The Political as Personal
My Memoir of Steve Abbott, 1980-1990
by Bryan R. Monte
Steve Abbott was the first writer I met in San Francisco when I arrived in the summer of 1980. We met at a poetry reading, held in a Haight Street bar or restaurant, where one of the poets, a female African-American, complained about “gay men in Gucci shoes” who were ruining the Haight. I looked down at the scuffed and worn toes of my grey Hush Puppies and my second-hand store clothing, thought about my cockroach-infested, small flat with six, all-night bus lines under the window and considered leaving before the reading concluded. I was at this reading, my first in the City, because it was listed in a free newspaper, Poetry Flash, that I had found on the shelf at the cobbler’s below my flat in the big, yellow, wood-frame building at Haight and Clayton Streets.
It was fortuitous I didn’t leave early because after the reading I struck up a conversation with a thin, middle-aged man with thinning, black hair and glasses. He wore slender black jeans, a thin, thrift shop, early-’60s tie, a light blue shirt and a second-hand, thin-lapelled, black suit jacket. Somehow we struck up a conversation perhaps because we were both natural talkers or because we felt an affinity for each other. Whatever the reason, on our walk back to our apartments, we discovered we lived not more than a block from each other and we had both moved to San Francisco because of politics and poetry: Abbott in the mid-70s and I just months previously.
In the course of our walk, I mentioned the reading’s listing in the Flash and Abbott told me he was one of its editors and had a monthly column called “Up to the Aether,” from a poem by Jack Spicer (San Francisco Renaissance poet, active 1950s and ’60s). Abbott said the column sort of made him the Hedda Hopper (an actress cum gossip columnist for the Los Angeles Times, 1938-1966, and House Un-American Activities Committee informant in the 1950s) of the San Francisco poetry scene. He said that he and Poetry Flash sometimes took a lot of heat for what they wrote. Abbott also told me he worked as a freelance journalist for the city’s gay newspapers—the Bay Area Reporter, Sentinel and Advocate. Before he’d moved to San Francisco, he’d been a monk, a university newspaper editor and married. I told Abbott about my recent move from Ohio and how I was just getting oriented to the City’s cultures and its weirdly, quickly changeable weather (hot and sunny one minute and cold and foggy the next just over the hill). Abbott explained the City’s various microclimates—Mission and Potrero Hill hot and sunny, the Avenues and the Haight, foggier and cooler—and SF’s reading venues and locations.
Either the same day or soon thereafter, Abbott invited me to his apartment at 545 Ashbury. His flat’s furnishings were what I would call basic Bohemian. I think there was a large, wooden spool, the type used by utility companies to coil cables, in the center of his living/dining room (the first room when you came in) that functioned as a table. This table was used both for eating and for writing and always held stacks of books and papers (and sometimes a few dishes). The room’s walls were lined with bookcases filled with double rows of books on top of which were loose papers, letters, mailing envelopes, magazines, newspapers and clippings. There was also a second room off to one side that overlooked Ashbury Street, separated by a curtain and/or French doors. It had a futon that was rolled up into a couch during the day.
I don’t remember much more of what I talked about with Abbott that day but I do remember him showing me his first book of poetry—Wrecked Hearts with its cartoon cover of Jesus and his sacred heart being shot through by a cowboy who had tattoos on his biceps such as “Kill Faggots” and “Anita (Bryant) was right” the latter referring to a 1977 campaign against gay rights in Dade County, Florida. Abbott mentioned he’d given the book to the first gay supervisor, Harvey Milk, and wondered if its cover had flashed through his head as he had been murdered by one of his former colleagues on the Board of Supervisors, Dan White. Wrecked Hearts also has a cartoon of Baudelaire and Rimbaud first having an argument and then sex in their flat and later, Rimbaud’s desiccated face in Abyssinia 20 years later wearing a pair of big sunglasses (similar to the ones Abbott wore and to the faces of men I would later see of men who, before they died of AIDS, actually shrank behind their glasses and clothes) where he’d gone off to make his fortune, underneath which Abbott had written “The Dismal End — Abbott.” (I wonder now how prophetic this was of Abbott’s own death). I was excited about Abbott’s poetry because of its honesty and its political awareness. A brief scan through the table of contents yielded poems such as “Three Revolutionary Poems,” “Lines Written for Chairman Mao,” “To A Soviet Artist in Prison,” and “So Why Did We Go To Vietnam.” Abbott gave me a copy of this book inscribed: “To Brian (sic)—In friendship and struggle for a better world. Steve Abbott.”
