A Walk with Stephen Vincent

Photo of Stephen Vincent by Linda Hanson

Photo of Stephen Vincent by Linda Hanson

Interview by Francis Raven

An influential presence in the poetry scene of San Francisco, Stephen Vincent has been publishing his poetry since the 1960s and is the former editor and publisher of Momo's Press. His essay, "Reading Poetry: San Francisco Bay Area, 1958-1980," in The Poetry Reading: A Contemporary Compendium on Language and Performance (edited by Vincent and Ellen Zweig and published by Momo's Press in 1981), traces local developments in the history of poetry, bridging the dynamic period of work between writers of the San Francisco Renaissance and Beat Generation up to the emergence of the Language School. Shaped by the Civil Rights movement, feminism, the Vietnam antiwar movement and the emergence of new writing from a diversity of sources, Momo's Press published the early work of Jessica Hagedorn, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Hilton Obenzinger, and Beverly Dahlen among many others. Vincent's most well-known book, Walking, was published by Junction Press in 1993 and includes poems about teaching English in Nigeria as well as the initial installments of his ongoing serial poem based on walks and reflections. His latest book is Walking Theory (Junction Press). Stephen Vincent and I took a walk together in early June 2005. What follows is the edited transcript of this walk.

Stephen Vincent: This is the constitutional walk every morning.

Francis Raven: Where do you live?

SV: Well my girlfriend, Sandy Phillips, lives over on Guerrero Street above 19th and, then, my place is four blocks away on 21st Street near Dolores. So the walk is a circle. Though we keep separate places, when she's in town I'm mainly there for the night and then use my home as a studio.

FR: You work at home?

SV: Yes, in addition to my writing I have a little company called Book Studio where I develop book projects. Recently, after four years, I completed a book entitled Exploring the Bancroft Library: The Centennial Guide to Its Extraordinary History, Spectacular Special Collections, Research Pleasures, Its Amazing Future, and How It All Works. It was co-publication of the Library with Signature Books. In part it is a history of the different collections within the Library, but equally important, the book pays attention to the way scholars, students, and writers are able to work with archival materials or what some call "primary sources." The poets Kevin Killian and Peter Gizzi, for example, are currently developing book projects from Jack Spicer's considerable archive of correspondence and manuscripts, some of which has never been published.

FR: The Bancroft has my ancestor Patrick Breen's diary. Does the library have a fascinating history?

SV: Oh, yes. Bancroft first came to California in about 1859 and then began collecting and publishing. Unlike 19th-century collectors who collected fine bindings and older European works, he had a scorched earth policy with California: ledgers, miner's diaries, he just got everything, which is invaluable now in terms of the history of California. Patrick Breen, as you know, was a member of the Donner Party, and we will use a page from his diary in the project. Using Adobe Photoshop, we are able to give the reader an amplified look at his faltering handwriting—it is a picture of anguish and desperation, and, yet, no matter how harrowing, the desire to keep a faithful record.

FR: When did you start thinking about walking?

SV: I think walking goes way back. I couldn't even say exactly where it started. I'd say consciously in the last 25 years or so. I have a few close friends who walk together. We'll do the Marin Headlands or Mt. Tam and then we'll also do urban walks. Lately I've been doing a lot of just solitary walking.

FR: And then writing the new poems you've been publishing on your blog—the poems you've titled "Walking Theory"—how did those come about?

Walking Theory by Steven Vincent

SV: It started with these essays I was writing about walking around Dolores Park which began when Sandy moved to her new place a couple of years ago. Several of the essays I posted to my then relatively new blog. Then Chris Sullivan at Slight Publications, who has a great eye, really liked them. He has this idea of photographic language; in other words, language you can read as visually tangible, and which has some kind of resonance with what's in front of you. He proposed the idea of a series of poems and commissioned me to do them with the name "Walking Theory." The "commission" part was a joke. Chris is as "low income" as most of us—I never expected anything beyond his interest, and I suspect the given title was a little bit ironic—most everyone has this off-kilter, ironic relationship to Language Poetry and its supposed founding in one theory or another. I don't know if there's anything theoretical about this work, but that sort of got it going.

