Julia Vinograd: Berkeley's Poet Laureate

Dy Dorothy Snodgrass
Wednesday June 15, 2011 - 11:57:00 AM

While leisurely sipping my almost-daily cafe au lait at Peet's Coffee on Telegraph and Dwight Way, I'm fairly certain that I'll see Julia Vinograd making her way slowly along the Avenue; she limps because of a brace on her leg. Immediately recognizable for her black and gold cap and loose flowing robe bearing the emblem of a human skull and the teeth of her dead friend Gypsy Canto, Julie is well known as the unofficial poet laureate of Berkeley. For nearly 30 years she has written lyrically about the lost, the misfits, the downtrodden, the abandoned, the wild and the free. Her latest book, "Skull and Crosswords" is her 50th volume of poetry. 

Born in West Virginia in 1943, Julia received a B.A. from U.C. Berkeley and an MFA from the University of Iowa. She claims that she left school to pursue a career of "vagrancy, mysticism, and small villanies." She received an honorary Lifetime Achievement Award from the City of Berkeley, stating, "She gives us a voice when ours vanishes. She gives voice to the homeless, the street performer, the merchants, the coffee drinkers, friends and foes alike, and her words, like a sharp knife, cut deep into the truth. She describes us as full of life and love and heartache. She makes us honest. We, the eccentric, the lonely, the broken are given a voice." 

On June 4th, 2004, Mayor Tom Bates declared that day to be "Julia Vinograd Day," for representing the spirit of Berkeley. And the East Bay Express claimed, "she is to Berkeley what Damon Runyon was to Broadway." 

Julie's autobiographical poem, "For My 60th Birthday", expresses attrition, disappointment and a sense of being violated and consumed through the years of a long life. "Life can be a bummer when you're poor and just one step above living on the street." She adds wryly, "I've spent the last 30 years being a public nuisance -- in a positive way." 

So, should you pass Julia on Telegraph Avenue, you might consider greeting her and purchasing her latest book -- she carries several with her all times.