1,400 Words About Oakland Inspired by “Sorry To Bother You”

Oakland has this way of getting on my mind. It doesn’t take much – a breeze, a sound, a Warriors championship, and then it’s all I can think about. Put a full-length movie set deep in The Town in front of me and I’m gonna get caught way the hell up for a while.

The new Boots Riley film Sorry To Bother You got under my skin from the moment I heard about it. I’ve been ready and waiting to see what he did as an Oakland based filmmaker. But no amount of anticipation could have prepared me for how intensely evocative his film would be. What made my connection to the movie feel so strong was that it wasn’t just set in places my partner and I had visited, it was set in places we were, continuously, over long periods of time. Places we knew intimately and deeply.

The memories were fully alive for me watching the characters hang out at the galleries on Webster and 15thSt., the office buildings further up Harrison toward The Lake, and of course the Layover (I can still taste the too-many fresh greyhounds followed by half pints of hefeweizen to wind down countless long, dancey nights there). There are ways you know a place just by being familiar with it, and then there are ways that you become a place and it becomes you.

Oakland was a place where we lost a lot – health, mobility, potential, belief. But it was also where we reconstructed our sense of the world and our position in it. It was where we started over, from smoldering cinders, and it was never lost on us that the city itself, our specific neighborhood, was also in a simultaneous state of tearing down and rebuilding.img_5744

We moved to downtown Oakland in 2011. We lived there during the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements, blocks away from the epicenter of Oakland’s uprisings. Our apartment was perched directly on the axis of so many marches and protests that it felt like we were in the center of the world in constant revolt. We couldn’t go outside for a lot of it because on those same streets a man on a motorcycle had run me down and broken my body. So we listened, we watched from our windows, we let the sound of protest be our bellwether of the world outside while I recovered inside. As my body healed, we got to spend more time out there, in The Town. By then a lot of the heat had subsided, but we still had a lot of catching up to do.

We walked, at first with a wheelchair, then crutches, then just a pronounced limp. Laps around the block, laps around The Lake. And during those journeys we forged our community. Me and Autobono and our Oakland. We met people who came out of their shops when they saw us to cheer us on. To encourage us, and tell us stories about their own recoveries from injuries past.

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One of those people is one of my favorite artists. A man who works under the name Omiiroo. In those early days of our life in Oakland, Omiiroo had a gallery on 14thand Webster. He worked in this magically transient style – painting the walls of his gallery over and over, each time with a different vision of Africa. His paintings were multimedia representations of these ever-changing ideas about Africa, using words, paint, collage formed into the shape of the continent itself. Taken individually the paintings were complex, nuanced, inspiring, educational, beautiful and painful and indicting. Individually. But taken all together, they also represented the ephemeral way we understand anything at all, how our impressions of things shift and change and are replaced and are renewed and still somehow remain haunted by all their former iterations.

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We were so lucky that this extremely transitional time in our own lives involved daily visits to see Omiiroo’s work, to see what he changed, what he kept the same. The excitement and sorrow we felt every time we came by and saw the walls blank again, so sad to see the last piece erased, so dearly looking forward to seeing what he did next. He would come out of the gallery and talk to us about art and music and my busted leg. We came to feel so close to him…and then one day he was gone.

The neighborhood was in flux in so many ways. Oakland is in equal parts the roughest, most brutal, and most beautiful and loving place I’ve ever lived. Bullets regularly flew by our windows from the right, but you could look out to the left and watch the sun set on Lake Merritt or see people actively and vigorously standing up to defend human rights. On one side of us creative spaces were being shut down and dispersed, on the other they were consolidating a few blocks away around 15th and Harrison.

After he left his original gallery, Omiiroo ended up moving even closer to us, his new space butting up against the back of our building, and reopened his gallery just as active as he’d ever been. Flanked by the Naming Gallery and Mary Weather, Burnt Oak and Lequivive, our little block became a gathering place for art walks and street parties, openings and performances. It was pretty amazing, and our friend Omiiroo was an anchor in the center of it all. He hosted workshops and community meetings and flea markets where local artisans could showcase their work. He was a presence, a force.img_5256

We kept walking. On Sundays, when most of our neighbors were asleep, Eugene and I would walk the Lake, check in on the ducks and geese and punkass seagulls. If you’re a morning person, you know what a fucking treat it is to walk around a city when no one’s out. Often on those quiet mornings the first person we’d run into was Omiiroo. We’d duck into his shop and he’d make us pour over coffee which would take a while, so we got to just hang out and chat with him and check out his latest work while the water slowly filtered through. I can’t overstate how sweet those mornings were, sipping coffee in the hush of a neighborhood that just hours before had been a riot of music and conflict and expression.img_6158

Boots Riley was also a fixture in the neighborhood. I was familiar with him from his work in The Coup, so I recognized him when he was hanging out at the galleries, and I think he had a studio in one of the discrete little mixed use buildings around the corner. Our community was so fertile and prolific and close, so it made sense to see Omiiroo’s work featured prominently in Riley’s directorial debut. Like, of course, it’s our home, all our friends are here.