I read it and found Abbott’s poetry surrealistically co(s)mic and what I would refer to almost three years later in my UC Berkeley English B.A. thesis as “religiously irreverent.” It was quite different from the Modernist poets such as Eliot, Pound, and W. C. Williams that I studied during my first two years of college. Abbott’s poetry reminded me more of Allen Ginsberg’s, (who Abbott told me he’d first met at the University of Nebraska in the ’60s), and his cartoons’ reminded me of Robert Crumbs’ naked honesty. Abbott also mentioned that poet Thom Gunn, another Haight-Ashbury resident who I hadn’t heard of at that point, taught every other quarter at Berkeley. Abbott promised to introduce me if we ever ran into him. I also remember that at some point I met Abbott’s nine-year-old daughter, Alysia. I remembering being consciously shocked that it was the first time I had met a single parent, let alone one that was gay.
I don’t remember the next time I saw Abbott. I do remember that both of us had nowhere to go at Christmas for several years, when Alysia went off to see her maternal grandparents in Illinois for the holidays. Due to my poverty then as a new arrival and later as a single, self-supporting student, I usually worked through every Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years, if possible, to make as much money as possible. So on Christmas Day 1980, Abbott and I ended up in the Castro only to discover that the only store open was the 24-hour donut shop.
Then we walked down Market Street to a place at 16th that looked like a green house, its glass walls and translucent, green, corrugated ceiling panels, however, vibrating from punk music. Inside an upside-down Christmas tree hung from the ceiling and behind the bar was an old, sideshow poster advertising a turbaned Karmi. We sat and listened to lots of loud, punk ballads such as Billy Idol’s “White Wedding,” Lene Lovitch’s “Angels” and The Clash’s “London’s Calling.” I was surprised to have missed this literary, musical jewel so close to the Castro my first seven months in San Francisco. But then, at that time, I was so poor I only went to gay bars without a cover and ordered a bottle of sparkling water that I refilled in the toilet when I thought no one was looking.
Abbott explained to me that Flore was Writers’ Central for most gay and some straight or bi-sexual writers in San Francisco and not a bad place to pick up guys. He also mentioned that Finnela’s Sauna was also just one door down. On another occasion, Abbott introduced me to Harold Norse at Café Flore.
Sometime during the next few months I received a copy of Abbott’s second book, Stretching the Agape Bra. It had another memorable cover: a photo by Ginny Lloyd, of Steve dressed in a dark suit and white tie holding a white flower next to his daughter wearing a long white dress. Both stood next to the columns of The Portals of Past in Golden Gate Park at the edge of Lloyd Lake. It was this same photo that was used for the cover of Alysia’s memoir of her father: Fairyland. Abbott inscribed Stretching the Agape Bra: “For Bryan—This is a book to mellow out to (I have). Steve Abbott.” This book’s poems seemed to be more private than public compared to Wrecked Hearts and concerned with shape, texture and stance in a poem as well as a political agenda. I wrote an analysis of deformalisation of the images in “Do Potatoes Want Sex After Highschool” for my thesis because of its formalist turns and camp persona. The last poem “Elegy” is especially chilling in that it seems to foretell some of the circumstances of Steve’s own death. Steve told me personally that he thought he had had at least one previous lifetime in which he needed to escape to the North to avoid the Black Plague. According to Alysia’s memoir, this poem was read at her father’s funeral.
My first journal entry that mentions Abbott is the one for 29 March 1981 about “Riding to Oakland in Abbott’s car” (his old, beige, Volkswagen bug he mentions in his poem “It’s a Strange Day” where Alysia discovers a mushroom growing in the backseat). Here I was “Putting the Flash together in the basement of a downtown printshop.” I was excited because I was “getting to know everyone on the Flash staff—having dinner together at a Mexican restaurant on Telegraph—near campus—across from Cody’s Bookstore.” After that visit and dinner, my phone was “ringing off the hook,” and I was glad to “have broken into the (SF) literary scene.”
