Q.R. Hand Jr., a poet and community health worker in the Mission, died peacefully on New Years Eve in Vallejo. He was 83 and had been battling cancer for several years.
Hand’s poetry is known for its jazz-like musicality and immediacy. “Sometimes, when I feel like I’m not really living, not really feeling present or satisfied, I pick up these poems and they snap me back; I can feel excited about the world around me,” wrote Taylor Bell in a 2012 review of Hand’s poems.
For much of his adult life, the world Hand wandered about like a Baudelairean flậneur, notebook and reading in hand, was San Francisco — first with the beat poets in North Beach and later in the Mission District.
Up until the early 2000s, Hand lived in the Mission District on both Alvarado and 21st streets. He was a regular at nearby Cafe Babar during the ’70s and ’80s, a 600-square-foot café near the intersection of 22nd and Guerrero that closed in 1999.
“It was a connecting place for good conversation and exchanges, latest gossip in da hood… and good coffee and wine and connections for many kinds of contrabands,” wrote Hand in the dedication of his book of poetry whose really blues.
During Hand’s time, Cafe Babar was home to weekly Monday evening poetry readings that became so popular that the owner Alvin Stillman built wooden bleachers in the back of the café to accommodate the audience.
Hand was a regular at readings that kept the café open well past 2 a.m., the legal closing time, according to Stillman. There, he would read such poems as “between a rock and a hard place sugar,” a riff on the American embargo against Cuba.
…may be it’s like
you’re in this play
your people are suffering the yanqui embargo
mixing infrasystems and ecostructures in
to measurable quantities of mal nutritions…
MIERDA you think and i’m responsible
for it all YO cuba libre
you’re in this play
and you can
choose what you want to be responsible for
get it yet…
In addition to his poetry readings at “too many venues to enumerate” Hand wrote, he also belonged to WordWind Chorus, a performance poetry group accompanied by experimental saxophone, which included Reginald Lockett, Brian Auerbach and Lewis Jordan as well as Hand.
He published three books of poetry, i speak to the poet in man (1985), how sweet it is (1996) and whose really blues (2008).
Writing about whose really blues, the late poet Reginald Lockett said Hand’s poetry “traverses the terrain of form, music and language. This is…poetry that is political in intent and spirited in execution and defies any comparison to any literary predecessors or contemporary schools of thought. Q.R. Hand is an entity unto himself; a true visionary walks among us.”
His publisher, Bill Vartnaw said “he blew my mind” the first time he heard him read at the eleventh anniversary celebration of Taurean Horn Press, known for publishing important underground Bay Area poets. “He was part of the Amiri Baraka tradition of Black writers in Harlem, writing about the Black Experience, and discovering more about himself as he wrote,” explains Vartnaw.
Hand moved to San Francisco in 1960 at the age of 23 and started reading poetry at the Old Spaghetti Factory in North Beach, a beat-era café that attracted bohemians and artists such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Arlo Guthrie. He also read poetry at the Meat Market Cafe in Noe Valley, and when it closed, Hand led a group of poets to Cafe Babar.
“He loved the Mission,” said fellow WordWind poet Auerbach.
In one of his poems, Hand mentions buying clothes at Thrift Town in the Mission, and one of his friends said that if you met Hand on the street, you might mistake him for “some type of homeless dreg of humanity,” when in fact he was a true gentleman.
“He was an intellectual, and when you got into Hand’s thoughts, you came to realize there is a very well organized mind and spirit in that person,” said Cliff Johson, a friend who was a regular at Cafe Babar.
As he wandered San Francisco, Auerbach said, Hand would engage people in conversation.
“He had a supernatural command of the English language and its possibilities for writing and speaking, and how he put things together in every way, and every possibility of ways, inspired anybody he came in contact with.” He often invited others to share their own ideas and express themselves authentically, said Auerbach.
“As an American Black, he had a depth of radical thought” and Hand said that when he passed, he wanted his work to be called his “Black Radical Stance.”
In “to day africa,” dedicated to the South African poet William Kgositsile, Hand writes:
There was land and people before owners
There was land and people before owners
In addition to jazz, Hand appreciated salsa, calypso and ska. “My own rhythms come as much from jazz rhythm and blues and the many caribbean spirited music(s) as the study of english prosody,” he wrote in the introduction to whose really blues.
Hand’s friends and family said that when one spoke to Hand—whom many called ‘Q’—t was as if you were experiencing a poem. He “had an electrifying way of communicating, synthesizing new ideas…he was a real literary genius to be able to tell that story in a way that doesn’t indict those of us down here in these trenches,” said Tongo Eisen-Martin, a poet and friend.
