The Back Room


Close Ups

Shiv Kotecha

I met the late, luminary Kevin Killian at Artists Space in New York, October 2017, for the launch event of his and Dodie Bellamy’s Writers Who Love Too Much. I squeezed by a couple people before introducing myself to Killian, with whom I’d only ever had an email correspondence, and who, in maybe one second of meeting, held a digital camera about three inches from my face. It’s probably such a bad photo, taken so quickly and way too close to its object: if not entirely blurry, I imagine the portrait is just a great, severe crop of my face. Later that evening, I noticed Killian was taking similarly unrehearsed portraits of others in the room. This observation produced a more pleasing thought, that the photo of my head was one in a long string of the heads of people he interacted with that night. Killian generated intimacy where others could only ever assume it. As the poet Kay Gabriel said on Twitter recently, he “cracked the code and now i dunno what business anybody has treating poetry w solemn gravitas” — as with poetry, so too with being public. Killian’s way with the world and those of us in it was as disarming as it was beautiful. 

Killian passed away a little less than a year before New York City and San Francisco, like much of the rest of the globe, initiated a series of indefinite closures, quarantines, and lockdowns. A firm kibosh got put on book launches, readings, screenings, openings, and performances alike, rendering the sweetly possible ease of public life before March 2020 dangerously uncivil and existentially impossible. Especially those first early months — nobody wants to remember what they were up to then, and I don’t blame them. It’s embarrassing to reflect on a period so fitful and contradictory in its unfolding; trying to recollect how it felt resembles the spiky discomfiture of remembering puberty. It’s difficult, also, to face what life three tumultuous years later seems bent on fully repressing. Moreover, it still feels too soon — the camera is too close — life after March 2020 is worse than before, and not worse than before. The picture, we fear, will turn out terribly anyway. 

Still from Joel Gregory’s video Mood (2020), commissioned by Small Press Traffic for Bay Area Shorts.

“No one knew what they were doing, but also everything that happened felt like an event,” recalled poet Syd Staiti, who had just accepted a job offer to be the new director of Small Press Traffic. With the support of the UC Berkeley Poetry Colloquium, SPT was in the middle of organizing a staging of the 1996 Poets Theater classic, Stone Marmalade (Singing Horse Press, 1996) with Maxe Crandall as director, as a memorial to commemorate its writers, Killian, one year after his passing; and Leslie Scalapino, ten years after hers. Set in hell, the play is about Eurydice and Kathy, owners of a duty-free shop who compete for the attentions of Orpheus and Giorgio Agamben as they try to avoid the shooting schedule of Julia Roberts — a play that, in Scalapino’s words, “is our concerted attempt to demolish society.” 

Society was instead demolished by much worse people, and the program was cancelled. Small Press Traffic, like so many other painfully underfunded literary non-profits across the country (who variously rely on board members, grants, and the monetary benevolence of patrons), scrambled in their steps. How the hell does one continue to fund a center for poetry when public events have been rendered impossible? How, moreover, does one pour one’s energies into the arts at a time when people across the globe are dying from a novel pathogen? 

SPT’s answer was to reallocate Stone Marmalade production funds to various initiatives meant to support local artists, including Bay Area Shorts. Sometime in late April, the organization sent an email to members of its community — not only writers, but also filmmakers, musicians, performance artists, dancers, and artists trying to live and make work in the San Francisco Bay Area. The prompt was both specific and open-ended: to make and submit a video of up to three minutes, doing anything they’d like to do. The videos would be compiled and shared sequentially by SPT in a series of dispatches, and each participant would earn a small fee for their contribution. Fifty-one videos comprise this strange, community-curated archive, forming a collective, time-based portrait of artists and writers from the region. The string of videos is as diverse in its content as its practitioners are in their methods; each contribution speaks to the small, divergent occupations with which, poets — considered broadly — tune their attention.

Still from an untitled video by Violet Spurlock (2020), commissioned by Small Press Traffic for Bay Area Shorts. 

