The Sapphobook ~ literary inquiry by Mitchell St. John

It’s been thirty years since a mysterious black notebook was found in a dingy alleyway on Mission Street in San Francisco. The small collection of hastily scribbled and, at times, completely unconnected words would typically be regarded as trash and discarded as such, were it not for local bartender, Josiah Campbell who picked the book up on a whim. “I really wasn’t thinking anything when I picked that book up,” says Campbell. “You know how sometimes you just pick something up on the street … like maybe it will be something cool, or at least give you a laugh or something. Half the time it’s bullshit, but when I read the first couple pages I realized that this was something else entirely.” The pages Campbell mentions contain the only “complete” poem in the book, nowadays usually referred to as #1 or “Deathless Aphrodite” (none of the pieces were titled in the original notebook). “I was just completely blown away,” says Campbell, “all these gods and just the poetry of it, it was fuckin’ amazing.”

“Deathless Aphrodite” ended up being an anomaly, as the poems that followed became more fragmented and abstract to the point where you could hardly call them poems at all. In the following piece (#2) brackets begin to take the place of actual writing, and by #3 they’ve marred the writing to the point where no actually complete sentences can be found. The language continues to deteriorate over the course of the book, with the last twenty or so pieces (literally) containing only one word. Despite the strange state of the writing, Campbell was not put off, “If everything wasn’t so beautiful, I would have thought this was written by some crazy homeless person, but this was poetry, everything about it just screamed at me. It grabbed me, it pulled me in.”

Many would end up sharing Campbell’s love for this strange book. He began showing it to friends and customers who took a similar liking to the strange poetry of Sappho. Over time he began to pass around Xeroxed copies of some of the pages and poems. These copies, and subsequent copies of these copies, were passed around again and again until Sappho become somewhat famous in certain San Franciscan circles. Eventually a small publishing firm purchased the rights to the Sapphobook, and the initial printing of 500 sold fairly quickly. The Sapphobook was beginning to gain popularity, but it was far from the phenomenon we see today until then-burgeoning grunge rocker, Kurt Cobain, placed a Sappho inspired song, “Gold Anklebone Cups,” on Nirvana’s 1991 release, Nevermind. [1] Within months of the album’s release, Sappho’s publishers were feeling immense pressure to re-release the Sapphobook on a larger scale. Once re-released, the book quickly topped the New York Times Best Sellers List in 1992, and Sappho became a cultural icon. It seemed like everywhere you looked in the early ’90s you saw a Sappho line, or perhaps more accurately, a Sappho word. From New York to L.A., Sappho-inspired graffiti, reading “no grove [       ] no dance” or “black sleep of night,” could be found in alleyways, not unlike the one where Sappho was first discovered. [2]  Talk show hosts even began to jest at Sappho’s expense, with David Letterman telling his audience, “if Sappho can write poetry without actual sentences, maybe I could do my show like that too.” [3]

While Letterman would later say he genuinely enjoyed Sappho’s work, his joke does reveal some of the criticism that the Sapphobook has received throughout the years. Most critics have praised Sappho and the avant-garde style and structure of her/his work, but there were several detractors as well. Kurt Loder, for instance, somewhat famously returned to Rolling Stone in 1994 to “tear her a new one” (as he described it years later). [4] “This nauseatingly indigestible bilge offers little more than the opportunity to ruminate in the vacuousness of its author’s insane mind,” wrote Loder. “Walk down any street in San Francisco and you’ll see a thousand schizophrenic vagrants having full-blown conversations with their ragged guitars, but when one of these homeless derelicts calls it a ‘radiant lyre’ and tells it to ‘become a voice,’ we suddenly call it avant-garde. Brackets and fragments were not stylistic choices, they were not linguistic choices, they were the result of an author who has no stylistic or linguistic ability whatsoever. It is not art, it is not poetry, it’s an homage to post-Pink Floyd Syd Barret, not the Madcap Laughs, but the follow-up albums that bounced around his deranged mind never to be released into the world.” [5]

