Bay Area poet community raises funds to support Berkeley poet, ‘Bubble Lady’ Julia Vinograd after cancer diagnosis

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Debbie Vinogrand/Courtesy

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Nestled in the mural on the northern wall of Amoeba Music is a woman in black wearing a yellow hat and blowing bubbles amid the chaosthe woman pictured is long-time poet and Berkeley personality Julia Vinograd.

Vinograd recently received a cancer diagnosis. Bruce Isaacson, a Berkeley poet and Vinograd’s friend, created a GoFundMe page Oct. 23 to raise funds for her treatment and care.

During the People’s Park protests of the late 1960s, Vinograd became known as the “Bubble Lady” for blowing bubbles in and around the park, according to Isaacson.   

“She is in some ways the true definition of a street poet,” Isaacson said. “Her poems are sketches of life on the street and sketches of the beauty of that life. … Her poetry celebrates the life of the streets of Berkeley.”

According to the GoFundMe page, Vinograd is no longer able to live on her own and needs to receive 24/7 care. Her current medical care is contingent on public assistance programs, and if the money raised through the GoFundMe puts her medical care at risk, then all of the donations will be refunded, said Isaacson.

The only hospital bed that Vinograd’s insurance found for her was in Los Angeles, where she doesn’t know anybody, according to Bay Area poet and friend Jan Steckel. The funds raised would help keep Vinograd in Berkeley, “the town that she loves and loves her,” Steckel said.

Vinograd has written more than 60 books of poetry and used to hawk them on the street for $5 apiece, Steckel said. In 2004, the city of Berkeley honored Vinograd with a Lifetime Achievement Award as Berkeley’s unofficial poet laureate.

“She is the people’s poet of People’s Park,” said former Berkeley mayor Tom Bates in the proclamation honoring her. “In essence, she is the spirit of Berkeley. For this, we love her.”

John Rowe, president of the Bay Area Poets Coalition, said he first knew of Julia as the Bubble Lady when he was a student at Berkeley High School before he had any idea he was going to be a poet. Years later, he got to know her and participated in readings and festivals with her.

“She has just been so committed to poetry and really encouraging to other poets,” Rowe said. “Celebrating poetry and encouraging others is the mainstay of her life.”

As to how she became Berkeley’s Bubble Lady, Vinograd writes in a poem:

People’s Park made me the Bubblelady.
There was going to be a huge street battle
the next day, everyone was mad, I was mad,
but I was a pacifist and besides
if I threw a rock I’d probably hit my foot.
But I wanted to throw something.
I wasn’t a very peaceful pacifist.
So I decided to fill a shopping bag
with bottles of soap bubbles
and stay up all night blowing bubbles in the park
and if they wanted to arrest me, fine.

On Nov. 11, there will be a fundraising event at Art House Gallery and Cultural Center in Berkeley at 5 p.m. Poets from across the Bay Area will read their work in support of Vinograd.

“With her influence, she really made me a poet,” Isaacson said. “In many ways, Julia helped guide me and make me into a better poet and better person than I would have been otherwise.”

Contact Katherine Kemp at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @katherinekemp.