For several writers, like 최 Lindsay and Carrie Hunter, the three-minute slot was an occasion to sample from books slated to be published later that year, a proactive means of resisting the uncomfortable vacuum of publishing within a pandemic. Some poets staged readings of poems written by others: Crandall and Ari Banias, for instance, split the lines of Robert Duncan's “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,” which they recite while lounging in one, nestled in the vibrantly green hills surrounding the East Bay. Others take the opportunity to share their engagement with archives they find in their immediate surroundings. One of my favorite videos, by the archivist Marlo Longely, takes its directive from a map and accompanying list titled “Alders and Alleys” that Longely found among the cache of papers left by his deceased uncle. Longely’s video stitches together fleeting clips of the trees and narrow walkways he could or could not locate. “The connection between alders and alleys would only be visible to someone moving at a walker’s pace,” reflects the voice-over.

“Oh man, I don’t think I’ll be able to process that for like many years to come,” Noah Ross, the Berkeley-based poet, bookseller, and editor of baest: a journal of queer forms & affects, offered candidly when I asked him to reflect on Bay Area Shorts, “Like, what do these videos say about us, I don’t know, except where we go in moments of uncertainty. I think mine says a lot about where I go.” Ross’s contribution, [sound], comes from a series of small experiments originally produced for another publication of visual and concrete works. Sepia-toned beauties twinkle as they pass one another by, kaleidoscopically spread out à la Busby Berkeley and accompanied by a trilling soundtrack. A sequence of bracketed subtitles coalesces into a few lines that the poem’s speaker, like any one of us at the time of this video’s publication, might have wanted to yell out a window: 

[there’s no can]
[no place to bring]
[in star some]
[shiny / time]
[can / can]
[you see]
[? me?]

As between the staccato jumps in the animation, a sharply devastating feeling, like the gaping space between people, separates each of Ross’s lines. Company is elemental. It’s what motivates many of the videos in the series: friends tape lovers dancing; writers recommend things to read (Nora Treatbaby says read Jean Genet’s “The Criminal Child”; Amy Berkowitz wants to talk to you about narrative and cybersex in Caitlin Sullivan and Kate Bornstein’s Nearly Roadkill.). Artists build and demolish works, parrot sex, cry for camera, give art lessons, tell fortunes. We watch them gushing over poppers, détourning the daily rhythm of life lived in the bed into a series of rhythms (or portals), or just speaking directly to a crowd. 

Of course, Small Press Traffic was not the only literary non-profit to turn to video programming as a way of sustaining community. I made a “work out” video with my roommate, the poet Rainer Diana Hamilton, for the Poetry Project’s House Party, a similar omnibus style program. It includes us doing assisted dips and pushups against bleachers in Sunset Park, near our home. In the accompanying audio track we take turns reading John Ashbery’s “Parergon,” (1970), a poem to which I hadn’t returned in ages, that is nonetheless pinned in my memory like a dart. “We are happy in our way of life,” the poem begins, a stanza before it introduces a monologue about crying. “We never finished memorizing ‘Parergon,’” clarifies Hamilton of our shared experience, “even though I was certain that day we would. How else were we going to spend all this time indoors?” It was, in fact, our video that led Hamilton to start a memorization project a year later, for which she recorded “guided memorizations” of poems, “a way to accept someone’s help in focusing on a small detail and filtering out all other information, until you have an Ashbery poem by heart.” Some of these exercises now exist online — see Hamilton’s guide to memorizing Bernadette Mayer’s “The Way to Keep Going in Antarctica”; or her more recent collaboration with the poet Joey Yearous-Algozin, “A Meditation on Intimacy and Collapse.” 

Memorization is hard, but perhaps not as difficult as remembering. I’m not exactly sure what happens to this material — how these archives will live, to whom they’ll speak, or what they’ll collectively say. But I know that the wrong conclusion would be to say that exercises like these are good precisely because they pay it forward — that work begets more work. That’s bullshit non-poet logic. For now, I’ve come to associate these small acts and the desperate conditions that, in their moment, motivated them, with the tradition of Poets Theater, especially the rigorous amateurism and slapdash gumption with which so many writers still contribute to it. I’m glad to have these minor collections, full of readings, collaborations, improvisations, and experiments. They do good to replace the queasy-making drama of recollection. 

Lead image: Still from Emily Chao’s 16mm film AS LONG AS THERE IS BREATH (2020), commissioned by Small Press Traffic for Bay Area Shorts.‍

The Back Room