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Berkeley Poetry Festival parades another year of work

Monday May 13, 2002

By Neil G. Greene 

Special to the Daily Planet 


Poetry as dark as ink and as light as day, flooded the Berkeley Community Media Center Sunday, where dozens of East Bay poets participated in the Fourth Annual Berkeley Poetry Festival. 

“Poetry is a live beast that takes on its own life as you write it,” said open mike co-hostess Tsahai Ungar. “The writing here helps us celebrate everything.” 

Founded by local poet and photographer Louis Cuneo, the poetry festival celebrates Berkeley’s community of poets, while providing a forum to share their art live on Berkeley’s cable TV Channel 25. 

A variety of styles filled the stage and the live studio audience. Poems ranged from militant political rants, beautiful verse, sexual innuendo, and the confessional form. 

Sunday’s festival was birthed from Cuneo’s television show Touch of the Poet Series, which began ten years ago in the Berkeley Art Museum. The festival, said Cuneo, is where poetry in Berkeley has evolved to —it’s more accessible, has an increased budget, is supported by the city, community and various arts organizations. 

“Poetry is the greatest benefit to the community because it brings forth creativity and understanding. It brings about the imagination. This event is conducive to the community and the city supports it,” said Cuneo.  

“If you don’t have that creative expression, you die,” he said. “A lot of men and women have a lot of material things, but they’re dead.”  

The following haiku, said Cuneo, expresses the simplicity and innocence of a child a play, without excessive intellectualization: Godzilla attacks a truck/ Than it falls,/ Boy at play. 

Marcia Poole, festival organizer and graphic designer, said Berkeley stands out as one of the United State’s poetic nexuses.  

“Berkeley is the capital of literature and poetry on the West Coast,” said Poole. “We have more poets, more activities , more writers, and more literary events.” 

San Francisco, she said, is more of an elitist writer’s community. There are select groups which keep burgeoning writers from having a place to share their verse or break through the literary glass ceiling. 

“Berkeley is welcoming to other poets and writers, we’re kind to one another here, there’s more of an equalization — that makes us the hub of literature and poetics,” she added. 

Sunday’s event was divided into four categories: the intimate Open Mike Private Reading, the rowdier Slam, Bay Area poet’s exchange table where writers can sell and trade their books and CDs, and the Touch of a Poet Series Open Mike.  

The more theatrical Slam was the first in the line-up of events. Hosted by poets Charles Ellik and Nazelah Jamison, five judges were chosen at random to rate the poet’s recitation on a scale of one to ten. 

Poets were limited to three minutes, encouraged to use any style, and be as kinky and sexy as they see fit — as long as they adhere to the Slam’s number one rule — to have fun. 

Virtually every reader gave a piece of their heart to the audience, casting a slight shadow upon the Slam’s rating system. 

Halfway through the Slam, 37 year-old Karen Dereise Ladson, was ahead of the pack with a score of 27.6 out of a possible 30. 

“For me, Slam poetry is cathartic. I hope to encourage other people to find their voice,” she said.  

A self described confessional poet, Ladson said sharing her poetry has freed herself from some of the burdens life has cast upon her and opened up a world of love.  

Yesterday she recited her poem, Heavy (or the unbearable lightness of eating). The second stanza reads: my fat demands weekly/ protection money/ to keep it flush in Bit o’ Honey/ Peanut M & M’s/ and other horny candy/ eaten to keep the randy beast at bay/ because you see/ thinness does not agree with me/ it lead me down dangerous paths. 

Unlike the majority of poet’s at the festival, Ladson makes her living solely by writing and teaching poetry. She is currently involved with several nonprofits in the East Bay, including Bay Area Scores, Youth Speaks, and the Youth Power Project based out of the Black Box in Oakland. The Black Box is an afterschool program which encourages kids to have world awareness through art, dance, music and poetry.