The Back Room

Connie Zheng's digital collage, titled A map of many small doors

A Map of Many Small Doors

Connie Zheng

Does a map tell you where it wants you to go? To what extent do you control the paths you take, the window through which you enter the flattened schema of a cartographer’s reality? This essay is a goodbye letter of sorts, a diagram aware of its own ignorance, joints loose, with plenty of empty space between flesh and bone. It’s composed of fragments gathered on Muni, the pebble-shaped leather seats at McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, a wooden writing desk in Virginia, a flight from the East Coast back to the Bay, and of course my cluttered desk in Oakland. Transit lines and temporary stopping points, stitched together slowly.

Installation view, What are words worth? (June 16 – September 2, 2023), McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, San Francisco. Photo by Henrik Kam.

To fully appreciate What are words worth?, the final, poignant exhibition at McEvoy Arts, is to move not at the speed of social media — as so many exhibitions seem to — but of images and text engaged in their own hermeneutic dialogue. The interplay between iconicity, meaning, form. The phase transitions and semiotic exchanges that occur when language and place co-constitute one another, when history and landscape collide and melt into shadow zones and blinding blades of sun.  

Several reviews mention the McEvoy family’s ties to the San Francisco Chronicle and Nion McEvoy’s founding of Chronicle Books; Tony Bravo of the Chronicle calls the exhibition a “love letter to newspapers and books.” A recognition of the ways in which the Chronicle’s political commitments have shaped the progressive culture and history of San Francisco — both visibly and less so — heightens my sense of gravitas around the exhibition. In the time of TikTok, can people still even read? Like, actually read?

Kerouac makes a blurry, candlelit cameo. Ginsberg appears via a phantasmic dye coupler print of Howl & Other Poems. I feel as if I’m in a room full of chatty, erudite ghosts.

I spend much longer than I expect to in the Natalie Czech anteroom, studying works from her poem by repetition series (2013-2019), a hidden chamber of lexical jokes and secret ritual gymnastics. In these poster-sized pieces, formal decisions seem to be the only visible organizing principle. Everything else feels enigmatic.

Natalie Czech, A poem by repetition by Yunte Huang, 2013. Lightfast ink on chromogenic prints. McEvoy Family Collection. Photo by Henrik Kam.

Walking through the exhibition, I’m moved by its numinous qualities. Its liturgical patterning and chthonic logics, like the numbering system of sacred texts. Order accumulated over time, the repetitions wrought by the language of multiple bodies over centuries, millennia.

Language molds the rhythms of a city. Without the many stop signs in my neighborhood, my daily walks would sketch a different route. Without the binding text of rent-control laws or building ordinances, San Francisco would be even more unrecognizable to its Beat-era poets than it is today. Without the noise of advertising billboards, we might more clearly hear our inner selves. Bureaucratic language constricts our lives, parcels out territory, anoints one place as paradise and another as hell. But before language, there was place. Before poetry, there were valleys, forests, mountains, oceans. Places without words. Places that never needed words, until they were made to need them.

How much does the continued artistic vibrancy of a neighborhood like North Beach depend on its roller-coaster hills, or its skinny cobblestone alleyways painted in shadow? My father’s family comes from the southern Chinese province of Fujian, which is mostly known in the U.S. for its oolong teas. Within China, the region is recognized for its linguistic diversity, thanks to its mist-cloaked mountains. Cupped in the protective green hands of myriad valleys, many mountainous villages were largely inaccessible until the past century, even to each other; my aunts and uncles used to say that it was common for villages within a kilometer of one another to have mutually unintelligible dialects. Scanning the artworks in What are words worth?, I think about how language can resituate a space, how the topography of a place can produce lexical norms. The literary and artistic legacy of a city is shaped by its sonic textures, the daily circulation of its people — the economic, political, and cultural conditions that make it possible (or not) to live somewhere, to create a home.

Moyra Davey, Subway Writers I (detail), 2011, 25 chromogenic prints with postage, tape, and ink; McEvoy Family Collection. Courtesy of the artist.

Standing before Moyra Davey’s Subway Writers I (2011), I almost tear up. It’s a grid of twenty 11.75” x 17.75” chromogenic prints with tabs of green and yellow tape floating along flattened creases like neon-colored windows, blocks of tape and hand-cut address labels clumped in seemingly random corners. The images function as their own envelopes, the meticulous folds and leftover postal material on each print creating a Mondrian-esque chart of frugal travel both ingenious and strangely affecting. Davey snapped these images of people writing as they were riding the New York City subway, but the practice of writing in public transit resonates in the Bay.

It’s long been a trope for artists and writers here to lament: all my friends have left. Shorthand for a reality of economic precariousness, the goodbye you’ll have to say the minute you lose your rent-controlled apartment. In the bewilderingly short twelve years I’ve lived here— six of which were spent in San Francisco — I’ve almost run out of fingers and toes to count the loss of long-standing music venues, bars, and galleries, disappearing anchors for the rich and varied subcultures of this place. As I trace the subtle grids of Subway Writers I, I think about the provisional qualities of an artistic practice, the strategies we develop for folding the act of making work into the heterogeneous shapes of our lives.

