The Bay Area as Mega-Mall: “Island Living”

I wrote “Island Living” on August 16, 2009 and revised it on August 21. It was the last poem I wrote in 2009, the last until February 13, 2010, which surprises me to consider now. Did I really not write anything else for six months? But I guess I was busy submitting what I’d already written, both my solo stuff and my collaborations with Martin Ott, in three main offensives during September, October, and January.

“Island Living” envisions the San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose metroplex, particularly The City, as a huge, comprehensive, tourist-friendly mall and covert theme park. It obliquely addresses what some might call the self-satisfied insularity of many who live in the Bay Area. I remember listening to a Garrison Keillor bit from when he brought A Prairie Home Companion to a venue in Concord, in Contra Costa County. He commented that New Yorkers may respond to compliments about the Big Apple with complaints about crime, dirt, etc., that Minneapolitans may respond to compliments about the Twin Cities by warning tourists about January’s frigid weather, but that San Franciscans take compliments about their city as their rightful due: “That scene is so beautiful,” sighs the tourist. “I know…,” replies the smug native. I myself lived in the Bay Area from 1996 to 2004, so I knew somewhat of what Keillor spoke.

Anyway, for contrast, I wanted to imbue “Island Living” with anxiety and fancy. Life in the Bay Area isn’t all skittles and beer:

But you tire,

you miss your car. Your children have stealthily

wandered off to find the talking salmon. You

must go. Did you park far to the east, in the

vast asphalt prairies of Contra Costa County?

Did you ride the Bay Escalator to arrive? You

don’t remember, you don’t think so.

I’d also like to demonstrate that I added an element of humor, but I sometimes have a hard time picking out “the funny lines” from my poems. So it goes.

“Island Living” first appeared in The Midwest Quarterly Volume LI, Number 4 (Summer 2010).

Notes on The Valley Poets Reading Series – Village Book Shop – 19 November 2011

Tonight was my first time as a featured reader. It was pretty cool. John Brantingham, the series host, turned the main hosting duties over to Jeffrey Graessley, who acquitted himself quite well throughout the night.

Very few of my loved ones, my closest friends and family, showed up. That kinda sucked. One guy had custody of the kids this weekend. One guy had to work sixteen- to eighteen-hour days this weekend. One guy was recovering from surgery. One of my oldest friends had an unexplained “scheduling conflict.” One VIP didn’t even RSVP, although I assume she was working at the restaurant. On the other hand, Raquel came along to support me — a first, since she’s not really the poetry type. Gratifyingly, she liked what she heard; I think hearing the poems read out loud helped her to appreciate them better.

I was nervous tonight. Partly it was the adrenaline from the pressure and anticipation of my first featured reading. Partly it was the cup of coffee and the mostly empty stomach around dinnertime. Partly it was the fear that my students from Orange Coast College and Santiago Canyon College, whom I’d promised ten points of extra credit for schlepping all the way from Orange County, would heckle me. But mostly, I was nervous that so many students would show up to the bookstore that Deborah, the owner, would turn them away, citing fire codes, civic ordinances, and such. I am a silly, silly man; Deborah, of course, had no problems with more potential customers. In the end, nineteen students wound up showing up and signing in, which is a pretty good haul.

Before I talked to Deborah and had my concerns assuaged, I nearly flipped when Raquel and I arrived at the bookstore to find an audience filled with middle schoolers. I thought, “Crap, I haven’t vetted my set for audience appropriateness! I can’t remember which poems I picked, but what if they all concern titties and beer? Well…well…fine…the children will just have to hear about titties and beer. ARTISTIC INTEGRITY!” But Deborah assured me that the kids would be gone by 6:20 or so, long before adults opened their potty mouths.

Why were the middle schoolers there, anyway? There had been some school activity for which they wrote pieces responding to the prompt, “Diversity is…” Deborah had been picked to help choose a winner; she picked a whole bunch of students. Those in attendance were the cream of the crop, underaged appetizers before the open-mic course. And you know what? These kids were good. Some of them wrote the basic rhymed yet meterless kid poems. Some were really good. I was especially taken with the young lady who wrote a short story about the basketball game. She was confident and capable. I bet she’ll struggle with Philistinic assholes in high school but have a fantastic time in college.

[THIS IS THE SECTION WHERE I'LL DISCUSS THE OPEN READERS, ONCE SOMEONE GETS ME A COPY OF THE LIST. THERE WERE A LOT OF THEM, AND I DON'T WANT TO FORGET ANYONE FROM THIS SPECIAL NIGHT.]

