Berkeley's "Lunch Poems" proves among most popular
of ongoing public poetry readings
Kathleen Maclay, Public Affairs
The University of California, Berkeley's Haas Pavilion packs
in fans for basketball and Greek Theater events often draw capacity
crowds, but even poets admit amazement with the mobbing of the
Doe Library's Morrison Room for "Lunch Poems," a series
of monthly poetry readings.
attendance at the free, lunch time program - now in its
fourth year - has grown steadily to more than 200 people,
even for "unknown poets," said poet Zack Rogow, an
editor at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Education who dreamed
up the program.
Lunch Poems was in its infancy, Rogow approached Robert Hass,
a UC Berkeley English professor and national Poet Laureate from
1995 to 1997, and asked for his support. Hass couldn't be happier
with Lunch Poems' success.
I was a Poet Laureate, I went around saying poetry is alive
and making a difference in people's lives," said Hass,
a self-described "front man" for the series.
such as one last month by Czeslaw Milosz, a 1980 Nobel Prize
winner for literature, filled the Morrison Room to overflowing.
Rogow used a hand-held counter to tally the 400-plus listeners.
were a lot of people standing in the halls," said Morrison
Room Librarian Alex Warren. "Thankfully, we had a good
mailing list developed for the series includes people from Santa
Cruz to Sacramento, Rogow said. "It's getting known all
across the country," added Warren.
Poems has one of the highest average attendances of any such
program in California, according to the San Francisco office
of Poets & Writers, which helps finance the UC Berkeley
effort and others. Most such events draw about 30 people, the
was a smash hit from the beginning," said Rogow. "It
really surprised us."
Haas and program regulars gave several reasons for its popularity.
they said, is the literary tradition and support for poetry
in the Bay Area, especially in San Francisco, Berkeley and on
the UC Berkeley campus.
poet Alan Ginsberg wrote "In a Supermarket in California"
in a grocery store on College Avenue in Berkeley, and fellow
Beat poet Gary Snyder lived in San Francisco, Rogow said. Hass
is a Bay Area native, and Milosz is a UC Berkeley professor
support can be seen in contributions from numerous departments
and programs at UC Berkeley to keep the poetry series going.
Among them are Ethnic Studies, African-American Studies and
the Department of Romance Languages. The biggest funders are
the College of Letters & Science, the Townsend Center for
the Humanities and the University Library.
The Bancroft Library is a poetry collection of approximately
25,000 titles and a strong focus on post World War II Bay Area
poets. Bancroft's Poetry Archive features The City Lights Publishing
archives, Lawrence Ferlinghetti's papers, and works by Robert
Bly, William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Gregory Corso, Jack
Kerouac, Seamus Heaney and Adrienne Rich.
library reports light collection use by students and faculty,
moderate use by independent scholars.
has very busy lives, and what there is not much time for is
reflection and wool-gathering, just experiencing yourself as
being alive," Hass said. "Poetry is like music...just
about being alive, having consciousness, so it's appealing to
was one of the goals of the series, to give university students,
faculty, staff and campus neighbors a rejuvenating break from
work and daily life.
and Rogow also said a stellar lineup of poets helps draw crowds
and that many of those who read come because of their friendships
with Hass or out of fondness for UC Berkeley.
Morrison Room is a lure in itself. The recently renovated library,
designed and sanctified for recreational reading, provides a
soothing atmosphere with thick carpets, cozy overstuffed chairs,
high ceilings and good light.
Library Rare Books Curator Anthony Bliss called the series "one
of the wonderful things we do here" and described the Morrison
Room as "a real nostalgia factory" for former students.
Souroujon, coordinator of the Regents' Professorships and Lectureships
program, explained why she's a series regular:
write poetry myself and love its depth and meaning. I enjoy
hearing poets reading their writings, especially the ones which
are still in process. It's great to buy poetry books, or borrow
the books from libraries, but nothing substitutes the exciting
thrill of being present at a reading."
other, smaller readings at UC Berkeley capitalize on the local
enthusiasm for poetry. The UC Berkeley Art Museum hosts "Rhyme
and Reason," an open mike poetry series on the second and
fourth Sundays of each month.
program offers readings by two featured poets before opening
the microphone to local poets to read their own work. Attendance
is reported at 25 to 40 people per afternoon event.
think there's a growing affection for poetry in this country,"
Rogow said. "And people are eager for the kinds of messages
that you can only get from poems. Poets are not afraid to plunge
into riled waters. Poems have nothing to lose by being daring."