Since finishing my MFA four years ago, I’ve had to shift my studio practice in accordance with various part-time jobs and three years of PhD coursework, teaching, and exams. For the past two years I’ve been working on a film in piecemeal, stitching together stop-motion timelapses assembled from photographs taken daily in my garden, between emails and grading marathons. No more seven-hour-long costume-building or painting sessions: studio production now gets jammed into the summer months, themselves broken up by administrative tasks for remote work. Writing I’ve found easier to do in fugitive snippets, between three different jobs, on BART, in bed in my pajamas, while waiting for my morning tea to steep. Those few moments where work isn’t pressing me into a little Gumby shape running to keep up. I love the way Davey sutures contingent subject, method, and material. I’m emboldened by the confidence of this modest double-duty gesture, the humility and homeliness of its arrival.

A score of garden sounds, by the author.

Until we’re struck by cataclysm, so many of us expect the things we love, the places we love, to remain constant, a straight line. We expect best friends to never move away, home to be forever ours, parents to never die. Often, I think artists strive for immortality: our output is our self-perpetuating homunculus. The biblical Tower of Babel is an allegory for the folly of human hubris, but in Ted Chiang’s story, the Tower of Babylon is — spoiler alert! — an ouroboros. Your death at the top spits you into the sands below, and the hourglass resets. We pick up a sheet of paper, rip off a joint of tape, and unite the edges.

One chilly autumn Friday, my partner E and I are invited to join a convening of Coit Tower Poetry Club, a monthly gathering organized by his friend A at the iconic landmark. Many attendees are crusty bohemian poets (I’m delighted to know they still exist) who have lived in North Beach for several decades, some of whom supposedly used to run with Ferlinghetti. Most of them shared cigarettes and burritos and pizza slices with E back when he was a peppy freelance journalist covering the Bay Area literary scene, including for the Chronicle.  

Each month highlights a different poet: tonight is dedicated to Allen Ginsberg, on the occasion of the sixty-sixth anniversary of Howl. E and I have been assigned to read stanzas of the larger-than-life magnum opus. I’d never actually read Howl in its entirety, and don’t know it beyond its famous opening salvo, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” I’m intimidated to be among poets who can recite it line by line, hurl themselves through the scrim of text into waves of titanic feeling. I practice my section — Peyote solidities of halls… — several times in a whisper.

Doug Keyes, Howl & Other Poems - Allen Ginsberg, 2001. Dye coupler print. McEvoy Family Collection. Courtesy of the artist and G. Gibson Gallery.

On cue, each reader jumps into the shallow amphitheater at the tower’s base. We’re a boozy serpent’s spine of stanzas, encircled by candles flickering in filigreed garden lanterns and empty beer bottles. Random tourists sit to listen; they’ve stumbled upon an echt North Beach experience, kept alive by overlapping generations of poets. Will they mention this moment in their Google Review of Coit Tower? I kind of hope so. Among the readers are an old guy in a leather vest and a kid who looks like one of my undergrad students. The scene is overwhelmingly male, but a few female and non-binary writers recite too: there’s C, who’s also a buyer for one of San Francisco’s most iconic bookstores, and L, a witchy punk with pink hair.

The wind is sharp-edged, and soon my hands are shaking. More than an hour of Ginsberg has made me tired and hungry; it’s a lot of intense energy to be metabolizing while shivering in the cold. Afterward, E and I link up with the poet K to grab slices of pizza from Golden Boy, which is slammed, as usual. We park ourselves at the top of the Vallejo Steps, our legs splayed out against the road yet nearly vertical down the steep drop of the hill. We bite into doughy blocks of cheese and grease as we look out over downtown San Francisco, the inky fog occluding the glint of the towers. K and E start to reminisce. Remember when we used to sit up here with J, just wander around North Beach in the middle of the night, like idiots? Really, he’s in Oaxaca now?… You know people are still emailing me about those chapbooks we published, ever since M and T got big… Is B still managing that lounge? No shit…  

Sitting at the Vallejo Steps on the night of the Ginsberg reading at Coit Tower Poetry Club. Photograph by the author.

As the fog thickens, E and K name writers long gone from the Bay and people they’re surprised are still here, eking out a life between the seams. I’m a fly on the wall in this conversation, privy to a scene that could have been at home in The Savage Detectives or Hopscotch. E can remember every single one of the hundreds of readings he’s organized over the past fourteen years — at the Elbo Room, the Stud, Club Deluxe, the Emerald Tablet, and others, all gone.

I find myself charting a mental map of the San Francisco literary universe from the late aughts through 2022. Under the black midnight sky, washed pale at the edges by the city lights, I follow their memories down avenues of myth, the everyday turned into legend, simultaneously rooted in place and liquidly mobile. The longstanding open mic at the southwest corner of 16th and Mission, the bars and cafés and knolls where E interviewed writers, the literary mixtape he organized in the Sutro Caves, lit by a string of LED lights blinking in two-liter soda bottles. I connect this moment with the Surrealist poetry reading we attended together at Specs’ four years ago, where he and M performed as a costumed duo. The lights in the surrounding apartment buildings begin to dim, but sounds from the street bubble around us in waves. I grow sleepy, tuck my head into my knees. E’s and K’s voices burrow into the soft caverns of my body as I retrace my steps through the city again and again, rewriting old ambulatory patterns and remembering new paths to take.

Lead Image: Connie Zheng, A map of many small doors, digital collage of 35mm still photography


“A Map of Many Small Doors” and Dodie Bellamy’s “Writing on the Subway with Moyra Davey” are co-produced by The Back Room at Small Press Traffic and McEvoy Foundation for the Arts on the occasion of the exhibition What are words worth? at McEvoy Arts (June 16–September 2, 2023).

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