Before I met queer people in San Francisco, I met poets. I saw lots of queers, in the clubs and in the street, but the clubs were dark and everyone was whirling roughly on the dance floor, the music was loud and we all were drunk. The first one I ever went to, Junk at Paula’s Clubhouse, I found myself clutching the hands of another girl and we spun and spun, creating a centrifuge, and then we collapsed and made out. I kissed her, but I didn’t really meet her.
At the bars hosting the poetry nights, we the poets met each other rapidly. The poetry was mostly the confessional sort, a genre that solicited much derision from those who weren’t in the business of writing it. Writing, and then clambering onto a stage in a dive bar and adding your beer breath to the microphone, stinking from the beery poems of all who’d come before you. In the queer bar you might spot a person and liked how they looked; in the poetry bar you would hear a person tell all about who they were. You realized quickly who your people were. David West was one of my people.
David had – has! – a gentle vibe. This sounds like a eulogy but it’s not, though eulogies are forthcoming. I just haven’t seen David for a long while. I miss him. A devoted Luddite, I doubt he will see this, but if anyone reading knows him, tell him I said a fond Hello. David’s status as my first friend in San Francisco is, to the best of my addled memory, solid. He often wore a panama hat. He had soft, dark eyes, dark hair. He had an amazing voice that he would twist into snippets of outrage, because he, like anyone worth their salt in 1992, was outraged. He hand-rolled his cigarettes, and smoked them there in the bar, as one did in 1992. David always had a new poem. That was the goal – a new poem each week, and then you make the rounds to all the open mics – the Chameleon in the Mission and Paradise in SoMa being the best, as they were hosted by, respectively, the poet Bucky Sinister, a long-haired hasher from Arkansas with a friendly stoop and a backwards baseball cap, a stellar poet, and Jennifer Joseph, who once played drums in bands featuring members of Sleater-Kinney but now (then? And now) had started the small press Manic D and was generating much excitement and buzz by deigning to have an early release be an anthology of queer writings, putting lots of people (myself included) into print for the first time and putting something unabashedly gay, and often radical, during a time when nobody was celebrating diversity. Jenn and Manic D went on to publish so much queer and queer-adjacent literature, from the legendary Bambi Lake to crucial work from Justin Chin, Alvin Orloff’s gritty and whimsical oeuvre, work by Appalachian fairy Sparrow 13 Laughingwand (probably the best poet you’ve never heard of), early books by iconic Beth Lisick, a powerful novel from Marci Blackman, a collection of goth-damaged poetry from Clint Catalyst (who will be publishing a history of San Francisco’s goth 90s with the press next year or so). The collected work of Eli Coppola, David’s best friend, who died of muscular dystrophy very young. Eli was wiry with shaggy, spiky hair and very big eyes, a husky voice, she was world-weary and kind and walked with a crutch, had an impossibly sweet dog, a fall of soft, rusty fur. When she died, David was bereft. He gave me her gold Doc Martins, which she’d written a hopeful poem about. Her best poems were not hopeful, they were gritty and sad and real, about the impossibility of love, because Eli had the disposition of a dyke but preferred men, and they disappointed. I related to her heartbreak, as I was messy and romantic, and the poems are simply great. One about how if she can’t write – as in, if she’s blocked, or making excuses – now, when everything is relatively peachy, how will she create when the bombs are falling. Bombs were scarce in the American 90s, but were an urgent, psychological reality.
