‘Engaging and deeply human writing’: Berkeley ‘street poet’ Julia Vinograd dies at 75

vinograd_brian-barton_courtesy-copy
Brian Barton/Courtesy

Julia Vinograd, considered Berkeley’s unofficial poet laureate and known to many as the “Bubble Lady,” died Wednesday after struggling against cancer for two months. She was 75.

Vinograd studied English at UC Berkeley during her undergraduate years. It was not until she came back to Berkeley after earning her master of fine arts from the University of Iowa during the People’s Park and anti-war protests of the 1960s and 1970s, however, that she became what fellow poets Bruce Isaacson and Jan Steckel have dubbed a “street poet,” giving a “human face” to the homeless community.

“She loved Berkeley. She loved the university. She loved the community of people who were there — that’s what she gave her life to,” Isaacson said. He credits Vinograd with making him a poet during their friendship of more than 30 years. “That’s what she wanted to do — she wanted to be a writer.”

The “Bubble Lady,” however, did not grow out of Vinograd’s poetry, but out of her activism. Once, she was at a demonstration, and the negative energy between the protesters and police lay thick in the air. Vinograd, though a pacifist, was not a “peaceful pacifist” and decided to blow bubbles at the police. A couple of the policemen joined her, diffusing the tension.

From that moment on, Vinograd took her bubbles with her. Jan Dederick, a newer member of the poetry community, said her first introduction to Vinograd was through her children, who loved the bubbles.

In her lifetime, Vinograd published 68 poetry books, along with two CDs and a tape, according to Isaacson. He added that Vinograd put about 150,000 books into print, selling them one at a time for no more than $5 while walking around Berkeley with a slight limp she had gotten when she contracted polio as a child.

“She would sometimes listen to a particularly handsome young poet get up and read not very good poetry, and then she would lean over and whisper to me, ‘If only I were deaf — I would be in love,’” Steckel recounted with a chuckle.

Vinograd’s dry humor also carried over into her street poetry. Vinograd’s Jerusalem poems, however, for which she won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, were more refined.

Vinograd lived to see the publication of her final book, “Between the Cracks,” which her friends and sister, Deborah Vinograd, printed for her, according to Steckel. It is available at Zeitgeist Press, which Julia Vinograd co-founded. Steckel added that Julia Vinograd’s papers are being donated to the Bancroft Library.

“I think Julia left a trail of accessible, warm, engaging and deeply human writing that will be read — that may be read — by generations of readers,” Isaacson said. “I think that she might be read the way poetry lovers read Walt Whitman now. She is so emblematic of the life, the urban world of our times, and I think that there is a chance she will be remembered like that.”

Julia Vinograd is survived by her sister, Deborah Vinograd.

Contact Boyce Buchanan at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @BuchananBoyce.