Election Section

A Few Good Places to Hear Poetry in Berkeley By Jake Fuchs Special to the Planet

Tuesday January 17, 2006

It would be impossible to write a comprehensive history of American poetry in the last century and not make significant reference to the Bay Area. Only New York would seem to exceed it in importance. And one couldn’t very well compose that Bay Area section without paying considerable attention to Berkeley, home at one time or another to a number of major poets, such as Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. 

Robert Hass, a present member of the UC Berkeley English faculty, served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 1995 to 1997, and Robert Pinsky, a former member, succeeded him in that position from 1997 to 2000. UC professor of Slavic languages and literature Czeslaw Milosz, who died in 2004, won the Nobel Prize for his poetry in 1980. 

All these poets can, of course, be read, and those still living can be heard, if you know where to go and how to get there. As Berkeley continues to be an important center for poetry, you can occasionally hear them without leaving town, as well as many other poets. For the living poetic word, there are three major local spots: Cody’s Books on Telegraph for the Poetry Flash readings, the Starry Plough Pub for Berkeley Poetry Slam, and UC’s Morrison Library for the Lunch Poems series. 

Poetry Flash is a remarkably comprehensive, free Berkeley publication for and about poets and poetry that appears in your local bookstore several times a year. Its associate editor, Richard Silberg, presents two or more poets reading their own work virtually every Sunday evening of the year at 7:30. These are generally local poets, some well known like Silberg himself (who read last month) and Diane di Prima (who will read on March 12), some not. 

Many in the audience come to hear the poets they already know, but others, perhaps drawn by the biographical information to be found on Poetry Flash’s Web site, show up to experience someone new. For a schedule of readings through June 2006, see www.poetryflash.org. Donation is $2. 

Berkeley Poetry Slam explodes each Wednesday night at 8:30 p.m. A poetry slam, if you don’t already know, is a spoken poetry contest with rules that are neatly printed on a card each audience member receives upon arrival at the Starry Plough. You may be a judge or, if you want, a competing poet. All you need to do is sign up, although I recommend at least one evening’s quiet observation, to see what you’re getting into. 

Poets are judged both on the quality of their poems and the effectiveness of their presentations, which—on a 10-point scale ranging from gently reflective to manically enthusiastic—average out to about 8.2. Audience response is even higher than that. Up to 15 poets read each night, and the contest rules, which are generally followed, limit each contestant to one poem not to exceed three minutes in reading time. Admission is $7 if you’re not a student, $5 if you are. See www.starryploughpub.com or call 841-2082 for more information. 

Lunch Poems begins the university year with readings in September by university faculty and staff (of poems they like by other people) and closes its series in June with UC students reading poems they’ve written themselves. In the intervening months, except for January, when no event is scheduled, one poet reads. 

Everything happens at noon on the first Thursday of each month in the Morrison. Admission is free. Here you can find poets that everyone has heard of, like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who did a reading in December, and Billy Collins, who appeared in 2004-05. For a schedule and of Lunch Poems readings in previous years, see www.berkeley.edu/calendar/events/poems. 

Another way to acquaint yourself with what these folks do on first Thursdays is to consult a magnificent, new book, The Face of Poetry (UC Press, 2005), which contains selections from some 45 Lunch Poems readings since the first one in 1996. There is a striking photograph by Margaretta K. Mitchell of each one of the poets, whose number includes Milosz, Hass, Snyder, and Pinsky, as well as Linda Pastan, someone I had never heard of, but who seems to be speaking directly to me, Maxine Hong Kingston, Ishmael Reed, and Galway Kinnell. There is a thoughtful, instructive foreword by Robert Hass, as well as introductions by photographer Mitchell and by the poet Zach Rogow, who made the selections.  

In their foreword and introduction, both Hass and Rogow stress the diversity of American poetry today, a point amply borne out by the book’s poems and poets. Richard Silberg, in conversation with me, emphasized the variety of poetic styles and subjects to be found at the Poetry Flash readings, and given the set-up at the Starry Plough on Wednesday nights, who would expect anything else? 

Diversity’s the word, and it’s a good one, if not exactly a guarantee of excellence. In fact, diversity almost requires that all poets be appreciated, or perhaps not, on their own merits. You are at liberty to like or dislike. Give yourself the chance to decide. In this town, it’s easy.›