Literary Boroughs #28: San Francisco and North Bay (Part One)

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The Literary Boroughs series will explore little-known and well-known literary communities across the country and world and show that while literary culture can exist online without regard to geographic location, it also continues to thrive locally. Posts are by no means exhaustive and we encourage our readers to contribute in the comment section. The series will run on our blog from May 2012 until AWP13 in Boston. Please enjoy the twenty-eighth post on San Francisco and North Bay, by Dani Burlison. Part One of this (epic!) post will run today; check back this Friday for Part Two. —Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

“It’s an odd thing, but anyone who disappears
is said to be seen in San Francisco.
It must be a delightful city and possess
all the attractions of the next world”

― Oscar Wilde

Oh, San Francisco. Land of Milk and Honey, land of ghosts of Beatniks past. Land where new poets spring forth with every rumbling of your fault lines. One can almost sense the alphabet circling in the foggy Pacific that rolls through your streets, letters begging to be plucked from the air and arranged in brilliant words across blank sheets of paper. Oh, San Francisco, you’re the best. I will try to do you justice here.

What the region is known for:

SF: Summer of Love, Beat poets, Earthquakes, fog, big hills, Harvey Milk, bicycles, SF Giants, Golden Gate Park, SF MOMA, Cable Cars, clam chowder, hipsters, Golden Gate Bridge, fabulous live music venues, The Castro, Alcatraz, radical politics, Haight-Ashbury, Dolores Park, DeYoung Museum, Same-sex marriage.

North Bay (Marin and Sonoma Counties): Sonoma wine country,  Luther Burbank, mountain biking, micro-brews, organic food, communes, San Quentin State Penitentiary, Hitchcock films, taco trucks, houseboats, redwoods, Pt Reyes National Seashore, oysters, Gravenstein apples, Skywalker Ranch, Russian River, Pomo and Miwok tribes, pop-up and farm-to-table dinners, a disproportionate amount of Prius drivers, DIY culture, day spas, 420, Tupac Shakur.

Resident writers:

A very incomplete list of writers and poets who live or have lived in San Francisco and/or its neighboring North Bay: Kathleen Alcott, Robert Mailer Anderson, Isabel Allende, Dorothy Allison, Alison Bechdel, Jean Shinoda Bolen, Jack Boulware, Po Bronson, Michael Chabon, Carolyn Cooke, Peter Coyote, Ram Dass, Angela Davis, Drew Dellinger, Diana DiPrima, Jennifer Egan, Stephen Elliott, Dave Eggers, Lawrence Ferlenghetti, Joan Frank, Elsa Gidlow, Molly Giles, Allen Ginsberg, Glen David Gold, Dashiell Hammett, Daniel Handler, Robert Hass, Leota Higgins-Mohr, Brenda Hillman, Jane Hirshfield, bell hooks, Khaled Hosseini, Ken Kesey, Jack Kerouac, Jack Kornfield, Anne Lamott, Frances Lefkowitz, Jack London, MariNaomi, Malcolm Margolis, Joyce Maynard, Armistead Maupin, Ralph Metzner, Joshua Mohr, Cherríe Moraga, Mark Morford, Janis Cook Newman, Anais Nin, Wendy-O Matik, Peter Orner, Meg Pokrass, Adrienne Rich, Jason Roberts, Greg Sarris, Alice Seibold, Gary Snyder, Rebecca Solnit, Starhawk, Danielle Steele, Robert Louis Stevenson, Amy Tan, Michelle Tea, Hunter S. Thompson, Mark Twain, Ellen Ullman, Vendela Vida,  Tom Waits, Alice Walker, Alan Watts, Tobias Wolff

Literary References:

The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney, Howl by Allen Ginsberg, Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin, The Serial by Cyra McFadden, Valencia by Michelle Tea, Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, Queen of the Damned by Anne Rice, Valley of the Moon by Jack London, Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliott, By Blood by Ellen Ullman, Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, Golden Gate by Vikram Seth, Luminous Airplanes by Paul La Farge, The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon  and many countless others…

Where to Learn:

Bay Area institutions of higher education like San Francisco State University (@SFState_News), California College of the  Arts  (@CACollegeofArts),

California Institute of Integral Studies and Oakland’s Mills College (@MillsCollege)all offer acclaimed MFA programs. For those willing to commute beyond the city for graduate school, St. Mary’s College in Moraga is about a twenty mile drive. Though not an MFA degree program, the Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford is a highly sought after two-year program for both fiction and poetry. Past Stegner fellows include Greg Sarris, ZZ Packer, Alice Hoffman, Stephen Elliott, Justin Torres, Raymond Carver, Ken Kesey and Tobias Wolff, who is a current faculty member at Stanford.

