TALKING WITH … KELLY MAYHEW ANTHOLOGY PROBE…
When National Geographic Traveler recently named its 20 “go-now destinations” for 2016, the list included the San Diego/Tijuana region. Under “What to Read Before You Go,” it mentioned one book: “Sunshine/Noir II: Writing From San Diego and Tijuana.”
Published in October, the anthology features the work of more than 50 writers, photographers and artists, edited by Kelly Mayhew and Jim Miller, a married couple who teach English at City College. They are co-authors of several books and helped found the nonprofit San Diego City Works Press, which published “Sunshine/Noir II” and is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.
In addition to teaching four classes, Mayhew helps to run the Labor Studies and Honors programs at City College. She joked that she’ll sleep again Dec. 18, when the current semester ends.
Q: There’s a line on the back cover of the book that says, “Enter at your own risk.” What are we risking by reading the book?
A: One of the things that we strive to do in all of our work is complicate the picture of San Diego that people have. We’re such a tourist destination that I think a lot of times people have kind of a postcard view of us as just the beach and SeaWorld and the zoo and Balboa Park. We want to complicate that and bring to the fore all the richness and sometimes the darkness that a real city has.
Q: What do we learn about San Diego that maybe we didn’t already know or understand?
A: We learn a lot about what it’s like to live on both sides of the border. What is the nature of a border city? Who are the people who have come over and go back and forth? What are their lives like?
One of my favorite pieces is by Mychal Odom, and he writes about the black power movement in San Diego in the 1960s. Those movements are often the focus of places like Los Angeles or New York or Oakland or San Francisco – we had the same sorts of things going on here.
We learn about what it’s like to live in City Heights. Anna Daniels has a wonderful piece about her neighborhood, which is composed of immigrants and poor people and people from all walks of life.
We’ve been accused of only focusing on the dark, but I don’t think we do. If you look at Steve Kowit’s poems, they are just pure joy when you read them.
Q: Many people think of “noir” as a particular kind of mystery or crime novel. There is some fiction here, but a lot of the pieces aren’t. What’s your idea of noir?
A: We do have a couple of out-and-out noir pieces at the end. The last section is called “Through a Lens Darkly,” and Jim Miller writes in a literay essay there about not just noir fiction, but a noir sensibility. You are looking at the underside of life that runs beneath and below the happy, sunny exterior.
He talks in the essay about San Diego as a place that is ripe for noir, and San Diego as a place that has had some noir written about it, although it’s not celebrated in ways that other places have had it celebrated.
Q: How did you decide what to include and how to organize it?
A: We locked ourselves in our house for a week figuring that one out. (She laughed.) The book has four sections, and we had themes that we wanted to hit. We figured out which pieces fit into which themes and tried to also have a diversity of voices.
There are people like Steve Kowit and Marilyn Chin, who are celebrated and very established writers, and there are pieces from City College students, people who are just emerging. We tried to have a mix of journalistic and expository pieces, poetry, creative nonfiction. And in the interplay of that, we liked the surprising juxtapositions we came up with. Most anthologies will be fiction and poetry, or they’ll be just non-fiction, and we wanted to have a whole bunch of genres represented.
Q: Why was it important to you to have a diversity of voices? What do you think that says about San Diego?
A: We’re an incredibly diverse city. Jim and I both teach at City College, where there is no one majority population. We were very interested in countering the kind of whitewashing of San Diego that often goes on in the way our city is viewed. We wanted to represent the people who the city is actually made up of, and to give voice to the people who often don’t have voice in the other representations of the city.
Q: You mentioned Steve Kowit, the noted local poet who died earlier this year. What did he mean to the writing community in San Diego?
A: We always called him our de facto poet laureate in San Diego. Both in his writing – how much he did and how published he was and how beloved he was – but also in the number of people whose lives he touched through his teaching.
He was one of our very earliest supporters, telling us we were insane for starting a small literary press in San Diego, but then immediately asking how he could help. His collection of poetry, “The Gods of Rapture,” was the second book we published. He gave us the manuscript, and that was one way he could help support us monetarily. When he died, we were just crushed, and the one thing we thought we could do that would really honor him was to dedicate “Sunshine/Noir II” to him.
Q: Was he aware of the project?
A: Yes. He gave us six or seven poems we used in the book. We’d talked to him about the project. The last time we saw him, he came over to our house, and we told him what we were going to use. And he got some more of his books and we sat on our couch and talked about semicolons and grammar. Both Jim and I teach writing and literature, so we were having a total nerd fest.
Q: I’m sorry you didn’t tape it so we could all watch it on YouTube.
A: I am, too. We had no idea that would be the last time we would be seeing Steve.
Mayhew Poet Kowit helped with literary press
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