What better way for a literary festival to celebrate its return than with a pun? San Francisco's esteemed Litquake kicked off Thursday night with a "masked ball" at St. Joseph's Arts Society, a repurposed Catholic church in SoMa.
Reduced capacity, a vaccine requirement and, yes, masking, were among the precautions taken. In a space that regularly holds more than 700, the gathering of roughly 200 local literary figures felt intimate rather than sparse, thanks to the shared sense of celebration and community.
(Nicole Henderson for Orange Photography)
The bombastic brainchild of interior designer Ken Fulk, the hallowed halls of St. Joseph's are a deluge of floral patterns and leopard print and sculptures of live-size bears standing guard. While the church has been seriously redecorated, the original architecture remains, full of alcoves and secret rooms for smaller groups to congregate. Pop-art paintings and sculptures filled the space thanks to the Society's current art exhibition of works by Ashley Longshore. St. Joseph's might be a secular, even iconoclastic institution now, but there was a sense of reverence and awe with which the community came together to celebrate literature.
"We wanted to make a festival for the writers and the readers," said cofounder and executive director Jack Boulware, speaking to the history of Litquake. The spirit of community that fuels the festival was palpable at St. Joseph's and the event felt like a triumph in itself.
"We had to jump through hoops to get here," said cofounder and artistic director Jane Ganahl. "I'm very happy that it's going so well."
"Litquake is all about folks congregating," said Zyzyvva managing editor Oscar Villalon. "It's a little unreal because it gives you a sense that things may finally get better. It's part of a whole general easing into life again."
"This place is beautiful and so are the people in it," said local bestselling author Daniel Handler. "I'm very happy to be out and about in a fancy suit talking to people."
In the evening of carousing—complete with free wine, tacos, and live music—San Francisco's third poet laureate Devorah Major performed an invocation to officially commence the festival. In her poetic speech, Major celebrated the diversity of the local literary community while acknowledging rampant cultural and historical issues, from racial discrimination and the lack of reliable education to the twisting of truth and celebration of ignorance, finishing out her declamation with a rallying cry.
"In this America," Major proclaimed, "we do indeed need words—words and books, authors and readers—and need to observe which words we celebrate, which authors we acclaim, and which readers we acknowledge, and why. In the midst of this earthquake of literature, let us look, let us see, let us listen, let us hear, and let us act."
As a performance poet, Major told me she relies on audience and the ability to connect with people in-person. "You have to be in the world," she said. "We are an interconnected, interdependent species. We don't do well in our little caves by ourselves."
If you're still playing it safe but want to get involved, Litquake's schedule can accommodate. The festival runs for two weeks with talks online as well as outdoor and indoor live events. Litquake culminates with another party: the annual Litcrawl on October 23rd will feature live readings in bars and bookshops throughout the Mission.
// For the full schedule of events, visit litquake.org.