I think part of it too was that my youngest brother, Chris, died in February of last year. And so I was coping with that. In a curious way his death made me become incredibly alert to both the past and the immediate present—as if, indeed, I was walking an edge between life and death and in the middle of a kind of argument.

FR: You walk and then you go back to your studio?

SV: Often I'll write right here on this ledge overlooking the expanse of the Park. A phrase may come to me as I am walking, and, once I write it down in my journal, the rest of the poem will unravel from that catalyst. I have other sources, as well: found signage; words people chalk on the sidewalk; people's conversations. I'll write all of that down. I assume what I hear or see and then register in my journal will often resonate with something interesting and provoke a reflection and poem. Sometimes a sign or a quote is simply interesting by itself and does not require anything beyond being framed on a page.

This whole park here I find very interesting. It was originally a graveyard—actually two Jewish graveyards, each for different Synagogues, were here between 1870 and 1890. Since graveyards are often built over older burial grounds, I assume Dolores Park was probably an Indian, (an Ohlone) graveyard before that. I think the fact that it has so many layers underneath the contemporary one intrigues me. It is, for example, often used as the starting point for progressive political demonstrations, theater performances and coming of age ceremonies—as well as all the other recreational aspects.

It's also a pretty well tended park with these beautiful palm, magnolia, and many other kinds of trees around the grass areas, playground, tennis and basketball courts. I think people have grown quite loyal to it. In the last ten years, it's been relatively safe after a history of ups and downs. Right where we are standing was the nexus of a major drug distribution network. As the Mission became more gentrified and the neighborhood became more active, things changed. If I would have walked through here 10 years ago, people would have been dealing and buying all over the place, and there were some deadly incidents between rival drug gangs. During the civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, refugees were also a big part of the Park's population. There's not that edginess here anymore. Now we have intense conflict between dog owners—who want to run their dogs everywhere—and those who do not want the dogs pooping everywhere and tearing up the soccer field, etc. But I like a big public park—it's like a big visible register of life in the City.

FR: When did you come to San Francisco?

SV: I went to graduate school at San Francisco State in 1963 and then I was in the Peace Corps for a couple of years. But I've been primarily here. And when I stopped teaching early on—which included a two year stint as the first Coordinator of California's Poetry-in-the-Schools Program—I got more into small press publishing. I had a small press, Momo's Press, which I started in 1973 and that kept going till about 1986. We published primarily poetry and some fiction. I introduced a number of younger poets who have become known such as Hilton Obenzinger, Jessica Hagedorn, Beverly Dahlen, Victor Cruz and, to be honest, myself! I was interested in the kind of multi-cultural mix that is taken for granted now. But, at the time, it was innovative and it upset the conventional, mostly white applecart for a lot of people—which, though I took a lot of heat, was great. But then I got burnt out on that because I had become a single father; I couldn't keep surviving on NEA grants and small book sales, though Momo's Press was more successful than most such ventures. After that, I lucked into this job being director of an art book company called Bedford Arts that had an enormous amount of money. It was backed by a real-estate company which folded when real-estate began to die in about 1990, but I did that for about five years and we did some extraordinary art books. Some of it focused on California paintings both contemporary and 19th-century. O California: 19th and Early 20th Century Landscapes and Observations, and The Society of Six remain regional classics. We did international stuff as well, including F. Marinetti's Futurist Cookbook and the Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase's The Solitude of Ravens. We had every financial advantage imaginable. It was a great opportunity because, unlike so many art books that have to act as catalogs for museum shows, I was able to put my editorial skills to work with great designers and use the whole book as a platform for visuals and text. The press also made it possible for me to travel to Europe and Japan, as well as throughout this country. It was a great learning experience, and it would never have happened if it were not for my experience as a small press editor and publisher and the good luck of meeting a very wealthy backer. For a while, it was very successful. Bedford Arts had a great reputation until the bottom fell out of the California real estate market and they threw us off a plane that was going down. In reality, I'd probably done as much as I could do in that particular venue. It's the first five years of anything that are innovative and exciting—then it becomes an institution and I'm not too good at institutions. Indeed, besides my journal, I wrote very little in the way of poetry, in fact, dropped out of the poetry community, during those years. Whatever poetry that was in me was coming out in the form of constructing art books!

