“Someone tries to do good in America, they will only get so far, before they are stopped.” The poet, Brett Peter, quotes a dockworker who expressed his point by moving a callused finger halfway around a rusted barrelhead. And then stopping.
We’ve stepped into Poetry Express, a weekly Monday evening poetry series, at Giant Hamburgers, 1800 University Avenue. Shoulder-high gray fabric wainscoting, bland abstracts on the walls, and plate glass windows overlooking a parking lot. It’s corporate America, an elder version, with twenty or so gray-haired poets in steel chairs with red plastic seats. The youngest might be fifty-five years old.
“What’s on your mind, America?” Poetry has a way of answering this question. We needn’t worry about age for, as my father said, “You get older and older and wiser and wiser and then you die.” Along with the wisdom, since it’s MLK, Jr., Day, we expect some politics.
“My dad was a member of the John Birch Society,” says poet Jeanne Lupton. But to the young woman, “Liberals were more handsome and had more fun.”
This venue offers a featured reader, who reads for fifteen or twenty minutes, and an open, where everyone else reads. But tonight the feature couldn’t attend.
So the coordinator, Jim Barnard, spoofs old Sisyphus, who, in Greek mythology, pushes a boulder up a hill and the boulder tumbles down, over and over, throughout all eternity. He replaces Sisyphus with a dung beetle and the boulder with a dung ball. Bill’s the beetle, holding his arms up like little legs, pushing a humongous ball, then it rolls down and he spins around at the front of the room and crashes into the wall.
“Thank goodness for large boulders,” he says, as if the wall is a boulder that halted the beetle’s descent. Then he’s upright, again pushing the boulder – or the dung ball.
You get the flavor: there’s entertainment and insights in a direct, unpretentious style. Plenty of good sharing. But don’t suppose it’s all lightweight. Avotcja is present, and she won the City of Berkeley Lifetime Achievement Award in Poetry for 2014. She speaks from her wheelchair at the back of the room.
“Marin Luther King, Jr., was killed because he was too much of a man.” She proposes that he chose Selma because the town was so reactionary, and his point was best made in the gut of the beast. That’s courageous. She closes with a surprising lyric, that she “Fell asleep listening to the trees breathe.”
Ah yes, Berkeley’s Poetry Express, like the old west Pony Express, delivers its own unique and surprising version of the news. Join the larger poetry express community at poetryexpress.com
(This entry originally appeared as a column in the Berkeley Times February 19 2015 print edition.)