With SF Pride just around the corner, we thought this would be a good time to take a look back at Sister Spit, which for the past twenty years has been entertaining, educating, and enlightening audiences through their live performances, recordings, and books.
Begun by Michelle Tea as a female-only reading series, Sister Spit went on to become a wildly popular weekly event, then a successful road show, then a series of albums, and then a new generation of successful shows. Since 2012, Sister Spit has been collaborating with City Lights to publish a series of original and radical feminist writing. So far, City Lights/Sister Spit has released six critically acclaimed titles, featuring a range of work from Ali Liebegott, Beth Lisick, Dia Felix, Lenelle Moïse, and Sister Spit co-founder Michelle Tea. (A seventh book, Man Alive by Thomas Page McBee, is due out later this year.)
We are proud of each and every one of these books, but the heart of Sister Spit will always remain in the performances that, twenty years ago, first started them off. In her introduction to the inaugural book of the Sister Spit series, the anthology Sister Spit: Writings, Rants and Reminiscence from the Road, Michelle Tea talks about how it all began below–along with some kickass video of our Sister Spit authors reading/performing.
Sister Spit was born in 1994, to fill a void. Spoken word cresting in popularity in cities and college towns across the United States, with Lollapalooza recruiting performance poets to open up for the Beastie Boys in stadium shows and Poetry Slam about to demonstrate that literature can have the energy of a sporting event. In San Francisco there was no lack of poetry open mics for aspiring writers to show their stuff at, but the majority of writers hitting those stages were men. And not just men — dudes. Bros. Guys who set their beer cans at the altar of Charles Bukowski. Guys who ripped off their shirts and hollered their poems in homage to Henry Rollins. The events, be them in coffee shops or dive bars, had the vibes of a wild west saloon, and to get respect (or even get heard) you had to be bold enough to climb onto the stage and tell the ruffians sucking down suds to Shut the fuck up. They would startle quiet at your language, and then you had about twenty seconds to make them laugh or make them mad, to gross them out or piss them off. If you pulled this off you got a round of applause and/or some guy wanting to get in a shout fight with you at the end of the bar. Other poets would walk up to you and shake you hand, give you their chapbook; in another month you’d have one to give to them. The host would invite you to “feature” and you’d be paid in drink tickets. I loved this world, and the few females who figured out how to work the circuit were for sure the crazy bitches you wanted to be hanging out with — girls who’d gone to jail for stabbing their boyfriends, hookers, butch girls with cut-marks on their arms, junkie bike messengers, spastic fantastic jabber-mouths, brave, brave females and the best writers in the scene.
But what about the rest of the girls? In San Francisco, a city known for both its literary and queer scenes, why weren’t there more females at these readings? Well, duh. Not everyone wants to have to tango with a bunch of drunkards to read their work. And work that’s being honest about female experience in America can be hard and vulnerable; quiet and fragile. These bars were no place for work like that. Not to mention all the offensive poetry you had to endure waiting for your shot at the mic, poems where guys talked about women in ways were astoundingly retro and disgusting. I got in fights with male poets all the time at these open mics; I was into it. But not everyone has such a hobby. And so with Chicago poet Sini Anderson, Sister Spit was born. A girls-only open mic that ran every Sunday night, for free, for two solid years. By girls we meant past, present, and future females, and men were allowed to perform if they were part of a female’s act. Once a year, on Easter Sunday, we’d have a marathon event called Sissy Spit, where all the guys we really liked would read.
The night of the very first Sister Spit, fifty females signed up to perform. We were unable to fit them all into the program. Our audience pushed back through the bar and spilled out onto Valencia Street. We had poets and writers and a puppeteer who crawled under the stage and performed a play with Nun finger-puppets. And off it went from there: a performance artist covered the stage in trash bags in anticipation of the mess she would make chain-sawing a pig’s head, but then an animal rights activist stole the pig’s head right off the stage and ran down the street with it. Girls danced naked with fire. A woman came every week and spoke to the Goddess through a telephone-shaped rock she’d found in the desert. Girls sang songs on acoustic guitars. Eileen Myles read with us, and Mary Gaitskill. Strippers took glitter baths in inflatable bath- tubs, and drag kings masturbated dildos. A punk poet safety-pinned her lips shut, and we all dreamed of David Wojnarowicz. We had our canon — David, and Dorothy Allison, Jean Genet and Violette Le Duc, Mayakovsky and Cookie Mueller, Divine and Karen Finley, Diamanda Galas and Richard Hell, Emily Dickinson and Patti Smith, Kathy Acker and Sapphire, Kathleen Hannah and Aaron Cometbus, Ginsberg and yeah, Bukowski.
The full introduction, plus the first two pieces from this amazing collection, can be found here.
Although the Sister Spit 2014 tour recently wrapped up, you can still watch some of our favorite performances from the past. First, a wonderfully informative video of Michelle Tea talking about Sister Spit in 2014: