America Said Farewell
To 3 Great Poets In 2018:
John Oliver Simon,Ntozake Shange,Julia Vinograd

Thursday January 17, 2019 - 05:10:00 PM

John Oliver Simon

Most of John Oliver Simon's courage was internal; he believed in himself and he loved life. But he was also a Black Belt in Karate; a skill that may have kept him mindful as he taught poetry in the rambunctious schools of rough Oakland neighborhoods.

One day, as Simon and child were In line at a bank, she said, “Mommy, Mommy.” The man behind him snarled, “Don’t let your child call you ‘Mommy!’”

Simon calmly turned to face the man, and said, “I AM her Mommy.”

We both loved sports and played street basketball together. Even after the divorce, we watched games together. Our system was: basketball at Bar Cesar, Super Bowl at the Wood Tavern, and baseball at Brennan’s. During one game, I cheered for a home run and he yelled at me, "Don’t cheer for that; that’s the Yankees!” I answered, “Derek Jeter.”

As he was dying, his students sent notes of encouragement. One note from a 7 year old boy read “Dear Mr Simon get well soon. Please come back."

At his memorial, many poets read their own poems to him. Robert Haas chose to read Simon’s baseball poem.

A homeowner told me about the plumber who was working on their house. He spotted the books on the table; on top was one of Simon’s poetry books. “Mr. Simon!” shouted the plumber.

“Yes, he was a friend of mine.” answered the homeowner.

“Mr. Simon was my teacher.” Close to tears, the man repeated, “He was my teacher! I was a pachuco in West Oakland. He told me I could write."

Ntozake Shange

Ntozake Shange wrote the poems and she and Paula Moss choreographed them. They performed the poems as a “Choreopoem” and I videotaped them dancing to the poetry for the cable TV station in Hayward, CA. She was a glorious dancer as well as a fabulous poet. As their performances continued, and were seen in New York, she found one of the great literary agents, Timothy Seldes. When Joseph Papp learned of her performance, he arranged an opening night performance at his theatre in Manhattan. For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf opened to a full house and fine reviews.

Shameless Hussy Press, which I founded in 1969, was the first to publish her choreopoem in 1976 and we were in touch with agent Timothy Seldes as well as Ntozake. I was thrilled and loved the poems so much that I had printed it myself, on the AB Dick 360 offset press in our garage. When Tim saw the book, he called me. He praised my efforts and said although they would look for a major publisher, I was welcome to sell all copies I’d made. But was I aware that I had misspelled her name on the cover?

Her first name, Ntozake, was indeed misspelled; I had used an “s” rather than a “z”. Correcting it was easy; I just went into the garage and reprinted it.

Many authors would have been angry; called me stupid or refused to speak to me. This gracious young woman waited for the corrected copy, then sent a card, “Thank you for the beginning. love,tz”

As she was achieving success on the New York stage, we printed Sassafrass, the first section of her second book, in l976 and 1977. Copies of these early editions of her books, as well as the precious card, are included in the Archives of Shameless Hussy Press at University of California Santa Cruz Library, Special Collections.

Julia Vinograd

“Hey, look! It’s the Bubble Lady!” Voices of children would announce her arrival as Julia Vinograd brought her poetry to sell on the streets of Berkeley. Children loved the bubbles and would jump and dance, reaching for them. Julia told me, “I’m a naturally disgruntled person. I thought if I could make someone else happy, maybe I would feel better. So I decided to blow bubbles. Children like them.”

Her books were simple, short, and readable, not carried in major bookstores. She sold them on the street and in cafes, “Hey, Alta!” she would shout, "I’ve got a new book!” I often bought one; occasionally bought 2 or 3. She signed them all.

In the ’60’s, Richard Krech organized open poetry readings at Shakespeare and Co Books on Telegraph in Berkeley. Julia was the first woman to step up and read her work. She looked delicate but she was brave. Brave to step up to the mike, brave to say what she said, and brave to wander the streets listening to people who had no one else to talk to.

At the open poetry readings, I was intimidated by the male vibe of Charles Potts, Andy Clausen, John Oliver Simon, Richard Krech and John Thomson. Julia encouraged me to read aloud; soon both of us were reading regularly. There were evenings when she and I were the only women reading our own poems.

She was tireless in encouraging other poets. At her Celebration of Life, a tall blonde said “Julia told me she liked me because I look like Marilyn Monroe but I write like Charles Bukowski.”

A man, explaining that the beloved Buddhist saint Quan Yin is known as “She who hears the cries of the people,” said “Julia was our Quan Yin,”

Julia wrote dozens of books. One was unlike all the others: The Book Of Jerusalem comes from her own heart, rather than telling other people’s stories. “I don’t know where this came from, Alta.”

“It’s called poetry, Julia.”

“Yes, but most of what I write focuses on other people. This just came out.”

“That’s why it’s called the muse. Poets have to be really quiet for that to happen.”

“But where did it COME from?” she would insist, as if I had the answer.

I nominated that book for the American Book Award. It’s tiny; one perfect poem. One board member was dismissive; “Isn’t she that lady that walks Telegraph Avenue selling her books for $3?” I said, “Read the book.”

Luckily, I was not alone; Ishmael Reed said “Good idea. She deserves to be honored."

Julia Vinograd got the American Book Award for The Book Of Jerusalem.

A beloved figure for decades on Telegraph Avenue, Julia was the absolute best at listening to and sharing the stories of those who were usually not heard. The rest of us did care, and sent money to charities and shared food with the homeless, but Julia listened. And she wrote it down.