FR: How do these new "Walking Theory" poems relate to your book Walking?

SV: I think it's just a continuation of the metaphor. I've done a whole series of what I call "Walking Elegies." David Kennedy has published some of them in England, including a little booklet called A Walk Toward Spicer. Formally I don't know if the elegies are considered conventional or not, but I think at the time they were being done in the '90s, when Language writing was still very much in fashion, the elegies—even if serial in format—were probably considered retro. Now, I think they'll reemerge and probably become a book. Most of that work came out of long walks with one or more friends, particularly along the local coast.

In this particular neighborhood—Liberty Heights—on this hill above the park during the day, it's typical to walk and rarely see another person on their feet, except for maybe somebody walking their dog. I don't know if it's the steep hill that is intimidating or if people are just inseparable from their cars. So, up here, it's a kind of solitary walking. Occasionally I encounter people getting into their cars who will say, "Oh, you haven't been walking lately"—like I'm a symbol of the ancient art of walking! But basically when I'm walking I'm not consciously writing or intending anything. In the manner I have learned from meditation practice, I let things unfold.

FR: Do you usually write a whole poem?

SV: No, if I have a quote or fragment I'll write that down. For example, one day I encountered a woman with the Fire Department who was training about twenty recruits. She and her trainees were all running in place at the corner of 19th and Church while she described how another fireman had saved somebody off a third-story balcony in the building just two doors down the street. It was all kind of heroic and concise at the same time, and I remembered and wrote down the sound of her voice talking as soon I found a place to open my journal.

FR: How does the natural world play into these walking poems?

SV: In "Walking Theory," I have a poem about carrying a Dahlia from the top of this hill down to my house. I had found it fallen to the sidewalk. It was interesting to have that direct experience with something, in a sense to liberate it and to see how people would look through their car windows at this guy carrying this big beautiful flower. It made me feel kind of special and different. I also have a poem about a flower thief. I never saw this flower thief, but it was a fun poem to write. But in these poems the urban world clings to the natural world.

FR: When did you start doing your blog?

SV: I've done it for a couple of years now. At first I was blogging every day, but I don't do that anymore. It varies; sometimes I'll write these little essays and other times political commentaries. Other times it'll just be new work that I'm doing. I'll get 25 to 50 people who visit every day; I'm coming up on the 35,000 visits mark, which is only a small fraction of what someone like Ron Silliman gets. Sometimes I'll send an announcement about the blog to one of the listservs I'm on, and, depending on the subject, I'll get quite a few people to come visit. For instance, the other week I wrote a piece on a photograph I got at a flea market, and I got about 70 hits. I think a lot of people must be interested in flea markets.

FR: Has the blog changed your other writing?

SV: I am not sure how to answer that. I think a blog is a catalyst for a number of possible kinds of writing besides being its own medium. When I was in graduate school, my thesis included both poetry and essays. Influenced by the personal essays of James Baldwin and Norman Mailer, I loved the form, but pretty much stopped. Ironically the blog has re-opened the essay as a good form for me. I like to look and make commentary! If I sense my essays are good, I try to resubmit to another place in pulp and several of them have been variously published in newspapers and magazines.

