Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Poetic activism in the pandemic age: Tony Robles writes home

I first heard of the work Tony Robles was doing to stem the tide of gentrification in San Francisco when I returned here, following a decade of living in Los Angeles. A housing advocate, particularly devoted to keeping seniors in their homes, and a cultural worker whose art is poetry, whether in the fight to preserve bookstores or entire neighborhoods, from the Fillmore to the Mission, Robles was a strong presence in the various communities he represented, from North Beach to City Hall and South of Market. Combining community and culture in the spirit and tradition of his uncle Al, one of our city’s beloved poet activists, Robles is a fighter for the city he’s allowed to hate — because he loves it — even though he’s left us for rural North Carolina…

In 2017, I was happy to include Tony’s piece “Conversation With A Buffalo,” in Your Golden Sun Still Shines, the San Francisco story anthology I edited for Manic D Press (and which his open letter to another Tony, Bennett, helped deliver the book’s title, a reference to “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”). Now that Robles has left his heart here for real, having relocated to Hendersonville, he’s receiving some well-deserved recognition for his work as a poet. I hope you’ll read the full story of his life and work, particularly as it relates to the role of artists in the age of the pandemic in my biweekly column for the Examiner, SF Lives. And oh yes, a big thank you to Tony: Mabuhay! Read the column here.

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, Poetry, San Francisco News, Tales of the Gentrification City, , , , ,

Musical activism in the pandemic age: Betty Soo on safe distancing

Hello faithful family of friends and readers: First things first, I wish you health and safety in these troubling times. I’ve been keeping my head down, safe distancing and generally following the recommendation of my state and local leaders to shelter in place. Here in San Francisco, we went on the unfortunately termed “lockdown” at midnight on March 16 in an effort to “flatten the curve.” There is so much left to learn and know about this virus. I will continue to cover its impact from my usual arts and cultural perspective as long as necessary.

During early March when measures to control the coronavirus had still not widely limited performances at bars and nightclubs and elder states-players like Patti Smith and Elvis Costello carried on with gigs from the Fillmore in San Francisco to the Hammersmith Apollo in London, Austin-based singer-songwriter Betty Soo (pictured above) put the brakes on her live performance schedule to reflect on the potential hazards of proceeding with cramming people into confined spaces in the time of a pandemic.  I hope you’ll read my profile of Soo and the other musicians who led the way in the movement to seek alternatives to live performance in the time of the pandemic, not only to keep themselves healthy, but their fans, and you at home too.  Read the full column in this month’s edition of Tourworthy.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Folk, Texas, Women in Rock, , , , , , , ,

Toni Stone: Making History on the Field and on Stage

This is an undated file photo of Toni Stone, the first woman baseball player in the Negro Leagues. (AP Photo/Courtesy of Negro Leagues Baseball Museum)

Playwright Lydia R. Diamond

Everyday a woman makes history somewhere in the world, often simply by surviving her circumstances, and other times achieving things that other women before her had yet to dream. When I heard about the life of Toni Stone, I was embarrassed to say, I had not heard of her or the women like her who played baseball among men, in the era when baseball was still a segregated sport in the United States.  But I was interested.  And while I’m not a sportswriter, it was on the occasion of award-winning playwright Lydia R. Diamond’s work, Toni Stone, staged by ACT in San Francisco, I had the opportunity to interview Davis, learn more about Stone, and write further into the lives of some other women based in the Bay Area whose stories and actions made history in their respective fields. I hope you’ll read more about Davis, Stone, and the other women’s history makers in my cover story for this week’s San Francisco Chronicle Datebook. Read the whole piece here>

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Women's issues, , , , , , , , , , ,

A Dream of Fillmore Street

People walk by the Clay Theatre in Pacific Heights on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, two days before the single-screen movie house closes its doors after 110 years. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The mood went dark on Fillmore Street three weeks into January as locals took in the news that their cinema, The Clay Theatre, would be closing without a fight or fanfare before the month’s end.

A fixture between Clay and Sacramento streets for over 100 years, “The Clay is a pillar, a cornerstone of the neighborhood,” said Fred Martin, stationed behind the counter of Browser Books, one block down. Noting its great projection and offbeat programming, “there has to be some way to keep it. If they could do it with The Vogue, they can do it here,” said Martin, referring to another historic theater, just a few blocks west.

