Issue 39: Letter from the Editor

On the eve of the publication of the Berkeley Poetry Review’s 45th issue, we wanted to go back to 2008 and Issue 39 editor-in-chief Rhae Lynn Barnes’s “letter from the editor.” This passionate and incredibly knowledgable letter offers some important historical contextualization for the journal, going back to its inception in 1974, the Free Speech Movement in 1964, and Barnes’s own Berkeley campus experience in 2008. Writing in 2015, I’m not familiar with the “Tree-Dwellers” Barnes writes about, but I can offer equivalent experiences from my own undergraduate years: the Occupy Movement tents, the tuition hike protests and low-wage workers’ picket lines, the Michael Brown and Black Lives Matter protests, the police in riot gear.  I won’t be writing about these things in my own editor’s letter for the 45th issue, but I think Barnes’s letter makes it clear that political events will always inform the work included in the Berkeley Poetry Review.  

Many things have changed since 2008: Cody’s Books no longer exists, and neither do many of the inspiring coalitions Barnes archives. But BPR still strives to support the Bay Area and campus community; we still find most of the work we publish in our slushpile rather than by soliciting famous poets; we still seek to uplift, reevaluate, push.

I think this is an amazing letter — it connects past and present, and reestablishes BPR‘s commitment to its campus community and the poetic community at large. I’m very proud to say that I think BPR’s staff has continued to fulfill Barnes’s hope that the Berkeley Poetry Review would always be ” a body of work that is present, touching, difficult, and at times offensive,” that “push[es] boundaries, open[s] doors to new forms and genres, and constantly turn[s] language over and in on itself.”  Rhae Lynn certainly did that back in Issue 39, and we hope our collection of fantastic poets in Issue 45 answers the same call.

— Jules Wood, Editor-in-Chief, Issues 44 and 45

Please enjoy Rhae Lynn Barnes’s 2008 Letter from the Editor, printed below.

Editor’s Notes, Berkeley Poetry Review Issue 39

In the autumn of 1974, students under the guidance of renowned Pulitzer Prize nominee Josephine Miles — the first woman to be tenured in English and Literature at the University of California — founded Berkeley Poetry Review (BPR). In the “Statement of Purpose” of Issue 1, the first BPR Editorial Board acknowledged that the publication happened to materialize on the ten-year anniversary of the Free Speech Movement.

Created by activist UC Berkeley students, the 1964 Free Speech Movement (FSM) saturated international headlines with images of valiantly organized, clean-cut protestors engaging in sit-ins and singing with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, “We Shall Overcome,” as they sought to overturn University regulations that prohibited advocacy of political causes or candidates by student organizations. These images were juxtaposed against other aggressive media portrayals of brash radicals whose main impetus was to disturb the peace — images used by Ronald Reagan as a campaign promise to “clean up that mess at Berkeley” during his successful 1966 run for Governor of California, and later used to remove Clark Kerr as Berkeley’s Chancellor. Regardless of how students were perceived within their original historical context, it was evident that the FSM heralded a new age of campus expression.

It seems poetic, in retrospect, that on the tenth anniversary of the FSM, Berkeley students founded a body of poetry dedicated to publishing “diverse models of experience and the diverse forms that poets choose to comprehend or intensify that experience…pluralistic and inclusive, responsive to the currents of both the traditional and the new.”  The 1974 Editorial Board’s declarative statement echoed the brazen language that in 1964 Mario Savio defiantly employed on the marble steps of Sproul Hall, by unapologetically asserting BPR’s function as a protector of “the shapes and sounds of student poets,” and an instrument to voice” what students define as Berkeley poetry.”

Berkeley poets have a rich literary history of creating the language of resistance, from the Beat poets who used poetry to define a new generation in the 1950s, to June Jordan and her legacy class, Poetry for the People, who evolved spoken-word poetry in the 1990s as a form of political protest and social-awareness.

In August 2007, I met with the current Editorial Board to deliberate what we wanted to see for BPR in the 2007/2008 school year. We envisioned a safe zone for creative frustration: a place of learning; a place of movement; and a place of “now.”

I always hope BPR can be a body of work that is present, touching, difficult, and at times offensive — a medium with which to push boundaries, open doors to new forms and genres, and constantly turn language over and in on itself through content and structure. The lines should be dialectic, an intercepting point for struggle, image, voice, experience, triumph, and literary pleasure. BPR should be an access point for audible loveliness, a testing zone for rhyming triumphs, and ultimately, a place of creating where writers can take their thoughts, creatures, subconscious choirs, or even random crap overheard on Telegraph Avenue between the homeless and passing scholars (“Sorry dude, I only have a credit card…”). Make it poetic. Something tangible that we can physically hold in our hands and say, “We did this.” To me, BPR is about putting something fresh in the world through ideas, through layout, and through the spoken and written word. BPR is about finding othe rpeople who can help you break out of your mindset, btu also come back to yourself through creation.

This last year, I watched the arts community on the UC Berkeley campus make radical strides in solidifying poetry as the medium of choice through which students can advocate and protest.  Berkeley, true to itself, has continued to make national headlines this year with the same enthusiastic freedom-of-speech spirit that was historically exercised in this campus’s habitual reevaluation of conformity and leadership. During the fall of 2007, news media were abuzz with what they coined as our generation’s version of S.L.A.T.E. — the Peace Not Prejudice Coalition — that exhumed the student values of the Free Speech Movement. Comprised of several hundred students and thirty-five student groups (including two poetry groups), the coalition uniformed themselves in green shirts emblazoned with doves, which symbolized their united and peaceful protests centered on cultural and intellectual understanding of diverse modes of existence.

