Given the high demand for living space in San Francisco, it may be hard to believe that any apartment is sitting around empty. But there's at least one. It's in Steven Trull's building in the Lower Haight neighborhood, and once he managed to get a key to the place, a new poetry reading series was born.
It's called 851: The Squat. Steven Trull is the series coordinator, but when hosting, he goes by his pen name, Janey Smith. I visited 851: The Squat for the first time in December 2012, to get a sense of what the reading series is all about.
The whole experience starts a couple floors below the squat itself, at apartment number 849. That's where Janey Smith lives. There, like at any house party, people sit, talk to each other, get something to drink, and wait.
“We all gather downstairs at first,” Smith says, “because it’d be crazy to just have people wandering all over the place; it really would. And we’d get in a s**t ton of trouble. We’ve already had the cops come out here twice, and the neighbors hate us. So, we all gather in 849. Everyone gets to know each other, hopefully by name. I try to be a good host. And then, at a certain moment, it’s time to go upstairs.”
Before that moment comes, I try to get to know other people there. And I meet Katie Tandy. Like me, she's a first-timer. She had heard about a few things she should expect: "A lot of candles, rumors of spontaneous love-making, things of this nature, " says Tandy. "Supposedly, it’s a dilapidated situation; they’re under-the-radar. But how far under-the-radar can anyone fly these days? I’m always sort of dubious of that. But, I hope it’s true. Because it makes it more exciting!”
When I start talking to Eric Raymond, an author who has read at 851 before, he doesn't say anything about spontaneous love-making, but he does confirm that this is a unique reading in the city.
“The people here, who come to listen to stuff," Raymond says, "a lot of them are involved in sort of an ‘alt-lit’ scene, or an ‘indie-lit’ scene, and a lot of them are really, really passionate about it. Many of them are writers themselves, and so when they come in, it’s kind of a good time. It’s not a stuffy reading; people are free to talk back to the reader, and the reader comes to entertain. People are respectful, but it’s looser. It’s a little like an actual underground reading, as opposed to a sanctioned, wine and cheese and pickle on a toothpick kind of reading.”
851: The Squat is clearly more than just an alternative to stuffy readings. There's a certain magical element to it. It starts the moment you enter a stranger's apartment, and are welcomed like a close friend, but it really kicks in when Janey Smith gives his instructions for the night.
“What we need to do is this,” Smith announces to a living room and kitchen filled with people. “We need to get upstairs, because that’s where the reading’s going to be had. We need to be as quiet as you are now. What we will do is proceed to follow me, and we will work our way up quietly, I mean quietly.”
Sixty or so of us tip-toe up the stairs. We quietly shuffle past other apartments, where people are talking, having dinner, and playing music. Upstairs, everyone stops whispering and slowly sits on the rough wood floor. There are candles all over the room to light up the space. Looking around, people seem pretty enchanted.
I find a spot to sit, in front of a pile of dust that functions as the stage. Finally, the reading begins. Smith kicks it off by introducing the readers, including a poet named Derek Fenner. Tonight, Fenner reads from his newest book, I No Longer Believe in the Northern Lights: A Love Letter to Sarah Palin.
Fenner walks to the front of the room. He sprinkles some kind of sacred-looking oil on the floor around the dirt stage, where he comes to stand still.
“My dear Sarah Palin,” he reads. “When we are truly devoted to government, it leaves no time to serve God. They think you lost, when it was never your intention to run into the ruin that is 2012.”
While people laugh, whistle, and snap, Fenner delivers his ironic love letter with a completely straight face.
“My life is a wreck from trying to reproduce the drama that’s within me. The only thing that can save us from peak oil is you. Drill, baby, drill: the mantra of all paradigm shifts. Anyhoo, I’m just writing to say I’m going rogue.”
Derek Fenner’s irreverence and ritual seem to completely capture the vibe of this place. You can't help but get caught up in it.
This all started in December of 2011, when Janey Smith's friend Mike Kitchell suggested they do a reading together. Smith didn’t know of any place where he'd want to read. So he decided to host something. He remembered there was this empty space upstairs, and decided to use it. Another friend of his helped him clean it up a bit.
“The dirt stage,” he says, “is a result of us cleaning. That’s all the stuff we swept up.”
And there's this whole story behind how he managed to get inside this empty unit. “I can’t tell you who gave me the key,” Smith says. “I can’t tell you his name, because he actually lives in this building.”
The story involves a contractor who was hired to do some work that was never finished because the landlord couldn’t afford to pay for it. So when Smith asked the contractor for a key, he gave it to him. Smith says pending lawsuits are keeping the landlord from renting the apartment.
“So it’s just there,” Smith says. “And we’re using it to… do stuff.”
The illegality and mysteriousness of this space seem to draw people to the readings. Eric Raymond, the author I spoke with earlier, wonders whether the mystery isn't a little bit constructed.
“You know, having to duck down, having to hide out, somebody calling the fire department or whatever," Fenner says. "So, I don’t know if that’s true or if that’s part of the story. I don’t really care. I just like that part of it a lot, actually.”
Not all the people coming to 851 are activists, at least not in the Occupy Movement sense, but there is definitely a stick-it-to-the-man kind of feel to the whole thing. Maybe this reading series, here in a gutted squat on prime real estate, feels like a small act of resistance. Especially for this diverse group of writers.
Janey Smith thinks a lot about bringing readers from the very different literary scenes in the Bay Area.
“There’s the San Francisco State scene,” he says, “and then there’s the Oakland anarchist revolutionary poetry scene, and the Mills College people, and then there’s a lot of legit, not legit, but people who are writing on major presses, who are living here and there’s no one place for them.”
Other readings, Smith says, are kind of exclusive. He calls them snotty and conservative.
“It’s true, they just are," he says. "They seek to recreate the conservativism of the salons of the late 19th century. And, that’s great that they’re making the effort to forward a certain kind of literature, but you know, it’s the literature of the posh. And we’re the literature of the poor, and the ugly.”
Maybe the real act of resistance here is creating a space for that kind of literature, wherever it can be carved out. The rats, syringes, and candlelight - those are just the perks.
You can find out more about 851: The Squat here. The next reading is coming up on Tuesday, May 24. Alex Dimitrov, Ben Mirov, Cedar Sigo, and Erica Lewis will be reading. By candlelight, of course.