On 23 April 1981 I had a rather long journal entry about Abbott and socialism. I wrote “Abbott…came by my apartment to see me. (I’m still flattered and amazed) and to invite me out for a drink. Great time with him talking about lit.(erature) and politics. Everyone— A.(bbott), Alison Brown, Beth Craig, Jim Peters—all say I should get in(to) UC Berkeley Professor James Breslin’s course this summer—either to associate w/ a great mind—to make a literary connection—(and) to see if he—actually (has) a knowledge (of?) socialist critique. Told Abbott I was fed up with poets calling them(selves) socialists and then living in (separate) studio apartments paying $300 a month for rent and utilities and shopping for groceries at Cala (Supermarket). If poets can’t make socialism fly in microcosm, then they should forget about revolutionizing and reorganizing society…” I wondered why artists in San Francisco couldn’t co-operate similarly to fix up an abandoned building so they would have more time to make, print, show or perform their art. My German-American, third-generation Ohioan, bricklayer grandfather’s, three-room house was built by other German-Americans in one weekend. All my grandfather had had to do was dig the brick house’s foundation ahead of time, pay for the wood, glass and nails for the structure and show up the next time someone else needed a house built. (Of course this was in a time before indoor plumbing, electricity and telephones but still in one weekend, my grandfather had a roof over his head for himself and his new family with the assistance of his ethnic community). I wondered why couldn’t gay people in San Francisco cooperate to build a better housing for themselves to ensure the future of their nascent community?
As a result of this family history, I wondered why the gay super-tenants or landlords who had arrived in the “Summer of Love” and had bought houses then now (in the early 1980s) worth ten times as much or lived in rent-controlled apartments (at a third or a quarter of the current market rate), instead of helping the new, gay arrivals, exploited them. They did this by charging current market rates for rooms to newcomers instead of sharing their low rent-controlled rents or mortgages. As a result they made a handy profit as super-tenants or landlords. They pocketed the extra money they charged over what the actual rent or mortgage was so they could continue “to do their own thing” rather than reinvest it in the community as my grandfather’s German-American neighbours had done. Furthermore, why was the majority of gay “community” only organized around capital and consumption—Castro, Haight and South of Market bars, stores, restaurants and sex and not around lasting community building institutions and cultural transmission? New gay immigrants even had to pay for access to a central register gay-friendly, shared apartment listings at a business called Community Rentals.
I felt good talking to Abbott—he did more for me to learn to accept my gayness than the people at the Mt. Zion Clinic. And Abbott agreed that therapists are for people who don’t have friends to tell their problems to. I also talked to him about writing an article for Processed World called “Fear (and loathing) in Fagland”—describing my frustration as a slightly-educated, gay, temporary officer worker trying to find a permanent job downtown. I continued to seek Abbott out for support and advice with my poetry even when I moved to Berkeley in August 1981 to attend university. In September 1981 I did the layout of the October 1981 Flash with Richard Silverberg at my Channing Way apartment. Despite my initial enthusiasm for meeting the people at the Flash and doing the layout, in my Christmas 1981 entry I lament that “it’s been three of four years since I’d left Salt Lake and, with the exception of Abbott, my literary compatriots have either been very poor or non-existent.”
My next entry about Abbott was on 16 April 1982. I mention that I had come over from Berkeley “….to see Steve Abbott on Wednesday in the hope of having him look over my poetry and provide some imp.(ortant) comments, but no such luck. He was so tired from 8 ½ hours at his temp. market research job that he barely had enough energy to cook dinner. I told him I would mail him a Xerox of everything the next day so he could look it over.”
By September 1982 I had moved back to the City first sharing a flat briefly at 19 Sharon Street just off of 15th and Market and then moving to a larger, sunnier shared flat at 783A Guerrero and 20th in the Mission in November. I was still in contact with Abbott, interviewing him for my B.A. honours thesis on shamanism in gay poetry (including his own) that I would complete in March 1983. (The thesis analyzed the poetry of Robert Duncan and its effect on that of Aaron Shurin’s and Abbott’s). I saw Abbott once or twice a month during this period as I collected material, sometimes at his suggestion, for my research. Abbott gave me a copy of his third book, Transmuting Gold. Consistent with my theme of gay poetry having a shamanistic, transformative effect, Abbott signed this book: “Dear Bryan, Wrecked Hearts transmute gold. Thanks for being so patient when I was late to see you this afternoon. Love, Steve Abbott, 10 Oct 82.”