“This is Pacific Heights. There’s money here.”

The Landmark Theatre chain was tight-lipped about The Clay’s abrupt closure; its press announcement cited “the changing theatrical landscape and challenges to independent exhibition.” But Martin notes, the independently owned and operated Vogue seems to be doing fine, despite the challenges in film markets.

Read the whole SFLives column in today’s San Francisco Examiner

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, column, gentrification, income disparity, new article, San Francisco News, Tales of the Gentrification City, ,

On Stevie Wonder, Gil Scott-Heron & the federal holiday in the name of MLK, Jr.

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Today is the observance of a day for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. born January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. It was a long road to the third Monday of the month when all 50 states would observe a federal holiday named in his honor.  Largely owed for making the dream of a King holiday a reality is Stevie Wonder, who back in 1980, wrote the pointed song, “Happy Birthday,” then launched a 41-city U.S. tour (and invited Gil Scott-Heron along) to promote the idea which was first mooted by Rep. John Conyers in 1968. The musical efforts were ultimately the key in collecting the millions of citizen signatures that had a direct impact on Congress passing the law signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, declaring a day for MLK. Observed for the first time in 1986, some states were late to the party, however, by the turn of the 21st Century, all were united in some form of remembrance of the civil rights giant. “Happy Birthday,” which served as the Wonder-campaign theme (and is now the “official” King holiday tune) is  the last track on Hotter Than July. The album also features “Master Blaster,” Wonder’s tribute to Bob Marley (Marley had been scheduled for the tour until he fell too ill to participate). Stepping into the breach was Scott-Heron whose 2011, posthumously published memoir The Last Holiday, details his own journey with music and activism, and helps retrace the long and winding road Wonder took to bring home the last US federal holiday, with the help of a song.

The Hotter Than July tour brought Scott-Heron and Wonder to Oakland, where they played in the name of King, along with Rodney Franklin and Carlos Santana. In a weird turn of events, the concert on December 8, 1980, coincided with the shocking night John Lennon was killed. The musicians and crew learned of the tragedy from a backstage television; the job fell to Wonder,  with Scott-Heron and the other musicians at his side, to deliver the news to the arena of assembled music fans. “For the next five minutes he spoke spontaneously about his friendship with John Lennon:  how they’d met, when and where, what they had enjoyed together, and what kind of man he’d felt Lennon was,” wrote Scott-Heron.  “That last one was key, because it drew a line between what had happened in New York that day and what had happened on that motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, a dozen years before.  And it drew a circle around the kind of men who stood up for both peace and change.”   Scott-Heron devotes the final pages of The Last Holiday  to a remembrance of how the murder of Lennon fueled the final drive to push for a federal observance of an official MLK Day.

The politics of right and wrong make everything complicated

To a generation who’s never had a leader assassinated

But suddenly it feels like ’68 and as far back as it seems

One man says “Imagine” and the other says “I have a dream”

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Blues, Bob Marley, Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Georgia, Gil

Filed under: Uncategorized

The Painters

For the last several years, my beat has generally been arts and culture: A lot about  books, the City of San Francisco and its people, and of course music, from folk to jazz.  But for reasons unexplained, I ended last year and begin the new decade with three consecutive stories on women who paint. 

Sylvia Fein is a surrealist and a centenarian, living in Martinez. Her enthusiasm not only for painting but for life (she’s an olive rancher, a sailor and a vintner) is an inspiration. The San Francisco Chronicle sent me to her home for the interview; her egg tempera on gesso board paintings and custom frames remain on view at the Berkeley Museum of Art and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) through January.

Deirdre White is a painter and arts educator. Five years ago I talked to her and her husband Tom Heyman about artists and gentrification. At the end of 2019, I spoke to White for my San Francisco Examiner column, SF Lives, when the Spring classes she teaches and others inside and outside her department at City College of San Francisco were abruptly cut just before Thanksgiving.  She has an exhibit opening January 31 at Ampersand International Gallery in San Francisco Her large canvas oil “carts and rigs” are informed by the lives and belongings of people who live on the streets here. Now That My Ladder’s Gone is on view through February.

