Tea and Spit
By Adam Rathe
Vans have traditionally been the domain of rock bands. Legions of musicians have criss-crossed the country in gas-guzzling eight-seaters, sharing space with a trunkload of equipment and a backseat full of groupies. But there’s another group of badass, hard-edged performers who haven’t shied away from piling into the Econoline -- and they’re getting ready to invade your bookshelves.
Sister Spit, the San Francisco–based spoken word and poetry institution known for touring the country and world with a van full of writers, performers, and queer renegades of every stripe, is jumping from the road to the page this fall. In September, Sister Spit: Writing, Rants, and Reminiscence From the Road, the first title from Sister Spit’s new book imprint (in partnership with the legendary publisher City Lights), hits shelves -- the first in a series of books overseen by Spit founder Michelle Tea that will include work from established compatriots, as well as emerging talent from the same literary pirate mold.
Sister Spit began in 1994 as a free, women-only open-mic series in San Francisco, an alternative to what Tea calls a predominately straight, male scene full of “guys influenced by Henry Rollins and Charles Bukowski.” Tea and her cohort Sini Anderson hosted the readings, attracting unknown writers, as well as boldfaced names like Mary Gaitskill, Eileen Myles, and Bambi Lake. After taking a break from the instantly popular series to tour with her rock band, Dirt Bike Gang, Tea realized that what she wanted to do was bring her reading series on the road.
“We had incredible experience of being artists on the road in America, meeting other queers, and getting to see other scenes,” Tea says of her first tour. “I left the band after that tour because I wanted to focus on writing and felt I wasn’t writing as much once I started playing drums. But I really wanted to have that experience again.”
And she did. Tea and Anderson took the group on the road for the first time in 1997 with a one-month, 30-show tour of the U.S.
“We had no credit cards, we had no parents who were giving us money or anything like that,” Tea says. “We were in our early twenties. We had no cell phones I didn’t have a computer. We fundraised for a solid year to buy a van, and it was really successful. We didn’t make any money -- everyone got paid $80 at the end of it all.”
The group toured for three years before going on hiatus -- Tea and Anderson no longer work together -- and then reactivating in 2007. During that time, Tea continued to establish herself as a bookish Bay Area powerhouse, working as a writer and editor, and running RADAR, a literary nonprofit group. It’s no surprise then that City Lights, the publishing house founded by Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, wanted to be in the Michelle Tea business.
“I felt [Sister Spit] had a natural home here,” says City Lights publisher Elaine Katzenberger. “City Lights has had a long tradition of publishing what some people might call renegade writing, and certainly queer literature has had a home at City Lights since the very beginning.”
Tea aims to keep that tradition burning bright. “One of the reasons why I wanted to do this imprint,” she says, “is so many of the amazing writers that I know are published on small presses that are going under because they’re small and they’re queer and the publishing industry’s brutal. We nurture all of this work from people who are really great but struggle to find a place. That’s really why we’re doing this.”