My journal entry of 23 December 1982 mentions my continued research for my thesis and social contacts with Steve:
“Steve Abbott and Steve Benson, two of the poets I’m doing (research on for) my honours thesis, both called me after a period of two weeks of silence or rather non-response. Abbott called yesterday and said he had a surprise for me….He’d met a blond masseur, 27 (years old) who was counseling him about what he should do with his boyfriend, Joe—and that Alysia had bought him a jogging suit before going off to her grandparents in Illinois for Christmas….(we) ended up going to Café Flore and listening to the music, talking about poetry and politics for four hours.”
Abbott talked a lot about Steve Benson’s poetry and how they had influenced each other. Abbott said Benson influenced him with the odd spacings between lines and the internal rhymes between lines. He demonstrated this with the opening lines of Benson’s “Echo.” Abbott also said that in his poems “Rapture” and “Dark Star” the internal rhymes fold words into each other. Abbott and Benson were doing a lot of correspondence at this time. Abbott said he discovered the influence of (Frank) O’Hara in his work through his study of Benson’s poetry, who had been reading O’Hara.
My writing had been invigorated by workshops at Berkeley with Thom Gunn in winter/spring 1982 and with Naomi Shihab Nye in autumn 1982. Finally back in the City that autumn, I couldn’t wait to attend and participate in poetry readings just down the street and around the corner from where I lived. I asked Abbott if there were any good reading series or workshops in the City I could get involved in and he suggested Bob Glück’s gay men’s writers’ weekly evening workshop. It met in the back of the Small Press Traffic Bookstore on 24th Street in Noe Valley. I started to attend it in the winter of 1982/3. It was here that I first met Lewis Ellingham, Gerald Fabian, Kevin Killian, Richard Linker, Edward Mycue, Wallace Parr, Paul Shimasaki, David Steinberg and Alexander C. Totz. I attended this workshop regularly, inspired by the heady mix of both traditional and slightly experimental gay poetry, fiction and essays. The workshop also gave honest, close readings of my work, the participants neither mystified nor revolted by my poetry as others sometimes had been and would be in academic settings.
In March 1983 I submitted my completed B.A. thesis entitled: The Gay Poet as Shaman: the Poetry of Robert Duncan, Aaron Shurin and Steve Abbott to the UC Berkeley English department. (During my conferences with my two thesis advisors, it was decided to leave out the material about Steve Benson’s poetry because it didn’t seem to have as much connection with the poetry of Duncan and Shurin). That enormous weight finally lifted from my shoulders, I decided to spend more time exploring San Francisco’s live readings.
Initially, I attended readings sponsored by local, literary magazines to hear what else was being published around town. Five Figures Review sponsored one at a café at 17th and Valencia. Channel Magazine also held a benefit reading for its publication at Newspace, a storefront gallery and dance studio. This was directly across the street from New College and next door to the Valencia Rose, the gay and lesbian cabaret. One Friday evening in April 1983, I arrived there for a Channel reading straight from work and very hungry. It was here that I had my first and only completely unexpected brush with San Francisco’s drug culture.
Since there were brownies on sale at the reading and I hadn’t had dinner, I ate first one and then another. Halfway through the reading I began to feel a bit sick to my stomach, then warm, light-headed and finally dizzy as the room seem to rock from side to side if as it were a boat. After the interval, someone found me outside talking to a parking meter and took me back into the gallery for the second half of the reading. After the reading, Killian walked me home to make sure I made it there OK. When I went to bed, my boyfriend, Harry Britt lay down next to me because I kept remarking for hours about the fireworks on the white ceiling. I was so high from the brownies I didn’t come down until the following Wednesday. I found out later that the usual “dose” for that evening was just half a brownie.
My 2 May 1983 journal entry mentions that Abbott said: “the Channel readings are infamous for their hash brownies.” Sue Carlson, Channel’s editor apologized to me the next time I saw her and lamented: “No one will remember a word said that evening, but they will never forget those brownies.” That unexpectedly moving experience aside, I continued to attend readings at least twice a week and the gay men’s group weekly. On 25 April I also participated in a gay men’s group reading which included most of the group members listed above at Modern Times Bookstore at Valencia and 21st. Abbott gave a reading in the same series two days later at Small Press Traffic.
