San Francisco March 2016

San Francisco is a palimpsest of memories for me. Visiting the first time with my first boyfriend WL, I was so excited to stroll down the famous Castro, browse at City Lights, and then, less usually, have dim sum in Daly City with WL's friend D. My second visit was with TH, my second boyfriend, who loved walking about the city too. The sharpest memories of that trip was dancing at Badlands and the tour of Napa Valley in a mini-bus, returning to the city on a ferry. I flew out a third time, on a crazy impulse, to meet someone whom I got to know on-line. JES managed a cafe in Westfield Shopping Mall, and I read a book in the cafe until he knocked off from work. He drove us down the coast where I saw seals playing in the Pacific Ocean. The fourth visit was with GH. In the city we visited art galleries, hotel lobbies, and a great architectural bookshop, and out of the city we stayed in Napa Valley, a first for me.

I visited SF for the fifth time with a decided mix of emotions. I was there to read from my new book Steep Tea, and to meet friends of the SF poet Justin Chin, who died last December. Justin was born in Malaysia and grew up in Singapore. He left Singapore for the States after his "A" levels, and in San Francisco created an admired body of work, consisting of poetry, essays, stories, and performance art. On the day I arrived, I had a reading at Modern Times Book in the historic Mission District. The turnout was minuscule and yet brought together different threads of my life. Kevin Killian was a friend of Justin's and I was very glad to meet him. I had so many questions to ask him, but none appropriate for a public, and social, event, such as a reading is. I read four poems by Justin, and could feel his kinetic style altering my usually more measured delivery. Afterwards Kevin said that it was interesting for him to hear Justin's work in another voice. Present too were JB and BD, whom GH and I met in Spain last summer. ML was visiting SF from NYC too, and brought with her a group of Singaporeans, including her fiance T. ML and T joined us at a leather bar after dinner, and we were a little surprised that the good-looking couple was so comfortable there. ML let out that they loved going to gay clubs in London when she was there as an art student.

GH arrived after midnight, and the next day, a Friday, we walked along the Embarcadero, into North Beach, looking into City Lights on the way. We had evening drinks with JB and BD at their lovely home above the Castro, and found the time with them as easy and relaxing as before in Sitges. The next day, GH and I visited the very fine Asia Museum, and saw a a great collection of Buddhist and Hindu sculptures. A lion-faced Tibetan god, radically balanced on one leg, made me think of connections to Simha, Simba, and Singa. We did some shopping in the Hayes Valley. In the evening, I did my reading for Nomadic Press out in Oakland. The founding editor JK Fowler had moved with his husband from Brooklyn. He had the best hug in the world, an embrace as comfortable as a a familiar armchair. I was very pleased to hear the songs of Hassan El-Tayyab, who is half-Bedouin, and fronts a band called American Nomad. Hassan had a beautiful voice. Soma Mei Sheng Frazier, freshly published by Nomadic, read two stories from her book Salve. The second story, about a child born with an ugly appearance, was particularly moving. It wove together make-believe and harsh reality in a convincing manner. After the reading, I headed back to SF and joined GH and his Cincinnati friend DSC for a drink at The Edge in Castro.

On Easter Sunday, most shops were closed. We took a bus to Richmond and had a good dim sum at Hong Kong Lounge. The same bus took us to Land's End, where the Ocean dashed itself into spray. GH was particularly pleased to visit Cliff House, a former hotel, now turned into a tourist attraction with bistro and cafe, and stunning views. We returned in time to watch "The Realistic Joneses" by Will Eno at the American Conservatory Theater. Thanks to DSC, we had great seats in the orchestra. Eno has been hailed as "a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation," which sounded to me like a backhanded compliment. The play was concerned about the slips and gaps in language, but they were naturalized to some extent by a physical malady that both husbands shared. The script was clever and moving in many places, but never quite touched rock bottom as Beckett does.

GH flew home the next day, and I made my way to the Mission District, to kill time before my evening reading at SF State University. At Alley Cat Books, I bought Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings and was soon sucked into its Jamaican world of gang warfare and Cold War politics. Dodie Bellamy was my host at SFSU, and she is also Kevin's wife and a distinguished essayist. The reading series "Writers on Writing" is aimed at both undergrads and grads, so I faced a quite diverse audience. I read from Steep Tea, of course, and ended with a short story by Justin Chin called "Quietus." The Q&A afterwards was engaging. The students had read my book beforehand and came with questions about my writing in general but also about specific poems. One young woman, who looked Muslim, told me that after she read the opening poem "Eve's Fault" she had to put down the book for a while, so moved was she. I was very touched by the remark, and very humbled. I knew the feeling, having had it many times in a lifetime of reading. It is the Grail of all true readers.

Richard Loranger came for the reading. He had been such a friend on this trip. He put me in touch with JK Fowler in the first place. After the SFSU reading, he and I went for a sushi dinner, and then back to his place in Oakland. After a refreshing sleep, I was more communicative, and we had a wonderful morning talking about poetry, the Oakland literary scene, the idea of the individual, and how to take care of plants. He made me breakfast and sent me away with his chapbook 6 Questions, which ends with a gorgeous sonnet about watching a swan dive suddenly after a fish.


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