicious Vegan Recipes for Every Day of the Week (Little Brown, 320 pp., $30).

The second thing you need to know is that many people mispronounce her name (it’s “EE-sah” not “EYE -sah”), though it doesn’t seem to bother her much. I find myself profusely apologizing for flubbing her name when she picks up the phone — especially since I’ve been following her work, and making her delicious dishes, for the better part of a decade. I should know better.

From a hotel room in Minneapolis while on her book tour, the soft-spoken Omaha-based chef shrugs off the faux pas and we quickly get to work pinpointing her favorite recipes from Isa Does It: anything that’s creamy cashew cheese-based like the alfredo and the mac’n’cheese, along with a kale-lentil-quinoa stew, which she describes as the “classic vegan recipe” that she makes herself more than once a week, mixing up the spices as she goes.

She spouts an important note about preparation, something which is thoroughly dissected in the early sections of Isa Does It, with tofu butchery, and handy pantry tips for making cooking after work more streamlined: “I always have kale in the fridge; I always have lentils and quinoa in the pantry.”

There are also the recipes from Isa Does It that are featured in her newest video series, Make It Vegan, which has Moskowitz whipping up the Meaty Bean Chili and Cornbread, and the Nirvana Enchilada Casserole (“I like a lot of onions in this, and a lot of jalapeno; a lot of everything, really”) to the tune of “Salt” by Kelley Deal. The casserole is part of the “Sunday Night Supper” section of the book — a few more ambitious recipes, like many from her previous cookbooks such as Veganomicon (a must-have for any vegan), Appetite for Reduction, or Vegan Brunch.

That enchilada casserole is next on my list of Isa Does It dishes to tackle. I’ve so far tried the flavorful Tempeh Giardino, Kale Salad with Butternut Squash and Lentils, and the Cast Iron Stir-Fry With Avocado, Basil & Peanuts, which is a light yet super filling weekday stir fry. The avocado really gives it a fresh kick. I’m also now officially obsessed with cashew cheese, and have cashews soaking at all times, just like the author.

Moskowitz has been working on this particular cookbook for the past two years, concocting recipes in her Omaha home — the Brooklyn native moved there three years ago, mainly because she wanted a garden but also thanks to the local music scene. Her inspirations come from her pantry — “I have Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes, what can I make with that? — and sometimes she’s inspired to veganize something she saw on the Food Network. “Like, there might be some secret Guy Fieri recipes in there that I veganized.”

Like her previous cookbooks, each of the recipes went through rigorous testing. “I have like, 30 testers. One of the biggest things for people was ‘would you make this on a week night?'” Moskowitz explains. She asks each tester to make the meal and answers a series of questions. For this particular book, she wanted everything to be accessible as possible, so another important question was: Were any of the ingredients hard to find?

“I live in Omaha now — I’m in the middle of the country — and that really changed my views on what people have access to. So I just wanted it to be really accessible ingredients,” she says. “Another reason I wanted to write this book is because I was cooking more than ever because there were not that many places to go out to eat.”

It’s another world away from Brooklyn, where meat-free restaurants and offerings dot the streets, and markets have aisles full of items clearly marked “vegan.”

While there are meat-and-dairy free offerings at local sushi spots and coffee shops (and Whole Foods Markets) there’s no dedicated vegan restaurant in Omaha — yet.

When we spoke, Moskowitz had recently been handed the keys to her first restaurant, which will open in spring 2014. Attached to a bar owned by the members of Saddle Creek band Cursive, Moskowitz’s spot will serve a revolving menu of vegan comfort foods, all made from scratch. “All the mayo is from scratch, I’m going to make my own cheese, [there will] even be house-made sodas, and kombucha on tap.”

Although there have been some rumblings about Moskowitz’s restaurant for some time, she gives the Guardian an exclusive: The name of her new restaurant will be Modern Love. 

www.theppk.com

 

Break on through

1

arts@sfbg.com

 I drive up into the East Oakland hills, past 19th century “Poet of the Sierras” Joaquin Miller’s odd little cabin, to visit Michael McClure. Based on his youthful good looks, you’d never guess he was a few days shy of 81, but the trail McClure has blazed through literary history testifies by length, stretching back to 1955 when — alongside Philip Lamantia, Philip Whalen, and Gary Snyder — he was the youngest participant in the famous Six Gallery reading at which Allen Ginsberg debuted “Howl.” It was a seminal moment in postwar American poetry. “We all put our toes to the line that night and broke out,” he says. “And we all went our own directions.”

