Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

Poetry For the People

I was reading through my copy of the UC Berkeley poetry journal Occident's 1990 edition, its Palmer/Davidson issue. I love the presentation of those two Michael's poems, together with emotionally and stylistically proximate criticism of their work. For that achievement the journal's editor at the time P. Michael Campbell -- someone who always struck me as extraordinarily friendly and welcoming, without any Maude Fife Room airs -- deserves great credit.

The rest of the issue, as is typical with such university-sponsored productions, contains a lot of "in house" contributors, including work by a former professor of mine, undergraduate and graduate poets I'd heard about from my friends and some by people I was close to myself. Interestingly, though, the poem that resonated most for me tonight was Julio Vinograd's spare vignette.

Because she wandered the streets of Berkeley, especially in the vicinity of People's Park, hawking her low-budget chap books and blowing bubbles, Vinograd was looked at askance by many of the folks I knew with aspirations to "lit-ra-tchur", as if she were degrading the brand of poetry by selling it too cheaply on the street. Personally, I always liked her poems, even if they trod the same sonic and thematic landscape. But, because I wasn't an expert like the poets I spent time with, I kept this judgment to myself.

That's why it delighted me to learn, shortly after this issue of Occident came out, that her street poetry had been shaped by a stint at the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. Not that such a distinction guarantees quality, mind you. Knowing she had come through that rather industrial program confirmed for me both that she knew what she was doing as a writer, even if she did choose to spend her days blowing bubbles on Telegraph, and that the aspects of her work that I wearied of when I read more than a few poems at a time were, in fact, characteristic of Iowa poets in general rather than any specific limitations she might have.

Anyway, the poem I found tonight showcases what she did best, telling stories of the people she encountered out on the street with a cool detachment that demonstrated that, even though her heart was in the right place, her mind was always off to one side reflecting on the scenes in which she invested her compassion:
Just Out of Jail

"Write about me," he stops me on the street.
Bright colored Guatemalan shirt,
luxurious cigarette, husky voice, insistent.
"Tell them I just got out;
I was 3 years in jail."
He takes a deep breath, hesitates,
this is important:
"Tell them I hated being locked up,"
he bursts out indignantly
and then shakes his head
because the words don't say it.
He looks at me doubtfully. It's spring.
Some angry sparrows fight over pizza crumbs.
There's a cardboard box full of free puppies
with their eyes still filmy.
A pretty girl talks to her friends
and doesn't notice her strawberry yogurt's
dripping to the sidewalk,
then she does and squeals.
How could I possibly understand?
3 years.
"Try anyway," he says,
"you've got to tell them;
you've just got to."
While the use of contrast here is probably too pat for most "educated" tastes and the self-reflexivity comes too easily, I am still awed by Vinograd's capacity to craft "poetry for the people." That slogan, taken up by June Jordan and her students, still fires me up. In the end, though, I think the best poetry for the people is less likely to be the overtly engaged sort that tended to come out of Jordan's classes at UC Berkeley than the wry musings of Vinograd's participant observer.
Tags: poetry

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