After the second short break, lLoyd Aquino led off the features. He wrote and spoke well about sex, love, and religion. His centerpiece, performed with a female audience member, was a persona poem about Jesus Christ’s interlude with a prostitute. He called out to his family, who were in the audience: his parents, his sister, and who else? He did not perform “Beat Poets,” which may have been disappointing to some, but I’ve heard it a couple of times already, so I’m glad he gave himself a chance to bring some lesser-known pieces into the spotlight.

For my set, I picked poems I thought would go over pretty well, potential crowd-pleasers, mostly ones with at least some funny lines:

  1. “Poem for Christy’s Daughter” — As my only Pushcart-Prize-nominated piece, this had to find its way into the set list. I thought of the perfect introduction for it when I was taking a shower earlier, but I forgot the easy but hard-hitting flow of the proposed spiel once I got on stage. Oh well. John and Ann Brantingham had heard this poem before.
  2. “1952” — This poem I wrote after hearing and reading Paul Suntup is a personal favorite, although it might have been a touch too weird for some. Nevertheless, it effectively established the predominant clever but screwy tone for the whole set.
  3. “Progress” — This is a poem about poems…sorta. I think reading this poem is when my set began to pick up steam.
  4. “Protagonist” — This is my self-aggrandizement poem, as well as another one involving doomed or flawed relationships.
  5. “Message to an Imaginary Stepfather” — This is another, older sentimental favorite. The Brantinghams had also heard this one before.
  6. “A Man and a Woman and a Bird” — This poem also addresses a flawed, doomed relationship, albeit more directly than the earlier ones.
  7. “Envy” — This poem was inspired by reading Tony Hoagland. The Brantinghams had also heard this one before. I wish New Mirage Journal, where it first appeared, knew how to spell my name; it’s not a hard name.
  8. “Saturday, 10:30 A.M.” — This poem also addresses a flawed, doomed relationship. Ann Brantingham specially requested this poem. That was very cool. I’d finished working out my set list by the time Ann reached out, but luckily, this piece was already in the mix. I’m glad I could accommodate Ann.
  9. “The Appointment” — This poem begins the final descent into seriousness. It’s still funny, but it discusses my infertility.
  10. “Iron Chef” — At this point, I asked John Brantingham how much time I had. He said two poems’ worth. I had three left in the stack. I got rid of #12 and made this one #10 instead of #11. It’s about my dad. It’s probably the most honest poem of the whole set, the one in which I played least fast and loose with the facts.
  11. “February Love Song” — I wanted to end with this poem to Raquel. I hope she liked it.

Somewhere in the middle of fidgeting with the mic, taking it off the stand and putting it back into the holder, I accidentally turned it off. Luckily, my voice has good projection. More luckily, I realized my mistake after one poem and flipped the switch back on.

As the most regularly-featured poet among us three, Tamara worked the mic the best. lLoyd had sometimes strayed too far away from it. I had tended to swallow it and, as noted, turned it off for a while. Tamara knew from the get-go what I had just figured out at the end of my set: speak diagonally near but past the mic, not directly into it. She modulated her voice very well.

Tamara began her set with a couple of new poems that I had heard at the last Hump Day reading, including one about the structure of our expanding universe, which I like particularly for its reference to Russian string bags. Then she focused on poems from her wonderful collection Wild Domestic, which I miss, because Daniel Romo is still borrowing it. (To be fair, I’m still working my way through Daniel’s copies of David HernandezHoodwinked and Ryan Ridge‘s Hunters & Gamblers.) I’m very glad she included some of her “English-teachery” poems about language.

During the post-reading mingling, people said nice things about my set. Raquel steered me toward Sam Gosland, who had drawn a portrait of me during the event. (I didn’t think it looked too much like me — wrong nose — but it was cool anyway.) I said goodbye to the few students who hadn’t fled the scene as soon as my set was over. I said goodbye to Tamara and her boyfriend. Raquel took a picture of a star hanging in the sky between the Glendora Christmas decorations lining either side of the street. Then we were off.

