Below is a conversation I had with author Marc Zegans on the eve of his new book being published. The book is out now and available at all fine independent bookstores and oversized big box stores.
Lyon Street is a layered book. I read it again last night from the perspective of you leading a walking tour of the San Francisco of the 1980’s and early 90’s. In the physical world, this could actually be pulled off to the extent that you could nearly take a circuitous walk starting at the hills of SF, through the city, to the sea.
Thank you for noting that Lyon Street is layered and that it can be explored from different angles. It’s a very small collection and my hope has been that folks would discover that it is amenable to a variety of different readings. I’m particularly happy to know that you read it last night from the perspective of my leading a walking tour of San Francisco as it was thirty to forty years ago, envisoning a visceral walk back in time without nostalgia. I worked hard with Lark Simmons to create the pin map at the front of the book to give people a sense of place and possibility, and to suggest that walking the city and looking about its neighborhoods might be a path to connecting with the freedom and vitality of the moment in time that Lyon Street describes.
The table of locations, situated just before the map, gathers places and venues named in the collection. The table functions as a kind of cabinet of wonders, and, also, as a kind of poem in itself, one that captures the come and go nature of the places that we take to be enduring. (As I say this, I hear in my mind the Allman Brothers’ “Come and Go Blues.” Here’s a fine solo acoustic version of Greg Allman singing it in 1981. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lIwnbYwmFOI )
Interestingly, my friend Peter Brigham, at whose house I recorded the readings of the poems from Lyon Street that appeared in your films, suggested that I do a walking and reading tour that took people round to lost places mentioned in the book and to old San Francisco institutions that remain. His idea and your reading speak to me and call back memories of reading in the early ‘80s Luc Sante’s brilliant social history, Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York. I was particularly taken by his account of how he came to write that book. Sante talks of walking about lower Manhattan and discovering here and there traces of the early city and the whispers of stories these held.
City life, if you observe closely, presents a revelatory mix of past and present, or, better put, an experience of the eternal present. Cities are places in which ghost and memory and the lived present almost magically entwine. They offer the living experience of a Joycean sense of time, a sense of timeless present beautifully portrayed in William Kennedy’s fine, slim novel, Ironweed, which I also read when the experiences I describe in Lyon Street were unfolding.
These are incredibly personal poems and observations that read in both real time and the past tense. Given that, you retain the slang and the vernacular of that era. It is a choice that rewards on repeated readings as these poems are not all written from your perspective which further adds to the tapestry of the whole of the book.
Thanks for bringing this point forward. Writing poems in vernacular tongue is a means kindling a present experience of the place as it was then. This is different from both historic simulation and from a nostalgic look back. It’s a means of induction into the isness of place whose essence persists in the cracks. It creates, also, a distinction between the narrative “I,” and person who wrote Lyon Street. This distinction is important first, because the various fictive “I”s who populate this collection come together to create the place that novelist David Scott Ewers marvelously describes as “a San Francisco of the Mind,” and second because it distinguishes the nature and purpose of Lyon Street from confessional poetry, which it is not.
The blink and you miss ’em references to place is also there in your use of time and names in the book. Catsup being categorized as a vegetable by the Reagan administration, Jello being Jello Biafra, John Lee short for John Lee Hooker, Milk for Harvey Milk, Allen short for Allen Ginsberg – there are a number of on the sly & veiled references in the book. Your readings are musical in tone, this is to me another fascinating layer to this book. The musicality of it. I hear Freddie Hubbard or Pharoah Sanders, I think of you mentioning listening to KJAZZ in the car during this era.
This goes to what you were saying earlier about the collection having layers that invite different readings. While these poems are written with simple language that can happily be read on its face, beneath the melody line there’s a lot of material for readers who might want to journey deeper.
