From San Diego Union Tribune - June 26, 2005
A skeleton lies on a beach, appearing to have dug itself into the sand. Gentle surf breaks in the background. Contrails lace the sky. A sea gull scolds the remains – which are attached, by cable, to a keyboard.
"Sunshine/Noir: Writing From San Diego and Tijuana" ($12.95), out this month, is the first book from San Diego City Works Press, a publishing house born out of the optimism, frustration, hard work and counterculture snark of a dedicated group of teachers and writers based at San Diego City College.
Jim Miller, who teaches English at City College, is the book's editor.
"In 2002," he said, sitting in his broom-closet office, "a bunch of us got together – Hector Martinez, Donna J. Watson, Roberta Alexander, a lot of old MFA grads from (San Diego) State. We were all actively writing, and we all had similar experiences publishing."
That is to say, they encountered a decided lack of interest in San Diego from publishers – especially, said City College literature and writing professor Watson, material that does not conform to preconceived notions.
"San Diego is painted as this place that's conservative," she said. "People come here to retire; that's what it is, and the city doesn't need voices that counter this idea. What do they think is going on in San Diego – Tijuana and vacations? We have to turn to ourselves, to people who are interested in what's going on and what the place is going to be."
Calling themselves the San Diego Writers Collective, they came up with $10,000 from their own pockets (Miller: "And we are not affluent people"), then got a huge boost when the American Federation of Teachers Local 1931 matched that amount. KSDS/FM 88.3, the jazz station located on campus, publicized the project by announcing its call for submissions. David Boyne, editor and publisher of the monthly Word: San Diego, did the "Sunshine/Noir" layout at no charge. Sunbelt Publications in El Cajon volunteered to serve as distributor. Bookstores like Wahrenbrock's, D.G. Wills and Book Works in Del Mar agreed to carry the book when it came out.
Watson was also in Miller's broom-closet office, a situation emblematic of the nature of City Works Press: informal and intense, jerry-rigged and seat-of-the-pants. Miller is listed as editor of "Sunshine/Noir," but a lot of people worked on it. His wife, Kelly Mayhew, who also teaches at City College, became the de facto managing editor for the project ("We learned a lot about the nuts and bolts of printing"), but positions and responsibilities will be flexible, will change, are up in the air (hence, "seat-of-the-pants"). There is no headquarters – no sign on any door proclaims that City Works Press is on the other side – and it was begun, and remains, an all-volunteer effort on the part of about 30 local writers and teachers, a collective whose level of involvement ranges from editing to writing to organizing to contributing financially.
Dennis Wills, of D.G. Wills Books, agreed to stock "Sunshine/Noir" as soon as he learned who was behind it.
"I thought sure, why not?" he said, "in view of the people they were assembling: Steve Kowit, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Marilyn Chin . . . and Jim Miller and Kelly Mayhew appeared here with Mike Davis for 'Under the Perfect Sun,' " their eye-opening, 2003 counter-history of San Diego, "and I was sufficiently impressed with their work." Wills has copies of "Sunshine/Noir" sitting on his front counter.
But the driving force behind the enterprise – which is, and will remain, nonprofit – is the collective's desire to represent the San Diego they see around them every day. Although not all members are at City College (poets Sandra Alcosser and Wendy Chin, for example, are at SDSU, and Kowit is at Southwestern), the City College/blue-collar ethos permeates the new press and its first book.
From "Blessed," by Angela Boyce:
The teenaged boy
who sells tamales
a fragile web of connection
via mobile eatery
are replaced by oversized headphones.
bursts de la canta erupting de la boca
he stops at the waiting door open in anticipation of a visitor
the day's coming warmth.
"We wanted to represent the San Diego we work in," Miller said, "working class, multiethnic, really different from what you get from boosterism." As he writes in the introduction to "Sunshine/Noir," "Perhaps the suffocating banality of official San Diego's pious 'America's Finest City' mantra has led even those who know better to think that nothing is possible here other than the affectless pleasure that comes from drifting back and forth between the beach and the mall. Nonetheless, underneath San Diego's superficial sunshine, writers have found both grit and genuine transcendence."
