Litquake 2005: The Hip Revisit of Howl
By Vené Franco 10.7.05
Photo by Derek Powazek

In the words of our emcee, Jack Boulware, “Is it hot in here or is it me?” Well, it was both as nearly 1,000 literary fans packed Herbst Theatre for the opening night of Litquake and its Howl Redux presentation.

The event kicked off the Litquake 2005 schedule and marked the 50 th anniversary of the debut of Allen Ginsberg's epic poem “Howl”—a literary milestone credited as giving birth to the Beat movement. With a crowd somewhere between 150 and 200, the original reading—hosted by poet Kenneth Rexroth—took place across town at a small space known as Six Gallery. That location, 3119 Fillmore Street, is now home to a furniture store but has a new plaque marking its place in SF's literary history. According to the original promotional postcard, the reading was titled 6 Poets at 6 Gallery. Featured poets included Philip Lamantia, Mike McClure, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Phil Whalen. And among those attending were Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The postcard read, “…remarkable collection of angels on one stage reading their poetry. No charge, small collection for wine and postcards. Charming event.”

Litquake's Howl Redux proved itself as far more than just homage to Ginsberg and “Howl.” It was a celebration of several other revolutionary Bay Area authors, including Mark Twain, Dashiell Hammett, John Steinbeck, Jack London, Jack Kerouac, Gertrude Stein, Ambrose Bierce, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Randy Shilts, Ken Kesey, and Iris Chang. The lineup of celebrity readers was equally impressive and included Oakland mayor Jerry Brown, Armistead Maupin, Amy Tan, Michael McClure, James Dalessandro, Daniel Handler, Peter Coyote, Cintra Wilson, Andrew Sean Greer, Eddie Muller, and devorah major.

An admitted literary groupie, I was waiting for the doors to open promptly at 7 p.m. After a good hour of people watching, I stopped counting black berets after the first dozen and noted several people walking in with their own copies of “Howl.” The crowd included a few senior hipsters, and I wished there could have been a show of hands to see how many, if any, were in attendance on that night in '55. Was it really as magical as they say? And, to be honest, did anyone go home with Kerouac? How about McClure?

The evening consisted of nearly 20 readings, one right after the other, with an intermission halfway through – all in all, three hours. “Howl” tribute or not, you might expect a little shifting in the chairs, a little text messaging, maybe some early departures. But, no. Each reading was given its due respect and the pieces were so thoughtfully selected and moving that the audience seemed rewarded for its good behavior with one gem after another. As each reader spoke, photographs of the featured author were projected onto a screen behind them.

Some highlights:

New York writer Cintra Wilson, formerly of San Francisco, got things off to a saucy start, walking on stage in a figure-hugging, two-piece skirt and jacket ensemble. Hair up, retro cat eye glasses atop a well-powdered nose (think sexy librarian). Her enunciation was perfection as she delivered some amusing word definitions, taken from Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary .

Armistead Maupin, who followed Cintra Wilson, began, “Sitting on the side, looking at Cintra Wilson's ass is enough to turn a gay boy straight.” This joke took on a life of its own as several readers throughout tweaked it to best describe the derriere of the reader that preceded them. The Tales of the City author proceeded to read a Mark Twain piece on the 1865 earthquake, “back when it was still known as The Big One.”

Jerry Brown, dressed in a dark suit and silver tie, read from Jack London's The People of the Abyss, a moving commentary on poverty and the conditions of paupers and children in ghettos. The Oakland Mayor finished, adding, “It's pretty heavy, but it's still going on.” Jack London was also an Oakland mayoral candidate.

Daniel Handler, creator of the Lemony Snicket series, read from Gertrude Stein. He told the audience that on her deathbed, Stein reportedly asked, “What was the question?” He also announced, as he first stepped up to the microphone, that “looking backstage at the ass of Jerry Brown, it's enough to turn a straight boy gay.”

Eddie Muller, nicknamed the “Czar of Noir,” read from Dashiell Hammett, doing a fine impersonation of The Fatman as he purred the famous opening line, “Ah, Mister Spade…”

And so on and so forth…like I said, each reader presented a gem.

Michael McClure, now 73, still lives and teaches in the Bay Area. Handsome in black jeans and blazer, his silver white hair tousled back, he came out and bowed to the audience. The youngest of the original poets from the Six Gallery reading, McClure read four of the same poems he read that evening in 1955, including “For the Death of a 100 Whales.” Intense and dramatic, hands gesturing, McClure read with focus and passion. Of that historic evening, he said, “We knew it instantly…that we had created a spark.” Of “Howl,” he said, “It was a poem about the nature of a new society in America.” And of the night's celebration, he joked, “There are more people here tonight.”

I was surprised and saddened that the entire audience did not give McClure a standing ovation. I mean, I know San Francisco audiences are subdued but, People, C'mon! It's one of the original six. It's 50 years later. He's reading the same damn poems. What's it gonna take?

Realizing that no one could read Ginsberg better than Ginsberg, the organizers arranged for the final reader to be the man himself (on video) reading from “Howl.” The footage was from 1992, for the documentary The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg by Jerry Aronson. The filmmaker put together this short excerpt especially for the Howl Redux reading.

The Litquake evening may not have brought about revolution as it did 50 years ago, but it gracefully ushered in a week devoted to celebrating the city's current literary renaissance. Jack Boulware, Litquake's co-director, announced during the show that the mayor's office had declared October 7–15 Litquake Week. So now it's official. Litquake will, no doubt, continue to energize the city's literary scene, showcasing new works by contemporary writers, and providing a space for those who still remember how to, you know, howl.