The mandate in the 90s was, get your poem together, bring them to Bucky and Jenn’s open mic, hope that they’ll book you for a feature. There were other open mics, too, popping up and fading away. One at The Albion seemed a little mean, maybe the host was problematic. A different, important underground poetry scene was on its decline at Café Barbar; that horde, known as the Barbarians, was legendary. Poet Bruce Jackson started a small press to bring that gang into print, Zeitgeist. A generation or so above me, they lived hard and it showed. Danielle Willis was a fucking legend, spidery goth for life in vinyl and heroin, a sex worker, wrote about life in the Tenderloin. Sparrow 13 was touched, it was clear, and also on speed, but he was magic, and the one time I splurged and bought him a shot of tequila I felt like I was offering tribute to the king. Julia Vinograd, the pin WEIRD AND PROUD stuck to her beret, accosting you everywhere to buy her new book – literally putting it in your hand and as you’re drumming up something congratulatory to say she’d bark IT’S TEN DOLLARS, her eyes always sort of faraway and spooky, her slow shuffle. I admire the hustle. David Lerner taking up a whole café table at any bar with his drawing, which were sort of messy, colorful scribbles that he worked on with a ferocious intensity. Some of these people still had a spark and when they go on the mic you wanted to zone in on them tightly; others seemed a little wacky, possibly a few acid trips too many, but I respected their place in the pantheon, this lineage that I unexpectedly found myself a part of.
David West was part of that generation but also part of mine, in that he knew the kids were where it’s at and he had tripled desires to educate us on what we might have missed as well as take our cultural temperature and feed us. A Virgo, David was of service. He’d learned to cook from this vegetarian French cookbook, and he gave me a copy once, so that I might learn to care for myself someday. During an era when most of the queers and artists in San Francisco were, if not orphans, orphan-esque, having escaped homophobic or otherwise abusive and unsupportive families. David was our (my) grownup – he’d have me to his house and cook me soufflés and fucking galettes, tartines, shit I had never eaten before, both rustic and fancy, like the best French food. He’d smoke while he cooked, also very French. He’d get oysters at the Farmer’s Market and steam them gently open, to be eaten with butter. He inspired me, once, to do the same. It was impossible to return the favor of David’s generosity; he was an adult, a Virgo, had run away from his own conservative parents decades ago, had cut them off entirely. Had gone through a period where he thought he might be gay, trans even or at least a drag queen. He’d survived a season of strange, debilitating illness where his legs had become unreliable, had given out on him and left him helpless on his own kitchen floor, among the ants. I remember this from his poems, as I remember many things about him – the way he sold Communist newspapers in Hunter’s Point; the way he was lonely. The way he thought, when he heard The Beatles sing All you need is love, that they were being greedy. The way he spun and saw the war – that one my favorite, I taught it many times to kids at the San Francisco School of the Arts, so many times I lost it in a classroom with other zines and chapbooks I’d brought for the teens, including a photo zine by Xara Thustra that included grainy black and white shots of, like, a drunk twentysomething trying to suck his own dick. The children were scandalized. I was too. I hadn’t properly reviewed the material before bringing them to class.
Later David had a backyard garden composted with oyster shells, and trays of worms producing nutrients in his back hall. On the hallway door was a poster, a movie poster for a movie I’d not seen or even heard of – Vegas in Space. It appeared to be a campy space movie, outer-space as imagined in the 60s, Martian go-go girls and the like. The lead was a drag queen named Doris Fish. She’d been in San Francisco in the 80s, and had died of HIV in 1991, a year before I arrived. David mourned her. He had a poem about her, I think it was called Doris Fish is Dead. It was triumphant and sorrowful, it celebrated her magnificence and grieved the now lack of it in a culture that badly needed it, needed her, and all the radical queers. When I arrived in San Francisco, so many of them were already gone, recently gone, and I felt the empty space around me, heard their legends, sensed their ghosts.
