“He can sing you jazz, the songs,” said Richard Silberg of Poetry Flash, introducing Al Young, California’s Poet Laureate, a Berkeley resident, as one of three readers, with Floyd Salas, also of Berkeley, and Reginald Lockett of Oakland, Tuesday night, in a round robin: “They’ll riff back and forth ... in sweet conclave!”
With Silberg as genial MC, it had the feel of Poetry Flash’s long-running weekly reading series at the old Cody’s on Telegraph. But since last October, they’ve been transplanted downtown to the Berkeley City College auditorium, 2050 Center St., mostly on Thursday evenings, after a few were held in conjunction with Moe’s Books’ ongoing series, and at Black Oak Books before that series was dropped. The readings at City College are all free of charge.
Young opened the set with, “Like Butter,” talking about “the way heat dictates” things like love. Most of the riffing, one poem suggesting another to the next reader, went on between Young and Lockett. Salas, best-known as a novelist (Tattoo and The Wicked Cross), read exclusively from his new book of poems and drawings, Love Bites—close, emotional studies about the dogs and cats he’s known since his childhood in Oakland.
It wasn’t just exchanges of poems, but the good-natured banter that made it a reading apart from the typical parade of poets holding forth, one by one, at the podium.
“I like doing it round robin when I can,” said Young. “It keeps you on your toes.” And Lockett expanded on the “riff” motif: “The three of us make a chord.”
After the humorous, pugnacious Salas read a poem about the fears of his boyhood, “to face the stranger now at last,” and the feel of “the snapping tail of a fighting dog” quelling them “until the night prowler fades and evaporates in the dawn light,” Lockett took the mic and, referring to “Floyd the boxer,” and said, “I bet people wouldn’t know where I got my love of boxing ... my grandmother!”
He then recited a piece about his grandmother reading her Bible and writing “Christian musings” while “waiting to watch Floyd Patterson throw jabs, uppercuts,” in a rural South populated by “fireflies, possums, hoot owls ... and Floyd Patterson on Saturday nights.”
Maybe Lockett, referring to his relations walking “three country miles to listen to [Joe] Louis knock [European champ Max] Schmelling out” on the only radio around, in a country store, prompted Young to read a poem about another German, the internal combustion engine inventor Rudolf Diesel, who wanted “what we’d now call biofuels” rather than oil to power his invention.
Young contrasted him to Hitler, who he referred to wryly as everybody’s “favorite” German: “The History Channel could not survive without Hitler—all that footage digitalized ...” Salas, in turn, remarking how “We’re all different,” referring to Lockett as writing about “the ambiance ... of who he is,” and calling Young “Mr. Suede—he’s so smooth!” recited how he once saw a sign, “German Shepherds For Sale,” leading him to his longtime canine companion, Sergie, “the most intelligent person I’ve ever known.”
The community feel in the room was strong. All three poets are longtime local educators, and had contributions, alongside some of their students’, in the anthology from the Oakland PEN reading series, Oakland Out Loud (Jukebox Press), as well as their individual books, offered up for sale. Two of the anthology’s poet-editors, Claire Ortalda and Kim McMillon, were among the listeners.
Joyce Jenkins of Poetry Flash stressed the years since 1982, when the Flash formally took over the Cody’s series (which went back to the ‘60s), that saw national figures brought week after week to Berkeley. Supported by the UC Chancellor’s Initiative, it’s the first time City College has done this sort of program.
There’ll be a benefit reading for The Flash with Michael Ondaatje (author of The English Patient) June 14 at Cody’s Fourth Street.
Lockett read of coming to California and being put into a Special Ed class until the school nurse discovered “I needed glasses,/A pair of glasses.” Young then mentioned a beautiful girl he once befriended who was in Special Ed, his friends remarking, “I’m gonna get me somebody from the dumb class!”
There were poems and commentary on James Brown’s death: “We danced and sweated to your songs at blue light garage parties,” in Lockett’s words—and how Gerald Ford’s death took Brown’s out of the news, recalling Rupert Murdoch’s reputed command after Ray Charles’ death was superceded by another ex-President’s: “Get Ray Charles off and put Reagan on!” One line summed it all up: “Winners will take all.”
Lockett spoke of fried bologna sandwiches: “If you’re from the South, that’s a delicacy!” and of the hand-me-down educational materials from white schools in his classroom, surrounded by pictures of appliances his teachers “tore from Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Wards catalogues” to decorate.
Young read about a photo, “a silver gelatin print,” of a married couple embracing during the Korean War period, imagining their lives, their reaction to events, “the relation between photography and the subject. We don’t usually think about that, enter into whatever dialogue’s taking place. Art is never objective.”
“Nothing in black and white to decipher, no diction/To master, just the tenderest picture—pure fiction.” Young later said, “I tell my students it’s all fiction, choosing what to write about. Some of them say, ‘But that really happened!’ And I tell them it’s fiction, and that’ll liberate them.”
When Salas mentioned meeting Barney Rossett, Silberg blurted out, “Barney Rossett the prize fighter?” No, no, Lockett and Young responded for Salas, saying he is the late publisher of Grove Press, which featured Salas’ books.
“Finish it up, Al!” Young closed with “Passport Blues”: “At dawn you wake up, knowing you will not make that flight ... Before Columbus cut his deal/ With the crown of Castile, /Who was lost?”
Al Young and Richard Silberg will read May 19 at the Jazz School, with music.