Also during this academic year, the Berkeley tree-sitters made headlines when they constructed environmentally friendly tree villages forty feet in the air, and then lived there to protect the Coast Lives Oaks against their intended replacement by a $125 million sports training facility. This again provided Cal with an ever-present international eye that peered through tree branches and camera lenses giving commentary to our day-to-day habits. Interacting with rowdy, complacent, and awe-inspiring tree-sitters has become a mainstay of our daily routine on the Berkeley campus, near both Memorial Stadium and Wheeler Hall (a protest against UC Berkeley’s 10-year, $500 million dollar deal with British Petroleum).

In January 2008, international media coverage resumed over the Berkeley Marine Corps Recruiting Center Controversy and protest staged by local chapters of CodePInk and Stop the War Coalition. Although student participation in these protests and movements varied, poets were always on the front lines.

What makes these occurrences crucial and worth historical documentation in BPR is that the Berkeley community lives among these voices and words that define the poetry of our moment. As much as any era in Berkeley’s past, poetry is the uniform response to our community’s experiences and frustrations. The student poetry produced and circulated at these protests and counter-protests is at once sensitive, alert, nuanced, and passionately present with deafening musicality. Whether chanted in unison to the pounding beat of drums, shouted on stage through a mic over hip-hop beats, whispered in cafés and classroom readings, or distributed on leaflets, poetry has been the one constant, uncontrollably popular reoccurrence throughout our campus and local community. By embracing poetry as the medium through which we express the pressures exerted on and around campus, the words used to define us as a collective were met with peaceful reciprocity and response through the art of crafted language. Senator Jim DeMint’s words of condemnation delivered in his Semper Fi Act against our school and our city, and the prophetic warnings shouted by tree-dwellers, received the same non-violent reaction through which students navigated intense difference, while encouraging listening, intellectual exchange, diverse understanding, appreciation, and beauty.

For this reason, and for the first time in Berkeley Poetry Review history, Issue 39 chronicles a select listing of student- and campus-run poetry readings to document the fervent poetry scene that has taken  over the hearts, ears, hands and lips of the University of California, Berkeley. The 2008 Berkeleyan struggle of identity and experience ranges from circumnavigating the fault lines of dual cultures and sexuality to grappling with the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War, and it gives testimony and voice to the experience and confrontation with the poetics of varying intensities. This index gives witness to the fact that our generation’s poets are not marginalized, but are symbolic of our collective voice and the source of philosophical, socially conscious, and politically aware discourse.

Also, for the first time in over a decade, BPR is pleased to showcase numerous poetry translations and interviews with both poets and Cal professors. The curriculum of UC Berkeley’s College of Letters and Science fosters the encouragement of arts education in all classrooms. These interviews highlight just how incredible it is that poetry emerges in many departments at Cal and in subjects and diverse as Anthropology, Biology, English, and History. This facet adds to the publication’s diverse complexity and acucrate portrayal of on-site creation and continued learnign at all ages. Additionally, as the country’s leading research institution, we felt it necessary to highlight scholarly work by undergraduates produced in the field of poetry, as represented by Katrina Kaplan’s original research paper on Paul r. Harding, derived from material found at Cal’s Bancroft Library.

The BPR editorial staff has worked diligently to provide a complete and encompassing representation of the diverse terrain of poetry that Berkeley offers. Throughout Issue 39 you will find the work of a broad range of student poets from our English, Rhetoric, Linguistics, and Creative Writing departments, to June Jordan’s Poetry for the People, to Cal Slam and local spoken word collectives.

In these pages you will find the novice and master voices of UC Berkeley undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends, all of whom come to us from different backgrounds and professions. You will find a strong sampling of the international and translation community that is present in the Berkeley community, under the tutelage of such eminent translators as Robert Hass and the prolific scholars of the Comparative Literature and Language departments.

We are proud to present poetry from our local Bay Area poet heroes who have been at the forefront of political poetry expression and activism, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane di Prima, Brenda Hillman, and Al Young.

Poets from across the United States, who many of our students read and admire, including Yusef Komunyakaa, Paul Muldoon, and Richard Siken, are also found in these pages.

Finally, a a way to highlight highly influential artisans for new and diverse audiences, we are pleased to feature interviews with two internationally recognized artists: best selling author and sonnet writer, TIm Powers, and spoken word artist and musician, Saul Williams. Both are authors who serve to situate our community’s literary interests in an expanding dialogue about the function and importance of poetry.

The poems in Issue 39 reflect the issues that matter to the Berkeley community right now — war and violence, the environment; racism and social injustice; sorrow and loss; music and beauty; our insecurities; our passions; and of course, our love.

As you read this collection of voices in the back shelves of Cody’s Books, in a Bancroft café, on the BART, or at home while lying on your bed, know you are reading Berkeley at its most vocal and prolific. As our university and our city continue to spark international headlines with defining movements, Berkeley’s poets will be there on the front lines, and Berkeley Poetry Review will continue to support them and distribute their work.

— Rhae Lynn Barnes, 2008