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UC Berkeley's "Lunch Poems" proves among most popular of ongoing public poetry readings
01 Mar 2000

By Kathleen Maclay, Public Affairs

BERKELEY-- 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.

Average 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.

When 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.

"While 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.

Readings 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.

"There were a lot of people standing in the halls," said Morrison Room Librarian Alex Warren. "Thankfully, we had a good sound system."

The 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.

Lunch 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 office reported.

"It was a smash hit from the beginning," said Rogow. "It really surprised us."

Rogow, Haas and program regulars gave several reasons for its popularity.

One, 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.

Beat 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 emeritus.

Campus 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.

At 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.

The library reports light collection use by students and faculty, moderate use by independent scholars.

"Everybody 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 people."

That 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.

Hass 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.

The 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.

Bancroft 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.

Sophie Souroujon, coordinator of the Regents' Professorships and Lectureships program, explained why she's a series regular:

"I 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."

Still 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.

The 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.

"I 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."


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