27 April 2012

National Poetry Month: 27

When I attended UC Berkeley in the late 1970s/early 1980s, the city was in an odd transition period: the glory days of the hippies and the 1960s protests had passed, but the aura of those days lingered, and had drawn many of the city’s inhabitants, both students and others, to Berkeley in the first place. There was a division, but a porous one, between students and the people who actually made their homes either in the city or on its streets. Street people looking to score drugs sometimes showed up in our dorm rooms; I woke up from a nap one afternoon, having left my door open because it was warm, and I saw a disheveled young man patiently waiting. Half-awake I remembered that the guy who had lived in that room the year before had been a dealer. I told the street guy that I was sorry but I didn’t have anything. He left as considerately as he had waited while I slept. It’s impossible to imagine that encounter happening in a dorm now, which is probably just as well. Not everyone is as gentle as my visitor was. Then shortly before I graduated National Lampoon's Animal House hit the movie theaters and suddenly there were toga parties in the streets and people really wanted to join fraternities and sororities, and majoring in business became a big thing. So, yeah, the 1980s had started.

There were a number of street people we saw regularly, whose seeming eccentricity made them stand out, making them seem like colorful "characters" of the city. One of them was known as “the Bubble Lady” because she would stroll around Telegraph Avenue, blowing iridescent pretty soap bubbles. She was usually dressed in a black dress or black skirt and sweater with a yellow tam-o’shanter. Eventually I realized she was a poet and sold copies of her own works in thin booklets with blue covers while she wandered the street blowing bubbles. I realized this because she walked up to a group of my dorm-mates and me in a cheap Telegraph Avenue restaurant and asked us if we were interested in buying a copy, priced at dollar. There was some smirking among the others and they seemed surprised when I said I would like to buy one. She probably noticed the smirking but was no doubt used to it from students and was agreeably dignified as I gave her the dollar while she signed a copy of Street Spiels for me. That was also when I found out her name was Julia Vinograd. I liked the poems and bought a few more of her books from places like Cody’s Books, now gone. Her poems are generally brief, often wry in ways both bleak and witty, offering views of a life that looks marginal from the perspective of mainstream imperialist materialist American society (though not from the perspective of those living that life). Poverty and addiction are constant and troubling companions.

I moved away to Boston and then I moved back home to the Bay Area and though I go to Berkeley fairly often I haven’t seen Vinograd in many years. A quick Internet search leads me to believe she is still active, though. And it looks as if her work is still available. If you’ve clicked on any of the links I’ve been putting in these National Poetry Month entries, you may have noticed that I haven’t linked to bios or Wikipedia entries; I’ve linked to places from which you can buy the poet’s work, because the life is of interest only because of the works, and giving money for a poet’s work is a solid way to celebrate National Poetry Month. I’ve put several of Vinograd’s poems here, since they’re more difficult to find than those by, say, Milton and Wordsworth, but I encourage you to buy and check out her work for yourself.

Café Comment

“I forgot my cigarettes in the med;
I left a full pack on the table
in plain sight
and when I went back for them they were still there;
what’s the matter with everyone?
I mean, I knew the place was getting pretty straight,
but a full pack, you know,
they must only be letting in zombies these days,
no derelicts or street trash,
just registered zombies, maybe blind registered zombies,
I’m not going back there
unless I need the coffee.”

The Trouble with Political Poetry

We hate our own true love
harder than we hate the enemy,
the government or even the monitor.
Because our true love hates us back
and knows our names
all night long.

Welfare World

For the first week we’re millionaires
and for the last week we starve.
It’s not only hard to get money,
it’s hard to take money
Money certainly doesn’t take us seriously.
We live in both extremes
and neither matters because the other comes round again
and soon,
though of course nothing else matters
at the time.
And this happens every month
as if there had never been a month before.

Against Punk

It is better to light
one candle
than to praise the darkness.


So many lines,
do they make up a poem?


We’re on the rocks
so add some gin
and then begin
to go away

 – Julia Vinograd


Unknown said...

I think that was one dollar well spent. I especially liked Welfare World, which I will try to remember when I get irritated with some of my students' parents.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

yes indeed -- actually I was thinking of some people closer to you than students' parents

David Bratman said...

Oh yes, Julia Vinograd is still there. About six months ago I was in the Friends of the Berkeley Public Library bookstore, which is just off Telegraph, when I saw her. With a practiced saleswoman's eye, she caught my smile and told me she had a new book out for $5. Pleased that something is still unchanged in Berkeley, and liking the poem about Joan Baez I turned to at random, I bought a copy of Falling Sky.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Thanks for the update. Maybe I've just been going to the wrong spots in Berkeley. I'm glad to hear she's still around and still selling poetry -- $5? I think that's comparatively cheaper than $1 was thirty-odd years ago, when I bought my first book by her. I'm intrigued by the thought of the Joan Baez poem; even in the late 1970s I felt that Vinograd was coming in part from a different, earlier time in Berkeley. I'd like to see how her approaches have either changed or not changed. I'll be on the lookout for Falling Sky.