Solidarity Reading Illustrates the Vitality and Importance of Berkeley Poetry

On this past Thursday, April 1st, the second floor of the MLK Student Union was abuzz with nervous excitement, last minute preparations and jazzy hip-hop music.  People trickled and then streamed into the room and filled the chairs set up for what had been advertised as a “Solidarity Reading.”  This was an event presented by the Berkeley Poetry Review, Vagabond Multilingual Journal and CalSlam to protest the recent budgets cuts to education in the state of California.  The energy in the room was palpable, and it was clear that the organizers had spent a great deal of time preparing for an event that encapsulated their views on why, as Berkeley Poetry Review Publicity Chair Adriana Campoy wrote in a message advertising the event, “the humanities continue to be essential to our education” and how “poetry can speak to California’s education crisis.”

The event opened with a few words from English graduate student Chris Chen.  For Chen, poetry is the intersection of the public and the private in our lives, a place to express sorrow, joy, love and hatred, speculation, as well as community and protest. He cited a sign carried by a student in a recent demonstration against the budget cuts that read “If I had wanted to go to a private university, I would have been born into a rich family.”  Poetry, Chen joked, was also a place you could go if you weren’t born into a rich family. Chen, who is teaching an undergraduate poetry writing workshop this semester, argued that because poetry tested the limits of what’s shareable, it had something crucial to say to a movement against educational privatization. He concluded by introducing English Professor and esteemed poet Lyn Hejinian.

Hejinian began her short remarks by speaking about the Solidarity Alliance, a unique and important organization that she helped to found which brings together undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and representatives from unions of campus workers to protest the way current policies are limiting educational opportunity.  She noted the importance of coming together to fight a common problem and praised the way groups of diverse and sometimes conflicting interests had worked in tandem against things like the budget cuts and the general privatization of a public university.  The relationship between poetry and politics, she continued, is always a complicated and vexed one, but, she insisted, there was nothing degrading or irresponsible in bringing the aesthetic and the political together.

The first poem was a rousing slam performance by Natasha Huey, an undergraduate student who took the audience through a tumultuous narration of a day in the life of a “change cup” held out by a panhandler.  Her masterful puns (“change” as in coins and “change” as in alteration being only the most obvious) and rhythmic cadences underscored her poem’s message about the importance of being seen and heard.  Alisa Shekhtman and Maia Wolins followed with a reading of a multilingual (Italian, French and Spanish) poem, entitled “The Rebirth of a Journal.” The poem chronicled the re-inauguration of the Vagabond Multilingual Journal that had been out of print for the past few years.  Sharing the various languages of the poem’s verse, the readers performed the very “rebirth” that the poem itself narrates as they brought the herteroglossic lines and rhythms to life.

Professional poets Lyn Hejinian and Jean Day followed.  Hejinian explained that her reading was a selection from a current project she is writing in homage to Scheherazade, the famous storyteller who, in A Thousand and One Nights, educates the Persian king Shahryar with her tales.  For Hejinian, Scheherazade teaches Shahryar not by explanation but by illustration, which is itself the task of poetry, literature and art.  In a similar vein, Jean Day prefaced her reading by saying that her poems were rather dark but were also meant to celebrate the optimism of moments like this evening of solidarity that expressed the kind of communities and activism forming on Berkeley’s campus.

The evening went on with readings by other students and faculty, in English and foreign languages, interspersed with music from the Students 4 HipHop, in what was certainly not your normal poetry reading.