Giving up the craft or living without: Change occurs in Berkeley’s poetry community

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Reading a literary magazine inside The Musical Offering Café, Dale Jensen, with his shoulder-length white hair and beard, fits the image of a longtime Berkeley resident in almost every respect. And indeed he knows the city and its people well as a member of Berkeley’s poetry community — the state of which has started to concern him.

Although Jensen left the Bay Area for graduate school after getting his bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley in 1971, he was drawn back to Berkeley and found his way into the poetry scene.

Throughout the 20th century, poets such as Jensen found a home in the Bay Area. City Lights bookstore notably supported the Beat movement and Cafe Babar, according to longtime Berkeley poet Eliot Schain, was often flooded with the voices of “self-destructive” artists criticizing the status quo.

But Jensen, who has held poetry readings for the last 30 years, has noticed changes in the makeup and the interests of the artists around him. Some older poets have been forced to move because of the increased cost of housing and younger people do not even have the means to enter the community.

A priced-out generation

Over the last 10 years, local poet Jan Steckel noticed a lot of poets moving out of San Francisco to the East Bay. Now, many, including Kelliane Parker and her partner Elaine Brown — who goes by Poet E. Spoken — have to cast their anchors even farther to make ends meet.

“Poetry is expensive — actually getting published in journals is expensive. You have to come from money,” Steckel said.

Steckel added that most poets need a second job in order to get by.

Parker and Brown — both part of the younger generation of poets in the city — run an open mic at Café Leila, but they “can’t possibly” live in Berkeley. Instead, Parker and her family live in Vallejo and spend three hours a day commuting into Berkeley to work and participate in the poetry community.

Parker works multiple jobs, and Brown is a teacher. But even with that income, it was not enough to maintain housing in the East Bay. Parker said she had to move three times last year. At one point they had to put all of their belongings in storage and moved into a relative’s house for five months. Her children have grown accustomed to living in a one-bedroom apartment.

“It is a choice between giving up your craft, which is impossible, or living without,” Parker said.

The fact that housing costs have increased in the last few years has made it especially difficult for younger poets to afford a life in Berkeley, Steckel said. Most of the younger, “hipper” poets are now in Oakland and Vallejo.

“The main thing is that the people who are gentrifying and moving into the area, they aren’t artists,” Parker said. “Berkeley as far as I’m concerned, has lost a lot of its ‘Berkeley.’… In order to have an arts community, artists need to live there, and you can’t recreate it after it has been erased.”

Jensen, at 70 years old, said he sees a lot of people around his age in the community, but that the number of people in their 20s and 30s has decreased. And the “cross-fertilization” of ideas, which results from people moving in and out of the area, he said, has subsided.

Tom Odegard, also known as Mrs. G, also said they see Berkeley’s poetry scene steadily growing older.

“If it doesn’t change then it’s going to have a terrible effect on the vitality of Berkeley,” Schain said. “But having said that, there is a draw about Berkeley that keeps young people coming here no matter what.”

Closing cafés

Rising costs are not only affecting the poets themselves, but also the venues that support them. Many cafés that organize poetry readings and promote poets’ works are having trouble staying open. According to Brown, around four or five cafés that hosted open mic closed in the last year.

Rebecca Grove — the owner of The Octopus Literary Salon in Oakland which hosts music performances and poetry readings — said she worries that she will be priced out of her place since her building changed ownership. She said she has been paying $1.75 per square foot but would have to pay at least $4 under the new owners. She hopes she can find another place to keep The Octopus going.

“I’m gonna try to figure out how to have some form of it survive,” Grove said. “I’m not sure what it will look like right now.”

Up until a few months ago, Jensen was one of four people coordinating a series at Nefeli Café, which lasted at that location for about 11 years. He added that the venue recently closed because its landlord “jacked up” the rents. His poetry readings generally have to change locations about every three years because a new manager buys the building or a location will close.

“This gives artists and poets less of an opportunity to perform,” Parker said.

Writer Richard Loranger has also seen the frequency of poetry readings decline. In the 1980s, readings usually happened weekly, but now most happen on a monthly basis, or sometimes even more infrequently.

A change in style

Berkeley, which is historically known for its street poetry, has always been one to “march to its own drum,” Parker said.

But given its lack of affordable housing, Parker no longer believes that even someone as talented as the late street poet Julia Vinograd could now survive in the city. Vinograd, who was also known as the “Bubble Lady” and established herself on Telegraph Avenue, was able to make a name for herself and earn a living by selling her poetry books on the street for no more than $5.

“If the community shrinks, the less range you have and less people from the different schools supporting each other,” Jensen said. “That is going to be a bad thing.”

The Beat movement, slam poetry and the literary movement have each found a home in Berkeley, but Jensen said a lot of poetry being written in the Bay Area right now is about nature and daily life.

Jensen said he believes this change in style reflects an upper-middle-class perspective. He added that he thinks this has a lot to do with the housing situation.

Brown echoed this sentiment, saying that the exclusivity of Berkeley caused by higher prices hampers artistic expression.

“There are a lot of people in the arts who are more affluent, and they have more influence because they can afford to live here,” Jensen said.

Glimmers of hope

Even though many acknowledge that it is becoming harder to live in the Bay, poets and writers are at work to maintain the strength of the literary community by specifically searching for underrepresented voices and supporting local presses.

There is also active outreach through poetry readings to bring in different voices.

Parker’s poetry series at Café Leila is just one example of an attempt at encouraging diversity. She said that for her and her wife, it was important to build connections between different groups and keep them strong. Although people are coming from farther and farther away, she said, they are still coming.

Jeanne Lupton, who has been involved in the Berkeley poetry community for 17 years, also noted that readings such as Poetry Express — which tend to cater to an older crowd — have started printing younger poets and are inviting them to read. She appreciates getting to know the next generation and cherishes the opportunity they have to share their work with one another.

Local presses are also continuing to support the poetry community when cafés cannot. The small presses scattered throughout the East Bay such as Nomadic Press, are doing a “great job” in creating their own communities and promoting events that allow artists to have access, according to Parker.

Street Spirit — a newspaper that homeless individuals in Berkeley sell — is written by some members of the homeless community, keeping some semblance of street poetry alive, according to Steckel.

Alastair Boone, the editor in chief of Street Spirit, said the paper gets all kinds of poetry and that all of the poets who currently write for Street Spirit are unhoused people. Giving a platform to the voices of those who typically go unheard is what she finds so powerful about the publication, and she added that the information contained in the works “has the power to bridge the gap between housed and unhoused people.”

“One thing about the Bay Area — it’s always been quirky,” Schain said. “It’s always been filled with larger-than-life personality, and God help us if we lose that.”

Boyce Buchanan is the lead schools and communities reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @BuchananBoyce.