For non-accredited learning opportunities, many Bay Area writers turn to the various writing workshops offered at the San Francisco’s Writers Grotto (@sfgrotto). Here, aspiring novelists can find classes on how to structure book reviews, flash fiction, memoir and even attend Mark Morford’s Yoga for Writers class. The Writing Salon (@WritingSalon)— which includes classes in San Francisco and Berkeley—is another popular writing hub. Laguna Writers (@lagunawriters), based in San Francisco, offer writing workshops in The City as well as in the North Bay. Free University of San Francisco offers classes on such topics as “Outlaw Writers” and “Poetry and the Law.” For younger writers, 826 Valencia (@826_Valencia) offers tutoring and creative writing instruction for school-age students. Book Passage‘s (@bookpassage) Marin County location also offers various classes throughout the year, as well as three writing conferences: Children’s Writing, Mystery Writing and Food and Travel Writers.

The region also hosts a handful of other writing conferences including the San Francisco Writers Conference (@SFWC) and smaller similar events hosted by The California Writers Club The North Bay is the home of the Tomales Bay Writers Workshop in coastal Marin County, the Napa Valley Writers Conference (@napawriters)in the heart of the wine country and the brand-spanking-new LitCamp (@litcampwriters)—a writing workshop born of a collaboration between The Rumpus, McSweeney’s, Zzyzzyva and SF Writers Grotto—which takes place next spring on the Sonoma/Napa border near Calistoga.

Where to find reading materials:

Aside from the San Francisco Public Library, avid readers can stock up on books at several fantastic independent book stores including the one-time hub of San Francisco’s beat poet scene and independent publishing house (which first published Ginsberg’s Howl), City Lights Books in the North Beach neighborhood. Green Apple Books (@greenappleguy) (which sells both new and used books) is another local favorite. New and used radical literature can be found at The Mission District’s Modern Times (@moderntimessf) while Booksmith and Bound Together Anarchist Book Collective are the go-to shops for the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and the SF Ferry Building’s Book Passage location offers a shop with great views of the bay. Another local favorite for zine lovers is Needles and Pens (@needlespens) which sells both zines and books. Aside from purchasing books at local independent shops, a fun and unconventional way to obtain books in San Francisco is to attend a Book Swap or LitMatch event at Booksmith where singles bring their favorite reads to trade in hopes of finding a compatible potential mate. Another Mission District favorite is Dog Eared Books which recently celebrated a twenty year anniversary.

Up north across the Golden Gate Bridge, readers can check out books at the Marin County Free Library (@Marinlibrary) or the Sonoma County Library, both of which have several locations. The Free Bookmobile of Sonoma County (@freebookmobile) is another easy way to pick up a free book or two. For purchase options, Marin County is the home of Book Passage (@bookpassage) in Corte Madera, the cozy and impressively hip Point Reyes Books in West Marin, Depot Bookstore in Mill Valley and used bookstore, Rebound Books in Downtown San Rafael. Traveling further north into Sonoma County, readers will be thrilled to find independent bookseller heroes at Copperfield’s Books (@Copperfields) with locations in Petaluma, Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, Healdsburg, Napa and Calistoga. The Rohnert Park and Cotati area near Sonoma State University has North Light Books, while the Santa Rosa Copperfield’s shares the spotlight with Treehorn Books in downtown and Paperbacks Unlimited. Even the more remote areas of  Sonoma County have great independent book stores like Reader’s Books Sonoma, and River Reader on Main Street in Guerneville.

[Read Part Two.]

Dani Burlison is a staff writer at a Bay Area alt-weekly, a recent columnist atMcSweeney’s Internet Tendency and a book reviewer for The Los Angeles Review. Her writing also appears in several other notable online and print publications such as The RumpusHip Mama Magazine,Rad Dad Zineelephant journal, and others. She is 80% done with her first collection of essays and hard at work on her subsequent book. Dani also teaches writing workshops and co-edits Petals and Bones zine. Find her at or @DaniBurlison.