Less than two months later, Killian organized a graduation party for me at his flat near 24th and Guerrero. From the photos my mother took, I can see it was a good mixture of the academic, political and literary people I’d met my first three years in San Francisco. Present were Boone and Glück along with Intersection for the Arts reading series co-ordinator Robert Bedoya, L.R. from Thom Gunn’s workshop, whose poems I published in No Apologies first issue, and Paul Melbostad from the Harvey Milk Lesbian and Gay Democratic Club.
That summer, I remarked to Glück’s writing group that even though much good work was being produced there, few seemed to be able to get their work published regularly. I suggested that I publish the men’s work in my own magazine, No Apologies. I decided on this title because it was what my flatmate, San Francisco County Supervisor Harry Britt, had said to the press when they asked him to apologize for the destruction a gay mob had done at San Francisco City Hall. (A rioting crowd had broken off iron grillwork and smashed windows with it and also set half a dozen police cruisers alight in protest at the light sentence given to White for murdering Harvey Milk, the first elected, openly-gay politician in America, and Mayor George Moscone. The police retaliated a few hours later by smashing windows and heads at the Elephant Walk, the most popular gay bar in the Castro at the corner of Castro and 18th Streets. Afterwards Britt said: “We will make no apologies for our rage until straight America apologises for the history of homophobia that enrages us.” In my journal from 3 August 1983, I asked Abbott if I could use his “The Personal as Political” poem because I felt it “furthered the shamanistic function of gay poetry.” My journal entry the next day confirms that Abbott agreed to this and that he also “gave me two articles about Spicer/Duncan I could publish and suggested I might review Soup magazine in No Apologies.”
Killian volunteered to do the typesetting for the magazine on his word processor at work. He, in turn, introduced me to graphic designer and writer Dodie Bellamy, (who would later become his partner) and she introduced me to her colleague Mike Belt, who donated his time to create a one-colour magazine cover for No Apologies to save expenses. His design used thin, parallel alternating, light and dark horizontal lines that were mesmerizing. In addition, I could use the cover as a template for future issues by just changing the base colour and the white box with the issue’s theme and the authors’ names.
Abbott’s piece “The Political as Personal: A Poem for Men,” was the first poem in No Apologies’ first issue. It described the development of his awareness of his sexual orientation from childhood, waiting for his father to come home from WWII. Abbott described in his poem that when his father did return, he was “straight-back, distant/cold & fierce as a drill sergeant’s whistle.” Abbott also described that how, early in grade school, he had “learned to swagger like a man.” Abbott also discussed some of the aesthetic limitations of gay culture and sexual liberation and wondered: “Why do we still not demonstrate the strength of our unity/ our sisters share/ except through the State controlled commodification of Death?” The poem’s coda then asks “who has organized our isolation…our states of desire…our emotional education and why?” It concludes with: “Let our songs ring out & overwhelm the perpetuators of division,/oppression & death.”
Abbott, Bellamy and Boone, writers’ group members Mycue, Shimasaki and myself, fellow UC workshop member L.R. and California Poet in the Schools Tobey Kaplan all contributed poetry, stories or essays to the magazine’s first issue. Headlining the issue was Lew Ellingham’s interview with Robin Blaser, “Opposition in the Life and Work of Jack Spicer.”
The first issue was published in November 1983. I held a reception for Robin Blaser and the magazine’s writers, including Abbott, at my apartment the same month. Other guests present according to my journal for 10 November included Joanne Kyger, Aaron Shurin, Robert Bedoya, Duncan MacNaughton and Jack Winkler from Stanford.
A benefit reading for No Apologies was also held at Intersection on 6 December 1983. Abbott read that evening along with the others mentioned above plus Glück and Killian. It was a full house and the reading lasted for at least two hours. Afterwards, some of the writers posed for me in the gallery.
In April 1984, I won a scholarship to Brown University’s Graduate Writing Program. I continued attending the gay men’s workshop and finished the second issue of No Apologies. In May, a benefit reading for issue #2 was held at Newspace. Harold Norse was the headliner and Abbott also read that evening.
Abbott’s participation in No Apologies continued through issue #3. For #2, he contributed an interview with Judy Grahn (conducted with Dodie Bellamy) and a short piece for a literary symposium about Vittorio De Sica’s “Statione Termini” organized by Kevin Killian. For issue #3, in autumn 1984, he contributed an excerpt from his novel in progress Holy Terror: Three Nights in Paris.