After the post-reading mingling, as usual, I headed to Brantingham Manor, this time accompanied by Raquel, where fun was had. Both of us were hungry, as we had only eaten one small item apiece from Porto’s Bakery back around 3 or 4. Sadly, we have no cash for food until the end of the month, just plastic, so drive-thrus weren’t an option. Happily, the Brantinghams had set out some crackers and dANIEL cUESTA was in the kitchen making homemade naan. Jenna, who looks to be about what — eight? ten? — was in the dining room quizzing people on X things found Y and starting with certain letters, then scoring their answers, based on how closely they resembled what she was thinking. I tried hard to get a zero percent, but she felt undeserved pity on me and gave me a C+. Grade inflation infects the next generation. Raquel got an A+++ and a handwritten award attesting to how smart she was; I think we should put it on the fridge. Scott repeatedly told me, “You so corny,” which is apparently a good thing. lLoyd brought over a 1.7-liter bottle of Glenlivet, of which I should have drunk more. Adrienne lay on the kitchen floor and took photos of the people above her. Raquel and I talked with Charlotte San Juan’s parents about cooking, exotic food, and the differences between Filipino and German culture. I forget her dad’s name, but he seems pretty nice. Charlotte was hanging out there too, having avoided getting creamed in her car by an asshole running a red light and going ninety MPH earlier that night. Just when I discovered where the cool kids were hanging out, in the hitherto unexplored Brantinghamian backyard, Raquel reminded me that we had been on our way out the door and that I was supposed to have been saying goodbye. So off we went.

Notes on a Hump Day Reading – Gatsby Books – 16 November 2011

I got to Gatsby Books pretty early, about 6:30, right after Ken Starks and his friend Robbie. I was glad when Robbie announced that he hosts an open mic at It’s a Grind on Thursday nights. On the one hand, his event features not only poets, but magicians, comedians, and musicians. And I don’t know which It’s a Grind location he hosts at. On the other hand, it’s cool that someone filled the Thursday-night gap, which I’ve been waiting for someone to do.

Those of us who showed up early made a line at the counter, waiting for host Kevin Lee to show up with the open-mic sign-up sheet. I was first in line, so I got my favorite spot, #4. When I wrote my name, Alisha Attella, who owns Gatsby Books with Sean Richard Moor, commented, “Oh, so you’re John Buckley.” I got flustered and shy and ran away, but it was neat to hear that someone had mentioned me to her. I hope whoever it was said good things.

The feature was Thomas R. Thomas, Tebot Bach helper, short-form master, computer intimidator, husband of Michelle and father of multitudes. Michelle beat him to the store because she works in Long Beach. But Tom eventually got there and flashed me his usual peace-sign greeting. He read the longer Ren & Stimpy piece again, a very good one. But many of his poems are so concise that I think he was able to whip through a whole stack of papers during his set. I agree with Kevin Lee that a person might be able to navigate one’s days with some hexagrams and Tom’s short, contemplative poems, a contemporary Tao Te Ching.

The open readers included Ken, Robbie, the Bank-Heavy crew, Tamara Madison, Clifton Snider, this dude buying books who longed for a blonde fellow student, Tobi Cogswell and Jeff Alfier, and me. I apologize for forgetting the others. I read “Cloud Map Ceiling” and “Short-Sighted.” Like an idiot, I commented that I have never repeated myself at a reading, that I had thus burned through all the good stuff, and that I was thus down to the mediocrities and dregs. I was kinda joking but kinda not. Anyway, I got an okay reception. I’ll do better on Saturday, I think, when I finally break my no-repeats rule and perform what I want.

You know who was there who surprised me? Adrienne Selina Silva, all the way from the eastern San Gabriel Valley. It was great to see her, but I didn’t recognize her at first when I saw her at the counter. I just thought, “That woman looks like Adrienne from the side.” Anyway, she came up to say hi after the event, when I was talking to Jeff Epley in the back of the store about college students, grading, and parents. She introduced me to her friend, but I forget his name. In my car were some Raymond Carver materials I’ve been meaning to lend her, but 1. I forgot and 2. she might have been on a date, not the best time for dumping piles of reading on her. I’ll give her the stuff Saturday.

Notes on a Bank-Heavy Press Reading – Gatsby Books – 10 November 2011

I didn’t read, but that’s okay. I still had a fine time.

I arrived in Gatsby Books‘ parking lot while my gum still had some flavor in it. So I parked, stared out the front windshield at the back entrance of the bookstore, and spaced out amidst minty freshness. That worked well for a few minutes, until Jeffrey Alfier and Tobi Cogswell pulled up in front of me in their minivan, their headlights piercing my bovine haze of excellent breath-freshness and causing me to feel a little self-conscious. I chewed just a bit longer, got out of the car, and followed them inside.