I heard about Jerome, an art student at the Art Institute, a peer, at the time, of Catherine Opie, who captured Jerome in her initial series of portraits, wild-looking queers, people we’d never seen before (well, we had, but not anyone else), casually celebrated in all their filth and class and gory glory. Jerome was Jerome Caja but just went, I gather, by Jerome – also the name of a book of his art I once scooped up, breathlessly, thrilled and unbelieving, from the remainder shelves at the bookstore I was working at. There is a more recent book about Jerome published by the non-profit visual AIDs, a conversation about the artist between Nayland Blake and Justin Vivian Bond, which I am buying RIGHT NOW. This other book is different, it’s all her art: painting and sculptures, poppy and grotesque, funny and scary. She mixed the ashes of her dead friends into her work. She didn’t pass until 1995 so we could have met and probably were in the same places but I didn’t know, maybe he was out of drag, maybe it was how separated by a binary gender queer San Francisco was in the 90s. Our little scene – more radical, activist, arty, punk, was more mixed, but still there was a divide.
Cathie Opie’s portrait, Jerome Caja #2. A ruffle red off-the-shoulder dress, red with small white dots. A neon green necklace, plastic beads with a plastic pendant, like something flung from a Mardi Gras float in the 80s. Mismatched earrings – one a red circle, the other a putty-colored dangling lump, what is it, I think maybe one of those plastic fetuses Operation rescue used to hand out, yes that’s what it is. Strong red lips, colored slightly outside the lines. Staring, glaring eyes rimmed in kohl like an angry goddess or Siouxsie Sioux (same thing), inked-on eyebrows like small branches. Short, black hair, the edge of a baby barrette visible. She’s tipping on the edge of a sneer. Jerome.
Maybe it was Jerome who was being feted and mourned when I came upon a flamboyant memorial at my friend Jeffrey’s warehouse. Jeffrey and Jose were a couple; it was Jeffrey’s 99-Cent Queer Video Night that was actually the first queer thing I ever went to in San Francisco, at Paula’s Clubhouse. Come early for weirdass queer film, get a penny change when you paid your dollar, stay for dancing at Junk after it wrapped up. the perfect night.
I had a friend, Amelia, and one night we were bored and the moon was full and we decided to write a manifesto. It ordered everyone to do many things, like break up with your girlfriend and quit your job. I think we wanted everyone to sabotage their lives, join us there at the raucous bottom of everything. Clearly I did not have a girlfriend and wanted more prospects in the dating pool; employment was also a recurrent problem. We devised a little game: we took an item from my home, something strange, that you’d dumpster-dived or found at a thrift store for a dollar. We’d take the item to the home of a friend or acquaintance and knock on their door. We’d give them the object (and the manifesto) and demand that they give us an object in return. Then off to the next home, for another exchange. On and on we went, all over town or at least the parts of town ‘we’ lived in, the Mission, the Haight, SoMa. We knocked on the big, red two-story queer punk house that belonged to Junkyard. I mean like she was the primary tenant, not the owner. Junkyard was one half of the DJ at Junk, and she collected all kinds of weird shit. She gave us a taxidermy bat. I was awed by her generosity. We took it to Jeffrey and Jose’s studio, which had a name, a punk/queer name like lots of houses get, I used to live in The Blue House, for example (legend), and there was House of Failure and The Capp Street House. Jeffrey’s alter ego was an impresario named Fabian, sort of a cis drag king, and his warehouse, where I had my first ever book party after I published my first ever book, had a fun name but I’ve lost it. We knocked. Jeffrey answered. We sensed a gathering beyond him, a party? We told him our mission and brandished the dead bat. He was in shock, but like the delighted shock you get at something uncanny occurring. Come in here.
He dragged us into the space, which had been cleared out but for a rising, many-tiered, shelved pyramid glowing, lit-up, in the center of the room. I feel like I’m recounting an alien abduction. Could it really have been that? It sounds so grand, but they were artists, designers. They built things. I remember the room was dark except for this giant thing, which had objects set upon all its many, glowing shelves. There were other people there, many, but it wasn’t a party. It was a memorial. For a queen who had just died. Who was it? Jeffrey said, but I didn’t know her. There had been a whole other scene, just missed, Club Uranus, really wild mixed queer performance art and dancing, very dirty. Maybe it was someone from that world. Did Jeffrey say Daisy? Was there a dead 90s drag queen named Daisy? Was it Jerome? I would have known if it was Diet Popstitute, I’d heard of him, SF club kid and legend, artist and performer, creator of the Clubstitute club. Alvin Orloff’s book Disasterama!: Adventures in the Queer Underground 1977-1997 is all about Diet, and this time period, and their friendship. You should read it.
