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The City and the Writer: In San Francisco with Matthew Zapruder

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

 —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of San Francisco as you feel/see it?

I read somewhere that San Francisco is a bit of a flirt, and I agree. Driving or walking around, you can suddenly come out of hills covered in houses or other structures and get a view of a long, narrow street leading up or down toward the water, or of one of the bridges or of the gorgeous green hills across the bay. Even if you know it's coming it's quite surprising, like seeing someone you love in the middle of getting dressed suddenly look very beautiful. The overall effect is very charming and seductive. There is also a lot of variation in the city, which is actually not so big, and each neighborhood has its own particular weather (people here call them “microclimates” which to me seems a little self-important), so living in San Francisco can be like being in a relationship with someone who is moody in an exciting and ultimately harmless way.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

I moved to San Francisco in the early 1990s, after college, and stayed there until 1994, when I left to go to graduate school back on the east coast, where I am from. I remember feeling a bit heartbroken but also relieved when I was leaving, like it was time to go. Coming back was unexpected: the person who is now my wife lived and worked here, so I moved here from New York a few years ago. As sappy as it sounds, I don't feel as if my heart has been broken by living in this city, rather healed, or healing. 

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Sometimes I feel that the Bay Bridge (which leads from downtown San Francisco to the East Bay, Berkeley and Oakland, gets short shrift in favor of its much more celebrated sibling the Golden Gate Bridge. So maybe I feel protective of it. I have a great 3-D postcard of the Bay Bridge on my desk: when you turn it one way it is day, the other way it is night. Personally one of my favorite views is to walk downtown and see through the tall office buildings a view of the gray and stately Bay Bridge. Currently a new version of the bridge is being built right next to the old one, a seismic upgrade, and so far it looks really cool. I would recommend anyone who is coming to San Francisco to spend a little time studying up on the Bay Bridge, you can read information and even see live video of the new construction on

What writer(s) from here should we read?

If you are interested in poetry and coming to San Francisco a great poet to read is Jack Spicer. He was a friend of the well-known Beat writers, and lived in North Beach, and was a complicated, essentially miserable, but brilliant character. He has many great poems, including perhaps his greatest work, Imaginary Elegies. Here is the beginning of the second Imaginary Elegy:

God must have a big eye to see everything
That we have lost or forgotten. Men used to say 
That all lost objects stay on the moon
Untouched by any other eye but God's.
The moon is God's big yellow eye remembering
What we have lost or never thought. That's why
The moon looks raw and ghostly in the dark.
It is the camera shots of every instant in the world
Laid bare in terrible yellow cold.
It is the objects we never saw.

Is there a place here you return to often?

I live in North Beach, so I have lots of good walking options. One is to go down Columbus Avenue to the legendary City Lights bookstore, still thriving. Another is to walk west along the northern shore of the city, through seedy and hilarious Fisherman's Wharf, with its trinket shops and drunk tourists, along the small beach of Aquatic Park (where Spicer used to sit and drink beer and listen to baseball games), past the Dolphin Club and the Maritime Museum, and up into Fort Mason Green and then down the steps to Fort Mason itself, a reclaimed military installation that is now home to a famous vegetarian restaurant (Green's) and other structures devoted to the arts of leisure. 

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The aforementioned City Lights is the most obvious answer to this question. Anyone with any literary interests who goes to San Francisco should visit it at least once, and then get a drink across Columbus Avenue at Tosca. The house coffee (hot chocolate, steamed milk and brandy) is great on a cold day. A newer bookstore/gallery that is really interesting is Press: Works on Paper, in the Mission District, you can find some really exciting books and book-related items there.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

As I said above, in a certain way there are many cities hiding within the city of San Francisco. I think this is probably true for all great cities, though some are less variegated, which does not diminish their greatness. If you just go for some long walks in San Francisco you will come upon places that feel hidden and secret.

Where does passion live here?

If there is one thing San Franciscans are passionate about, it is San Francisco. A friend of mine says it is because people come west with the dream of change, and this city for them can be the emblem of that new life. If you want to find passion in San Francisco, just ask a denizen what he or she loves about the city, and you will get mostly rave reviews, with maybe the occasional complaint about fog or buses. Two of the most passionate and lively neighborhoods are Chinatown and the Mission. Chinatown has still retained much of its original character, and is the most populated area per square foot of the city. The Mission, which was the Latino neighborhood of the city, has become overrun with hipsters, for better and worse, but has an electric vitality which even desperately studied coolness cannot diminish.

What is the title of one of your poems about San Francisco and what inspired it exactly?

There are many poems in my most recent book (Come on All You Ghosts) about San Francisco, since I moved here right in the middle of writing it. “Travelers Among Mountains and Streams” begins with the speaker, in this case essentially me, walking around the city on a rainy day: “Onto the streets I go and see the horrible/ charming Victorians of my new home San Francisco/ where I have moved for love./ Like purple plastic wedding dresses/ they are ready to be left out imperviously/ in the rain.” The next poem in the book, “Poem for San Francisco,” ends with the following lines about the Bay and Golden Gate bridges: “There is one great bridge/ at the edge of the city falling asleep. And another/ humming an orange welcoming song.”

Inspired by Levi, “Outside San Francisco does an outside exist?”

That sounds like the kind of question San Franciscans would love. They probably would answer “of course!” while actually secretly believing the answer is “how could there be?”


Matthew Zapruder is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Come On All You Ghosts (Copper Canyon, 2010), a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared in many publications, including Tin House, the Paris Review, the New Republic, the New Yorker, BOMB, Slate, Poetry, and the Believer. He has received a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship, a William Carlos Williams Award, a May Sarton Award from the Academy of American Arts and Sciences, and a Lannan Literary Fellowship. Currently he works as an editor for Wave Books, and teaches as a member of the core faculty of UCR-Palm Desert's Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing. He lives in San Francisco. 


NH’s Discovery of the Month:

The grand dame of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, just celebrated her seventy-fifth anniversary (on May 27, to be precise). This icon guides locals and charms visitors. The bridge is painted “international orange,” a color developed especially for it. And while crossing the bridge as the sun sets, you most likely leave a piece of you in it’s magic which isn’t meant to be described just lived.

San Francisco doesn’t disappoint our imagination and even when we are ready to leave, we are always prepared to return (I’ll admit having hesitated about coming back because of the cold winds . . . but never for more than a brief minute). The city pulls you in and asks you to open yourself.

Whether you are walking in the Marina or North Beach, the Mission or the Haight, SoMA, or Chinatown, the international mix of people, vistas, and vibes leaves you wanting to explore more. After all, this is the city of the Beats, Hippie cool, the Rainbow Revolution, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and even where Mark Twain began considering his name (born Samuel Clemens). Also Craigslist started here (by Craig Newmark), and the endless coffee shops have you addicted to caffeine (and the wine is not so bad here either—great while writing verses on a lovely afternoon).

Literary art is abundant—California College of the Arts, Litquake, the Poetry Center, the San Francisco Main Library, The Word Party (poetry & jazz), the many bookstores— City Lights, the Booksmith, Green Apple Books, Adobe Book Shop, Alexander Books Co., Books Inc. It goes on and on. There is also the Beat Museum across the street from City Lights Bookstore. Other museums I constantly return to: the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Cable Car Museum, the Cartoon Art Museum, and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

San Francisco quietly accompanies you in your wanderings, disillusions and illusions—then, suddenly, you are standing in front of the ocean asking yourself something daring, or writing a verse in a voice you don’t know yet.

Published May 31, 2012   Copyright 2012 Nathalie Handal

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