I received at least three letters from Abbott within months of moving to Providence to attend Brown. His first letter is undated and written in Abbott’s hand on the back of a poster for a Benefit Reading for Julian Beck scheduled for 5 October at the SF Art Institute with Dianne DiPrima, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure and Harold Norse as readers. Abbott opens his letter saying he’s: “heard gossip you have a new boyfriend already. Wish I did (hee, hee).” He also wrote that: “Last No Apologies was teriffic,” and that he assumed someone had sent me John Carr’s write up of the magazine (they hadn’t according to my files). He says my problem now is “to do a bigger run…at least 500” because all of the magazine’s are “sold out,” which he wished were the case with Soup.
Abbott asked further about my studies and if I’d met “Susan Sontag yet or gay writers from Boston, NYC.” Then he mentioned David Levitt’s Christopher Street magazine debut, with his headshot on the cover. “They might as well have superimposed a target over his face—so many writers will be jealous” Abbott wrote. At the end of the letter, he mentions the Beck benefit he organized and that the next issue of Soup “should be out by January.”
The next letter, another undated missive I received in late October/early November on lined, three-hole composition paper, looks as if it were torn from a tablet. Abbott wrote that it was “Good to hear from you.” (I was so poor and such a poor typist that I did not keep carbon copies of the correspondence nor make copies of what I sent, so I could only guess at what I had written to them by their responses. Unfortunately, I do not see any of my correspondence listed online in the Steve Abbott Papers in San Francisco Library’s Hormel Collection). Abbott wrote he was sitting in Café Flore with his 13-year-old daughter, Alysia who was “driving him crazy,” because she kept suggesting he read things about personalities, such as “Johnny Rotten, from a rock & roll magazine.” He mentions a female reader’s angry response to a Flash article by or about Jack Micheline that she considered pornographic.
Abbott listed pieces and projects he had just completed: an interview of Ginsberg for the “Advocate and Poetry Flash,” the Beck Benefit and one for Harold Norse on Nov. 28th and one “probably for Soup.” He wrote he was “still getting on” with his boyfriend Joe, he hadn’t smoked for a week and that he was going to a movie with some men from Berkeley. In this letter’s second last paragraph, Abbott questioned my choice of Felice Picano as the interviewee for No Apologies #5. (Editor’s note: I went ahead with the Picano interview). Abbott ended his letter saying that both of us had accomplished a lot in the last year and that we should “pat ourselves on the back.”
The third letter from this period is dated 15 Nov 84. It mentions in just four short paragraphs, 19 artists and writers, a list that would have given even Hopper stiff competition. The typewritten letter begins with a handwritten note at the top: “Still off cigarettes!” The first paragraph says this letter is an “addendum to (the previous) letter.” Abbott says he’s busy responding to a “pissed off” letter from (1.) Bob Peters, but doesn’t mention why Peters is angry.
The second paragraph is a list of his recent contacts with writers and the news they brought him, demonstrating Abbott’s Hopper persona at its best and the importance and speed of gossip in his New Narrative group. Abbott wrote: (2.) “Neeli Cherkovski wrote him he’d had a nice visit with me. Although this is not included in my journal, Cherkovski must have recently visited Brown to read and I had the chance to speak with him afterwards as I did with Michael Palmer and Allen Ginsberg when they visited campus and read. Abbott said he heard (3.) Michael Mullen (a friend from my UC Berkeley English B.A. programme) who was returning from Paris because of money. Steve also wrote he’d seen films with (4.) Kevin (Killian) and (5.) “Bruce (Boone). He continued that Bruce and (6.) Bob (Gluck) dined with (7.) James McLaughlin,” and that McLaughlin had also had (8.) (Christopher) Isherwood, (9.), (Don) Bachardy and (10.) (Robert) Duncan to his place for dinner and that Bob’s book had found a publisher. Abbott reported he still hadn’t found a publisher yet for his novel, Holy Terror, but he did say that (11.)“Randy,…(who’s) rooming with an ex- of Sam D’Allessandro’s, was working on illustrating the book.” He also mentioned that the Gay Men’s Press of London “wants Malcontent.”
The third paragraph consists mostly of news about Abbott’s relationship with his boyfriend Joe, including a recent spat they’d had because Abbott had “razored” one of Joe’s bike tires after Joe had stood him up for a date. Abbott ends the paragraph the news that Finnella’s could close and would probably be replaced by a “shopping mall.” He wrote that “…if that happens, Joe wants to travel…—maybe even to Europe for a year.”
