by Lydia Gans
Julia Vinograd, one of Berkeley’s best-known poets, has been a familiar figure in the city for many years. She wears a long black dress, a cloth cap with a big tassel and a variety of buttons and beads. On the cover of her most recent book, Cannibal Café, New & Selected Poems, Julia wears a button on her cap that says, “Weird & Proud.”
A prolific author, Vinograd carries with her a satchel filled with copies of her books of poetry and will sit at the Caffe Mediterraneum (known by all as the Med) on Telegraph Avenue or other well-traveled spots and offer copies of her books for sale to whoever passes by. At $5.00 each, no more than the price of a latte and a pastry, it’s hard to refuse.
Vinograd produces a new book every few years. She has published 60 books of poetry and has been awarded a Poetry Lifetime Achievement Award by the City of Berkeley, as well as a Pushcart Prize for her poem, “The Young Men Who Died of AIDS.”
I bought my first book from her about 10 years ago and I was won over. Something in her poetry touched me. I have 12 of her books now.
I sat down with Julia at the Med the other day and told her that I love her poems. “Some people love them and some people hate them, not much in between,” she said.
Then, after a moment of reflection, she added, “Actually it’s not even some people hate it — it’s a lot more complicated. People who I’ve sort of badgered into buying a book to make me go away will look me up later, somewhat bewildered, and say, ‘Are you sure this is poetry? I loved it and I hate poetry.’
“That’s my main audience, people who hate poetry but love my stuff…. I think people have been brainwashed or browbeaten into thinking that poetry has to be too complicated for them to read it. All the critics tell them that. The critics basically tell them they can’t read poetry without the critics’ help and the critics are sort of snooty and incomprehensible themselves. So people decide they’d rather go without. Or else poetry has got to be like Hallmark cards.”
With a few simple words, Vinograd can evoke smiles or tears, joy or sorrow. The reader understands on an emotional level, not necessarily an intellectual level.
“I don’t write thoughts, I write feelings,” she said. “Everything has more than one side. Sometimes you have to see the world and there’s all kinds of things in it, and they’re not all pretty. I’m not a journalist. You don’t just report the bad things and you don’t try and make it good. You try and walk through them.”
She doesn’t scold. She speaks gently.
I picked up her latest book, Cannibal Café, and began to browse through it. In “Man Watering His Lawn,” there is a sense of frustration, of despair. I can see him, and I feel sad for him.
Julia talks about what motivated her. “It’s the unexpressed anger of very normal people who can’t express it for themselves. He didn’t even know what he was angry about. He could only water his lawn and fight back with heavy water.”
Her poem, “America,” is a powerful statement of where our nation is going wrong in so many ways. But it’s not a rant, not even a lecture, just a reminder. She’s telling us. “let’s think about this.”
In “The Housing Crisis,” Vinograd pictures Barbie and Ken with nothing but a doll house to live in. A voodoo priestess appears and magically grows it into a real home. She furnishes it with all the necessities, including a barbecue and a chicken to grill on it — and completes the household with a pet cat!
A Christmas season poem, “Santa Claus and the Buddha” — just the title made me laugh.
A very Berkeley poem has the title, “An 11 Year Old Revolutionary With Purple Hair.” I asked Julia about this poem. “It’s real,” she assures me. “Definitely happened. It’s much too good to be made up.”
The name Jerusalem occurs in the titles of many of her poems and carries a great deal of meaning for her. There are 11 in this latest book and she has made it the subject of poetry in many earlier volumes. “Jerusalem Plays Hide and Seek,” Jerusalem at the Wailing Wall,” “Jerusalem Watched Lovers,” and “Jerusalem’s Rival” are just a few in her latest book.
These poems are not political statements. Jerusalem is a beloved image, a concept too complex for words, a lamentation, a trail of tears, a holy land ripped by wars and covered in blood and flowers.
I asked her to explain. “A love affair,” she says. Jerusalem is a beautiful woman. “The Lord and Jerusalem are in love” with all the turbulence, all the joys and all the pain that lovers experience. It is very complicated and I decide that readers will bring their own religious or spiritual feelings or orientations to these poems.
Much more can be said about her poetry, but it is time to talk about the sixties and how she was drawn into political action.
She recalls, “I was a student, going to classes. All of a sudden, the Free Speech thing started happening, and one minute I was just watching a crowd about to go into Sproul Hall, and the next moment I was going with them, having an argument with my feet, telling my feet to stay put — and they didn’t listen to me.”
I asked her if that’s how she first got activated and galvanized by the rebellious spirit of the era. “Mostly I got bewildered, but it was fascinating,” she explains. “It wasn’t anything I’d expected.”
She described the experience of occupying the building and being harassed by the police in the middle of the night and having food brought in by movement supporters.
Vingorad graduated with a B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley and went to Iowa, graduating with a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa.
She came back to Berkeley in time to experience the creation of Peoples Park. Living across the street from the Park, she was there for all the action, even though she wasn’t physically able to help with digging and planting.
When I asked her what she did, she said, “Peoples Park made me the Bubble Lady.” She told me the story.
“There was going to be a big demonstration the next day. People throwing things and stuff. Everybody was really angry and I was just as angry as anybody else, but I was a pacifist and besides, if I threw anything, I’d probably hit my foot. So I decided that for just a day, and maybe one night, I’d go out and buy two bottles full of soap bubbles and blow bubbles. And that would be my form of protest.
