On the rare occasions when writers leave the world of books and scratchy pens on paper (or clicking keyboards for those who’ve embraced technology), they need a community that understands and appreciates their reclusive reality and sometimes awkward social graces. Small Press Traffic is a member of this endangered species—the literary arts center. At an SPT event no one will look at you askance for rapturously exclaiming over a provocative poem, because they will be doing the same. And more than that: SPT is a place where you can meet and learn from the writer who penned the provocative poem and possibly even acquire the fundamentals and feedback to write your own provocative poem (or prose piece or play, etc, -- SPT is an equal opportunity organization).
The initial conception of SPT was as a "non-profit small press book center which would commit itself to the needs of small presses throughout the U.S. and to the needs of the poets and writers these small presses represent." In 1974 a bookstore on Castro Street, Paperback Traffic, generously rented out and oversaw a back room for SPT to carry 30 presses that published writers of color, experimental writers, and gay writers. A couple years later with a grant from the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, Denise Kastan, Jim Mitchell, and Beau Beausoleil moved SPT to its own second floor flat on 24th Street and Church. The idea was to provide the literary community with a small press bookstore, a catalog of small presses for libraries and bookstores, and a meeting place for writers. Kevin Killian described the first bookstore as a "magical space like something out of Tolkien." In 1977 with the arrival of Robert Gluck and a grant from the California Arts Council, SPT began offering workshops and initiated the reading series. The workshops were essential to the development of many Bay Area writers, including Dodie Bellamy, who described the classes as so much more alive than the formal academic classes she was taking at San Francisco State. Camille Roy described the classes as "democratic and open in spirit as well as fact. There was a willingness to engage with whomever might walk in."
Creating community has always been essential to SPT’s function. This has gone well beyond different literary schools to encompass contemporary writers of all age, ethnic, socioeconomic, and cultural groups. With many of the programs, including the Left/Write Conference (1981–2), the Multicultural Reading Series (1980s), Erasing the Margins (1990s), and Expanding the Repertoire: Continuity and Change in African-American Writing (2000), SPT has successfully brought together literary and cultural groups that haven’t previously dialogued. In applying the theoretical to the practical, low cost workshops for less visible writers has always been a conscious priority, notably Robert Gluck’s older writers workshop (1978–85) and two workshops targeting at-risk and low income youth in the ’90s. Many impressive writers have passed through the doors of Small Press Traffic as part of the reading series; just check out our list of past readers.
Since the ’70s SPT has played an important role in the Bay Area’s innovative literary community and offered writers an alternative to academia.
Elizabeth Treadwell Jackson, current director:
"SPT was the place where I began to feel like part of a writing community, and a tradition. This was in the mid-90s, when it was housed at New College. SPT felt very native to its environment, San Francisco, California, West, I felt very at home."
Dodie Bellamy, past director:
"SPT is a cross-pollination between students from different writing workshops, or students who didn’t go to workshops, or people who have graduated, and it creates a way that things can be sustained beyond these institutions."
This cross-pollination stretches beyond cultural groups and writing schools to generations. Many of the early SPT participants are still active members. Now that they have become significant, recognized writers they are influencing the current generation of young writers. Every beginning writer needs a muse in trying out those fledgling language legs (and living, publishing writers are preferable to Greek goddesses). SPT acts as a nest for these interactions. SPT’s events and programs support and encourage writers to make new footprints in unbroken literary snow.
Being located in the Bay Area has definitely shaped SPT’s values and atmosphere, not only in the focus on diversity and community, but also in the reciprocity between SPT and local small presses.
"You see people on the East Coast always geared to producing the next commodity, while here you’ve got this wonderful audience that’s living in this kind of dream world, and wonderful writing is coming out of it, that’s very pure."
One method of getting writing out of a drawer and into a reading audience is to start a press or magazine. Many local presses have grown alongside with SPT, including Kelsey St. Press and North Atlantic Press. In fact, the Bay Area has the largest concentration of small presses in the U.S. With MFA graduates pouring out of the multitude of Bay Area creative writing programs, there will be no shortage of new ones cropping up.
In the old days, once a writer decided to start a press, the SPT bookstore was a highly visible means of distribution. But with SPT’s emphasis on small presses, new and innovative writers, and writers at the literary and cultural fringes, it was hard to remain financially solvent. Luckily, in the ’70s there was plenty of private and public funding for a group to sell these non-mainstream books that were being published, but not distributed. In the ’80s this began to change, of course. With the loss of funding from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1985, 1986 was the beginning of membership contributions and the newsletter Traffic. 1986 also marked SPT’s move to a corner location at 3599 24th Street and Guerrero. The "cheerful, open-air" space invited customers to browse and hang out in the rocking chair.
Lyn Hejinian, writer, member:
"SPT functioned as a reading room in the librarian’s sense—as a literal room in which people could sit and read. The notion of making a place (room) for readings was an active one. The bookstore spaces were both small, and often the audiences were small, too. The readings had an intimate quality. They were relaxed rather than reverent, celebratory."
Leslie Scalapino, writer, member:
"The reading series brought poets together, and still does. Small Press Traffic has always had the friendly, lively atmosphere of being a center."
