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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

MFA Students Prove Their Worth in New Series Writing Without Walls

Posted By on Wed, Jul 20, 2011 at 2:00 PM

Tahminah Zaman demonstrates Egyptian dance before reading poetry at Sacred Grounds. - CHRISTOPHER LOZANO
  • Christopher Lozano
  • Tahminah Zaman demonstrates Egyptian dance before reading poetry at Sacred Grounds.

MFA programs are worthless. The whole thing is just a pyramid scheme that produces nothing more visceral than occasional paper cuts. At least that's what some people say. But a group of Bay Area MFA students is meeting up after school to share work with one another. The result is Writing Without Walls, a new monthly submission-based reading series formed by people in programs at USF, California College of the Arts, and Mills College. They seem oblivious or indifferent to the aforementioned charges. Each of their shows is themed and takes place at a different venue.

The second show, "It's Yer Birthday," was at Sacred Grounds over the weekend. To make the most of that notorious space at the edge of Golden Gate Park, founders and hosts Rey-Phil Genaldo (USF), Gina Goldblatt (Mills), and Jeff Von Ward (CCA) removed all tables and chairs and induced a floor seating only policy. When I walked in early, the three were taping blankets to the floor. It happened to be Genaldo's birthday, and to his surprise, Von Ward brought a giant cake. But it turned out there was more than one reason to celebrate.

After a highly successful first show at Project One Gallery, the trio showed up relaxed and ready. Marcelino "Nino" Urioste was the guest MC. Readers took the floor and started with no more introduction than their names.

Diana Salier delivered sassy poems drenched in Internet lingo, from text-message conversations to the shameless "When you brush my teeth in the bathtub, I crouched by your ears and shouted, 'Baby! You must be a Facebook page because I Like you." She capped that off with a clever confession: "I'm hiding my real feelings in my underwear, and hoping that you just stumble on them eventually."

Courtney Moreno took us on a first date that felt dangerously close to being clichéd but managed, impressively, to remain authentic and even idiosyncratic. (In that regard, it was just like a first date.) Her character is an EMT who's so nervous that her throat is too dry to speak until she shares a few stories from her only two days of experience on the job. "The reward for my self-deprecation is the way her mercurial green eyes lock on my face as I spin one story after another," Moreno said, "and the sound of her rich laughter at all the hoped-for moments. 'Sounds about right,' she says, when I stop to catch my breath."

Molly Kat commanded the crowd with a spoken-word delivery that, though teetering too close to the too-much-information faux pas as she addressed abortion and female body image, possessed an impassioned honesty, intelligence, and way with words that show real promise as a poet. Either the character, whose baby "would have turned five today," was an adroit vessel for the author's own experiences, or Kat is already a resounding performer.

Tahminah Zaman previewed a demonstration (see for yourself in the clip below) of the authentic Egyptian dancing she will exhibit as part of a November performance for the Soul Fragments Collective. She punctuated this with a powerful poem about dispossession: "You chained our poems to stone walls, taxed us for eating our own salt, started 1,000 wars, drew borders in human bone, and bounced."

If the traditional outlet for MFA students is literary journals, which gather poems and stories and accumulate until one day they are discarded for other poems and stories, series like Writing Without Walls provide an outlet that allows these students to see their work affecting other people in real time, and this is more valuable than any kind of publication right. The series might also be a great way for these MFA candidates to meet one another and socialize, but the focus is very much on the work they have created.

Visit the Writing Without Walls website to see what happened in the second set and find out about the next show -- including submission guidelines -- scheduled at the Subterranean Art House in Berkeley.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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Evan Karp

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