Loder’s article was quickly rebutted by Sarah Fonseca of the The New Yorker in a piece that called into question Loder’s ability to discuss Syd Barret and decide what constitutes “art,” given that “he previously claimed that Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut ‘may be art rock’s crowning masterpiece.’” [6]

“It’s no wonder Kurt fails to see the beauty and significance that rests in Sappho’s brackets and fragments,” writes Fonseca. “They are the words that float away. They represent possibilities, the billions of words that they could be representing. This is where Kurt misses the point: It is what these words could be, not what they should be. Sappho writes ‘so’ followed by a host of brackets. She doesn’t write ‘so what’; she leaves us to establish the what, the vast overwhelming nearly infinite what, everything that is possible. [7] There is no ‘vacuousness’ here–there is everything.”

Loder remained unmoved, replying, “If you gave a room full of monkeys a typewriter and an infinite amount of time, they’d write Shakespeare. If you gave them a week, they’d write Sappho”. [8]

Was Sappho a genius? Was she/he insane? No one really knows for sure, because no one really knows anything about Sappho. People have tried to find her/him ever since Campbell discovered the notebook, but nothing conclusive has ever been found. The general consensus seems to be that Sappho was a woman, based on the femininity of the writing, but this is conjecture. The LGBT movement has claimed Sappho as one of their own, since the very beginning, heralding her/him as an icon in the gay community, but it’s impossible to be certain whether this is accurate as well. Many assume Sappho was a homeless person who lived in the Mission District at the time, but anyone could have dropped the book there originally. In the early ’90s, a man famously attempted to “interview every homeless person in San Francisco” in a quest to find Sappho. [9] A few of these homeless people did claim authorship, but when pressed to give more details pertaining to the writing, it became quite clear that this was not the case.

Perhaps, some of the allure of the Sapphobook stems from our inability to identify its author. The only Sappho we know is the one we have glimpsed in her/his book. We’ve been left to solve the mystery ourselves, and as much as Sappho created these poems, these poems have created her/him. We’ve created Sappho. Maybe it’s the mystery that draws people to Sappho. Each seemingly incomplete poem begs us to finish it ourselves, to fill in the missing pieces. Whatever the case, there’s no doubt that the Sapphobook has left an indelible mark on the world. Years later, Sappho’s notebook is still read in high schools and colleges across the country. Teenagers still sport printed T-shirts that display pages from the notebook, and just about every open-mic performer in the country has attempted to read one of Sappho’s poems at one point or another. Sappho continues to pose the impossible riddle, and we continue to try and solve it. Maybe this is the point, that “what could be” is every bit as significant as “what is.” We tend to place the “real” on a pedestal, but Sappho is constantly challenging this conception, asking us to consider whether we’ve unfairly discounted the importance of the unknown and the imaginary.



[1] Sappho #192.

[2] Sappho # 94 & # 151.

[3] Tonight Show with David Letterman, December 11, 1992. Letterman continued the joke with an attempt to mimic Sappho saying, “If … that … seven … liquor … purplefluff. Well shoot, why am I even paying these writers? I could write this stuff myself.”

[4] “The Spin Interview: Kurt Loder.” Spin Magazine, Oct. 2008.

[5] Loder, Kurt. “Say it Aint Sappho.” Rolling Stone, Jan. 27, 1994.

[6] Fonseca, Sarah. “Our Possible Pasts.” The New Yorker, Mar. 14, 1994. Fonseca is referencing comments Loder made in his review of Pink Floyd’s album, The Final Cut, in the April 14, 1983, issue of Rolling Stone.

[7] From Sappho # 6.

[8] MTV News, March 20, 1994.

[9] Goldstone, Sally. “Man Interviews Homeless Population in Attempt to Find Sappho.” San Francisco Chronicle, Aug. 28, 1991.

Mitchell St. John is a recent refugee, retail worker, and sometimes writer from Northern California with aspirations to someday do something with his English degree.

Show Mitchell some love via PayPal at mstjohn001(at)gmail(dot)com.