“You could be sitting with him, with your jaw on the ground, as he facilitated ideas in a way you have never seen. There is just this rare breed of human being, where basically the same processes that they bring down to the page, are how they live and communicate to themselves,” said Eisen-Martin.
Hand grew up in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, before it became “integrated,” as he explains in a poem he wrote in 1965 in reaction to the Moynihan Report, a document on Black poverty in the United States. Hand read it aloud as a poetic reaction to gentrification at the San Francisco Public Library in 2018.
Kim Shuck, then San Francisco’s poet laureate, who hosted the reading, said Hand was “an absolute poetic genius, but easy to be around.” Whether he was reading in the back of a dingy bar or in fancy restaurants he “treated everyone as equal” and was always willing to read his poems for people.
According to Shuck, if Vallejo had not gone bankrupt, Hand would have become its poet laureate.
“I think if he gave a shit one way or another about fame, he would have been famous,” said Shuck. But, as his friends have all confirmed, Hand was not interested in fame, but in writing poetry and being kind to others.
Hand grew up across the street from P.S. 70, a public school where his grandmother taught, and where one of his family members, John B. King, became the first Black principal working for the New York Board of Education. His father was a pharmacist who had attended Columbia, and his mother was a socially active writer.
As a child, Hand would go with his family in the summers to Sag Harbor, where his grandmother had a “shack,” and they would spend the summers fishing. His sister Margaret Hand, who lives in East Wareham, Massachusetts, said that in his boyhood Q.R. “used to take averages of baseball hits, and data about baseball players, and write them down in a journal.” He was precise in analyzing baseball statistics and literature, and later in life, his precision carried over to his poetry, which was similarly intentional and measured. His interest in baseball might have been related to the fact that he lived around the corner from Jackie Robinson, who was a friend of the family. Hand was a Dodgers fan for life, even continuing to root for them when they became the Los Angeles Dodgers, instead of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Hand attended Northfield Mount Hermon, a Christian boarding school in Massachusetts known for educating a diverse group of poor students who were also required to work as part of the curriculum. He then attended Amherst College.
Hand says in the foreword to his book whose really blues that “my real education began in the civil rights/Black power – then on to human liberation movement(s) anti-povery programs and human service programs.”
His influence over others is manifold.
His niece, Catherine “Franque” Perkins, an artist who lives in Sagamore Beach, Massachusetts, said her uncle was proud of being Black, and understood that the color of one’s skin can tell a story from generations past. “I think he really took things like that into consideration when he would write about himself,” she said, He believed that, as a culture, “we need to be reminded that we are kings and queens.”
Perkins also credits Hand for her decision to become an artist. He liked to sketch, and she recalled that when he was visiting, she and her uncle sat at the dining room table playing with oil paints and markers. “He just let me express myself however I wanted. It’s a moment I always think about when I am looking at paints.”
In addition to his poetry, Hand was a community mental health worker for the Progress Foundation. He was a counselor in halfway houses where people experiencing acute mental health issues, drug addiction and depression would go to recover.
Friend and poet Michael Koch, who worked with Hand at La Posada, an acute diversion unit, recalled how Hand could take emotional problems and transmute them to a mythic level, evoking a character from literature who had a similar problem.
He had an outside-the-box approach to working with his clients, which proved very effective for those struggling with mental health problems, Koch said. According to Koch, people came up to Q.R. 20 years later, to thank Hand for saving their life when they were barely hanging on and experiencing deep depression.
In the poem “(some) people have enough problems,” Hand wrote about a client of his from Peru who had abused his family, been beaten up, and ended up disabled at the halfway house where Hand worked.
He sits there wringing his hands
So tightly at times they pale
At the knuckle joints where
Fingers meet light brown hams
Even as his health declined, friends said, Q.R. was always courteous: He stood up to make sure his visitors were seen out the door and thanked for visiting.
“Even to the end, he just had this power to spark you, to energize you, to open you up,” said Eisen-Martin.
“We believe in life eternal, so he’s on to his next project, his next adventure,” said his sister Margaret. His niece, Perkins, added, “I think my uncle would want us all to move forward, and do something kind for someone. The best way to honor Q.R. Hand is to try to be kind, it could save a life.”
Hand’s book of poems whose really blues is available for purchase at Bird and Beckett Books, at 653 Chenery Street in the Glen Park neighborhood of San Francisco, a place Q.R. often read his poetry, both individually and as part of WordWind.