Like many artists, I came to San Francisco from graduate school, without any real training in doing anything, and I took a series of temp jobs. I remember the agency asking me what office machines I was familiar with and, having never actually been in an office, I said, flatly, “All of them.” “Do you know the ten-key machine?” “Of course,” I said, ice cold. They sent me to this job downtown, for Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro and placed me in a room with a million pages of documents and a ten-key machine. I walked out and said to the woman in charge, “I don’t know how to use that thing.” My agency called and said, “You swore you knew how to use a ten-key machine.” Quickly it came out that I thought they were referring to those (then fairly new) touch-tone phones, with the ten keys, which I knew quite well. I took a series of temp jobs, always seeking the perfect job that would allow me maximum time to do nothing. Finally I settled on the office where I sit now. San Francisco is still the loveliest city in America, and its poetry (and its art writing, to which the poetry’s inextricably bound, like Gemini) continues to blossom and freshen. But on the other hand, San Francisco’s always been a city easy to say goodbye to, and the current economic crisis only heightens the underlying despair. I feel sorry for the collectors, tapping neat chalk ticks against their old masterpieces; for the gallerists, coasting the months till recovery; for the curators, ideas pounding off a newly lowered cost ceiling; for the young artists who can’t afford to buy materials and who face massive student loans. To counter the general stasis, everyone I know seems to be making some movement, even if it is to imitate the old neoliberalist’s cheerful saw about bad times being good for art.
San Francisco has an incredible depth and richness of experience in art and in poetry—in imaginative work in general. It also has a hallowed Bohemian strain. Strong was the anarchist tradition in the Bay Area, the union movement too. Folk music blossomed here. “Puff the Magic Dragon” was written in Berkeley. The Bay Area pioneered performance art, and minimalism, and acid rock, and Pop; it’s steeped in legends of photography—and there are lots and lots of photo galleries here—the best in the world. Underground film and video. Our drugs are famous, and of course, it is the one of the most sexually tolerant cities in the USA. Until recently, heaps of young people made their way through school via porn or sex work of one kind or another. It is a place of Melvillean paradox, where the cutting edge of high tech rubs elbows with the lowest of low tech—the do-it-yourself ethos is still strong here. It is a multicultural city, more Spanish than Caucasian, more Asian than European, with dozens of different ethnicities crowding the streets, but at the same time a city fueled by mass tourism, since everyone wants to pass through here, even those who don’t care to live here. Even Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath came to San Francisco on their honeymoon.
Disturbingly gentrification continues to uptick, so that you need to be rich to live here, even during this time of economic downturn. Today is the hottest day San Francisco has ever experienced since first weather records began: normally we spend our days and nights in mild temperatures, and New Yorkers sneer at our weather saying it accounts for the somewhat mindless and raga-like qualities of our characteristic artworks—the serial poem of Duncan, Blaser, and Spicer, the graffiti-based art of Barry McGee and Jason Jagel, experimental scores like Terry Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air or Pauline Oliveros’ sonic meditations, or Lou Harrison’s gamelan music. Or the Grateful Dead, playing four songs in two hours. Come here and you may experience an earthquake—hopefully not a devastating one, but you’ll be out walking and you’ll have to crouch down and touch the pavement. And maybe that perception of possible danger has kept us a little bit honest. We’re at the end of the continent and the next stop is the ocean. We came for a reason.
This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
Tougher than anything.
No one listens to poetry. The ocean
Does not mean to be listened to. A drop
Or crash of water. It means
Is bread and butter
Pepper and salt. The death
That young men hope for. Aimlessly
It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No
One listens to poetry.
—Jack Spicer, from “Thing Language” (1964)