His fourth paragraph revealed the reach of Abbott’s writer’s circle and the speed at which news in it, even from afar, travelled. When I had phoned (12.) Dennis Cooper to request an interview a month or two earlier, Boone had been visiting at Cooper’s flat and the news passed quickly on to Abbott. Abbott asked in his letter if I’d done the interview yet. He mentioned that he’d recently seen (13.) Tim Miller, (14.) Judy Grahn and (15.) Paula Gunn Allen and his interview with (16.) Allen Ginsberg didn’t make it into the Flash because co-editor (17.) Joyce Jenkins put (18.) Bobbie Louise Hawkins’s interview in instead. Hawkins, however, telephoned Abbott a few days later and said she would submit Abbott’s name as a possible judge for some writers grants. So he concluded: “…every cloud must have some kind of lining (ha, ha).”
He ended his letter with a “hi” from Alysia and a description and drawing of her Halloween outfit which included a white prom dress, pearl earrings & necklace. (19.) “Robert (Pruzan) across the hall took pictures & she looked like a movie star.” Abbott’s drawing is directly below this text with an annotation “like a big water lily” next to the billowing body of Alysia’s gown.
Unfortunately after such a detailed, newsy missive, the next letter I have retained from Abbott is one dated 9 Jan 87, more than two years later, six months after I had graduated from Brown with my Masters in English and creative writing.
One of the reasons for this long break in his correspondence might have been my break with Killian in the winter/spring of 1985 over the miscommunication of pieces accepted for No Apologies #4. At any rate, it was two and a half years later before Abbott wrote me again. This time Abbott wrote he’d got my address from Roberto (Bedoya) and he’d “hear(d) yr teaching.” Abbott then wrote that during the past two years he’d taught at UCSF, would start teaching a gay writers workshop on Jan. 19th and was interviewing for a job at Mother Jones.
Abbott continued in the next paragraph to update me on his personal life. Two years previously he’d “stopped drinking or doing drugs” since he “broke up with Joe.” He’d tried to quit smoking but resumed after a year. At present, he didn’t have a partner, “just friendships.”
Abbott indicated that he was getting his “new book, The Lives of the Poets” through the presses. Rudy Kikel was sending him the final proofs. Abbott was also writing more for the Sentinel “(art criticism and his own column),” and that he’d recently met a “bright 22 yr old I like a lot.”
Abbott continued with news about Alysia, who was 16. She had worked at vegetable and clothing shops over the holidays, dated a 24-year old French cook and won a ACT Young People’s Theater scholarship the previous summer.
In the last full paragraph, Abbott indicates that although he’d been thinking of me from time to time, he had forgot to get my address from Phil Wilkie when he taught at James White Review last summer, and that he “missed the inspiration of my energy.” He ended the letter with “Best to you for this new year.”
In one of the rare instances in which I saved my correspondence with Abbott, on 17 January 1987 I sent Abbott a letter with a Sylvia cartoon at the top. I thanked him for his letter and commended him for “kicking the habit.” I congratulated Abbott on his new book and asked if Rudy Kikel was editing it for Alyson Publications. (The book, in fact, was published by Boone’s and Gluck’s Black Star series). I told Abbott I enjoyed his column and the article he’d sent about dreams and I commented: “if we quit dreaming, we’re dead.”
I then wrote I was teaching writing to high school students in exurban Massachusetts—“units on essay(s), autobiography, poetry, short story, and computer-based journalism.” I reported I’d been writing every day since October. I also described the crazy weather that winter—a foot of snow overnight—and my two-bedroom apartment in the little town where I taught. I told him I’d like to hear more about his teaching experience at the JWR writers’ retreat and that Phil Wilkie had invited me to read that weekend in NYC, but I couldn’t spare the time because I had a stack of 52 essays to grade. I told him to “Take Care” and I sent my best to Alysia.
The following month I saw Abbott in San Francisco when I flew there to visit and look for a job so I could return to the City that summer. He was at a dinner hosted by James Broughton and Joel Singer at their Noe Valley home. I made an appointment to meet Abbott later that week at Café Flore, but he didn’t show up. He called me the following day at Edward Mycue’s and Richard Steger’s flat, where I was staying, to tell me he’d fallen asleep and forgot about the appointment.