Another book you should read is coming soon: Who Does That Bitch Think She Is? Doris Fish and the Rise of Drag by Craig Seligman will be out at the end of February and tracks Doris’ amazing life, bopping between San Francisco and Australia, her homeland, turning tricks and coming up with major drag numbers, being one of the first to take drag out of the realm of female impersonation and into its own bizarre, hilarious, glamorous and otherworldly, feminine thing. Along with the Cockettes and the Angels of Light, Doris Fish and her crew – her house – paved the way for the wild antics of Heklina’s T*shack and other SF nightlife, like SomeTHING, the theatrics of Gay Shame, the reality show horror of Dragula, even Drag Race. The way drag’s real potential and legitimacy as a primal queer art form began when it started looking away from the Divas and realness per se and towards the Freaks and the weirdness. Not that Doris wasn’t fucking beautiful. It’s just that that wasn’t always the point.
When I was in Barcelona this spring on my honeymoon, me and my husband strolled past some big, modern –looking building that seemed to be part of an art school. Maybe a film school? They had a poster hung in their large, glossy windows, of what they were screening that season. We had just missed a screening of Vegas in Space. I couldn’t believe it. I’d never even heard of the film outside the poster on David West’s door, and I flashed right to it, to David and all the poets and all the queers of that time. This little labor of love, ahead-of-its-time drag film was screening in Barcelona. Fast forward some months and the galley for Who Does That Bitch Think She Is? Lands in my mailbox, and I think maybe we are having a global Doris Fish renaissance. It gives me real hope to think that from the flotsam and jetsam, the real debris, the abandoned and obscured ephemeras of our radical queer lives might emerge at any time, without warning, capturing the eye of cultural dumpster-divers and treasure hunters, returned to the world again, and again, so that we might delight in our past and know our history.
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Oh yes! This is beautiful. All the collected fragments of our collective queer history! Do you remember Jerome’s show in the little gallery next door to the Bearded Lady —I think Kiki Gallery? All these tiny reliquary type paintings in nail polish, lots of fucked up clowns. I thin Jeffrey’s space was Museo Contempo—on South Van Ness? I remember going to a book launch or reading for you there—and it was the site of many weird and wonderful moments. I remember having a Taurus Party there with Heather H and maybe Sash too? And of course some beautiful sprite I was just acquainted with… was the name Jade? appeared in the backyard and did a fire dance as a birthday gift.
I love your recollections of the open-mic scene, I feel like I mostly knew that scene through you. Bucky I remember meeting in Muddy Waters on Valencia and that was the start of my lifelong bromance with him—he had long hillbilly hair back then and was like this gentle, loving bear. I have so many flashes of the open mic and slam scene and can recall at least two times where straight cis male peen made it out on stage during some angsty screed. But it didn’t feel the same as queer nakedness which, obvs was also a common thing—the world wanted us dead, our nakedness meant something different, aggrieved as though those dick-brandishing/twisting enraged straight boys might of been.
Most of all your post makes me miss that sense of spaciousness in life, time to scrawl out a poem and a place to go at night to publish it into the air and ears of your community (friends and enemies and just, well, indifferent strangers) and to be seen & heard, to listen & be listened to, to have the immediate feedback loop of shared existence, and to feel like in the moment making art was worth a damn.
I miss the raw scrappiness of those exchanges.
Thank you! I love you!
This is awesome! Thank you for writing it. (I still have a copy of Danielle's book, who was my ex's ex's ex, and recited her poem Elegy for Andy Gibb in a college theater class circa 1992...)