Books Are Dead. Long Live Books. 

The artist cooperatives, innovative bookstores, poetry reading series, presses, and gritty, grassroots communities behind the East Bay's literary renaissance.

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Beast Crawl founder Paul Corman-Roberts, author of four books himself, called the event "a scavenger hunt for shared consciousness and meaning." The goal is to build community by being accessible, free, and as diverse as possible. In the interests of expanding inclusivity, this year's Crawl even featured an open mic component.

"There's something pretty cool about seeing a classic academic poet reading in a dive bar along with students and reprobates, or seeing wild young experimental performance artists bringing a sense of excitement or even tension into high-profile places like Picán or Ozumo," Corman-Roberts said.

Among the 29 curators for Beast Crawl were all of the most intriguing outfits in the East Bay poetry scene, including Tourettes Without Regrets, Berkeley Poetry Slam, Poetry Flash, SKINLESS: New and Raw Writing, and Youth Radio.

So what's behind this profusion of riches? "Every art and performing art scene in the East Bay is experiencing incredible growth due to the unique economic situation in San Francisco," said Corman-Roberts. "The East Bay still has a lot of fluidity in its economics — enough to where artists can still find a multitude of niches. San Francisco used to be like that too, but the available number of bohemian niches on that side of the water are shrinking."

I asked Corman-Roberts if there were any commonalities that run through the East Bay's rich poetic diversity. "It's hard to generalize, since the scene is going through such a huge growth spurt and, of course, attendant growing pains," he said. "But East Bay poetry probably follows the same course as most East Bay art scenes: a little grittier, a little more snot-nosed. Even the experimental poetry circles have a bit of that punk edge to them."

There is another element that might surprise those who haven't sampled the East Bay's rowdy and oddly hopeful scene. "What really impresses me about the younger poets I meet," said Corman-Roberts, "is how well they balance cynicism with sincerity. Their identities seem informed by both aesthetics, and to me, that's really refreshing.

Book/Shop, E. M. Wolfman, and Beast Crawl are major elements in the East Bay literary revival, but there are many others. The poetry spectacular known as the East Bay Poetry Summit took place in May, as did the twelve-year-old Berkeley Poetry Festival. The annual National Poetry Slam, a five-day competition between teams from all over North America, will take place in Oakland from August 5-9.

The Omni, a huge new space for poetry events and other collaborative ventures, recently opened on the site of the old rock venue at 4799 Shattuck Avenue in Temescal. Billed as a "collective of collectives," it will eventually offer workshops, a hacker space, a wellness center, a free school, and a live talk show, as well as readings.

On July 1, Timeless, Infinite Light, released It's Night in San Francisco But Sunny in Oakland, an anthology featuring more than sixty East Bay poets. "The poetry community in the East Bay feels very alive right now," said editor Emji Spero. "It has a DIY aesthetic and a sense of openness and possibility."

Karp of the poetry series Quiet Lightning is convinced that the resurgence of the East Bay literary scene is also a harbinger for literature in general. "All the statistics are very clear," he said. "More books are being sold. More books are being read. Indie bookstores that are innovative are thriving as never before. Small presses are thriving. It's so easy now to make a quality book; the costs are low. The only thing that's dying is the publishing industry as we know it."

Small Press Distribution (SPD) is another hotbed of literary activity in the East Bay. A fixture in Berkeley since 1969, it has acquired a national reputation. It's the only distributor in the country dedicated exclusively to independently published literature. It carries the work of more than 330 East Bay authors. "[W]e sell over 150,000 books a year and our sales are up 25 percent," said Laura Moriarty, deputy director of Small Press Distribution.

Moriarty also was pleased to hear that I was writing a piece about the current literary scene. "Saying positive things about poets and poetry in a journalistic context is really good because journalists typically hate us. They think that we're stupid."

Another Bay Area institution, Berkeley's Poetry Flash, has been seeding the literary scene for almost as long as SPD. It's a quarterly publication that has offered reviews, interviews, essays, and calendar listings since 1972. Its current print run is 22,000 copies.

According to Poetry Flash's associate editor, Richard Silberg, the East Bay poetry scene is characterized by "its vibrance and diversity, the high level of its sophistication and talent. There is tremendous energy and variety here."

On any given Friday, you can usually choose from at least three East Bay readings that eschew the stereotypes of poetry readings as stiff, dry, and pretentious. "I was very conscious of going to readings and being bored," said Karp of the experiences that led him to try a different approach in shaping Quiet Lightning's format. "People rambling, thanking everybody in the room: No matter how endearing they were, there wasn't enough of what I came for, which was the art."


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