Like a mini-pantheon of Olympian gods, the three editors of Bank-Heavy Press strode throughout the front half of the store. They looked fierce and mighty. Cory De Silva projected himself onto the astral plane and bit the heads off countless mind flayers; it was the most awesome D&D-relevant spectacle of the night. Karie McNeley wore her jaunty hat like a badass, the intrepid spirit incarnate. Zack Nelson Lopiccolo dared passersby to hook up jumper cables and a car battery to his nose ring, laughing mockingly all the while. I was going to hide under a folding chair and tremble in fear, but instead decided just to sit in the front row, next to the editors.

The point of the night was to give contributors to Bank-Heavy’s first two anthologies, Don’t Forget the Chapstick and Orangutan, the chance to read their poems in public. There was really quite a healthy turnout, of supporters as well as contributors. The Bank-Heavy name is starting to carry some weight.

The readers were as follows:

  1. Cory De Silva
  2. Tobi Cogswell
  3. Josef Lemoine
  4. Olivia Somes
  5. Karie McNeley
  6. Justine Armstrong
  7. Larry Duncan
  8. Gerry Locklin
  9. Anna Denee
  10. Marcello Giagnoli
  11. Erika Faye
  12. Lindsey Aguilar
  13. Calvin Fantone
  14. Zack Nelson Lopiccolo

I own Orangutan and have seen some of the readers perform before, so a number of the poems were familiar to me. I enjoyed everyone’s performances. The editors took turns MCing the proceedings.

I saw Clint Margrave, Anna Badua, and Kevin Lee. Clifton Snider came a little later. I didn’t talk to any of them, although Anna had waved at me earlier, because I was chatting with my seatmate, who goes to school with Karie. I think she’s a returning student. Anyway, we talked about writing, getting started after not writing for a while, developing good writing habits, inspiration, etc. She was nice. I wish I could remember her name. We finally formally introduced ourselves to each other while I was leaving, but gosh, her name slips my mind. Lisa? Ellen? No, not Ellen. Hmm. (Okay, I just checked with Karie — her name is Lisa Hunter.)

Notes on Two Idiots Peddling Poetry – The Ugly Mug – 09 November 2011

What’d I do? What’d I do? What’d I do?

Oh yeah.

I ate hot dogs — last week was a Carolina slaw dog and an Italian sausage, this week was a Coney dog (chili + mustard = yes) and a Chicago dog. Then I chewed gum to alleviate the anguish of hot-dog breath. But my fingertips, despite washing my hands thoroughly with soap and water, still smelled hot-doggy, so you know my life has known pain.

Then I drove the The Ugly Mug, weekly lair of Orange County’s greatest supervillains, Two Idiots Peddling Poetry, and of us, their fickle minions. There I found Corinna Bain, one of the night’s features, although I didn’t know that at the time. At first, I just thought she was a punk-rock drifter: backpacks, Mohawk, black-t-shirt, pegged jeans, Doc Martens. Then she hung out with a guy on the sidewalk near where I was sitting, hugging and laughing and chatting. Then she sat down and waited. I started to get an inkling she was the feature, but I couldn’t think of anything to say besides, “Hey, are you the feature?” So we just sat there on the patio in silence, along with a middle-aged man — not me, another one — who kept bouncing his legs, perhaps from cold.

A woman whom I think is Steve Ramirez’s girlfriend arrived with Ben Trigg and Steve. Soon other friends of the hosts arrived, sitting down with the girlfriend to form what Ben complimentarily and affectionately called the “geekiest” table.

Erica Fabri, the other feature, was stuck in traffic, so Ben had all the open readers go on stage before the big shots did their things. Raundi K. Moore-Kondo went first, reading a longish narrative poem called “The Laundromat” that made my spirit feel cleaner.

Peter Lewis followed Raundi, starting with a haiku, “Wardrobe Change,” then the Tom Waits-inspired “Simon Says Revenge,” which ended with a Tom Waits-inspired rough, devilish guffaw. He finished up with a romantic poem.

Next up with Seth, who recited a Postal Service song that makes him suspect he has a drinking problem, “This Place Is a Prison.” Next and last, he read what he called “a terrible poem,” a droll piece titled “Sadness Is Bad,” which reminded Ben of a reading Steve and he had attended on, I think, the East Coast, where a woman had droned on for seven minutes or so reiterating variations of “I feel sad…I feel bad.”

I read “O Tempora, O Mores!” and “Another Epiphany Missed on a Road Near Damascus, Oregon.” I may have confused people who were expecting something funnier, but screw it. They’re pretty good poems I felt were worth reading at least once.

