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At This Literary Show, Martinis And Drag Queens Reign Supreme

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Outside a bar.

Martuni’s is a haven for karaoke, drag shows, and literary shows. (Google Maps)

What sets Martuni’s apart from your average bar is not just its magnificent martinis but the fact that it is also a piano bar. In the back room, you can sing to your heart’s content while being accompanied by the bar’s pianists or catch a drag show where the queens sing live. And, on the last Thursday of every month, you can hear poetry and prose and music courtesy of James Siegel and Literary Speakeasy. This month, the show will celebrate its eighth birthday.

James Siegel moved to San Francisco from Toledo, Ohio about twenty years ago and, upon arrival, wanted to find his own literary community. He found that community through GuyWriters, a gay men’s writing group that also organized readings in San Francisco throughout the year. In April of 2013, James co-organized a queer poetry open mic at Martuni’s called My First Love where poets would not only read their own poems but poems from poets who they considered their “first love.” When GuyWriters disbanded, James still wanted to curate shows and loved working with Martuni’s. 

“The vibe of the bar is awesome, the live shows there are always fantastic, and they have an amazing staff. They have the best (and biggest) martinis in town,” Siegel said, via email. “ I kept thinking how cool it would be to have a regular literary show that mixed in some of that nightlife feel you get when you are sipping a martini at Martuni’s.” In June of 2015, Literary Speakeasy was born. “[I]n the back of the bar, it feels like we are having our own secret ‘speakeasy,’” Siegel continued. “The audience feels like they are a part of something. It feels like a literary salon with close friends.” 

After living in San Francisco for 20 years, James became a part of the SF literary community, so he found it relatively easy to get writers wanting to perform. “I don’t find that I have to beg and plead folks to come out and read,” he explained. “Also, since we have been around for eight years now, many of the artists who perform at the show have been part of the audience at least once and know what to expect.”

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What can you expect when you attend Literary Speakeasy? Each event is free with no drink minimum (but how could you possibly pass up their delicious martinis? I am partial to their Peach Fuzz cocktail) and typically consists of five performers, usually four writers and a musician. In fact, one of the first musicians to perform at Literary Speakeasy, Dawn Oberg, now has their own monthly show at Martuni’s called Barfly Cabaret. “I always want Literary Speakeasy to not just feel like a literary show, but also a night out on the town,” Siegel said.

In 2016, Literary Speakeasy began doing a themed show called “Queens Read Celebrity Autobiographies,” because what is more entertaining than having a drag queen read a celebrity autobiography? Nothing, henny! Donna Sachet has read from the autobiography of Susan Lucci and Elsa Touché read  “My First 2,000 Men” by Liz Renay, which is exactly what you think it’s about. The event grew so popular that they had to move the event from Martuni’s to Oasis. The next edition of “Queens Read Celebrity Autobiographies” will take place in October where Elsa Touché will co-host. This is the only event where there is a cover charge, but proceeds benefit LGBTQ charities, such as the fantastic Foglifter Journal

In addition to hosting this wonderful reading series, Siegel also wrote two books of poetry: How Ghosts Travel in 2016 with Spuyten Duyvil Press and The God of San Francisco in 2020 by Sibling Rivalry Press. 

“While my first book focused on where I grew up and the ghosts of the Midwest, The God of San Francisco is really about how much I have learned from the queer community in San Francisco,” Siegel said. “I think of it as a love letter in a sense.” 

Literary Speakeasy will celebrate its eighth anniversary on June 29th, at 7 p.m. and will feature Brennan DeFrisco, Tracey Knapp, antmen pimentel mendoza, Rebecca Nie, and musical guest Matt Jaffe.

“A Lit Lover’s Happy Place” is a series by Casey Bennett is a native son of San Francisco, graduating from San Francisco State University with a B.A. in Creative Writing. Books are his best friend. Seriously. He was bestowed that honor by his high school English teacher. He runs the Facebook group, Lit Events for the Lit-Minded, which attends the many different author readings and literary events around the San Francisco Bay Area. He is currently working on a coming-of-age superhero novel. You can follow him on Instagram at @the_litminded.

Follow Literary Speakeasy: literaryspeakeasy on Instagram

Follow me: the_litminded on Instagram

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