SB Stokes has a long, complicated relationship with poetry. This week, at the age of 44, the Hayward-born son of two Oakland natives celebrates the release of his debut book of poems, “A History of Broken Love Things.” The road here has not been easy.
Originally an art student at the California College of Arts and Crafts (as CCA was then called), Stokes had to leave after two years due to financial reasons. Crestfallen, he enrolled at Diablo Valley College. “I was like, well, I guess I’ll go to the junior college and tread water,” he said by phone, “apply for financial aid at CCAC for next year.”
Hoping only to fulfill his general requirements and return to art school, Stokes had a few inspiring teachers and a change of heart.
“I realized, well, I love art but it’s a very expensive endeavor, the percentage of success is very, very small, and truthfully, while I’m a competent artist in many ways I am not virtuosic at fine art,” he said. “And I knew people who were and it was a humbling lesson, but I thought … ‘What I love doing most now is writing poetry, dreaming about poetry, and thinking about poetry, and just immersing myself in poetry…why don’t I just go for poetry?’ “
Stokes eventually enrolled at San Francisco State University, where he volunteered for the Poetry Center. While there, he says he experienced, on more than one occasion, poets he admired being “really petty and bitter about really small dollar amount prizes.” This so turned him off that, though he continued to write, Stokes left school for the next 10 years.
“I would fill these books with poetry, with dreams and recollections and ideas, and the occasional drawing here and there, and I just never knew what would happen,” he said. “I had no idea how I could ever return to that world, how I could find my place in it.”
He stopped looking, working various art- and design-based gigs during the dot-com boom before finding a job at Goodwill Industries, where he discovered he had both predilection and passion for teaching. “If I put the two things that I’m passionate about together,” he said, “God only knows where it might take me. Maybe I will publish some books. Maybe I will actually take myself seriously as a writer. And I think teaching is my passport.”
So Stokes went back to school full time, working nights as a bouncer, and as soon as he graduated he entered the master’s program, which he completed in May. Two months later, Richmond-based Punk Hostage Press publisher Andrew Lopas solicited Stokes’ manuscript after seeing him read at the Beast Crawl festival. Stokes is one of the organizers and the art director, and often gives readings in the area. He was a staff member of S.F. State’s literary magazine Fourteen Hills.
“I think I was being especially sensitive in my youthfulness and naivete where it shocked me perhaps more than it should have to see people struggling to survive,” he said, “but I think part of it is just the community is so much more supportive … than it seemed to be back then.”
The release party reflects that support. Stokes has rounded up a dozen of his female writer friends to join him in reading from “A History of Broken Love Things.”
“I was afraid to have a book release party that was just like, ‘Hey everybody, come to this one place at this one time and check out my book, and pay attention to me, talk to me about me, reading from me, all about me!’ ” he laughed. But there’s a long roster of people lined up to do just that.
IF YOU GO
‘A History of Broken Love Things’: 6:30-9 p.m. Friday. Free. Monarch, 101 Sixth St., S.F. (415) 284-9774.
Photo by Ian Tuttle