history

On the rare occasions when writers leave the world of books and scratchy pens on paper (or clicking keyboards for those who’ve embraced technology), they need a community that understands and appreciates their reclusive reality and sometimes awkward social graces. Small Press Traffic is a member of this endangered species—the literary arts center.

At an SPT event no one will look at you askance for rapturously exclaiming over a provocative poem, because they will be doing the same. And more than that: SPT is a place where you can meet and learn from the writer who penned the provocative poem and possibly even acquire the fundamentals and feedback to write your own provocative poem (or prose piece or play, etc.—SPT is an equal opportunity organization).

The initial conception of SPT was as a non-profit small press book center which would commit itself to the needs of small presses throughout the U.S. and to the needs of the poets and writers these small presses represent. In 1974 a bookstore on Castro Street, Paperback Traffic, generously rented out and oversaw a back room for SPT to carry 30 presses that published writers of color, experimental writers, and gay writers. A couple years later with a grant from the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, Denise Kastan, Jim Mitchell, and Beau Beausoleil moved SPT to its own second floor flat on 24th Street and Church. The idea was to provide the literary community with a small press bookstore, a catalog of small presses for libraries and bookstores, and a meeting place for writers.

Kevin Killian described the first bookstore as a “magical space like something out of Tolkien.” In 1977 with the arrival of Robert Gluck and a grant from the California Arts Council, SPT began offering workshops and initiated the reading series. The workshops were essential to the development of many Bay Area writers, including Dodie Bellamy, who described the classes as so much more alive than the formal academic classes she was taking at San Francisco State. Camille Roy described the classes as “democratic and open in spirit as well as fact. There was a willingness to engage with whomever might walk in.”

Creating community has always been essential to SPT’s function. This has gone well beyond different literary schools to encompass contemporary writers of all age, ethnic, socioeconomic, and cultural groups. With many of the programs, including the Left/Write Conference (1981–2), the Multicultural Reading Series (1980s), Erasing the Margins (1990s), and Expanding the Repertoire: Continuity and Change in African-American Writing (2000), SPT has successfully brought together literary and cultural groups that haven’t previously dialogued. In applying the theoretical to the practical, low cost workshops for less visible writers has always been a conscious priority, notably Robert Gluck’s older writers workshop (1978–85) and two workshops targeting at-risk and low income youth in the 1990s. Many impressive writers have passed through the doors of Small Press Traffic as part of the reading series; just check out our list of past readers.

Kaplan Harris wrote a fascinating article on literary and political groupings around Small Press Traffic in the 1970′s and 1980′s for Jacket2, with the terrific title ‘The Small Press Traffic school of dissimulation’. You can read it here.

Since the 1970s SPT has played an important role in the Bay Area’s innovative literary community and offered writers an alternative to academia. Despite decreasing funding, the 1980s also saw many readings, the initiation of a poetry contest in 1987 with Poetry Flash, and the Poetry on the Buses program. In 1986 and 1988 SPT hosted the West Coast Conference of Literary Organizations. At the end of the 1980s SPT incorporated to become a nonprofit tax exempt entity. Always thinking creatively, in 1989 SPT asked for contributions to sponsor individual chairs. Each chair sat proudly in the bookstore and boasted the name of the contributor’s favorite writer. During the 1980s SPT was the place to be for readers, writers, and presses with a literary/political agenda. It was a hub of activity, providing a place for the writing community to interact and stir up trouble.

With the arrival of the 1990s, the SPT purse strings continued to tighten, but SPT still offered valuable programs and became more innovative with its fundraising. In 1992, after losing $10,000 in grants, SPT held the Protecting Our Resources benefit at Fort Mason’s Cowell Theater with Kathy Acker, Susan Faludi, Genny Lim, and Adrienne Rich. The 1990s was also the beginning of the high profile series, New Words, New Directions featuring writers like Isabel Allende, Dorothy Allison, Thom Gunn, Jessica Mitford, and Anne Lamott. All of these fundraisers helped to keep the new programs in the 1990s going. 1993 was the beginning of the Anti-Mike series, a themed open mike that began with ten minutes of free writing, the Virtual Rhythm word and music series, and a poetry contest co-sponsored with the Bay Guardian.

By the middle of the 1990s though things began to unravel and SPT’s energy and innovation were no longer enough to keep the center going. There was a time when it looked like SPT might not be able to continue. Through the heroic efforts of Dodie Bellamy, Maureen Watts, and other board members, SPT was saved, although the book store was lost, and SPT changed directions to become more of a presenting organization. In 1995 SPT found its new home at New College of California. As a literary arts center SPT supplemented New College’s Poetics program, similar to the Poetry Center at San Francisco State. SPT continued to offer low cost workshops to community members and began to act as a small press library. The readings became a place where books could be sold and Traffic, the newsletter, took on great significance. Like the original Shakespeare & Co., the SPT bookstores began to take on the status of literary myth, but with its collegial affiliations, SPT remained at the heart of the Bay Area small press scene.

After a five year stint at New College, and through the exhaustive efforts of then-director Jocelyn Saidenberg, SPT moved to the California College of Arts in 2000 to join forces with a brand new writing program at the nationally known art school.

Moving to an art school made sense, since visual art had always been an important component of SPT, with art installations in the bookstore and letterpress broadsides as a perk of membership. Plus, there was definitely an overlap with the book arts community, since many members had their own presses.

The outward face of SPT has changed, but it still provides a forum for writers and presses to showcase their work and exchange ideas. SPT now has an advisory and funding function for independent-minded editors publishing their own magazines and starting their own presses. Since the move to New College and then CCA (hardly traditional educational institutions), there have been some significant conferences addressing the academic side of writing, facilitated by directors Elizabeth Treadwell and Dana Teen Lomax.

Now led by Samantha Giles, Small Press Traffic has continued to evolve as a legacy institution for avant-garde writing. Times have changed since 1974 and so has SPT.

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