Pier life: Alum and retired professor finds heaven among Coastside outsiders
You don’t have to put on airs around Toni Mirosevich, whose new book explores the people of a seaside pier
Jobs in truck driving, restroom maintenance and attic insulation attracted Toni Mirosevich. Anything involving manual labor, she felt at ease — until chronic fatigue syndrome arrived in her 30s. She then discovered a new vocation using her hands. Writing led to a distinguished career as an author, poet and San Francisco State University professor spanning three decades.
Along the way, Mirosevich — a San Francisco State alumna and professor emerita of Creative Writing — and her wife have forged an unlikely bond with the denizens of a seaside pier about 8 miles south of campus. Mirosevich’s new collection, “Spell Heaven and Other Stories” (Counterpoint Press), is a fictionalized account of the fishers, crabbers, surfers, drifters and other “outsiders” whose ways of life draw them to the 49-year-old pier that extends nearly a quarter mile into the ocean. Characters like The Crab King, Kite Man and Tommy Bench are based on five elderly men who sit together on a bench and talk every day.
“These are my people. You don’t have to put on airs around them,” Mirosevich (M.A., ’92; MFA, ’94) said during a walk along the pier on a recent sunny and windy afternoon. She visits twice a day from her home up the hill, often accompanied by her wife and dog. “I grew up around fishermen who knew the art of bulls--t. People here know how to bulls--t you, and I feel very comfortable with that.”
Mirosevich has chronicled the Pacifica community for decades, including her 2005 poetry collection “Queer Street.” Her short-story collection “Pink Harvest: Tales of Happenstance” won the 2007 First Series in Creative Nonfiction Award from Mid-List Press and was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award.
Mirosevich says being so close to the sea loosens people up.
“My wife said that someone told her, ‘All the marbles roll from the edge of the continent,’ so things are a little crazier down here, too,” she said. “And that’s good, too.”
‘Not a straight shot’
Raised in a working-class Croatian American fishing family and immigrant community in Washington state, Mirosevich enjoys manual labor. After she could no longer perform such physically demanding work, she began to write about her condition.
“I always tell people it’s not a straight shot what you think you’re going to do,” she said.
At SF State, an English professor named Judith Breen dissuaded her from dropping out.
“I took her modern Canadian fiction class and at the time was very ill and didn’t think I could continue in the graduate program. I went to visit her during office hours to drop out, and she encouraged me to stay in the program,” Mirosevich said. “In essence, she encouraged me to persist. If it hadn’t been for that office visit and her belief in my ability to overcome the limitations of the illness, I wouldn’t have gone on.”
Mirosevich has gone on to pay it forward as a mentor to countless SF State students. Once a first-generation college student herself, she relates to them as she does the people of the pier.
“When I think about Toni, words that come to mind are generosity, humility, kindness and humor,” says Tanu Wakefield (MFA, ’06), who has remained friends with Mirosevich since graduating from SF State. “The most important thing that Toni taught me was to be generative as a poet: to generate as much material as we could.”
Wakefield is a member of a writing group of six SF State Creative Writing alumni convened by Mirosevich two years ago. They call themselves “The Finders” and meet on Zoom for two hours a week.
“It’s been amazing. Toni is someone who can come up with unique strategies and just ways of being quick on your feet and quickly responsive to work,” said Wakefield, a past poet laureate for the city of Belmont.
Ann Guy (M.A., ’18; M.F.A., ’20) is also in The Finders.
“Having this group in the pandemic saved me and opened my mind,” Guy said. “It’s magic. It’s just what she does.”
Mirosevich’s next public reading for “Spell Heaven” takes place May 25 at Green Apple Books on the Park in San Francisco. She will be in conversation with SF State Lecturer Emerita Frances Phillips.