A FAILED VISIONARY, A DEMYTHIFIER, A PLAGIARIST: john tottenham, jarett kobek + stewart home @ the odd fellows hall
The Odd Fellows Hall is at Market and 7th, near a methadone clinic. It is a six-story structure built in 1909. The Independent Order of Odd Fellows began a few centuries ago in England as a group of people who wanted to “improve and elevate the character of mankind.” They arrived in this town during the gold rush (which did not elevate the character of mankind).
We don’t have a long history in California – I have slept in buildings in Europe which are older than this country – so I like these old buildings which feel like time machines. There was even a man operating the elevator (with a boom-box keeping him company). We levitated to the top floor and ended up in a large room with a high ceiling. Two rows of chairs lined the walls and mysterious old books filled the shelves. The light was too dim for taking notes, but not for premonitions of an occult ritual of some kind.
Sitting on a piano bench, I felt like playing some moody chords. My old friends Vale and Marian from RE/Search Publications were sitting nearby. Three odd fellow-writers read from their work on Thursday, February 28: John Tottenham, Jarett Kobek, and Stewart Home.
John Tottenham’s delivery was completely deadpan, slow and halting with an English accent. He has a hawk-like visage and reminds me of someone in a Charles Dickens novel. Staying in character for the length of the reading, he barely cracked a smile. A couple of young women found him amusing with his constant negativity, or was it just nervous laughter? From his bio:
“After graduating from London’s worst art school in the mid-’80s, Tottenham moved to the US, where he has resided ever since, mostly toiling upon the lower slopes of journalism. After many years of resistance, he finally sold out to the lucrative, fast-paced world of poetry. He is the author of The Inertia Variations – an epic poetic cycle on the subjects of work avoidance, failure, & indolence.”
Tottenham read from Antiepithalamia & Other Poems of Regret and Resentment. There were times he would exhale into the mic and stare at the audience, not sure if he could go on with such a travesty for another minute. “In a world of blinding blandness/ a poisonous vacancy becomes beautiful.” JT operates on a lower gear than most, and though his relentless pessimism might seem a one-trick dead pony, there is a saving grace – the writing itself, or the paradox of negative writing haunted by the positivity of its literary quality. You can watch a previous performance here.
This reminds me of how Camus wanted to write in a more optimistic vein in his later years (before he died in a car crash), but realized he was stuck in the style he was known for. Someone once asked Sartre if he had ever felt despair and he said no, that it was a literary trend at the time (postwar France). I imagine Simone de Beauvoir bringing him college girls didn’t hurt either.
Jarett Kobek is the author of ATTA, a novel about the alleged leader of the 9/11 hijackers. He looks at Atta from a different perspective – one reason Atta wanted to crash a plane into the World Trade Center was he didn’t like the architecture. Vale thought the book humanized Mohamed Atta, who most people only know as a dead terrorist.
I had a minor confrontation with Kobek last year. He was waiting for me outside the Elbo Room one night. I had written something about his book where I questioned the whole approach as diverting attention from the possibility – or probability, depending on your point of view – that 9/11 was an inside job. Anyhow, we had a talk, he was quite civil, and nothing came of it.
At Odd Fellows, he read from If You Won’t Read, Then Why Should I Write?, giving us an idea of what it was like to be a male homosexual on ecstasy at a party in the late 1980’s. The book includes transcripts of candid celebrity conversations, some of them taken from pseudo-clandestine sex-tapes. Someone said it isn’t “writing” if one simply reads from transcripts of other people talking. But it is a form of reporting, letting us know how ordinary/vacant the famous can be. When Warhol started Interview, he wanted transcripts of people talking to reflect them at their most ordinary.
It is a challenge to demythify celebrity worship without adding to it as an empty diversion. In the on-line Chronicle the other day, as prominent as pieces concerning unemployment or the war: “Celebrities and their pets… tender moments between classic stars of Hollywood and their beloved furry companions.”
For the headliner of the evening, Stewart Home, I left the hard piano bench and sat on a wooden throne on the other end of the room. I was closer to the speaker, though more or less behind him, and I was sitting near Peter Maravelis, the events coordinator at City Lights. He handled the introductions, along with Janey Smith from the 851 Reading Series. I was talking later with Peter about how he managed to get this place for a reading. Apparently it takes connections, and he mentioned that back in the early 80’s the band SPK played here (Surgical Penis Klinic).
Stewart Home: I was more impressed with him after having done some research, though I’m still ambivalent. He is English, born in 1962, and has short hair like a skinhead. Pacing back and forth while holding the mic, he recited his prose from memory in a droning voice (the sound equipment could have been better). He is known for smearing his writing with pornographic references which get a little predictable, but they give the work an air of adult entertainment. At one point he stood on his head with a mic lying on the floor in front of him and recited a list of x-rated lines and people’s names. He has a reputation for founding one-man movements, likes plagiarism (shades of Kathy Acker), and has a long history of combat with other writers on-line. He has been involved in some anti-art installations and does what he can to expose modern art as an empty bourgeois hustle. A reviewer in The Guardian refers to him as a “notorious situationist provocateur.”
Home’s website has a fair number of references to his mother, a swinging model from London (unless, of course, he made this up – speaking of conceptual events). As soon as she gave birth to him, she gave him up for adoption, then died of an apparent heroin overdose when he was 17. No mention of a father. Home relates this with very little emotion and no self-pity, but as an Englishman who had it rough and survived with an intelligence as dry as gin, and with all the passion of a purloined letter, which is slightly soiled and wrinkled and tacked to the wall in plain sight.
Steven Gray has been living in San Francisco since 1849 and has rent control. Self control is another matter. He reads his work on a regular basis in venues throughout San Francisco. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He is co-editor of Out of Our, a poetry and art magazine, and has two books of poetry: Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012), and Shadow on the Rocks (2011).