Anna Lisa Escobedo is among the group of artists, not all but mostly women, who collaborated on the large mural Alto al fuego in la Misión, a tribute to those who’ve lost their lives to police violence in San Francisco and to state violence at the US border. Centered around the figure of Amilcar Perez-Lopez, I spoke to several artists on the project, including Carla Wojczuk and Lucia González Ippolito while covering the story for Current SF. The project was photographed beautifully by Ekevara Kitpowsong; we’ve worked together on several stories together about local muralists last year (including one on Juana Alicia whose work also inspired this newest addition to the Mission District’s mural scene).

Despite what you may have heard, San Francisco and the greater Bay Area still has plenty of art and artists living, working, thriving, creating beauty and making their statements here. Come and see us in the new year.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, San Francisco News, Women's issues, , , , ,

Border Songs

Here in California, with both ends of the state engulfed in catastrophic fire, matters of basic survival are at the forefront of our minds. For those of us living with the comfort of hot water, a warm bed and a roof over our heads, it doesn’t take a crisis to take our lives for granted. Of course for refugees, whether from fire, or for migrants seeking asylum, life is an ongoing crisis. This month I had the unique opportunity to talk to two San Franciscans who risked their own comfort to cover the migrant communities at the U.S./Mexico border.

Mabel Jiménez. Portrait by Ekey Kitpowsong/Current SF.

Photographer Mabel Jiménez  was moved to personally investigate the migrant camps and shelters growing in Tijuana. Over the last several years the border town has been a landing spot for refugees from around the world, particularly from Haiti and Central America. Additionally, LGBTQ migrants from around the globe have banded together in their own communities where they can find shelter, acceptance and safety. Jiménez gained the trust of these travelers at risk: Many of them are fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries, only to find further complications in Mexico.  I hope you’ll read her full story and see some of the intimate portraits she shot at CurrentSF.  An exhibit of her photos in on view at City College of San Francisco through November 9.

 

Jorge Argueta. Portrait by Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner

Jorge Argueta is a poet, author of children’s books and a librarian in his home country of El Salvador.  His migration to San Francisco in the ’70s during El Salvador’s civil war landed him in the center of a growing and active Central American community in the Mission District where he pursued writing. Forty years later, he returned to San Salvador to meet with migrants headed for the U.S. border, hoping to encourage them on their journeys. Of course the migrants encountered all forms of difficulty during their caravan to the north and were ultimately turned away or separated from family. Argueta turned one of those stories into a novel in verse, Caravan To The North.  I hope you’ll read more of his story in my San Francisco Examiner column, SFLives.

Though the poet and the photographer have life experience that’s vastly different, they have a common heart and a common goal: They love life and the world around them. Both Argueta and Jiménez are very much engaged in their work, in their immediate communities and matters of global importance. They help where help is called for, then they step back and use their gifts to further their causes and share their stories with others.

Everyday is a crisis for someone, somewhere in the world, but I didn’t want our present disruption to deter from sharing my stories about about two extraordinary San Franciscans and their stories, with you. I hope you’ll read both and take something from them to carry with you as we move together through this beautiful catastrophe called life.

Read more about Jorge Argueta in the SF Examiner

Read more about Mabel Jiménez in Current SF

 

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Books, photography, Poetry, San Francisco News, , , , , , ,

From Here to Litquake

This week San Francisco’s literary festival, Litquake, is celebrating 20 years of supporting writers, publishers, bookstores and the literary arts here in the Bay Area. The festival’s co-founders, Jack Boulware and Jane Ganahl are my kind of people: Journalists by trade, they dared to dream beyond the newsroom and share their love of the writing life with their immediate community. As their cohort of writers grew to include novelists, memoirists, biographers, sexperts, technologists and performance poets, the festival grew and grew, blossoming into its current incarnation as a 10-day event with international offshoots of the culminating night’s promenade, LIt Crawl.

As a frequent participant in the festival, almost since its inception, I can’t thank Jack and Jane enough for sticking their necks out: This is the big week of the year for the Bay Area’s literary community. Litquake and Litcrawl have become starting places for some of our writers but they are also the testing and resting ground for experienced writers needing to recharge their batteries. As a mid to late career writer, I fall into that latter category. Litquake has always been a place for me to try out new ideas and styles of writing. As writers with day jobs and those who do community work know, it’s easy to get drained, out of sorts and out of touch with our practice.  Litquake is my time of the year to reset and reclaim my writing life, a time to remind myself (and sometimes others): I’m a writer.

