ALAN KAUFMAN, ZARINA ZABRISKY, GERALD NICOSIA, JOE CLIFFORD AND MICHELLE TEA: memoir at the meridian gallery
I walked a couple of miles to a gallery downtown to hear some people read from their memoirs. These are writers with an ink-stained past and Proustian triggers which can leave them with their whole life passing before their eyes.
All they need is a cork-lined room and a few years (hold my calls) to write it down with no interruptions. Alan Kaufman was the host. He has written a couple of memoirs (Jew Boy and Drunken Angel), and said that since he is self-obsessed he might write another. He invited four other writers: Zarina Zabrisky, Gerald Nicosia, Joe Clifford, and Michelle Tea.
ZZ wrote about being in a car crash near the Arctic Circle. The vehicle was upside down in the snow (which cushioned the crash). Everything crystallized in that moment, including her will to live – saying to herself she couldn’t die because she had eight people to support. She was in a remote location in Russia because she was working as a translator. Her husband was a junky, so he was kind of useless or worse. All of this in sub-zero weather. I think she should take the title “Less Than Zero” away from Bret Easton Ellis because she has been there, whereas he had money and palm trees. She has a blood-chilling collection of stories called Iron which just came out.
Nicosia thought she would be a hard act to follow, but good intelligent writing can usually hold its own, no matter what the subject is. He did just fine, reading a section from his book, One and Only, about being a consultant for the film “On the Road”. He is an expert on the Beats. Francis Ford Coppola tried to put On the Road on the silver screen, but gave up after rejecting scripts by people like Barry Gifford and Russell Banks. He said the book couldn’t be filmed, which is a compliment to the author I think. Eventually the director Walter Salles made the film, with financing of $25,000,000, which Nicosia said was “hardly magnanimous”. I remember when $25,000,000 was a lot of money.
After the reading I was talking to him and mentioned his remark that Kerouac was not very political and voted Republican (a family tradition). I had heard that when confronted by hippies he would tell them to get a job. Nicosia said that Kerouac felt some sympathy for the hippies, and didn’t like the war in Vietnam. He died in 1969, having pushed his alcohol intake to the breaking point, “a quart of whiskey and 20 beers a day” according to Nicosia.
Joe Clifford was the only reader I had never heard read before. He had a piece about doing meth in a recording studio with his band in the 1990’s. He was trying to concentrate on the sound levels while his wife was screaming in another room – she was schizophrenic and on speed. He tends to write on the dark side. I’m not sure if having a noir approach led to his being a homeless drug addict, or if it was the other way around. He has been through some brutal times, but he manages to find the poignancy – like when he is looking at a recording session from years ago and remembers someone who later overdosed or shot himself. Who said there is no second act in American life – what do you call falling apart and dying? He lived to write about it, partly because he weathered his own romanticism and got off the street. “There’s something terribly romantic about the idea of being a drifter. At least it was for me… I liked this thought of going town to town, falling in love with a new girl every night, working as a ranch hand. Only I despise manual labor. And I am strictly a one-woman guy” (from an interview at literaryorphans.org). He has published Choice Cuts and Wake the Undertaker (Snubnose Press), along with Junkie Love (Vagabondage Press) — here for more.
There was a short break. I was talking with ZZ about a long book – Remembrance of Things Past, and the influence of Proust on both of us. He has very long sentences and Hemingway doesn’t. She said too many writers had fallen under the influence of Hemingway. This reminded her of ballet – one doesn’t segue from Hemingway to ballet very often – where dancers’ bodies had more variety before Balanchine arrived on the scene. That reminded me of a line from Martha Graham, who would instruct the ballerinas to “Dance from the vagina”.
We went from that to a whorehouse in New York City, as Alan read a vivid account of losing his virginity in less than romantic circumstances. He and a friend were taken there by his friend’s father, an initiation into manhood. He was 16, shy, and nervous. He wondered why it was called a whorehouse when it was in a dingy apartment building. He may have been expecting a lush brothel from another era. Actually it was another era, because it only cost him ten bucks. He was slightly horrified when the subject of his mother came up, but he also says “My mom was in the war,” and “that was “the most important thing to say about myself”. Unfortunately there was only a curtain separating him from the waiting room where a couple of undercover policemen were getting drunk and mocking the conversation between him and a whore named Michelle. Talk about putting a damper on things. I mentioned it after the reading and he compared it to life in general these days – with the authorities on the other side of a cyber-curtain listening to everything we say.
Michelle Tea was the last reader. I have her book Valencia, and remember her onstage when Matt Gonzalez was running for mayor – she’s a live-wire. Tonight she was reading very fast, and it seemed to blur the content or the significance of the content. She also said it was partly fiction – talking about herself in third person. She went to Los Angeles to get away from San Francisco and was staying in a rundown part of Hollywood. The building had some strange tenants and she realized someone probably overdosed and died in her room. She often described people by their hair, as if she would take them by the hair and pull them into her story. She mentioned the phrase “think pink” a few times. If you prefer Michelle Tea in the first person, she has a blog about trying to get pregnant that is fresh as a pee stick. “Do you know what happens to your eggs in your 40s?”
Note: The Meridian Gallery was showing collages by Dennis Parlante, which complemented the memoirs being read (there were collages by Matt Gonzalez upstairs). “The elements Parlante recompose bear earmarks of far-off times and places: stamps, tickets, stationery and other printed matter and snatches of correspondence and other jottings. Each collage quietly declares a conundrum of private and public memory as unshareable.” (Kenneth Baker, SF Chronicle, 8/16/08)
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).