The state of East Bay poetry

Poetry_Gleason_Weekender
Jessica Gleason/Staff

The room’s quiet focus is fixed on her hushed, commanding presence, with a voice that resonates from the scuffed-up floorboards to the well-worn walls. A simmering pot murmurs behind us in the open kitchen. A cat — maybe two — weaves back and forth between the colorful mismatched chairs and couches crowding the room, accommodating the influx of unexpected (yet welcome) guests. The room thrums with life.

Simone White reads at the Qilombo, a well-established community center in the heart of Afrika Town, Oakland. The building is fronted by a communal library — anyone can take or leave a book as they please. Just past this room is the reading venue, which looks as if it could easily be a co-op apartment. Students, locals and poets alike are eagerly waiting for the event to start. The larger-than-usual crowd doesn’t go unnoticed: A lot of people are here to see the poet White, whose reading at UC Berkeley was unexpectedly cancelled. Her work, largely experimental, has been described as hovering between “a sense of ‘totally getting it’ and of ‘not getting it at all.’”

“Branch of affable. Upside down, or bowed, affability seconds the daring rescue,” White posits in her 2013 chapbook Unrest, before dropping the line “Henry James, yo” two stanzas later.

White was set to read for the English department’s Holloway Series, a lecture series where poets both “renowned and rising”  are invited to read and speak to their works. Back in February, the American Federation of State, Community, and Municipal Employees AFSCME 3299, the largest union for employees of the University of California, protested against the university’s mistreatment of subcontracted workers. They called for a boycott of invited speakers. In solidarity, the English department cancelled two of its upcoming readings of poets White and Graham Foust.

White is a poet of color, along with fellow poets Van Dellz and Julian T. Brolaski, who also read at the Qilombo that night. All the visiting poets at the BAMPFA were white.

It was an unavoidable shame, but White was already scheduled to read at a venue in Oakland the day after, so the night of, a group of us poetry lovers decided to attend. We met in front of the newly built Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, or BAMPFA, to split a car-service ride all the way to Oakland. While waiting for the group to come together, I decided to explore the new building. I wondered at its impossibly high ceilings, its spotless white walls, its impeccably modern designs and its wide and mostly empty rooms that seem so out of place for the increasingly cramped city of Berkeley. The museum stands as a beacon of contemporary luxury.

On my way out, I noticed rows of white plastic chairs being prepared for some sort of event. As my friends arrived, ready to depart, a crowd began to form at the entrance of the museum. In it were many faces I recognized, faces of professors in the English department, of graduate students and graduate student instructors, all filing into the building. A friend attending told us that a poetry reading was scheduled for that same night: a reading of the established poets and writers Brandon Brown, Laura Moriarty, Kit Robinson and Jocelyn Saidenberg.

White is a poet of color, along with fellow poets Van Dellz and Julian T. Brolaski, who also read at the Qilombo that night. All the visiting poets at the BAMPFA were white.

A few miles down at the Qilombo, the larger-than-usual crowd doesn’t yield the same amount of familiar faces. Besides, a handful of undergraduate students including myself, and only one professor I can make out, the room is occupied by locals: friends and family, community organizers and even a toddler who runs about the room, always finding himself back in his mom’s arms. The Qilombo was built by and for “black and brown communities.” Its mission statement is to “(open its) doors and (provide) public space to all peoples during these times of intensive gentrification, system oppression and displacement, while also striving to empower those whose political economic voices have been marginalized.”

There are a hundreds of reasons why White’s reading was largely unattended by Berkeley’s literary academe. After all, the BAMPFA reading had been planned for months, and the Holloway series reading was only cancelled that week. Yet the jarring divide between the readings at Oakland and the readings at Berkeley only makes the division itself even more apparent. The Bay Area is known for its thriving literary scene, particularly in the historically cultural centers of Oakland and Berkeley, but the widening gap between these two cities is increasingly hard to ignore.  And the question still remains: Why hadn’t the Berkeley Art Museum cancelled its visiting speakers in solidarity with the AFSCME boycott?

This type of division isn’t particularly new. The disparity between literary academia and the literary mainstream is a well-established one, but within the poetry community, it has been festering. Slam poetry has been derided for years by literary critics. Harold Bloom famously called it “the death of art.” Countless articles and think pieces have ruminated on the subject of literary elitism. More recently, however, another accusation has been leveled at the literary establishment, particularly toward the literary avant-garde: racism.

In a brilliant essay, poet Cathy Park Hong writes against the tendency of the poetic avant-garde to be exclusionary of poets of color or poets who deal with race. This is exacerbated by the fact that recently, some white poets have made highly controversial works, including Kenneth Goldsmith’s reading of Michael Brown’s autopsy report as a poem, and Michael Derrick Hudson’s submission to the 2015 Best of American Poetry anthology under the pseudonym “Yi-Fen Chou,” in what has been described as literary yellowface.

Though many are now starting to call out these obstacles and instances, racism in the literary establishment is, unfortunately, not a novel complaint, and academic elitism doesn’t surprise anyone. Yet the widening rift between these two communities that are only a few bus stops away from each other is increasingly disconcerting. Even though the absence of Berkeley’s academe at White’s reading was largely incidental, this schism remains and is only growing.

Perhaps this is only a symptom. The Bay Area has seen a radical transformation in the last decade, Berkeley and Oakland included. All around the East Bay, construction sites promise upscale businesses, better apartment complexes, luxury housing and penthouse views, and the rent is too damn high. As more people flood to these cities, gentrification pushes more and more people out of their homes and communities, and a stratified and divided community reveals itself. And with this year’s announcement that UC Berkeley has a new record for the greatest number of student applications, the problem doesn’t seem likely to be going away. As space in the Bay Area becomes more in-demand and more expensive, tensions between class and race, locals and newcomers, fracture the community, like a fault line about to give at any moment.

Though many are now starting to call out these obstacles and instances, racism in the literary establishment is, unfortunately, not a novel complaint, and academic elitism doesn’t surprise anyone. Yet the widening rift between these two communities that are only a few bus stops away from each other is increasingly disconcerting.

Last week, after the boycott ended, the Holloway Reading Series started up again and everything seemed business as usual. Poet Anna Moschovakis read poems from her latest publication, of which I have my copy. Behind the ornate walls of Wheeler Hall’s Maude Fife Room, it’s easy to forget the rest of the world, even the rest of the city. But avoiding this cultural divide in a community that shares such a profound love for poetry leaves it vulnerable to dissolution.

There isn’t an easy answer. There might not be an answer at all. Perhaps it’s naive to believe in such a utopia — in a community that lets its differences and diversity be its greatest strength and not what divides it. This rift extends far beyond readings of poetry and pages from a book. Class and racial tensions are high everywhere, and even poetry offers no escape. But the East Bay is not just anywhere. Despite their differences, Berkeley and Oakland have stood together in difficult times. It was only in late 2014 that members of both communities stood side by side in a Black Lives Matter protest turned riot.

That’s not for nothing, isn’t it?

 

Contact Leon Barros at [email protected]