Julia Vinograd has been a familiar figure in Berkeley since the late 1960s. She wears a long black dress, a cloth cap with a big tassel and a variety of buttons and beads. A prolific poet, she 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 popular spots, and offer copies of her books for sale to whoever comes by. At $5.00 each, no more than the price of a latte and a pastry, it’s hard to refuse.
She produces a new book every few years. She has published 60 books of poetry and won all sorts of prizes. 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 her at the Med the other day and told her that I loved her poems. “Some people love them and some people hate them,” she said, “not much in between.”
Julia’s poems are inviting—the sort that can touch even those who don’t typically like poetry. She told me about how people who she badgered into buying books have come back to her later to compliment her work. “Somewhat bewildered, [they’ll] 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.”
Julia became a staple of Telegraph in the 1960s, when she got involved in political activism. 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 got activated. “Mostly I got bewildered but it was fascinating. 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.
In the midst of this, she left Berkeley to attend the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But after graduating, she came back in time to experience the creation of People’s Park. Living across the street from the park at the Berkeley Inn, 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 “People’s Park made me the Bubble Lady.”
Anybody who knew Julia in recent years knew her as “the Bubble Lady,” because she blew bubbles as she walked up and down Telegraph. She told me the story of how she got this nickname. “There was going to be a big demonstration. People throw- ing 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.”Her bubbles were instantly popular with all kinds of people. She told me a story to prove it.
“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 con- test! ‘Mine’s bigger than yours.’ ‘Yeah but look at mine go, it’s the motion that counts.’ 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.”
She didn’t stop blowing bubbles. If it would work on cops, it would work on anyone, she reasoned. “So I took them to the street, blew them at musicians and little kids who loved them and started calling ‘Bubble Lady, Bubble Lady.’”
She still occasionally blows bubbles. “I’ve gotten older, it hurts my feet 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 People’s Park. I was a flop as a gardener and I couldn’t run fast enough to be a demonstrator.”
Even as she has stopped blowing bubbles, her poems remain popular and resonant with all manner of Telegraph Avenue patrons. They are not long, very rarely more than one page.
With a few simple words she can evoke smiles or tears, joy or sorrow. The reader understands on an emotional level, not necessarily on an intellectual level. “I don’t write thoughts I write feelings. 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.” She doesn’t scold, she speaks gently. “You don’t just report the bad things and you don’t try and make it good, you try and walk through them.”
I picked up her latest book and began to browse through the pages. 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.”
‘An 11 Year Old Revolutionary With Purple Hair’ is a very Berkeley poem. “It’s real,” she assures me. “It 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 in many earlier volumes. These poems are not political statements. Jerusalem is a concept for Julia. 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. Readers are meant to bring their own religious or spiritual feelings or orientations to these poems.
Julia continues to write, producing a new book every few years. She goes to poetry readings and open mics 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.
Lydia Gans is a writer, photographer, and activist who lives in Berkeley.