Bay Area Lit Scene: Books & Bookshelves

The Scoop

Location: Books and Bookshelves is located in the Castro at 99 Sanchez St

Curator/bookstore Contact Person: David Highsmith.

Parking/Transportation: I always walk to this reading because I enjoy a good stroll up The Mission passed Dolores park and into the Castro. You can also take the bus up Mission from 16th Street BART. Or car and park, it seems to be pretty easy to get a spot there.

The Run of Things: This is a very warm and friendly space for a reading. People trickle in, have a smoke outside, socialize, browse the books. The reading usually doesn’t start until 30 minutes after the scheduled time. There are some beverages provided.

Bay Area Lit Scene feature is edited by Meg Hurtado


Review by Ariel Goldberg

To begin this Tuesday night reading, the poets Erica Lewis and Cassandra Smith  decided on no microphones and no oration of introductions (David had a print out he offered to be passed around). The formalities of a reading were sidestepped and I was intrigued. Cassandra then handed me and several other people, sitting in a circle around her, small music boxes that you could wrap your fingers around. The boxes were Peter Pan theme–ornamental and mischievous, decorated with illustrations on thin cardboard wrapped in a protective lining of packaging tape. It was unclear if Cassandra constructed these or found them. Cassandra asked the people holding the boxes to play them, with the intention of background music throughout the reading. We only managed a quaint introduction, because if we did continue to turn the high-pitched ditties, we would have drowned out her reading voice. Audience members, to be expected, aired on the polite side.

Cassandra manages to fully speak in her small fonts and point sizes when she reads. Her iterations of her own writing seem to come transported from the moment of the words/ideas being written. It’s not quiet, nor is it modest nor is it an affectation of reader projecting to an obedient audience.

Cassandra read from a manuscript she calls Wendy, as if it is not really a thick stack of 8.5 x11 paper but a person she has birthed and lives with in the off hours of the day. Wendy is, in my mind, an autobiographical mythic retelling of multiple behind the scene characters in Peter Pan, their murky romances and relations.  A point of interest in her retelling is lightning that struck the author J. M. Barrie, so that the before and after of such a well known tale is inverted way beyond the bookends of the narrative arc we get of the story in mainstream movies and handed down fairytales. Here is an excerpt:


where wendy finds a place where never always happens

it causes trouble this for numbers

or does it shake or does it sway

or are there places sometimes closer than a thimble or away

fourteens are for silences and elevenses no good.


each time create a map.

this should hang loosely upon places you have been

or heard of going.

always maps are for going

and a seat is for standing

or a place is always for leaving.


Being able to peer over and into the page of Cassandra’s writing while she briskly went through sections was a privilege and it made me think that Wendy’s ideal state would be in the hands of a reader somewhere off in a place where there is no cell phone service. Plucking key words like “never” from the famous Neverland, turning it into a dark hole to explore and “map” away from a trusting staple but always something redrafted. Cassandra finished abruptly because I could really listen to the whole 200 pages at once.

Erica Lewis then began by introducing what she would read: from the precipice of jupiter (p-queue 2009), a collaborative chapbook she made with her husband Mark Stephen Finein where poems are interleafed with responsive, discursive, and parallel poems. All around is an experiment of influence. The square shape of the book and the shiny finish of the carefully places cover text next to broad and overlapping brush strokes are encased with a silver on cobalt blue cover with extending flaps to save your space inside the book itself. The printing and presentation look spectacular.

Samantha Giles convinced both readers to read more than they originally announced they would. Nice work Giles! Mark brought some new paintings of his to lean up against the microphone stand and other pieces of woodwork in the Bookstore. There is always plenty of visual stimulation with a reading at Books & Bookshelves. I always catch myself eye gazing at the nearest book spines while I listen to readers there. More fascinating though is the back and forth between Lewis and Finein, the silent exchange between a visual (thick paint in abstract splays) and a long poem produced from two people that share a life together.

Collaboration between couples always has an allure to it I can’t quite figure out. Are they expert collaborators? I recently read the book Group Work from the art collective Temporary Services just out from Printed Matter. the precipice of jupiter is taught with questions posed in lieu of answers about perception and representation, something far away and close.

Cassandra went back to Wendy. Erica came back to new work. It was exciting to see the shift in voice and the breadth and rate of production Erica maintains. Here is the first poem from section five of her new work titled Murmur in the Inventory:


it starts from what you don’t know

you love the white too just because it’s white

a thing to stand in front of fear

but what i sent doesn’t talk about the call

we can’t help exclaiming at the thinness of our skin

i beat myself up i fly around in circles

you’re just fucking up the situations

nothing so sad as someone else’s shoes

but we still had miles to go before we slept miles to go

see cracking bones make noise

see you’re doing it without me

what was it that burning that endless insufficiency

i remember seeing horses

as a person you can feel and there is a certain humiliation attached to this

call it what you will

taking all that’s left and making a parachute

strapped to my chest

it’s still no way to behave

but everything that rises must


One of the most interesting moments during this intimate reading was at the end of the schmoozing right before the poetry began. Erica asked for her picture to not be taken at the sight of the official reading photographer. The removal of cameras from the reading reduced not only the audio distraction but also made what happened a little more exciting and unique. To know that the reading was not going to orbit itself with a reproduction online got me thinking, as Erica pointed out, how pieces of ourselves are online and we don’t even know about it. This can be great if you missed a reading and wanted to catch a piece of it, or live in a part of the world where it isn’t so easy to cross the bay bridge or take the muni to Books & Bookshelves.

I asked Erica why she doesn’t like being photographed and got an answer about unknown online presences and permission that made me think how rare it is to hear a voice come out and talk about their likeness being taken. How often is it that an exchange about photographing in “public” happens nowadays? How is the archiver of “culture” exempt from this or not? Why can I not separate this instance of talking about photography, being present at a reading, as opposed to hearing of it or experiencing remotely relevant to these readers work? How easy is it just to ask if you can take a picture? While it is increasingly less clear who owns their writing whether in a collaboration, in the conceptual-found-flarf-let’s call it a movement-or-not-call-it-anything moment, the turning off of a camera made this reading more of close, connected and I daresay spiritual experience.

the precipice of jupiter was published by P-queue out of Buffalo New York solely through emailing: a masterful feat of communication in writing between her and editor Andrew Rippeon. While we admired the book, it was also exciting to hear Erica’s newest work, which she describes as “the most personal project I think I’ve written to date. It’s all text, which is a definite break with what I have been doing for the past few years.” Each line related to the one before it only slightly, each line could come from different communications stuck in traffic together, forced to peer out into each other’s passenger side windows before advanced forward. But in the limited space of driving, perhaps akin to the limited form of a line left margin (no texting, no calling on the road) “call” “see” “fly” “beat” “stand in” circulate as actions. The work is jolted and rambunctious in a way where it’s impossible not to pay attention. There seems in this work a great energy of self-consciousness, of humor, and of sobriety all at the same time.

As readings are often a teaser/test for more work getting out in print, I felt really excited for both these poets work existing out in the world in other forms for me to get my hands on.