Beginning with his first book of poems, Passage (1956), McClure would find himself going in many directions, writing novels, essays, journalism, and even Obie-award-winning plays like The Beard (1965). As a countercultural figure, he could roll with the times, reading at the Human Be-In in 1967 in Golden Gate Park; associating with high-profile rock acts like Bob Dylan, the Doors, and Janis Joplin (for whom he co-wrote the 1970 classic “Mercedes Benz”); and appearing in movies like Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand (1971) and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz (1975). In the mid-’80s, he even began performing with the Doors’ Ray Manzarek on piano, releasing such CDs as last year’s The Piano Poems (Oglio Records). And though I’ve come to discuss Ghost Tantras, his 1964 self-published book of “beast language” reissued this month by City Lights, we inevitably touch on the recently deceased keyboardist with whom McClure played over 200 gigs.

“Ray died at a very wonderful time,” McClure says. “He’s 74 and at the height of his powers. People say, ‘You must feel broken up about Ray,’ but I’m actually happy to know someone who stepped out in his own glory. The last time I saw him was [last] November. We had just done a performance at the Sweetwater in Mill Valley. That night Bobby Weir sat in. It was like the Doors and the Grateful Dead embraced.”

 

THE LANGUAGE OF THE BEAST

But Ghost Tantras predates most of these famous exploits. The origins of what McClure calls its “beast language” can be traced back to his early play The Feast, performed in 1960 at SF’s Batman Gallery.

“The walls had Jay DeFeos and Bruce Conners on them,” he recalls. “The actors were dressed in Indian blankets and torn white tissue paper beards, seated before a long table that carried black plums and white bread, black wine. Thirteen of them performed a Last Supper-like rite and spoke in beast language and English of the melding of opposites and the proportion of all beings, from the incredibly tiny to the cosmic.”

“Beast language” might be described as a roaring deformation of language into something less oriented toward signification and more toward the physicality of the body, poetry as “a muscular principle,” as he writes in the original introduction, rather than as a mimetic text conveying images and ideas. Take, for example, these lines from tantra 46: “NOWTH / DROON DOOOOOOOOR AGH ! / Nardroor yeyb now thowtak drahrr ooh me thet noh / large faint rain dreeps oopon the frale tha toor / glooing gaharr ayaiieooo.” Signification isn’t the prime motivation here, nor is it entirely absent, as snippets of sense emerge and dissolve amid a sea of syllables. Such moments almost suggest reading Chaucer or Finnegans Wake, texts in some distant version of our own tongue, but they just as quickly vanish into phrases that resist intelligibility (“gaharr ayaiieooo”).

Yet despite this resistance, the writing of Ghost Tantras was also bound up in visionary experience. McClure began Ghost Tantras in 1962 while working for the Institute for Personality Assessment and Research, for the University of California.

“My role with IPAR was to give psilocybin to artists and to film them in that timeless state of the high,” he says. “I was probably an ideal person because I had given up the use of psychedelic drugs myself. Already, after a lot of experimentation in psychedelics and several essays that had been published by City Lights in Meat Science Essays (1963), I wanted to write a deep exploration of these highs after reading Henri Michaux’s gorgeous Miserable Miracle (1956), which was his — I felt personally — inaccurate description of the mescaline high. That inspired me to want to write clearly about this experience. Meanwhile, I had begun practicing Kundalini yoga, which is a chakra-centric yoga, and I was beginning to have powerful experiences.”

 

“ART WITH NO EDGES”

This desire to convey visionary experience might seem at odds with Ghost Tantras‘s frequent resistance to signification, yet the apparent paradox might be resolved through Abstract Expressionism, which McClure insists was “one of my most profound sources, the art with no edges, the art with no limits.” Viewed thusly, Ghost Tantras aspires to the degree of autonomy accorded to nonrepresentational art by not referring to experience but rather offering it.

“Allen Ginsberg had introduced me to Mark Rothko, and I got Rothko’s phone number,” McClure recalls. “I had Ghost Tantras and I wanted to show them to him but in the meantime I lost his number, as you did in those days. I always thought Rothko would be the right person to see the fields of letters in Ghost Tantras, as you see in one of his field paintings. If you look at Ghost Tantras in a different way, you see that each one is a field, a work of visual substance. Or nonsubstance.”

“I knew I was tangoing with my own personal ridiculousness when I wrote these. I don’t mind that, because in my writing when it’s at its most intensely serious it’s also at its most comic. And I call to mind what I think are some of the most important poems of the 20th century, Federico García Lorca’s ‘Gacela of Unforeseen Love,’ which is among the most intense love poetry I’ve ever experienced. It’s also kinda comic. My own poetry, when I believe in it the most, also has an edge to it that is not serious, or it’s serious, all right, but real seriousness has an edge that breaks on through to the other side.”