The blog is also a way to continue to register what I see and hear in a day—no matter what the form. In fact, my blog is a complete mixture of forms. When I was young, I read Joyce's Ulysses, and I don't think I have ever really gotten Leopold Bloom's interior ramblings out of my head! I am sure that voice continues to inspire the walking consciousness in my work—that is, the way I carry on an interior monologue as I walk through this city. It's an open-ended process. I also admire the attention other writers can give to the world we're walking in. Most of the time I'm not really attracted to writing that's focused on filling and fighting it out within a well-defined container. I like work that gets out in the world and lets the world shape the poem.

FR: Are there people who are doing this well?

SV: In terms of San Francisco, and in terms of my contemporaries, I particularly like Beverly Dahlen and Ron Silliman. Ron—whose work might sometimes be too caught up in responding to a preset formula—is often full of wonderful particulars and intelligence. Books like Ketjak and Sunset Debris are wonderfully cognizant of the city. Beverly's work, also, is in the city, right down to her bones, particularly in her long on-going poem, "A Reading."

Few people have written significant books about San Francisco. Robert Duncan was, in my opinion, often in the clouds. If he walked the streets a lot he didn't write about as such. Jack Spicer, who I very much like, was a bit more spatial and concrete. Rexroth's city work is also limited. Philip Whalen is sometimes right with it. Occasionally, you'll get a Ferlinghetti poem about San Francisco that's kind of fun and lyrical. But there's nothing compared to the history of writing about the city of New York that you get, say, in Charles Reznikoff. I don't know if that has something to do with Northern California's tradition of writers who are known for their work along the ocean, in the Valley and in the Sierra. This is actually still a young, frontier city, and its traditions are quite young, as well. As much as I have lived here for forty years, I think the place is still trying to define itself as something besides a figment of a romantic imagination. That is not to say there is not a real life, or real lives and history here. I still find the place ghostly.

FR: Are you working on any other big projects now?

SV: For I have recently finished another project called "Sleeping with Sappho." I took Anne Carson's translations of Sappho and I went through and translated them all from the English. Essentially, I turned words or phrases over into their opposites. So I come up with these poems that I don't really know how to describe, but people seem to like them quite a bit. Faux Press published about forty of them as an e-book. I'm not sure where the voice comes from; it's full of different kinds of emotions. Some people have suggested that the work is evocative of the City—the one of passions and gender issues—a nighttime world that is mostly under the surface during the day.

"Raised by Ghosts" is a picture and text project that I featured on the blog last fall. I took pictures—many also from walking in the neighborhood—and then improvised texts in relationship to the image. I am looking forward to making a book—finally reuniting my art book interest and work with poetry and prose! I really like taking digital photos. I should add that Sandy, my partner, is a well-known museum photography curator, and her practice of looking has been a wonderful compliment to the life of my own eye and writing practice.

FR: Do you have any advice for younger writers?

SV: I'm the last person to give advice, but it's been very exciting in San Francisco; for the last two or three years I've been listening and reading with young writers some of whom once jokingly called themselves The New Brutalists. Much of their work, including some of mine, is collected in Bay Poetics (Faux Press), edited by Stephanie Young. Until recently, house readings were the rage, and I've had a very nice relationships with many of the poets. I do think that the kind of writing that I do will always be around and printed in books, magazines, and now blogs. But that it's to a younger people's advantage to work with evolving computer technologies that provide so many ways to explore the use and distribution of text, including sound, images and motion. Technology will never rescue anyone from being a bad poet, but if you're good, it has the potential to do a lot of exciting things.

FR: Are you reading anything good right now?

SV: I'm not actually that big of a reader, but I'm in a couple of reading groups. I was in a Zukofsky reading group and we expanded it to include his peers: Reznikoff, Niedecker, Willams, and Oppen. A couple years before that I was in a Walter Benjamin reading group. But the best was when four or five of us read all of Proust. Currently I am in a Classics group—we are right in the middle of Herodutus. When my own writing needs a perk, I open Zukofsky and read from "A"—particularly sections "22" and "23." It can be opaque, but I love the intensity.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007