For poetry lovers, a bumper crop’s in store

28 August 2002 |

A campus fond of poetry will pull out all the stops this school year, offering readings, classes, and an artist residency all devoted to the artform sometimes termed “the most practiced but least perfected.”

The season of poetics gets under way at noon, Thursday, Sept. 5, when Lunch Poems — the literary phenomenon that has been called “California’s most popular poetry reading series” — holds its traditional kickoff reading.

The free noon-hour series borrows its name from Frank O’Hara’s famous 1964 collection “Lunch Poems,” a volume composed during (and about) his lunch hours while he was working at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art.

In the tradition of O’Hara, who was known for befriending and celebrating all manner of New Yorkers, the Berkeley reading series starts each school year by inviting an eclectic lineup of faculty and staff to introduce and read poems of particular resonance to them.

The event is always full of surprises and gems, which Lunch Poems devotees recall with affection — from Margaret Wilkerson sharing African American poetry she heard as a child while her mother combed her hair, to geologist Walter Alvarez parsing the geological sense of time in Shelley’s “Ozymandius.”

This year’s kickoff — whose readers include Nobel Prize-winning physicist Charles Townes, novelist and English department senior lecturer Maxine Hong Kingston, and Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism — promises to live up to the tradition.

“Poems…draw us into the tiny spaces within the letters and between the words, they make rooms of stanzas and roofs of rhyme,” Associate Professor of Architecture Jill Stoner writes in her new anthology, “Poetry for Architects.” Stoner is expected to lead listeners into some of those “tiny spaces” in her reading.

Also on the bill is French lecturer Seda Chavdarian, a past winner of the campus’s distinguished teaching award, who says she reads at least one poem a day and encourages her students to do the same. Though “everyone expects a reading of the great poets of France,” she says, Chavdarian will read two poems on an identical theme — one written originally in French, the other in English.

Also sharing the podium will be Norma Alarcon, professor of ethnic studies and Spanish; Berkeleyan writer Cathy Cockrell, from Public Affairs; David Duer, director of development and external relations at the Library; Professor in the Graduate School Daniel Koshland, of molecular and cell biology; and Lawrence Ruth, policy analyst at the Center for Forestry. Lunch Poems co-founders Robert Hass and Zack Rogow will introduce the readers.

The regular series begins Oct. 3, with Bay Area poet Brenda Hillman, followed by noon-hour readings throughout the year, featuring poets Li-Young Lee, Mary Ruefle, Adrienne Rich, Luis Rodriguez, and Cornelius Eady, as well as a May 1 final event with readings by Berkeley students. All the readings, except the Adrienne Rich event, will take place from 12:10 to 1 p.m. in the Morrison Library. The location of Rich’s reading will be announced at a later date.

Classroom poetics
To introduce students to poetry early in their Berkeley careers, Steve Tollefson, academic coordinator of the College Writing Program, is teaching a fall-semester freshman seminar, “Reading and Reciting Poems in English.”

Tollefson believes that everyone should be able to recite one or two of their favorite poems. “In addition to its purely personal benefits, knowing some poetry by heart has practical applications,” he says. “In a tough job interview, you can impress the prospective boss by reciting just the right line from, say, Dylan Thomas, or a bit of T.S. Eliot.”

Meanwhile, in rhetoric, faculty member Frederick Dolan is offering an undergraduate course on poet Wallace Stevens and philosopher Martin Heidegger. As the course description puts it: “Both perceived an intimate relationship between the nature of poetry and that of reflective thought, to the point where it can justifiably be said that Heidegger’s thinking is a kind of poetry and Stevens’ poetry is a kind of thought.”

Forty students have enrolled, with nine on the waiting list. “That’s very big for us,” says Dolan. “I’d expected 20 or so.”

Holloway residency, readings
Students of literature and writing will have the opportunity to work closely with San Francisco poet Carol Snow, who takes up residency this semester as the English department’s Holloway Poet.

On six dates throughout the fall, the department will host the Holloway Poetry Readings. Participating writers will include Nathaniel Mackey of UC Santa Cruz, a practitioner and scholar of African American experimental writing; Joanne Kyger, a leader in poetry innovation over the last 40 years; and experimental poet Robert Grenier.

The Holloway readings will be held at 6 p.m. in Wheeler Hall’s Maude Fife Room on Sept. 10, Oct. 3, Oct. 24, Nov. 7, and Dec. 3.


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