“It was part of the massive and inspired creativity that was rushing around me,” he concludes. “That’s probably the best clue I can give to anyone who wants to understand the sources behind Ghost Tantras, as part of the huge energy that was amassing itself and pouring through California at the time.” *

MICHAEL MCCLURE

Nov 20, 7pm, free

City Lights Bookstore

261 Columbus Ave, SF

www.citylights.com

 

Fame and blame

0

cheryl@sfbg.com

LIT Every student of salacious San Francisco history knows the tale of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Over Labor Day weekend in 1921, the silent-film comedian hosted a rager at Union Square’s Hotel St. Francis (now known as the Westin St. Francis), the largest hotel on the West Coast at the time. Starlet Virginia Rappe fell ill at the party, and when she died days later as a result of internal injuries, Arbuckle went on trial (three times) for the crime.

The resulting media frenzy was the first of its kind, a show-biz scandal in the earliest days of movie stars. The public greeted it with both disgust and relentless curiosity. The industry reacted first by shunning Arbuckle — to this day, he’s rarely championed on the level of Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin — and then ushering in nearly four decades of the Motion Picture Production Code, “moral” guidelines by which studios self-censored film content.

Delving into l’affaire de Arbuckle is Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal that Changed Hollywood (430 pp., Chicago Review Press, $29.95), Greg Merritt’s page-turner that explores not just the trial, but the often-misunderstood lives of both Arbuckle and Rappe. I called him up to further discuss the book, a must-read for film-history buffs.

SF Bay Guardian Why were you drawn to this story?

Greg Merritt To me, it had always been the ultimate Hollywood scandal. And there just wasn’t a good book that really dealt fairly with the two principals, Arbuckle and Rappe.

SFBG How did Arbuckle’s fame impact his trial?

GM People were just getting to know these movie stars. They saw them in their little towns, up on the big screen. And suddenly, this character that people thought of as a friend — they changed their opinion of him basically overnight. There were headlines calling him a beast. That is paramount to this whole story, that he was one of the first people to experience what it was like to be a movie superstar, and then he was accused of rape and murder.

SFBG What bearing did the Arbuckle case have on the film industry?

GM It stopped his career in 1921, which is huge; we never got to see what he could have done, especially since [at that time] comedy features were a phenomenon that hadn’t really developed yet. And it changed the public’s whole relationship with movie stars. Suddenly, people wanted to know what these stars were really like, not just the PR from the studios. Not just the bad, but what they were really, truly like.

And then probably the most important way that it affected the industry was the wave of movie self-censorship [that followed in its wake]. [The case] received so much condemnation that Hollywood had to censor itself to avoid actual censorship.

SFBG What role did Prohibition play?

GM It was all part of the changing society. This was the beginning of the Jazz Age, a time when women were coming out to nightclubs — before that, public drinking had been kind of a guys’ thing. When this erupted in 1921, a lot of the [outrage] was about how Fatty was at a party with these women who weren’t his wife, and effectively breaking the Prohibition laws, although the laws were complicated about where or when you could drink. It was the Victorian Age versus the Jazz Age — it was kind of the first culture war.

SFBG Was it hard finding information on Virginia Rappe? Why has she been so misunderstood?

GM Surprisingly, it wasn’t hard to find out information about her. She was putting herself out there in the papers, doing interviews when she was a model and a costume designer, and I was able to find out so much about her story.

As for why she was treated so poorly, I think both sides just used her during the case. The press built her up as this innocent, and then the defense did the opposite. Decades afterwards, no one stood up for her, and she was called a slut or a prostitute or whatever. The case was eventually, essentially, blamed on her.

SFBG Why do you think history has distorted so many of the facts of this case?

GM I think the rumors were probably so spectacular that they eventually sort of replaced the facts. Now, when I talk to people, most haven’t heard of Fatty Arbuckle. Or if they have, they only know that he supposedly raped someone with a bottle. That story just took off, and now it seems to be the only thing people know about this case. It’s incredible, because he was the second-biggest movie star at the time after Charlie Chaplin. People ask me, “Can you imagine a scandal being this big today?” It’s really hard to imagine someone so hugely popular being accused of murder today. O.J. Simpson wasn’t Fatty Arbuckle, you know. It just doesn’t compare. *

Bikes to books

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San Francisco has been home to some of the true giants of American literature and poetry, from Jack London and Mark Twain to Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. To honor that past, 12 streets were renamed for these and other writers on Oct. 2, 1988, and there will be a 25th anniversary celebration of that dedication coming up on Oct. 6. So the Guardian worked with writer Nicole Gluckstern, Burrito Justice, and City Lights Bookstore to create this Literary Bike Tour map that attendees will follow that day, starting at 11am at Jack London Street and concluding with a reading at 2pm in Jack Kerouac Alley. So join the festivities or just take the tour on your own. 