After me, a friend of Corinna’s started messing with the ceiling fans because she was too warm. This led to a somewhat awkward interchange with Ben. Not yet knowing her name, he decided to dub her “Mystery Girl,” a label that didn’t visibly disarm her but also didn’t seem to offend her. He also got Phil, the owner, to turn on some of the fans.

James Kelly read two poems by Aaron Belz, who featured at The Ugly Mug on July 27: “The Love Hat Relationship” and “You Bore Me.” The latter poem rips on Michigan, which makes my heart weepy. But the poems are both otherwise pretty funny.

Jason was the sixth open reader. He had a performy/slammy vibe. He recited two poems he had memorized, one about Disneyland and an “old” poem about the narrator’s mother.

Adrienne Wyatt, AKA “Mystery Girl,” took to the stage upon Ben’s insistence that she come on. She introduced herself — I hope I heard her name right — and read a poem from a book of unknown origin, a poem titled “Kill Your Darlings, or Why Poets Really Shouldn’t Date.”

A lot of people straggled in late tonight.

Finally, the features. Corinna Bain delved into the feminine and into death. I found her works political, personal, and powerful. She read quite a few poems from her “dead girl series,” which are apparently supposed to be somewhat humorous. She mentioned that since Erica Fabri would bring an entirely different energy to the room later, she, Corinna, could now feel free to bum us all out. Fair enough. I hope she got a ride to downtown LA. Apparently, she had a Greyhound ticket from downtown Los Angeles to San Francsico, on a bus leaving at midnight. She would be incrementally heading up the coast as far as Seattle, I believe; now her backpacks made sense.

Somewhere in there was a break. Corinna Bain’s comment that while she lacks “social graces,” it would be really cool for us to come over and talk with her struck a chord with me, of course. But I was still feeling shy. I think I’ve been forgetting to take my pills.

For Erica Fabri’s set, Phil turned on the colored lights that usually stay off above the stage. She showed up with an extra mic stand and a man to accompany her on guitar, the man that she loves, Robin Andre. Sometimes, they perform under the name The Robin and the Lady Poet. Erica called Corinna “serious and intense” and said she feared she herself would seem “frivolous and meaningless” after Bain’s powerful set. But she entertained with lively, humorous poems of substance. She spoke of sex and love and longing and perfect relationships. She is a Sagittarius; Robin is an Aquarius. Those signs are quite compatible. What more can I say?

Notes on a Reading – Barnes & Noble – 08 November 2011

I watched Victor Infante and Lea Deschenes feature for the second time in a week Tuesday night. Also watching were our host G. Murray Thomas, Ricki Mandeville, Ken Starks, Mary Patton, Victor’s mom, and some old friends of the features.

I should have taken notes.

Victor gave a shout-out to the host, mentioning the debt, often unrealized, that the poetic community owes Murray for his many years of service, support, performance, hosting, reading, writing, reviewing. Murray has shaped not only the local poetry scene, but the national discourse on how to create and perpetuate an artistic community. At least, that’s the impression I got.

Lea read first, unlike last Wednesday. Both she and Victor mixed things up to a certain extent, not reading exactly what they read at The Ugly Mug. The feature ended with Victor’s reading a powerful mini-epic, a tour de force on swords, sharpness, and sacrifice. He choked himself up a little reading it. Have I ever made myself cry reading my own poems? I don’t think so, but I kinda wish I had.

I read “Short Stack” and “Fairy Tale,” two relatively newer pieces. The first poem went okay. The second was kind of a crowd-pleaser; it’s intentionally funny. Cory De Silva of Bank-Heavy Press especially likes it.

Ricki was limping because of a CIA mission gone wrong, the second undercover-operative friend of mine to be thus injured in several months. After the reading, I offered her a piggyback back to her car, which she accepted, but I was offering Murray’s back, not mine, so that plan didn’t quite reach fruition. I should have given her a piggyback. Now I feel less than gallant.

Also after the reading, Mary Patton told me that she liked my poems. This is the fifth time we’ve seen each other and the second or third time we’ve talked, but I’m not sure she recognized me. She did mention that she had a very bad memory. We chatted about finding a publisher for her proposed chapbook of cat poems. I told her about Duotrope.

Then I stood around, not talking to anyone, loitering in the corner like a stray buttplug. Awkward, awkward, awkward. I wanted to talk to the features, but again, my shyness got the better of me. I wanted to explain to Victor that we shared the same birthday, that the borderline-creepy Facebook message I sent after friending this near-stranger wasn’t due to my being his astrological stalker. Awkward, awkward, awkward, redux.