When you talk about hearing Freddie Hubbard or Pharoah Sanders, you’re pointing to a musical aspect of the larger web in which the poems are situated. The specific references that you call out in “P(un)k Poets Too Fucked to Drink” (which is an answer poem to Howl from the perspective of a generation stripped of the foundational premises against which subcultural voices and Avant Garde movements pushed during the modern era) invite folks to think deeply about the stakes that have been at play in our society for over forty years. I used the example of six French fries with catsup being defined by the Reagan administration as a school lunch vegetable because it marked so visibly the turn to callous cruelty on the right that has badly scarred and now threatens to destroy our nation. It’s easy to lay this at the feet of Trump, but he’s simply the most overt expression of a systematically orchestrated pattern of behavior that has much deeper roots.
where healthy school lunch
is six french fries
and ketchup, not rotting,
is a vegetable.
It’s worth noting that this stanza contains a lot of wordplay that goes beyond calling out the abhorrent policy. The phrase “not rotting” is an oblique reference to the Dead Kennedys’ album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, because a tomato, the major ingredient in catsup, is a fruit not a vegetable, and there’s nothing fresh about preservative-soaked school cafeteria ketchup.
Another veiled reference comes at the end of the poem. My invocation of the “Clown Prince” is a nod to the late philosopher turned cultural critic Richard Rorty who spent his final years at Stanford. Rorty, following Harold Bloom’s call for strong poets in The Anxiety of Influence, argued that in a world that lacked the foundational surety of a verifiable correspondence theory to nature, we needed strong poetry, laced with a robustly ironic understanding that we might be dead wrong, to manifest meaning and to mobilize political muscle on behalf of liberal principles. His argument concerning how we would best proceed, given what philosophy can and cannot do, pops the post-modern bubble and replaces it with a muscular poetically rooted view of human responsibility. For me this was a real punk generation answer to Ginsberg’s last gasp of modern dialectic, Howl, and my version resolves the poem’s final section.
The poem Final Impression of a Dying Man can be read as a piece about the declining days of a loved one or of the gentrification that was to come to San Francisco where your book closes. From the final stanza:
see bone and sadness
merging into night,
then a tooth and a smile,
a softening around the lips,
and that is all.
That’s a fine and gentle dual interpretation Dennis. San Francisco has lost something vital. In a strange way it’s become blind to itself, blind to its beauty, to its magic, to its possibility, and to the cold fact that this city which characterizes itself as the creative hub of the world has become inhospitable to writers, musicians, and artists. The arrogant premise that routinized technical innovation processes are superior to and can rightfully supplant artistic creativity is sheer nonsense. Novel artistic practice expands the way we hear, the way we see, the way we move, the metaphors we reason by, the way we repair our spirits and heal our souls, and the ways we envision futures. If benignly conceived, art can guide technology paths in ways that nurture the planet, rather than destroy it. It is no accident that the final project of my late high school friend Gerald Huff, who was a principal software engineer at Tesla, was to write a novel, Crisis 2038, that examined the coming consequences of mass technology driven unemployment. Simply put making truly original art opens a window through which we can find our better angels, see magnificent futures and to envision means to achieve them. There’s a line in the poem which speaks to this, “Buena Vista, if only you’d look.”
There is a rich sweetness that is not nostalgia nor revery in Lyon Street. These poems are not about the good old days nor the grievances of what happened to the city and people that color this book that are so beloved. The book closes on a note of possibility in the poem Starting. It is a large act of kindness Marc. Was this one of the last poems written for the book? It is such a beautiful means of kissing the reader goodbye.
I wrote Starting years ago and revised it many times between then and now. A central challenge in putting this book together was working out how it should be arranged. I wanted Lyon Street to be a complete piece of work, rather than simply a gathering of thematically related poems. Sorting this out took considered effort over many drafts, as the form fully converged it became apparent that Starting should be the final poem.
I was greatly helped in coming to that conclusion by my friend and colleague Larry Beckett. Larry is a superb, deeply read, and profoundly insightful poet to whom I’d sent a near final draft of the collection. In that version I had a very short poem after Starting that functioned as a coda, but I was unsure whether to keep it. Larry made a very strong case that I should drop this tag-on because Starting’s arrival at its final four words, “and start to swim,” embodied the California myth entire, and that the book’s gift to the reader would be greatest if I were to end it there. He, of course, was right, and I think that deep inside I already knew this. It’s probably, unconsciously, why I put this question to him. I needed the benediction of an older wiser poet as I prepared to cut the final piece of chaff and offer the book without equivocation as the strongest piece of poetry I could write.