Despite decreasing funding, the ’80s also saw many readings, the initiation of a poetry contest in 1987 with Poetry Flash, and the Poetry on the Buses program. In 1986 and 1988 SPT hosted the West Coast Conference of Literary Organizations. At the end of the ’80s SPT incorporated to become a nonprofit tax exempt entity. Always thinking creatively, in 1989 SPT asked for contributions to sponsor individual chairs. Each chair sat proudly in the bookstore and boasted the name of the contributor’s favorite writer. During the ’80s SPT was the place to be for readers, writers, and presses with a literary/political agenda. It was a hub of activity, providing a place for the writing community to interact and stir up trouble.
With the arrival of the ’90s, the SPT purse strings continued to tighten, but SPT still offered valuable programs and became more innovative with its fundraising.
Jon Carroll, San Francisco Chronicle columnist:
"It is possible to believe that intellectual diversity is as important as genetic diversity, and that a small unconventional bookstore is as worthy of preservation as the rain forest. The real work of the culture is often done on the fringes; it is necessary to save the places that nourish the people who love the work for its own sake."
In 1992, after losing $10,000 in grants, SPT held the Protecting Our Resources benefit at Fort Mason’s Cowell Theater with Kathy Acker, Susan Faludi, Genny Lim, and Adrienne Rich. The ’90s was also the beginning of the high profile series, New Words, New Directions featuring writers like Isabel Allende, Dorothy Allison, Thom Gunn, Jessica Mitford, and Anne Lamott. All of these fundraisers helped to keep the new programs in the ’90s going. 1993 was the beginning of the Anti-Mike series, a themed open mike that began with ten minutes of free writing, the Virtual Rhythm word and music series, and a poetry contest co-sponsored with the Bay Guardian.
By the middle of the ’90s though things began to unravel and SPT’s energy and innovation were no longer enough to keep the center going. There was a time when it looked like SPT might not be able to continue. Through the heroic efforts of Dodie Bellamy, Maureen Watts, and other board members, SPT was saved, although the book store was lost, and SPT changed directions to become more of a presenting organization. In 1995 SPT found its new home at New College of California. As a literary arts center SPT supplemented New College’s Poetics program, similar to the Poetry Center at San Francisco State. SPT continued to offer low cost workshops to community members and began to act as a small press library. The readings became a place where books could be sold and Traffic, the newsletter, took on great significance. Like the original Shakespeare & Co., the SPT bookstores began to take on the status of literary myth, but with its collegial affiliations, SPT remained at the heart of the Bay Area small press scene.
After a five year stint at New College, SPT moved to the California College of Arts and Crafts in 2000 to join forces with a brand new writing program at the nationally known art school.
Elizabeth Treadwell Jackson: SPT has to be both flexible and sturdy, in order to remain what it is, an endangered species: an independent, autonomous community literary arts center.
Moving to an art school made sense, since visual art had always been an important component of SPT, with art installations in the bookstore and letterpress broadsides as a perk of membership. Plus, there was definitely an overlap with the book arts community, since many members had their own presses.
The outward face of SPT has changed, but it still provides a forum for writers and presses to showcase their work and exchange ideas. SPT now has an advisory and funding function for independent-minded editors publishing their own magazines and starting their own presses. Since the move to New College and then CCA (hardly traditional educational institutions), there have been some significant conferences addressing the academic side of writing. The challenging, collaborative energy SPT has always had will continue this year with Crosstown Traffic, which brings together writers, visual artists, and musicians, and Series X, which, Treadwell Jackson says, will "investigate the enactment of radicality and tradition in varying situations and for varying purposes."
Times have changed since 1974 and so has SPT.
Kevin Killian, board member:
"The store used to be a general place where poetry of all stripes was sold. Now we have refined our tastes, so to speak, as the marketplace became a site of narrowcasting—thereby losing something but gaining an intensity of purpose."
" It was about ideals, community, a dizzying sense that it would all come out right in the end. And for some of us it did. Tuumba Press was thoroughly supported by "the community." But it’s all very odd now, in this completely different dot.com/fiduciarily conservative environment, to state how "support" could have been felt as buoying one along while one was, in essence, simply giving books (and poetry) away."
Even with all its transformations, SPT has remained true to its original mission of committing itself to small presses and the needs to the writers who are a part of the small presses. Postmodernism, political correctness, and publishing house mergers have redefined the small press. Those who might have been at the edges of literary acceptableness in the ’70s are now required reading in high school English classes, while any unpublished writer is considered risky in light of the few remaining large publishing houses’ bottomline. Despite the hardships all artistic organizations have faced in the last decade, SPT is still at the forefront of discovering the literary gems that the mainstream passed over in its profitic blindness and its disinterest in challenging what literature should be.
Nikki Thompson is a graduate student in Fiction at CCA and a former editor of the Berkeley Fiction Review. In 2001 she was awarded All College Honors in Graduate Writing from CCA. She is also a book artist.
Thanks go out to Elizabeth Treadwell Jackson for all her suggestions and time spent digging through files, and to everyone who responded to my emails and phone calls with stories and additional leads. -- N.T.
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