From "The Perfect Fire," by Mike Davis:
Sunday morning in San Diego. The sun is an eerie orange orb, the eye of a hideous jack-o'-lantern. The fire on the flank of Otay Mountain, which straddles the Mexican border, generates a huge whitish-gray mushroom plume. It is a rather sublime sight, like Vesuvius in eruption. Meanwhile the black sky rains ash from incinerated national forests and dream homes. ...
It is, of course, the right time of the year for the end of the world.
Collective member Roberta Alexander said that from the beginning, the collective has been a multilcultural group. Alexander, City College professor of English and Chicano Studies, former English Department chair and academic senate president-elect, was instrumental in hiring many of the people behind City Works Press, for which she has served as a kind of adviser, conduit to the community and one-woman support system.
"To have this kind of press in San Diego is important because of limitation in both academic and mainstream press," she said. "It gives voice to a population not usually heard."
"Sunshine/Noir," comprised of nearly four-dozen essays, poems and pieces of nonfiction – there's even some art – is not a pallid, nonconfrontational collection. One piece sure to raise eyebrows, if not voices, is Victor Payan and Perry Vasquez's "Keep on Crossin' Manifesto," complemented by a sew-on patch showing a sombrero'd, mustachio'd dude striding across the Mexico-U.S. border, R. Crumb's "Keep-on-Truckin'"-like. (The character's name: R. Carumba.)
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to cross borders of political, social, linguistic, cultural, economic and technological construction ... we will cross. For long before there were borders, there were crossers. We are the proud sons and daughters of these crossers, and we hold that crossing is a basic human right. Furthermore, we hold this right to be in-illegal-alienable.
Artificial borders of body and mind and spirit must be crossed off the list. For every star-crossed, cross-bearing, cross-platform, cross-dressing, cross-country, cross-walker at the crossroads of culture, the time has come to cross. ...
By wearing this patch, we declare that our garment be counted as a piece from Dr. King's "single garment of destiny."
And to ensure that the sun and moon continue to shine on the smiling faces of the free, we will continue to cross.
While they are in one sense wildly ambitious, the committed minds that comprise City Works Press and the San Diego Writers Collective are determined to keep the project small and manageable. ("Everyone teaches five classes," Miller explained, "and has other projects as well.") Their long-term goal: four books a year, probably none of which will be such a labor-intensive undertaking as a collection like "Sunshine/Noir."
Which is not to say that City Works will shy away from innovative ideas. Already it has created the Ben Reitman Award, a best-first-book contest open to writers of unpublished poetry, fiction or nonfiction. Instead of a cash prize, the winner will have his or her book published – 1,000 copies – by City Works Press as one of its four annual publications. The rights will revert to the author, so that should the book catch on, he or she can sell it to a for-profit publisher for, well, a profit. It's the press' one national project; everything else is local.
(The name of the contest is something of an in-your-establishment-face in-joke: Ben Reitman was the partner of the famous socialist Emma Goldman. The two of them were run out of San Diego in 1912 – Reitman was kidnapped from the U.S. Grant hotel, taken to the county line and savagely beaten – when they attempted to speak on behalf of the I.W.W., the Industrial Workers of the World.)
Another of City Works Press' annual books will be by a member of the collective. (The screening process, Miller said, will be intense, professional and inevitably painful.) But perhaps the most important publication is a chapbook – a 20-to 40-page pamphlet of poetry, fiction or nonfiction, by a City College student, to celebrate student writing. In fact, although "Sunshine/Noir" was City Works Press' first book, it published its first chapbook earlier this year – "Vox Saxophonos" ($4), by Luis Omar Lopez, described on the City Works Web site (www.cityworkspress.org) as "A surreal rant . . . Dada poetry for the postmodern age."
"City College," said Miller, " – this campus really is the most culturally diverse in the county, and an incredible amount of richness, a real vitality, comes out of that. We want to encourage working-class writers who have never had any chance of ever, ever being a writer. A lot of us believe that it's important to say to these people, Yes, you can be a writer, a poet. You have something to say."
Copyright © 2005 City Works Press. All rights reserved.