20th annual Watershed Poetry Festival celebrates nature, poetry

Watershed Poetry Festival/Courtesy

Several voices roared from Downtown Berkeley’s Civic Center Park on Saturday not only to celebrate watersheds around the world, but also to celebrate nature, poetry and community.

The 20th Annual Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival was lively. Towering handmade silks with designs of watersheds and basins hung near the poplar trees. The adjacent farmer’s market allowed unknowing passersby to chance upon the vibrant event. Several publishers and journals  including UC Berkeley’s Words of the Watershed Journal encircled the audience, and The Barry Finnerty Trio’s guitar riffs, bass lines and drums pervaded the air.

One of the most prominent presences at the festival was local poet Joyce Jenkins, who had a constant stream of poets and colleagues approach her. “We are nature,” she said in an interview for The Daily Californian. “We all eat, we all walk on the Earth or move on the Earth; we all breathe the air … This, hopefully, will raise awareness to be more mindful, to stand up for the Earth, humans, animals. To stand up for poetry.”

Standing up for poetry is familiar for Jenkins: She has been editor-in-chief of the well-known Poetry Flash since 1978. More pertinently, she is the director of  the festival since Mark Baldridge’s passing in December 2014. Baldridge co-founded and established Watershed with help from Jenkins and Robert Hass Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and UC Berkeley professor — who also read later on in the day.

A sense of mindfulness and community was indeed apparent throughout the readings. One of the poets, Jane Mead, read from her book, “Money Money Money Water Water Water.” Mead’s poetry considers how people interact with the environment whether as consumers, polluters or observers and questions the economic, political and spiritual relationships people have with water and nature. Another poem, “70 Feet From The Magnolia Blossom,” contemplates how people relate to nature and its constituents in this case, an ant but also, how communities can transform awareness into action in order to help one another and the Earth.

Griffin Poetry Prize winner Brenda Hillman continued exploring the link between nature’s elements and activism. Hillman read “In High Desert Under the Drones,” a poem from her latest collection, “Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire.” The poem recounts activism and protests drones that fly from an Air Force Base in Las Vegas to locations such as Pakistan. The experimental language of the poem blazes through while questioning poetry’s involvement in activism. One of the lines in the poem asks, “Is poetry pointless?” It’s a question often concomitant with contemporary poetry.

Manon Von Kaenel, co-editor-in-chief of UC Berkeley’s Words of the Watershed Journal, certainly doesn’t think so. Kaenel, a fifth-year student studying environmental sciences and geography, co-founded the journal to make room for “a unique space … where people can reflect on their connection to nature as an individual and as a society.” The journal, looking to publish its third issue in 2016, certainly fulfills a creative space separate from school.

“We’re all in this studying environment, (focused) on academics, learning as much as we can, getting to the next step in our career, (and) this is something that’s not academic at all. It’s just personal connecting to the environment, writing, painting or taking photos,” Kaenel said.

Similarly, the festival turned out to be a space for personal reflection, an intentional and restorative five-hour slot to connect with nature and to hear varied poetic voices. For John Shoptaw, a poet and professor in the english department at UC Berkeley, it’s also home.

“This is the place I feel most at home as a poet because I’m very much an environmental poet.” This sense of home, however, serves as a reminder of Watershed’s singularity. “There should be Watershed Festivals all over. I would like to see this festival be contagious.”

Hass, the last poet to read, agrees. “We still need to gather the community together and poetry’s a great way of doing that. It’s the best kind of community activism.”

Contact Ariana Vargas at [email protected].