Book Review: City of Stairways: A Poet’s Field Guide to San Francisco

[Reviewed by Deborah Fruchey]

The first thing I noticed about this book was the good production values. It is pleasing to look at, to flip through, and to hold: the photos (taken by the students) are good, the artwork is fresh with great colors, the fonts are clear, the shiny, heavy paper is nice to turn in your hands. The 7 x 7 inch format is just the size and heft to be a bit more than a pocket book, but not too much. This is not a book that takes itself terribly seriously. It is meant to be a fun read.

City of Stairways is a brainchild of the WritersCorps Apprentice Program, which takes poetry to the high schools and offers an after school curriculum for advanced young writers, and the San Francisco Arts Commission and San Francisco Public Library, who sponsor WritersCorps. As such, it is as much  a tour guide to interesting San Francisco neighborhoods as it is a poetry book, and this serves the volume well.

The writers are each represented by little cartoon icons (by Hong Truong), which are engaging and add interest to the maps (uncluttered and attractive, by Adrienne Aquino). The book is organized around City field trips taken by the group, each with its own area map marked with stops and points of interest (given that these are teenagers, it’s no surprise that many of these spots are eateries!). For each trip, there is about one page of well-written description of what the group saw, did, and liked, and another page listing nearby public transport and “fun facts” about that part of the City. There are also a few source references and a quote or two about that locality by luminaries, such as Lemony Snicket, or some local notable.

The poems are generally no more than pleasant, good enough for relatives and friends to treasure, which is enough to expect out of high school students of any generation. There are two striking exceptions. Indiana Pehlivanova is vivid, insightful, surprising, and surprisingly sophisticated in both viewpoint and technique. She will clearly be a fine poet some day, and I will frankly be watching for her on the SF poetry scene in the next few years. The other winner is Robin Black, who tends a little toward the slam style, with an immediacy to his work which is refreshing.

All in all, a book to enjoy, and worth buying if you want to support the youth art programs of San Francisco. Some of their field trips unearthed city treasures I have overlooked; you may catch me poking around the SF neighborhoods sometime soon.

You can contact the reviewer, Deborah Fruchey, at