Arts & Events
Richard Denner, dubbed “the Berkeley Barb poet” by Max Scheer, a founder of that fabled ’60s publication, will read with Sonoma County Poet Laureate David Bromige 7:30 p.m. on Monday, July 23, at Moe’s Books, 2476 Telegraph Ave. Admission is free.
Denner and Bromige will read from the first two sections, “Spade” and “The Petrarch Project,” of their longterm collaborative poem in three parts, The 100 Cantos. Three sections of “Spade” appear on www.goldenhandcuffsreview.com
“It’s a mock heroic epic,” said Denner, “but not quite Dante. ‘Spade’ is more like the Inferno, and ‘The Petrarch Proj-ect’ started as a Petrarchian sonnet for David’s wife on her birthday, and has many humorous, transliterary Petrarchian themes.”
Denner was born in Santa Clara, “but I think of myself as an old Berkeley hand,” he said. His adoptive parents had lived in Berkeley and he went to school here, later to high school in Oakland, then entered UC Berkeley in 1959.
“It was the beginning of the student unrest. The House Un-Amerian Activities Committee was supposed to convene in the Bay Area that year, but put it off till the next. I had [poet and critic] Thomas Parkinson for English 101, who was intimidating as a professor. He scared the pants off of us!”
“I didn’t grow up in a family of artists,” Denner said. “I knew [poet] Joaquin Miller’s daughter, who gave me a book of his. It wasn’t Keats or Shelley, but he did celebrate the area. I memorized some poems. Then I made the discovery that people write poetry. Then it seemed everybody did it.”
He mentioned the influence of jazz at San Francisco’s Black Hawk, first getting kicked out as underage, then admitted again when the club put in a special section for minors.
Later Denner enrolled in Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and was told by a professor to go see Robert Creeley at the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965. “That cut me loose. It was a mind-blowing, white-light experience. Creeley, Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Spicer, Lew Welch ... and there were younger poets like Jim Thurber and David Gitin.”
Denner “ran into Max Scheer, who thrust me into service for The Barb. I guess I was part of the family. I began to look at the world for a story, to write about it—the metaphor was right in front of you, not in your head. I wrote a story about students trying to stop a troop train.”
Denner talked about the Berkeley street scene: “I was trying to be like a street poet, using magic markers to write on napkins at Cafe Med for espressos, on girls’ arms and feet ...”
Other street poets were busted for obscenity, for begging. “There was a difference between the newer hippie poets and the older poets, like the Beats. We were trying to follow their instructions, their advice, but had been influenced by JFK, very idealistic,” he said.
After stints in Alaska and Ellensburg, Wash., involved in small town life, running galleries, bookstores, and his series of chapbooks, Denner returned to the Bay Area. He cited the influence in poetics of Luis Garcia (“who strung my short poems together—and suddenly I had long poems”) and Jack Spicer (“his idea of the serial poem [short poems on a sequence that becomes narrative] led to the way I published my serial chapbooks, a continuous poem in a way.”
Denner, an ordained Buddhist monk, now lives in Sonoma County, and is working on a kind of “mural of ’60s Berkeley poetry, with a real cast of characters. There must be 500 poets connected with Berkeley ... Berkeley is kind of the Holy Grail; it always gave me what I wanted.”