“And now I have to tell you what happened, because it’s an interesting story. I came feeling a combination of scared and silly and there were two young rookie cops guarding the Park. And when I announced what I was going to do, they pretty much shrugged. But they were bored and they saw me blowing bubbles and they said, ‘Can we try?’
“I told myself, ‘This is not happening.’ But I gave each a bottle and they started having a contest! ‘Mine’s bigger than yours.’ ‘Yeah but look at mine go, it’s the motion that counts.’ I quote, I do not comment. And then there was a cop car with an older cop going around the street and he screeched to a halt. He saw his rookies blowing bubbles. I think he thought I’d dosed them — this was in the sixties.
Anyway, he stopped and demanded, ‘What the hell.’ And one of them offered him a bottle and he sort of snorted that he didn’t play childish games. As he stalked off, the other one said, not lowering his voice that much, ‘He’s just scared because his would be too small to see.’ I’m not making any of this up.”
After Peoples Park, Julia didn’t stop blowing bubbles.
“I thought, if it will work on cops, it will work on anyone. So I took them to the street, blew them at musicians and little kids who loved them and started calling ‘Bubble Lady, Bubble lady,’ and at demonstrations because they seemed to be called for…. There were the Vietnam demonstrations. I turned up on those. And there was a big anti-apartheid demonstration. For those I went to campus.”
Her Bubble Lady image is displayed on the huge mural painted in 1976 on the side of the building next to Peoples Park. She is pictured in a long black dress and cloth cap with a tassel, standing with her back to the street as she blows bubbles in the midst of the crowd of demonstrators.
She still occasionally blows bubbles. “I’ve gotten older. It hurts my feet to stand in one place long but I still do it from time to time. And I definitely made history. It was also fun and it was about the most I could give Peoples Park. I was a flop as a gardener and I couldn’t run fast enough to be a demonstrator.”
Vinograd continues to write, producing a new book every few years. She goes to poetry readings and open mikes to participate and listen to the work of other poets. And she sells her books to people who love poetry and to people who hate poetry.
Poetry by Julia Vinograd
An 11 Year Old Revolutionary with Purple Hair
by Julia Vinograd
I was selling my poetry books at the crafts fair
and a lady came up to me with her daughter about 11
long purple hair, cute and shiny.
The lady said she wanted one of my books, but would have to go
to the Bank of America to get money, she’d catch up with me.
I didn’t expect her to come back and didn’t see her
for an hour and a half. She was laughing.
“You know what happened?” she said, “My daughter protested
‘mommy, we can’t go to Bank of America,
we have to go to a credit union,
that’s what all the Occupy people say.’
It took me a while to find a credit union but here we are.”
I signed her book and smiled
at the 11 year old revolutionary with purple hair.
Jerusalem Plays Hide and Seek
by Julia Vinograd
Jerusalem plays hide and seek with the ghosts of children.
It happened too fast, the children don’t know they’re dead.
Jerusalem doesn’t know her soldiers killed them.
Jerusalem’s soft night long eyes dazzle around
the children’s ghosts. Here, no not here.
Jerusalem stretches out her quavering fingers,
little ghosts giggle behind gravestones or in the lean of a wall
all that’s left of a shop selling sweet oranges
the children almost remember, except they’re playing now.
Come back after the game.
Bloodwind and screams thru the streets can’t touch the children
anymore and Jerusalem focuses her shining kaleidoscope
of beauty to make their ghosts laugh.
“Alle, alle ouson, I see you. Can you see me?
All my pretty ones can you see me now?”
Instructions for Soldiers Back from War
by Julia Vinograd
Do not kill the waiter
who shoves a hot plate of soup
too close to your face,
there are no grenades in the clam chowder.
Do not kill the waiter.
Do not kill the fat man
who pushes his belly and cart
ahead of you in the grocery check out line.
His friends are not about to fire on you
from the trees, there are no trees in the grocery
and the fat man has no friends.
Do not kill the fat man.
Do not kill the smiling secretary
who won’t let you in to talk to your doctor,
“The doctor is a very busy man,”
she wants to be a tape-recording when she grows up.
She’s a large boulder blocking a narrow trail
in the jungle. You always smell the jungle.
Do not kill the smiling secretary.
Do not kill the nervous people at work
who talk about the war around the water cooler
as if war were a football game.
They expect you to kill them
if a ghost can kill
and their laughter is all wrong.
You spent years doing what was expected
but do not kill the nervous people.
Do not kill your family
who are not your family anymore.
Somebody loved them and you’re living in his house.
You know your gun better than your 3 year old son.
You always will.
Close your eyes in bed with your wife.
Remember the teenage whore who tried to stab you.
Your hands were always your deadliest weapon.
Be polite. Sit on your hands.
Do not kill your family.
Do not kill yourself.
It is a soldier’s duty to stay alive
even in the land of the dead
which seems to be all around you.
There’s no taste to home-cooked food
but do not eat your gun.
The enemy could appear at any moment.
Wait for the enemy.
by Julia Vinograd
“How beautiful are armies marching,”
says the vulture sitting on a branch,
rustling his black wings over his head.
“How strong and sweet their young muscles,
how clear their eyes just like ripe grapes.
They’re singing how much they love their country
and I love their lips more
where I’ll put my beak between
and drink all the way down.
Armies march towards me, war is just an excuse.
Armies are so young and tender
and I won’t let them ever get old.”