Steam tunnel poetry, night mail and Berkeley in the ‘80s: An interview with Berkeley poet Julien Poirier

Julien Poirier/Courtesy

It was half an hour before Julien Poirier was scheduled to read alongside Maxine Hong Kingston and Michael Krasny on a Thursday night in late March at City Lights Bookstore when I struck up a conversation with his father and was given Poirier’s contact information to set up an interview. Among others, these Bay Area literary figureheads were reading from City Lights founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s newest book, “Little Boy,” which he released to coincide with his 100th birthday.

Subsequent to its founding, City Lights became an epicenter for the San Francisco Beat poetry movement in the 1950s, and has remained not only a fixture of, but an active participant in the Bay Area literary scene ever since. City Lights Publishers produced Poirier’s latest book of poetry in 2016, “Out of Print.”

Poirier grew up in Berkeley and attended a local community college while immersing himself in poetry. At 23, he was accepted to Columbia University and moved to New York, where he stayed until 2008 and helped found Ugly Duckling Presse, a nonprofit publishing company, with his fellow Columbia poets. So far Poirier has published several volumes of poetry in addition to “Out of Print” including “El Golpe Chileño,” “Stained Glass Windows of California” and “Way Too West.” Since moving back to Berkeley, Poirier has taken over his dad’s printing business, worked on raising his daughters with his wife and has continued to champion “poetry for the people” by sending out monthly or bimonthly zines he calls “Night Mail”: collections of his poetry, memoir pieces, cartoons, foldout posters and song lyrics linked to SoundCloud recordings.

The Daily Californian: How did you get into the Berkeley arts scene in the first place?

Julien Poirier: I got into writing because things went pretty wrong for me in high school. I made some bad decisions. My friends and I got caught for breaking into a house. I was a sophomore. We didn’t go to jail or anything. We were just doing all sorts of stupid crap at that point, which was kind of easy to do at Berkeley at that time. And this is even though we had super supportive families and stuff. So, after all that, my friend dropped out, and… I was grounded for half a year.

I was really into theater at that point, but I felt like I needed something more private. I felt really self-conscious. So it was sort of this spark to start writing because I could do that on my own. I could go out at night and sit at park benches and do it. It appealed to me because it felt like I could discover this whole culture on my own. I had a totally unreal vision of what poetry was at that time. I almost thought poetry had died as an art form in the United States because I didn’t know about the Beats or the San Francisco Renaissance. I didn’t know these things were still happening really. I thought Bob Dylan came along in the ‘60s and poetry got subsumed into pop music. So, it felt really great. Really alone. Like I was in this secret guild or something. And then when I was a senior in high school, I met some folks at Berkeley High that were into that same thing… we were very pretentious. We were really into French film, and at the same time into rap. It wasn’t like we were totally in the past.

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DC: And then you started exploring the city (Berkeley) together?

JP: Yeah. I mean we really didn’t have much else to do. We were all going to community college. So, we would go out to (Diablo Valley College) together. And then it would be like, ‘What are we going to do for the evening?’ We would meet up and have coffee and we would just talk and talk. And there were all these other characters hanging out at… (Caffè Mediterraneum). And then we would maybe hit a few other cafes, like drunks would hit bars basically. The cafes would close at 11 or 12 and then we would either walk up to campus or if someone had a car at that time, we would go up to the hills and look at the city and maybe get high. Or lucky.

(E)very night there were open mics at different cafes and stuff. And it could be rough because it tended to be a bar crowd. The stuff that flew tended to be very performative and could really capture the crowd instantly. You almost had to have a hook. If you didn’t have hook people would give you probably five or 10 seconds to get their attention, and if you didn’t, they would start talking. Or worse, start heckling you. That happened (to me).

(T)his strip between Dwight and Sproul was the ferment. That’s where everything was happening in Berkeley. Downtown was super dead… everything revolved around school and campus. None of us went to Cal. We were all townies. But we would hang out on campus by the creek, because campus is almost fairytale charmed. Certain hours, it’s so beautiful. Especially late at night. And the steam tunnels. At that time, you could go into the steam tunnels under campus which are now closed. There was a huge maze of steam tunnels… where we would go and run around.

You could get into the campus buildings through the steam tunnels. There were grates in the ground with steam coming out of them. There’s a parallel tunnel (on Campanile boulevard) that goes underneath. There’s all these grates, most of them you could literally pull them up, and there was a ladder so you could go into the tunnel. They’re all welded shut now. You could get into the buildings. You could get into Zellerbach Hall and see all the sound boards and that stuff. We never messed anything up, it was just kind of amazing. It was just kind of this secret. You felt you were just kind of in someone else’s memory or something. It was a good place for poetry.

DC: Was there the same cafe hopping or anything like that in New York?

JP: It was more like diners at that point (1990s). They were places where sleepless old people would come and people were talking to themselves… and people who were trying to look like they were in reservoir dogs… They were the best places to write ever.