I feel like we describe a lot of art, especially films, as love letters to places, but STBY is a love letter to not just Oakland, but specifically to that 5 or 10 block radius we know as Uptown, Oaksterdam, Downtown, Home. All of the scenes were in places we recognized and were intimately familiar with. The music was made by local artists – The Coup, Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards. And the art was made by our friend and neighbor, Omiiroo. I high key got emotional when I saw his giant collages of Africa featured on the screen.

Even thinking about it now, the layers of meaning – the meaning inherent in the collages themselves and the significance of featuring that artist, from that neighborhood – blows me away, tears me down, rebuilds me on the spot.

The film is a fucking knockout completely separate from its setting, it’s weird and fun and punk as hell and terrifying and allegorical and challenging and buoyant and in a lot of ways felt like it was speaking directly to me – it’s so deeply rooted in one of my favorite places in the world, and it actually quotes one of my favorite monologues from my favorite movie in the world. There’s plenty in the film for everyone, and I’m dying to know how the movie would look to someone who didn’t feel such a strong connection to the setting. I wonder what you would see that I missed, what you might not notice that seems like the world to me. But I can’t stop being in awe of how deeply and abidingly Oakland it is. So Oakland, so personal, so true.img_5192

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An Evening of Poetry

IMG_5233This past Wednesday, Dancing Girl Press hosted a poetry reading at E.M. Wolfman General Interest Books in Downtown Oakland. It was my second time seeing one of their events, and what was once a total novelty has quickly become a welcome and well-anticipated tradition in the neighborhood. The event features three DGP poets reading from a mix of published chapbooks and works in progress, all of which were bold and fresh and captivating.

When I left the reading, I met up with a friend at the Golden Bull down the street and tried to explain how awesome the readings were, but I came up short. I realized I have way more words for things I don’t like than for things I do like. And that’s not ok with me anymore. So I figured I’d take a stab at reviewing the reading for this blog.

The first poet, Nicole Borello is a joy to see in action. I’ve had the pleasure taking several writing classes with her, so I was already familiar with her work – her short stories are powerhouses of humor and insight, and her poetry is equally accomplished. In addition IMG_5230to running her own independent press, Nicole has published three chapbooks, all of which are rich and substantial and incredibly accessible. Here’s the thing about Borello’s work – it sneaks up on you. Her reading style is so casual and conversational that you don’t realize you’re being blessed with a dose of badass feminist poetry. I call her work feminist, not because it follows a political agenda or anything, in fact you would be hard pressed to describe her work as political or pedantic. It’s more that the images she presents of women are gritty and real and vibrant – in her work we get to admire bountiful asses and the contents of padded bras, we explore intimate grooming and rites of motherhood and prostitution and abuse – but Borello addresses these things with her signature grace, in effect saying “of course we should talk about these things, because they are beautiful and ugly and real and true,” And in a society where we avoid such topics, giving them a place in poetry is itself an act of feminist assertion.

Now don’t get me wrong, the strength of her work is not solely in it’s subject matter or the accessibility of its delivery – this is well crafted poetry, this is a woman who understands form and structure and employs them every which way to pack maximum meaning into her words. I could get lost in them all day, unpacking connections and associations. This is potent, primal stuff. Her latest chapbook, Fried Fish and Breast Milk is available from Dancing Girl Press.

After the reading I picked up Sarah Chavez’s chapbook All Day, Talking, also available from Dancing Girl, because her poems and the ongoing narrative they explore just got under my skin. The poems in the collection all take the form of letters to a deceased woman named Carole. They range over time, revealing snippets of both women’s lives and their relationship, things they believed in and things they questioned together, and they also chart the speaker’s explorations of life with and after Carole – there’s an intimacy to her private thoughts while washing dishes, reminiscing about adventures they shared, forming and reexamining her identity over time, and of course grieving her lost love. I had to pick up the collection because the story was so compelling, like a really good novel, but masterfully packed into the frame of compact epistolary poems.

Discovering Chavez’s work was a treat and one of the reasons I love these readings (besides the fact that they’re local and hosted at a seriously delicious little bookstore where pretty much every book on the shelves is on my Goodreads list), because they bring talented voices practically to  my doorstep and introduce me to poetry I wouldn’t have found on my own. Check them out, especially if you think you don’t like poetry, ‘cause these two just might change your mind.