SF Poet James J. Siegel's New Collection Knocks on the Door to Memory

by Mark William Norby

Bay Area Reporter

Thursday December 24, 2020

'The God of San Francisco' poet James J. Siegel
'The God of San Francisco' poet James J. Siegel   

Take a break from whatever you're doing and immerse yourself in San Francisco history and the travels of James J. Siegel in "The God of San Francisco," a revelatory and uplifting title for a city that has known many gods. Here's the God of us — LGBTQ people — whether longtime San Franciscans still centered in the axis of gay culture, or those new who've recently come to the country's capital of continual reinvention. In either case, these poems sense that there is something about the city now gone, forever lost, but here in the poems, moments enduring.

Siegel dives to a central location, an unofficial landmark, sites we still meet for sidewalk coffee, or once met to slither through and to cackle at the night, from Daddy's to Moby Dick and the forty-five-year-old Badlands, which permanently closed its doors this past summer. In "December 1," we're called to remember, or to first learn, one of countless moments of elegy with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence:

The Sisters are lighting candles
on the corner of 18th and Castro.
Kabuki-faced, corseted,
these are not the nuns who haunted
the hallways of my Catholic adolescence.
These nuns have names like
Sister Anni Coque L'doo
and Sister Porn Again.

The collection of eighty poems was just released by independent publisher Sibling Rivalry Press (SRP), which is run by a gay male couple from the unlikely location of Little Rock, Arkansas. SRP's past, present, and future collected books are acquired by the Library of Congress and stored in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division there, Siegel's book now among them.

In "Gay Cancer," Siegel takes the reader to the darker past, witnessed through reminiscences of his own youth:

When men died of gay cancer
I was only five—preoccupied
combing the manes of purple ponies
bending Barbie's legs to fit
snug in her pink convertible.

The nightly news was a montage
of pale skin and pitted cheeks—
thin, thin bodies and fevered eyes.
Then back to regular programming—
sequined Solid Gold Dancers
twirling to the week's top ten.

He told the Bay Area Reporter: "One of the rules I've learned as a poet is to never impose my agenda on a poem. I can always be inspired to write something, but at the end of the day the poems are going to decide what they are about and what message they have for the reader."

Queer grief at the onset of AIDS to the dramatic transformation of San Francisco up to now; Siegel, who arrived in San Francisco in 2004, talked about the creation of his art and the audiences who inspire him to discover what for many of us are real memories.

His subjects — inanimate objects, a frame onto sites discovered, windows through which we pass in our daily rush to get through life: in "Elegy for the Castro Funeral Home" — the former Sullivan's Funeral Home which closed last year after more than ninety years in business, fell in order to become another San Francisco apartment complex. The countless men in the hands of the epidemic, all dead. Read:

One hundred years and you are gone.
Death is not the business it once was.
Monument to loss—your crumbling
façade a reminder of days we would rather forget.
But forgetting is just more dying.

When new bones rise from your foundation
and jackhammers turn concrete to dust
will anyone listen for benedictions
haunting the dusty air
Will anyone pry loose a century of eulogies
trapped in the earth?And will they pour forth
from the pavement cracks like steam—
a pale ghost—ascending the sky?


Our History
"I sometimes think of myself as more of an interpreter," said Siegel. "The poems come to me and it is my job to do the best I can to translate."

He wonders if these poems will speak to the reader. But how can they not? Siegel spends his time here writing, remembering, location, the import of setting, how environments — both city to rural — affect us.

"As for something universal in my work, I find that so much focuses on place, physical spaces. And the reason, I've learned, is that I'm always trying to navigate my surroundings. I felt a bit lost in the Midwest. So I wrote about it."

In "Revelation":


Ohio southbound
the radio band cracks.
Two frequencies fight in the airwaves.
The day's top hits fade to static
as the Gospel scratches and pops

We are entering the Kingdom of the Lord
Blood orange sun.
Moon like a crowned dragon
sliding into view.
Farmhouses and chapels,
a clapboard barn proclaiming
Jesus saves.

