On a warm Sunday night in April, sweaty poetry lovers sat shoulder-to-shoulder on the carpeted floor of a community space in downtown Oakland. The room wasn't big enough to accommodate the excited audience; late arrivals spilled out of the space. At the front of the crowd, poetry superstar CAConrad presided with wild authority. Dressed in an iridescent green shirt, with painted fingernails and a headband holding back his long hair, he waved a wand of incense and recited "Your Banana Word Machine," which instructs readers (or in this case, listeners) to strip naked and look at pictures of jungle creatures while rubbing a banana on their solar plexus — with pen and paper on hand.
This wasn't your stuffy old-school poetry reading where audience members stared thoughtfully into space and clapped politely after each solemn transmission. Here, they were buzzing with questions and eager to respond, sometimes erupting with bursts of good-natured call outs. Maybe they were emboldened by Conrad's personal history. He described himself as "the son of white trash asphyxiation whose childhood included selling cut flowers along the highway for [my] mother and helping her shoplift."
If it's been a while since you attended a poetry reading, you may not be aware that there are literary tricksters like Conrad instructing readers and listeners to "Touch Yourself for Art," as one of the pieces from his A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon does.
Conrad's participatory reading was hosted by The Public School, a radical educational and community center that has no affiliation with the actual public schools of Oakland. Supported by an expanding grassroots literary community, it is just one of many artist cooperatives, bookstores, poetry reading series, and presses that are not only surviving, but flourishing in the East Bay.
In fact, the East Bay, particularly Oakland, is experiencing a literary renaissance. If you're a culture enthusiast planning a night out, your options are now as likely to include poetry events as films, concerts, and galleries. Those poetry events may themselves feature not only writers reciting their texts, but also films, music, and art, often interspersed in unpredictable combinations. The trend is toward mixing genres to create a new experimental format. And in the East Bay, that's less likely to be a medley of delicate sentiments than a gritty, rebellious amalgam.
The most recent and obvious sign of the East Bay's literary uprising is the opening of two new independent bookstores in Oakland in the past year: Book/Shop, located in Temescal Alley, and E. M. Wolfman General Interest Small Bookstore on 13th Street near Broadway.
Some theorize that this surge is due to the rapid recent growth of the tech industry in San Francisco. Gentrification and rising rents are propelling refugee artists across the Bay Bridge to find cheaper digs and an atmosphere more hospitable to their creative pursuits.
"Most of the cultural activity in the Bay Area is happening in the East Bay right now," said Evan Karp, director of Quiet Lightning, a popular San Francisco poetry series that recently made the jump to the East Bay. Karp is also a literary critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and founder of Litseen.com, a database of all the Bay Area's literary events. "It's where all the artists are — the home for all the young people looking to lead a creative lifestyle. Writers are moving to Oakland. As I have compiled Litseen in the past year, I've seen a dramatic shift. The majority of events are now in the East Bay."
Nobody reads any more? Hard copy books are becoming obsolete? Independent bookstores are a dying breed? Don't tell any of that to Erik Heywood. Last year, he launched Book/Shop, a store devoted to rare books and literary paraphernalia. Located at the end of North Oakland's sun-dappled Temescal Alley, the store feels like a museum. When you slip in past the brick-lined facade, you are greeted by a minimal scene of carefully arranged vintage books on white shelves next to elegant prints and potted plants. A framed poster reads, "To acquire the habit of reading is to create for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life." It's a quote by the playwright and novelist W. Somerset Maugham.
Heywood curates a constantly changing selection. Every time you go, you see curiosities that weren't in view on your last visit. There aren't multiple copies of every item, just one of each. On any given day, the array might include Stan Persky's 1967 book Lives of the French Symbolist Poets, Allen Ginsberg's out-of-print book First Blues: Rags, Ballads & Harmonium Songs 1971 - 1974, and a vintage poster advertising Charles Bukowski's 1979 book Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit. Chances are all these items will be gone the next time you walk into the store.
But the Book/Shop is not just for collectors of literary memorabilia and older academics seeking nostalgia. Heywood said his clientele is varied —and often young. Many are avid readers who consume media on their iPhones but still know the irreplaceable value of an old book.
And the ambiance of the place is the opposite of somber and insular. "We don't have readings here," Heywood said. "I'm not interested in doing the same old routine — the folding chairs, the podium, the wine and cheese, and then you have to buy a book and that's that."