Cedar Sigo: 'Stranger in Town' // 2010

His voice is like an ex-husband / knocking at the door

In 2008, Sara Larsen invited Cedar Sigo to read in her apartment on Oak Street. The event was put on as part of her earthworm press & projects series, which was inspired in part by the Artifact reading series. (Thanks to earthworm’s defunct blog, I can report that this reading, at which the above photo “with APPARITIONS” was taken, took place on July 5, 2008. I can make out, among others, Tim Kreiner, Jill Richards, Nathan Berlinguette, Johnny Ray Huston, Konrad Steiner, Alli Warren, John Coletti, and Syd Staiti, plus what looks like the back of Rodney Koeneke’s head.) Asked who he’d like to read with, Cedar replied, “How about David?” Even though I’d lived in the Bay Area since 2005, it was the first time I had read my work, and it happened because Cedar was curious what I was up to, and generous enough to share space so that other people could find out too. He made a cyanotype postcard of a teenage couple slowdancing with the time and location of the reading — a material impulse that was already retro twelve years ago — and I saved this memento for many years on a little shelf of precious objects in the storage closet of the apartment Sara and I shared on Alcatraz Avenue. For me, and for a lot of other people I know, it felt for a while like Cedar was Bay Area poetry.

Appropriately enough, my first awareness of his work and person were in whiffs and rumors. There was a little (postcard-sized) broadside I’d always see when I went over to study Greek with Brandon Brown at the apartment on Shotwell he shared with Alli Warren. I don’t remember what the poem was called, but the last line was: “I have to go to work.” I think I didn’t really understand yet that you could put your work into a poem — maybe that’s why that line stuck with me. Then there was Cedar’s Selected Writings, which despite its title was a first book, with sleek design Ugly Duckling Presse borrowed from the classic Traveller’s Companion series of avant-garde novels and smut published by Olympia’s Maurice Girodias. The audaciousness of a premiere book that’s already a retrospect, and the citation of a whole lineage of art and libertine sexuality through smart book design — well, I was in before I ever met Cedar.

And, when we finally did meet, it seemed like I was swept right away into the wonderful world of parties that happened with a delightful frequency at the little cottage in the Mission that he shared with Johnny Ray Huston. “When I first moved to the Mission & established a household (2000),” he writes in “The Sun,” I found it difficult to continue to write my poetry.” I never would have guessed this from my own visits to that magical dooryard, always populated with friends you wanted to see, drinking and smoking, and the interior loud with conversation shouted over terrific music. (Cedar’s house was the first place I ever heard Journey in Satchidananda.) Also from “The Sun”: “We feel like a band of mystics along the right tracks.” Some places, some social worlds, are so engraved in our memories that it seems impossible that they have ceased to exist, and it feels as though some day we will walk through that vanished door again, the way we used to.

Cedar’s collection for the Spotlight series, Stranger In Town, feels like that house — full of talismanic objects and precious books tucked away in corners, alive with amazing people passing through, and with a manual typewriter always at the ready to transcribe some choice inspiration or conversation. (The social character of the poems is clear from the dedications and references to friends, from Patrick Dunagan to Sara Bilandzija: “Collaboration can be a terrific introduction to poetry.”) The book is carefully constructed to resonate, with attention to Jack Spicer’s declaration: “Poems should echo and reecho against one another.” It’s hard to believe that this volume was only Cedar’s second full-length book — it’s astonishingly poised and sure of itself. No wonder Cedar’s work has been such a touchstone for other poets.

He was always candid about his own apprenticeships, most particularly to John Wieners (namechecked no fewer than three times on the back cover, and the dedicatee of “Speedway”), though Cedar’s writing is less wrought and fraught than, say, Behind the State Capitol: Or Cincinnati Pike. In fact, the cool confidence of Frank O’Hara’s urban peregrinations feels as strong a presence as Wieners, particularly in the poems where Cedar writes with an “I” who both partakes of his own person but also blurs into film characters, fantasies, memories, and dreams. The book’s opening line sums up what feels like its floating persona: “Your first presence / is that of a con man / down on his luck.” (The con man reappears by name in “Port Orchard,” but is really present throughout — the hustler, seducer, criminal, queer as a figure for the artist.) “I am a card / a gay blade around women” the speaker declares in “Music for Torching” — and here, as well as in the title poem and repeatedly throughout the book, a first-person speaker wraps himself in luxurious facts that obscure our vision, but seductively — we’re enticed; we want to know more and draw closer. Then the mist comes up.

Weaving together friends, mentors, and literary antecedents into new poems stands out in Cedar’s “Villon,” a free rendition of that poet’s Ballad des pendus. Touching base with the great outlaw artists (Genet flits through the book toward the end) also connects with the chain of poets, including Ezra PoundBasil Bunting, and Stephen Rodefer, who have rendered the poem’s medieval French into modernist idioms to show, in part, how “all ages are contemporaneous.” Villon’s Paris was as glib, vulgar, stoned, sexed, ornate, and deathless as the Rome of Catullus, the New York of O’Hara, or, as it turns out, the San Francisco of Sigo. “Look out for all the hangmen.”

One gravitational center of the book is the author’s ars poetica, “The Sun” — both an exercise in composition as explanation and an attempt to open the field for the benefit of newcomers. Pound’s “A Retrospect” is a precursor, but the principal intertext is likely “The Lanterns Along the Wall,” an essay Wieners prepared for a class taught by Robert Creeley. “I cannot imagine a single day when I have not spent dreaming or conjuring certain habits of the poet.” Cedar had a copy of this rare pamphlet, printed in an edition of one hundred, on the bookcase in the back left of the front room of his cottage, next to the desk. Later on a lot of these precious books burned in a house fire. It seemed impossible that Cedar would ever leave that house, or leave San Francisco, but then it happened.

Sara and I once sat down with all the issues of Try and counted submissions to figure out who we’d published most frequently in the magazine. There were a lot of people in the running, but in the end, the answer was Cedar.