And later in the collection, he casts his eyes on the religion of his youth and a differently-envisioned savior in "Jesus Descends on Golden Gate Park":

This is a Catholic school expulsion, a Vatican heresy,
and yet we have just begun
In comes Christ on roller skates.
A cheerleading Christ, shaking pom poms, doing the splits.
Rockstar Jesus with a crucifix guitar. Suddenly,
Clouds of smoke rise and the Christ of Haight-Ashbury appears—
bare-footed, dreadlocked, water bubbling in a glass bong.

He focuses on the essence of that religion transformed at the heightened awareness that we are all, every one of us, invited to the Kingdom. It is reborn religion, now, in San Francisco where liberal history is well established and uplifted in the creation of our queer selves, identity broadcast, at least, in the peninsular city where endurance, invention, recreation offered lost souls a place to call home.

Yet, in "They Still Say Faggot in San Francisco,"

It is only a word
and still I flinch as though I bit my tongue.
I cringe because this is San Francisco,
city in a catsuit purring at the moon,
Leather pups pawing their masters at Folsom.
This is not Wyoming, rural Ohio.
This is not my Catholic school or a Bible Belt country club.
This is where rainbow flags umbrella the sky
like a queer force field, kaleidoscope bubble of
security. And still

Upon first reading the poems, it seemed Siegel conducted an admirable amount of formal research to achieve his knowledge of the city in order to build these stanzas. In truth, he learned most of what he's written through listening and "... just living in San Francisco for 16 years... Our queer history is all around us. It's still standing... waiting to tell its stories if you are keeping your eyes open and your ear to the ground."

The book's title shares the name of the captivating poem, "The God of San Francisco," where Siegel shares one of his many days sitting at Twin Peaks Tavern at the corner of Castro and Market Streets, constructing his vault of memory that have become these poems:

He sits alone,
his hands turned to vein and bone.
But buy him a martini—
vodka with two olives—
extra dirty—
and he will tell you anything
you need to know,
from the Gold Rush to North Beach
where the sailors wore dresses
over their anchor tattoos,
to José Sarria and the Black Cat,
the Nightingale of Montgomery Street

José Sarria, also known as drag queen The Widow Norton and the first openly gay candidate to run for public office, died in 2013. "Twin Peaks holds its own space in queer history," Siegel said. "In fact, there would be no 'God of San Francisco' without Twin Peaks Tavern. When I go to Twin Peaks, I go with a tremendous amount of respect, because those men and women are still there."

Interspersed throughout the collection are poems of cross-country travel, passing through Wyoming recalling Matthew Shepherd; trips overseas, swimming through the stars. There is much to digest here. The great benefit to reading poetry is the absorption of distinct imagery, acquiring sentiments for the subjects under consideration, and spawning the felt-sense of the poet's care.

The 'now internationally-famous issue of August 13, 1998' Bay Area Reporter headline.  

The work's final poem titled "No Obits," was the Bay Area Reporter's above-the-fold cover headline of the now internationally-famous issue of August 13, 1998. During that week, the B.A.R. received no obituaries due to HIV/AIDS-related illnesses, the first time since the AIDS epidemic began in the early 1980s. The headline was written by beloved past editor Mike Salinas, who died in 2003. Bone chilling to read the poem's title alone:

Even today's news is possible. The front page fluttering
on a park bench—No Obits—as though death has quit his job,
taken a much-deserved rest.
For years the names poured in. A deluge.
The editor's inbox flooded with crisp white envelopes,
Handwritten return addresses staring back like an epitaph. Piles
of human history type-spaced on an ancient typewriter. A life
folded neatly—a shroud—holding a photo, the face of someone now gone,
journeying off to the dark mystery we fear.

Siegel's collection is a superb new addition to the rich tradition of LGBTQ history and its importance to our queer existence, its continuation in the spirit of personal freedom. However one chooses to spend extra time, poems anchor one for a moment, a manner of centering the self within another zone, easing the weight of the now and transporting the self to the history that will not be forgotten.

Poems shift the dynamics in a room, lending themselves to interpretation and personalisation. As long as time is taken to care back at the pages, and the people, and places of the great City of San Francisco, memory will serve us. "The God of San Francisco" is a crisp reminder that we, after all, are alive.

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