Holy terror

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LIT A tale of horrors so unbelievable it could only be plucked from real life, Tom Kizzia’s Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier (Crown Publishers, 336 pp., $25) details the saga of self-styled religious fanatic “Papa Pilgrim,” aka Robert Hale, who in 2002 moved his wife and 15 children to McCarthy, a remote Alaska community.

The Pilgrims lived off the land; they followed their patriarch’s interpretation of the Bible with cultlike fervor. Though they gained local fame for their bluegrass band, their greatest notoriety came courtesy of a battle with the National Park Service, thanks to an illegally-bulldozed road and the complications that ensued.

But any folk-hero status was obliterated when the true story of the Pilgrim family — from Robert Hale’s dark past, including the mysterious death of his first wife, to the shocking abuse endured by all of his children, particularly oldest daughter Elishaba — came to light. Homer, AK-based journalist Kizzia had an insider’s advantage when it came to reporting the story, since he owns a cabin near McCarthy and was familiar with the characters that populated the surrounding wilderness. He wrote about the Pilgrim story as it unfolded, and later turned his research and findings into Pilgrim’s Wilderness.

SF Bay Guardian I was just reading your original Anchorage Daily News articles on this story, and the first headline, from June 2003, is “The Pilgrims, a family of inholders in McCarthy, clear 13 miles of national park land.” At what point did you realize this story was more than simply an eccentric rural family’s squabbles with the National Park Service?

Tom Kizzia That first story, I did over the phone, and [Papa Pilgrim’s] patter was so eccentric that I realized it would make a great story to see what this family is like up close. It was really when I got out there that I realized there was a really strange edge to the place.

That was also when I realized that more [information] had to come out before I could say I really understood what the story was. Right at that time, I stumbled onto [Papa Pilgrim’s] past, that he wasn’t this quaint, hillbilly hermit that he was making himself out to be. That raised all sorts of interesting questions as well. But it was years before the family really blew up and anything was known about what had been going on inside.

SFBG It seems like you were the ideal person to write this story — not only were you writing some of the earliest articles about the family, you also own a cabin near McCarthy.

TK [Papa Pilgrim] was such a great manipulator that he played that up, even to me. “I won’t talk to other reporters, but I’ll talk to you.” He always knew how to make you feel puffed up. He was playing me, I could tell. I’ve been a reporter a long time! But I was playing him back, too. If he wanted to play that game, and it was going to get me access, then I played along.

It was kind of fun to talk about that in the book, just as one of many small sub-themes — that back-and-forth that goes on between subject and journalist. And I asked myself later, did I go too easy on him when I was up at his wilderness lair? Should I have asked tougher questions?

But I think you could reasonably say that was a somewhat perilous situation to be in. You don’t necessarily want to be too in-your-face when you’re out in the wilderness with the guy. Plus, I knew that he had a phone, so I could call him later if I found out more — which I did. And indeed, those phone conversations got testier and testier.

SFBG I had never heard the term “inholder” — people who own property within National Park Service land — before I read your book. Why do communities like McCarthy sometimes have antagonistic feelings toward the Park Service?

TK It’s a big thing in the West. I’d heard about these kinds of frictions just growing up and reading about Western history — and in Alaska, it was being played out in the modern day.

It was partly a holdover from the 1970s, when the debate was going on over what the creation of these new parks in Alaska was going to mean to the local lifestyle. For a lot of people, it was the coming of government to a rural area that had very little government before. It was, “We used to be able to do what we want, and now there’s someone telling us we have to do things a certain way.” That put people off.

But the parks in Alaska were created, in a way, to try to allow that rural lifestyle to continue. A lot of that impetus came out of a desire to protect the Alaska native cultures, and their hunting and fishing traditions. Congress chose to provide those rights for all rural Alaskans, native and non-native. And as a consequence, you end up with families like the Pilgrims moving out into the bush and taking advantage of those opportunities.

SFBG I kept wondering why, if Papa Pilgrim really wanted to keep his family isolated, he picked so many fights with the Park Service.

TK As we came to understand only much later, he thrived on having external enemies. So the park, and its bureaucracy, made a convenient enemy for him; he could rally his family and, for awhile, others in the community, to defend him.

But I puzzled at that: If you really want to be isolated, why build a road to your doorstep? There’s a contradiction there. But that’s sort of the great American contradiction, too — the great story of Western expansion. Building up your valley, and then trying to keep it to yourself.