It was like you’ve been up all night, and at 8 in the morning you go to the copy shop to copy, staple it together and hand it out to people. Sort of breaking news as poetry. In New York, I would hand the books out to friends. I would make like 25 copies and trade them.

DC: So you moved back here from New York 10 years ago?

JP: Yeah.… It was really weird. It was Rip Van Winkle kind of feeling, you know? I felt like — in a super cool way, in a positive way — that I was very ghostly in the city. Like I was moving through this super familiar physical landscape that did not have the same spiritual attachment at all. It was totally different. It was like the afterlife in some ways.

DC: And how did that influence your writing?

JP: Positively. Ultimately positively. For me it had really dried up in New York. I was singing much more than writing at that point. I had gotten really burned out, on maybe my own self-identity in some ways. When I would come and visit… I met all these San Francisco poets.

DC: So what are you doing now? I know you just published with City Lights.

JP: After doing that book I returned to making my own little books again. So I mail out 150 or something (zines)… I mail them out maybe every month or every two months. So I call that ‘Night Mail’. It has poetry and cartoons and whatever else kind of happens over the course of that month.

DC: How long have you been doing those?

JP: I started doing those right before the election of 2016. Because that was just too horrible. That whole process, the election. I just done a book with City Lights, and I was sort of at loose ends because I had published this book and I was trying to do publicity but it wasn’t coming that naturally to me. And I put some effort… a few years into getting my work published, because I had never really done that. I had a book published a year earlier than that on Bootstrap press, and then City Lights happened and it was just kind of like (a) dream come true. And then I realized after that I didn’t want to just keep doing that… It just seemed like such a drag… I wouldn’t say no if someone came to me and was like ‘hey we want to do your next book’ but I just didn’t’ feel like (going through) the whole process… I just wanted to make stuff and get it out right away. Add just especially in the climate of that election.

So they’re ephemeral, you know? They get transformed by the blue mailbox into this other object. Like I make the object and I put it into the mailbox and it comes out in this other place magically.

Making these books probably, a lot of them end up under people’s couches. Maybe even, hopefully not chucked out with the recycling. But the idea is they are very ephemeral. And they are supposed to bring that magic feeling through the mail to people and make people happy.

DC: How was the Bay Area poetry community when you came back different than in New York?

JP: It was folks that were really serious almost about poetry as magic… In New York I never really felt comfortable in the poetry scene and out here it was like *claps* — it felt great. That was another reason to come out.

New York is really competitive. Like super competitive. And… I got on some people’s bad sides because I wrote some disparaging articles. I was publishing a newspaper though Ugly Duckling (a nonprofit publishing company Poirier helped found). I wrote probably a few different things. But it was sort of this article… that (said) something was missing from poetry. I felt that we were in the midst of this insane war and that there was just this ridiculous kind of yo-yo poetry that was coming out of everywhere. I was just pissed off. I also felt like people weren’t paying enough attention to me.

DC: Who did you piss off with the articles?

JP: Probably almost everyone in the Poetry Project scene. I don’t think they necessarily stayed mad. I subsequently became friends with people… It’s better now. I always had this confrontational part of me, this personality. And it just came out there in that setting. Maybe the competition of it. I always wanted… the community. The group that’s doing the cafe hopping, staying up late making books together. Like that’s all I ever wanted out of poetry… I always just wanted… poets to be outsiders together.

I think the big point is to collaborate on some huge alternative living space. An alternative living space for the mind that we’re all making together and that actually nourishes us and protects us from this insanity that we’re constantly exposed to. Nobody can do that alone. That has to be done together.

I want it to be a place where I and all my fellow poets come together like in a state of trust and unity to be able to fight those malignant things with this outrageously artful and experimental art form that we have. That’s what I really dream of, you know?

DC: How long have you been dreaming of that? Or how long have you been consciously been dreaming of that?

JP: Since probably since the beginning. Probably since around September 11, like the beginning of this endless war that we’re in. Because at that point poetry became something existential to me. It became an actual way of surviving. It’s a way of keeping the imagination alive in a noxious, dangerous environment. It’s no longer a game. It can be made up of games, because we need to play games together, but it becomes this crucial means of — which it always has been — a means of passing stories on and passing moods and emotions on, and passing important survival information on.

DC: So how did the style of your writing change before and after 9/11?

JP: It changed gradually into something that was no longer making poems anymore but just trying to ride the state of mind and to get in as much as possible… So the whole idea of “well, now I’m going to write a poem,” which is still… an appealing idea, but … that stopped happening as naturally for me. And writing became more, probably more desperate and hopefully funnier. But that took awhile. I’m a pretty late bloomer, you know? I mean, it’s like I didn’t really learn. As much as I was criticizing all this apolitical bullshit that was happening in this crisis and this war, I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t doing work that was up to snuff either. I hadn’t had a breakthrough. It took a while to get into this, what I feel is a more exciting space… It’s like the cartoon where the character is running across the bridge and the bridge is falling down. That’s what it feels like. Just trying to create a scary and funny image. And letting it all fall away behind you.

Contact Hannah Frances Johansson at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @hanfrancesjohan.