During Litquake past, I’ve read previously published and never-to-be published work; I’ve read biography, memoir and poetry.  I’ve also organized and curated readings for causes. This year, I was in a position of supporting writers I worked with during several seasons of Litquake’s The Elder Project, a free community writing program offered to seniors. We worked on polishing their memoirs and talking about tools for developing protected writing time. Also at this festival, I wore my organizer/curator hat, but just for one night only: I hosted a conversation with the author David Talbot who is making his comeback with a new book following a stroke he survived in 2017. We held that event at one of the The City’s best bookstores, Bird & Beckett, which specializes in all kinds of books and regularly presents live jazz. Litquake is also a time when we celebrate the new publications and anniversaries of our friends and colleagues: Congratulations to Alvin Orloff who has a new memoir set in San Francisco and on the queer underground, and to Manic D Press, celebrating its 35th year of publishing great books. As an added bonus, I’ve been invited to read my own work at a gathering of people involved in the trade known as music writing, my oxymoronic paid profession since I was a teenager, though that has been changing  as I shift my focus to other subjects. And that’s one of the things I love about Litquake. Jack and Jane have allowed me the space and dignity to grow as a writer, never insisting I stay in my lane. They understand that writing is a fluid vocation. For a writer who doesn’t wish to be categorized or caged, variety has provided not only the spice, but the key to a still-evolving, and if I’m doing it right, revolutionary writing life.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, , , , ,

The World According to Les McCann

We’re taught to be afraid of everything. Don’t do this or that: It’s said on purpose, part of the curriculum of this earthly school. Everyone has a blueprint, everyone sets out to do their thing. It’s all here, for us to learn. I’ve never stopped learning. Earth ain’t meant to be heaven. We’re all angels having an earthly experience. Everything you can think of happens right here on this earth. If it wasn’t for sex and money
 and fighting, there would be no problems. It’s all how you look at things. We all have intuition. The real truth is in the quiet of who you are. I walk hand in hand with who I really am. I remember my other lifetimes. I don’t want to do the same things over and over. It might take many times but the choice is whether we decide to live in love or in the things we fear. Every time you do an interview, ask yourself the questions you want the answers to, ask everything you want to know of yourself. You’ll hear things you never heard before. You 
already know all this. It’s not anything you haven’t heard before. Fear or love. You have go through it and deal with it. It’s how get to where we want to be. By the time we die, did we really answer the call? Did you 
live the life you wanted to live?

As told to Denise Sullivan, with thanks to Karen McDaniels, Pat Thomas and of course Les McCann who was born on this day in 1935 in Lexington, Kentucky. With Eddie Harris, McCann had a worldwide hit with the Eugene McDaniels composition, “Compared To What,” when it was released on the album, Swiss Movement, recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1969.

 

Filed under: Jazz, Soul, , , ,

Summer Film Score: The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Once in a great while, a film score really grabs me from the inside out: It’s not just the beauty of the suite or piece of music alone, but when the sounds are perfectly matched with the mood, look, and feel of the story being told on screen and the elements combine to make one extraordinary whole, the inextricable links between music and movie become entwined with the soul, as if we’ve heard these strains somewhere before. The Last Black Man in San Francisco, directed by Joe Talbot with music by Emile Mosseri,  is the ideal marriage of sound and image for The City right now. It’s melancholy but not maudlin; it’s shimmering but not overwhelmingly bright and it surprises with its subtlety. I have much to say about the film, and its operatic dimensions cut from indie cloth, but I’m not yet done formulating my thoughts (I’m a little stuck in the real life tragedy of it all). For those of us living here, thinking about the state of our city comes second to surviving it. Living in a place of such extreme, rapid and frankly terrifying gentrification is a job in itself; for those of us born here, we live everyday with the specter of something we love being taken from us — again, and again — rendering our home unrecognizable. The grief is ongoing and it feels like it will never end. It’s a daily discipline simply to get up and out of bed to ready one’s self for the day ahead: Who or what will we lose next?  At least now we have a soundtrack to accompany the loss.

Full interview with Emile Mosseri in this month’s Tourworthy.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, film, gentrification, San Francisco News, , , , , , ,

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