LIT In late-1980s San Francisco, Steve Abbott hosted a gay writer’s workshop at his small apartment at the fabled corner of Haight and Ashbury. One fleeting but reliable occurrence was an appearance by Alysia, the daughter he’d raised since his wife died in a car accident years earlier.
Each week, the teenager stormed about just long enough so we could feel her wrath before slamming the bedroom door. It was funny, but also understandable: at that age, who wants their personal space regularly invaded by strangers? Let alone gay male adults, reinforcing your separation from the heterosexual family norm?
Steve was a significant presence in SF’s literary scene for nearly two decades, publishing his own adventuresome small-press books in various idioms (poems, essays, fiction). He edited small magazines including the influential Poetry Flash; was first to promote such edgy “postmodernist” voices as Kathy Acker and Dennis Cooper; and was an idiosyncratic cultural commentator for local weeklies (including the Bay Guardian). He was unfailingly generous with other fledgling writers, myself included.
He barely kept the rent paid via rote day jobs, while raising a child alone — an awkward match to the carefree gay community he joined upon moving to SF (and coming out) in 1974. As Alysia Abbott writes in her acclaimed new release Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father (W.W. Norton and Company, 352pp., $25.95), there were no role models then for gay single parents. Their very close but turbulent relationship amplified the clash between her often-peevish parental needs and his belated self-discovery in a sexual-artistic bohemia. They found balance as she found her own identity upon leaving for college. But then the AIDS epidemic swept both up in its devastation.
Abbott, now living in Boston with a husband and two children, answered questions in advance of two local appearances this week.
San Francisco Bay Guardian You had an unconventional childhood with an unconventional parent. Has that influenced your own parenting?
Alysia Abbott My father was raised in a strict Catholic household where family members rarely showed affection. He kept his feelings bottled up. By the time he had me, he wanted a completely different family experience, transparent and open. He often shared his romantic and professional woes, sometimes seeking my advice.
I absorbed a lot of my dad’s worry, and sometimes found myself in situations where I had to be more adult than I was ready to be. I want to be my true self with my children. But I also want to protect their innocence to some degree.
SFBG You’re frank about having been an “obnoxious” unhappy teenager. Are there things you or your father could have done differently? Was it a phase you just had to work through?
AA We were trying to create a life with a lot of setbacks, sharing a cramped one-bedroom in the Haight with little money or family help. My father was lonely, and trying to get sober just when I discovered drugs and alternative culture. We did our best under the circumstances. But as often as we clashed, there was a lot of love. This was a period we needed to go through.
SFBG Your father identified so strongly as a writer, but Fairyland doesn’t address how you became one yourself.
AA I’d always wanted to be a writer, or an artist. But after watching him struggle financially, I pursued steady-paycheck work in cushy corporate structures (which I now hate). I also didn’t know if I had his native talent, or could be as intellectually rigorous and pure. I always had our story to tell, but worried I wasn’t worthy of it. The idea of writing Fairyland and having it not meet my own expectations was unbearable. Now I realize perfectionism is the enemy of creativity. To succeed, you have to be willing to fail.
SFBG When Steve was facing mortality, he wrote that you’d probably better appreciate his writing after he’d passed on. What do you think about his literary legacy now?
AA I’m embarrassed to admit I really didn’t read my father’s books until ten years after he died. During his lifetime, the work’s weirdness, its attraction to transgressive figures and ideas threatened me. I accused him of not being a “real writer” because no one had heard of him and he didn’t make any “real money.” What a terrible thing for a daughter to say!
Researching for Fairyland, I came to respect his contributions and integrity. All the writers I know today have to be such master self-promoters. My father was almost embarrassingly naïve in this regard. That may be why few people know his work today. But he was so devoted to writing, and supporting writers that impressed him, even if that effort did nothing for his own career.
I now really love several of his poems and books, especially Lives of the Poets — but some still make me uncomfortable. I’m not sure if it’s because they aren’t good, or still too “out there” for me.
SFBG After so many years, how do you feel about returning to SF? Many of your father’s creative generation are dead. It’s a much yuppie-er burg.
AA San Francisco is very different from the city I knew in 1974, or even 1994. I’ve worried that those who remember the old San Francisco, or appreciate its history, are dwindling — they’ve died or been forced out by Ellis laws. But new residents are attracted by the city’s beauty just as we were. And though much better-heeled, these tech workers and professional types are also trying to reinvent culture, if with much greater odds of profit — and interest in profit.
Wed/19, 7pm, free
City Lights Books
261 Columbus, SF
Thu/20, 6:30pm, free
San Francisco Public Library
100 Larkin, SF