As I mentioned in my previous memoir of James Broughton, I wrote a review of Broughton’s poetry tapes, but had trouble placing it. Bay Windows and the Sentinel both rejected it. My review was eventually published by the James White Review.
The next month, in an envelope postmarked 23 March 1987, I received Abbott’s The Lives of the Poets with its reproduction of Samuel Johnson’s book’s title page of the same name, but with Johnson’s name crossed out in red and “Steve Abbott” written beneath it. Abbott sent the book with a personal inscription for me and a two-paragraph, typewritten letter in which he praised my review of Broughton’s poetry, which he had passed on to Eric Hellman (Sentinel) and Joyce Jenkins (Poetry Flash). Abbott added that “James will be pleased…it’s the best review of his work I’ve seen.” Abbott continued with the news that he’d resigned as the Sentinel’s books editor.
In the next paragraph he mentioned Lives. He also indicated that there was also a TV piece and an interview with Sam Steward inside, but both of these, however, I have unfortunately misplaced or lost. He wrote further that the visit with Steward was “depressing” but that my visit the previous month (with you) “was very pleasant.” Abbott’s title page inscription of Lives reads: “To Bryan Monte: In memory of so many shared things. (Now you’re in this book). Steve Abbott 3/27/87.” Abbott probably wrote the parenthetical comment because when we’d talked in February, I had asked him who, from our circle, was in Lives, but he wouldn’t tell me. I read the book and discovered that Abbott had mentioned himself and many of the writers we knew in San Francisco, such as Bellamy, Boone, D’Allesandro, Glück, Killian and Norse, but he had left me out even though I had published all of them.
Strangely enough, when I returned to San Francisco in July 1987, Abbott was one of the first writers I ran into, albeit coincidentally. We met by chance in Haight-Ashbury after my meeting with Thom Gunn. A passer-by took the photo of us below.
This is one of the last recorded contacts I had with Abbott. Once I moved back to San Francisco in July 1987, our communication was mostly face-to-face at readings or via telephone calls as it had been when I had lived in San Francisco before. I have a few journal entries of meeting Abbott in the late 80s, usually at Café Flore or other readings such as one for the James White Review in 1988. One journal entry for 11 September 1987 mentions that I saw him at Flore and that he was very apologetic about the Broughton review not appearing in the Sentinel. Alysia was there also. I wrote: “She’s 16 and beginning to look very beautiful.”
One of the best, undocumented memories of I have of Abbott is when he took me to what I think was John Norton’s Pacific Heights flat for Christmas. Here there was a free, buffet dinner for people who had nowhere to go, which someone had christened “Christmas Anonymous.” On a large table in the dining room was a carved turkey, a carved ham, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, salad, corn, pumpkin pie, Jell-O—all the traditional Christmas fare, for anyone who was there. It was here that I saw Norse and other members of SF’s LGBT literary scene who had spent the holidays alone because they weren’t welcome at home and/or didn’t have any other place to go. I remember eating my Christmas dinner sitting on a sofa looking at the downtown skyline and talking with Abbott and Norse. It was one of the most poignant and happiest parties I attended with these two men.
If I had any other further correspondence or contact with Abbott, I do not remember it, nor have I yet uncovered it. The last news I remember about Abbott, however, was less pleasant than my Christmas memory. In July 1990, I was at the KPFA-FM to possibly turn in my keys after a dispute with the one of the members of a weekly LGBT radio show. This member had taken an excerpt from my exclusive interview with East German, film director Heiner Carow and actor Dirk Kummer, the stars of the LGBT Frameline Film Festival, and rebroadcast it on another station without my advance permission and payment. This led to an argument with the other members of “the collective” that couldn’t be resolved by the assistant station manager. As I waited to talk him to decide whether I should quit the show, I saw a reading poster advertising an event headlined by Abbott and Jerome Caja, of which I knew nothing even though I’d been doing the gay news and event announcements for almost a year. Once again I felt ignored by Abbott, Caja and the other writers and artists I had known, reported on, published and promoted. I realized that after nearly a decade in SF, I had found virtually no solidarity with the gay community or its writers and artists. That poster tipped the balance and I decided to quit the show and KPFA even though the station’s director had offered me a Sunday news slot. From that moment forward, I decided to devote all my energy and time, outside of my 9-to-5 insurance job, (which would end two and a half years later due to four reorganizations), to teaching ESL and technical and creative writing evenings and weekends in preparation for my emigration to the Netherlands. AQ