SFBG Pilgrim’s daughter Elishaba, who suffered the most abuse, emerges as sort of the hero of the story. At what point did she open up to you?

TK It was really in the latter parts of my research where she became comfortable telling me her story. I think it had partly to do with her coming forward in church fellowship settings and talking about her experiences, and realizing what it meant to others to hear what she had been through and how she had come out of it.

And she also realized that even within a non-Christian setting, it’s helpful for victims of domestic violence to realize that you can get out, even from the most desperate situation that you could imagine — which would be her situation, not only physically, but also mentally and psychologically. She was trapped by her sense of her soul being in peril if she rebelled. But she found the strength to do it. *

TOM KIZZIA

Sept. 18, 7pm, free

Books Inc.

301 Castro, Mtn. View

Sept. 19, 7pm, free

Book Passage

51 Tamal Vista, Corte Madera

www.tomkizzia.com

 

Hey, baby

0

culture@sfbg.com

LIT A new children’s book with a social justice, all-inclusive approach to reproduction? To anyone who might question the need for such a thing, look no further than Toronto-based sexual health educator and writer Cory Silverberg‘s enormously successful crowdfunding campaign to get it published: $65,000 in one month. Not too bad to kickstart a picture book, eh?

Silverberg, along with illustrator Fiona Smyth, noticed that the existing resources for parents to explain to preschool-aged children where they came from are by default heterosexual and gender binary-based, thus excluding many families and children. These books also don’t provide much guidance on topics like adoption or alternative fertilization methods. Silverberg’s fundraising campaign gave LGBT parents an opportunity to prove demand for a factual, age-appropriate, children’s book inclusive to all families regardless of how many people were involved, what the orientation, gender identity, or other make up of the family is, or how it came to be that way.

Parents in the Bay Area offered a lot of the support. Dr. Sonja Mackenzie, faculty at the Health Equity Institute and Center for Research and Education on Gender and Sexuality (CREGS) at San Francisco State University is a queer parent of two children, aged three and seven. Dr. Mackenzie started looking for resources about birth and reproduction when her daughter was two and she was pregnant with her second child. She and her partner sought out media providing age-appropriate but real information about reproduction that reflected their two-mom family structure. For years they found nothing.

Which is why when she saw the What Makes A Baby campaign, she pre-ordered copies for their daughter’s first grade class and their son’s preschool class. Dr. Mackenzie said her favorite parts of the book are the questions that ask children to reflect on “who helped bring together the sperm and the egg that made you?” — because of the possibilities for varied family structures that question allows for. That, she says, “is beyond what we have ever seen represented in children’s books.” She also notes the tear-jerker at the close of the book that asks, “Who was waiting for you to be born?” alongside a depiction of many and varied people surrounding a baby.

Bay Area backer Vicki Hudson, parent to two kids aged four and one, also started looking for books when her wife was pregnant with their second child. What Makes A Baby “enables many different types of families to feel represented. Our story was there.” She also appreciated the physiological accuracy of the preschool material. Hudson believes that using accurate reproductive terms empowers children.

Another family structure included in the story’s framework is that of a single parent household. Hilary Brooks of Berkeley is a single mother by choice, whose five-year-old daughter has a known sperm donor. Brooks was excited about the book because she was “ecstatic to see this entry for young children… it’s more accurate, includes everyone, and will not alienate many of the children it needs to reach.” Once she received her copy she was not disappointed, “I love that love is included in this book, and that it is reframed as love for every child from their family — instead of originating in hetero lovemaking, like it was in the sex-ed books I read growing up.” Which is a main premise of Silverberg’s work, to provide a sexual education resource that is straight friendly, but is also for the parents who don’t have anything else right now.

Are mainstream publishers beginning to recognize this demand? There’s still an overwhelming amount of stigma associated with any book related to alternative sexuality. Despite the actual facts of life, books like What Makes A Baby are still too risky for mainstream publishers, it seems. Or maybe it just takes a little pitch in a language they understand. After the outpouring of immediate and public financial support for Silverberg’s book, he was approached by multiple publishing houses, and has signed a three-book deal with Seven Stories Press, beginning with What Makes A Baby. Silverberg’s next volume might well be What Makes a Book Contract.

CORY SILVERBERG: WHAT MAKES A BABY AUTHOR RECEPTION AND “CROWDFUNDING FOR SEX” WORKSHOP

Fri/12, 7:30 reception, free. 8:30 workshop, $10-$50 sliding scale

Center for Sex and Culture

1349 Mission, SF.

(415) 902-2071

www.sexandculture.org