The 2:01 Express

In this feature, we ask writers from one area of the country to discuss the meaning of place and how their neighborhood, city, or state plays a role in their work. In this edition we asked Virgogray Press editor/publisher Michael Casares about the Austin/San Antonio region of Texas and the similarities and differences between the literary scenes in these two cities, which are much closer geographically than most people realize, and yet are very different in so many ways. Because a couple of other poets fell through for various reasons (illness, scheduling, etc.), I decided to step up to the plate and add my two bits to the discussion, since I spent 1/3 of my life living in San Antonio off and on over the years.  

1. What does your respective city mean to you as an artist and how does it affect your work?

Michael: I had to mull on these questions for a while because I was born in San Antonio, lived there most my life, and transplanted down the road to Austin a few years ago. What Austin means for me is opportunity. For my work that just means growth. As a writer and a publisher, I pretty much do the same thing that I’ve been doing when I lived in SA, it is simply accelerated. I’ve been tapping into the Austin lit scene a little at a time. I even served for a short time on the board of directors for the annual Austin International Poetry Festival, attended open mics and readings, and will now be hosting a poetry open mic venue in downtown Austin, TX called The Austin Salon Poetic. I encourage traveling poets to visit!

James: San Antonio always meant a lot to me because it was a my long-distance second home. Growing up in New York, San Antonio felt like another planet: the food, the downtown Riverwalk, the tourist attractions, the massive sprawl of suburbs and strip malls that suddenly dump out into the desert-like hill country. As an adult I could tap into the blue-collar sensibilities, especially knowing that most of the rest of Texas looked down at San Antonio as being a dirty, “lame” city. San Antonio is an underdog, especially compared to the artistic opportunities available in Austin, and the feelings of rejection, dust, and struggle found its way (I think) into my poetry about the area, especially my bar poems. There are lots of great dive bars in San Antonio.

2. What would you say is a fair assessment of the literary scene in your city, and how does it compare with the other? Do they complement each other, or are they wholly different animals?

Michael: Austin, TX has a poetry event every night of the week, plus several monthly events. That’s aside from the book readings, plays, lit festivals and poetry festivals and organizations. And that is aside from the academics because there is a huge University here. When I was in SA, there was a poetry event once or twice a week and monthly events. I’m not sure to what extent the literary scene functions now in SA. Being so close, the two cities definitely complement each other. There are several events that bring the literati’s of the two cities together. I was first introduced to Austin poets when I was a teenager at an open mic in SA; years later, I’m seeing some of these same writers in my new home of Austin.

James: I always heard about the variety of events up in Austin when I lived in SA, but I rarely got up there to see readings. I went for the music and musuems (I saw Kerouac’s scroll in Austin…amazing). I tried to dedicate myself to what SA had to offer, which wasn’t a lot, but for what it had it was interesting. The open mics and slams were grittier than in other places I’ve been, and by that I mean there was edgier, fighting-up-from-under poetry. There’s a lot of pride in the region, the painters, poets, musicians, they all love the city and want to see it flourish, even though it has been in the shadow of Austin for decades and is really only sliding deeper into that shadow. But there are dedicated small presses, writers, small events here and there…like any city, SA is what you make of it, and there are a lot of people trying there best down there.

3. What makes being a writer living in this area of the country such a unique experience, and what is your favorite/most inspirational part of your city (neighborhood, person, bar, bookshop, school, club, street corner, whatever, etc.)?

Michael: Austin is a verdant, modern city architecturally. The river that runs through it is actually a lake and it is big enough to host canoeing events and build a bridge over. Not to crap on the Riverwalk in SA, it is very photogenic and pretty, but I like how Austin is surrounded by green on all sides. That’s just me though. SA provided much inspiration while I was there. I dig certain spots and bars. If you’ve followed my work, poems like Red River are inspired by my trips to the Red River District in downtown Austin. In fact, that’s where The Austin Salon Poetic will be taking place.

James: Even though SA is one of the top ten most populous cities in the country, it feels remote, like you’re in your own pocket of the country removed from everyone else. There’s a very individualistic vibe down there, a one-of-a-kind atmosphere of us-against-the-world. While the Riverwalk is pretty, especially around Christmas, there are lots of areas of the city that are run down but retain the small border-town architecture you can find even downtown because the city grew so fast in the last 100 years, spreading and growing, and these dingy conrers and dusty side-streets have lots of stories. Places like Bar America, the string of joints along N Saint Mary’s, the outdoor bar La Tuna, and the biker bar Hills & Dales, all have been around forever and a day and have a great mix of young people and old timers. Every place will tell you ten stories a night, and I’m thankful for having experienced as many of them as I could. 

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The views and opinions expressed throughout belong to the individual artists and may or may not coincide with those of the other artists (or editors) represented within the magazine. Hobo Camp Review supports a free-for-all atmosphere of artistic expression, so enjoy the poetry, fiction, opinions, and artwork within, read with an open mind, and comment wisely. Thanks for stopping by the Camp!