The History of Sister Spit

Get ready to read aloud, and at the top of your lungs!

The inaugural book of the new City Lights/Sister Spit series has just arrived at City Lights! And, man, we love that new book smell!

Sister Spit: Writing, Rants and Reminiscence from the Road edited by Michelle Tea

A collection of writing and artwork from the irreverent, flagrantly queer, hilariously feminist, tough-talking, genre-busting ruffians who have toured with the legendary Sister Spit, Sister Spit: Writing, Rants and Reminiscence from the Road captures nearly 15 years of the provocative, politicized, and risk-taking elements that characterize the Sister Spit aesthetic. Here’s a history of the literary roadshow.

In 1994, Sister Spit began as a weekly, girls-only open mic in San Francisco, at the height of the spoken word boom of the 1990s. Noticing not many females were braving the Bukowski-esque, male-dominated open mics, poets Michelle Tea and Sini Anderson created a venue for females to perform poetry and other literature without having to wade through a bar of drunken yahoos, or endure a string of sexist rants while waiting to perform.

Sister Spit was girls-only on the stage; past, present and future girls allowing for the experience of trans people to be welcomed, and men were allowed to perform if they were an integral part of a woman’s act. Always free, Sister Spit was wildly popular from the first night, with a sign-up list of girl performers that could not fit on a single page of paper. Named ‘Best Place To Hear Silver-Tongued She-Devils’ by the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Sister Spit was one of the most popular events for queer women and Bay Area poets of all genders to attend, featuring writers such as Mary Gaitskill, Eileen Myles and Beth Lisick, as well as hundreds of up-and-coming local and emerging writers.

In 1996, noticing a wane in attendance, Michelle and Sini ended the open mic and put Sister Spit on hold while they pondered their next move. In the meantime, Michelle began playing drums for a couple of queer punk bands, even managing to tour the Pacific Northwest with one group. Surprised that the band was able to eek out a meager survival on the road despite their lack of talent, Michelle wondered what would happen if a group of the very talented writers she had met through Sister Spit went on the road. If a two-bit punk band could make it work than surely a gang of writers, with their wider appeal, could have a go.

In 1997, using resources such as the National Poetry Slam network, a gay and lesbian travel guide, Michelle and Sini cobbled together Sister Spit’s first national tour. Without credit cards or cell phones and on roommate’s borrowed dial-up internet, they booked 30 days of shows that took the tour through Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Tucson, New Mexico, Texas, New Orleans, Georgia, the Carolinas, New York, New England, Detroit, Chicago and other towns, staging their cabaret-style literary performance in a diversity of venues. Dive bars, drag bars, metal bars, art galleries, GLBT Community Centers, Sushi Restaurants, warehouses, poetry centers, cafes, bookstores, theaters and discos were some of the spaces that welcomed Sister Spit in the summer of 1997.

Michelle and Sini placed the names of dozens of writers into a hat and selected the lineup at random, a collection of poets, performance artists, novelists and stand-up-comics that included poet Eileen Myles and Whitney Biennial artist Harry Dodge. Michelle and Sini fundraised for one year, producing two benefit performances a month, and managed to purchase a van. Setting out on an untrod path – no one knew of any poets who had toured in this way, let alone a gang of overtly queer and genderqueer poets – the performers were met with enthusiastic audiences everywhere, selling out their shows in major cities, being put up and fed by strangers, selling out of hand-made poetry chapbooks. By the end of the first tour the Sister Spit van was dead (busted engine, sold for scrap in Alabama) and each artist was paid $80 dollars for their month of work. Michelle and Sini got to work booking the 1998 tour and fundraising for a new van.

Sister Spit’s Ramblin Roadshow crossed the country and ventured up into Canada throughout 2000, taking a variety of poets, writers and trapeze artists across the country each summer and on shorter, regional tours year-round. Michelle and Sini disbanded in 2001, and the Sister Spit name was relatively dormant, with Sini producing the odd event, until 2007.

With the 2007 publication of the anthology Baby Remember My Name: New Queer Girl Writing, editor Michelle Tea was planning to take select contributors on a national book tour. With all contributors being fresh, largely unpublished queer writers under 30, she noted how similar in spirit the tour was to the original Sister Spit, ten years later. On her own book tour, Michelle was surprised by how many readers inquired if Sister Spit would ever tour again – older individuals remembered and missed the wild, raucous and inspiring energy the group brought to tow, and younger queers knew the legend and were bummed they’d missed out. Michelle added 90s Spit alum Ali Liebegott to the tour’s lineup, and dubbed it Sister Spit: The Next Generation. It was a great success and heralded the return of Sister Spit.

Since 2007 Sister Spit: The Next Generation brings a group of queer-centric, feminist, irreverent artists across the United States and Canada, and occasionally throughout Europe, performing mainly at Universities and art centers, staying in hotels rather than strangers’ floors, and able to pay the performers a respectful honorarium for their month on the road. With performers such as Nicole J. Georges, Cristy Road, Eileen Myles, Beth Lisick, Ariel Schrag, Dorothy Allison, Miguel Guitierrez, Blake Nelson and Justin Vivienne Bond as part of their lineups, Sister Spit: The Next Generation is no longer a girls-only event, reflecting changes in gender identity and sexual orientation that has shifted the radical queer community that birthed it. Rather, Sister Spit: Next Gen retains the provocative, hilarious, politicized, soulful and risk-taking elements that have characterized its aesthetic while remaining true to a changing queer world and an ever-widening audience.

In 2012 Sister Spit makes a long-desired leap from promoting and supporting up and coming queer, feminist writers to actually shepherding them into print via a collaboration with City Lights Publishers. The new imprint, City Lights/Sister Spit will publish a handful of books each year, beginning with the highly anticipated and newly released anthology, and going on to bring back into print Spit classics such as Ali Liebegott’s The Beautifully Worthless.

This anthology has it all in a collection of poetry, personal narrative, artwork, and fiction from Sister Spit superstars, and this fall, catch up with Michelle Tea and crew for these book parties:

Thurs., October 18 • Los Angeles, CA • Skylight Books

Mon., October 22 • Santa Cruz, CA • Capitola Book Cafe

Weds., October 24 • San Francisco, CA • City Lights

Thurs., October 25th • Berkeley, CA • Pegasus Books

Thurs., November 8th • Portland, OR • Powell’s Books

Weds, November 14th • Brooklyn, NY • Greenlight Books

Thurs., November 15th • New York, NY • Bluestockings

More details about tour dates & locations here.

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