Necessity, Survival, and Sideways Thinking: An Interview with Julia Vinograd

The Understanding between Foxes and Light contributor Julia Vinograd chats with Richard Loranger

Julia Vinograd is a Berkeley street poet who has been scribing her observations and experiences for over five decades. Born in the very same town in 1943, Julia received a B.A. from U.C. Berkeley and an MFA from the University of Iowa. She claims that she left school to pursue a career of "vagrancy, mysticism, and small villainies." Since then, she has published 59 books of poetry, and was one of the four editors of the anthology New American Underground Poetry Vol. 1: The Babarians of San Francisco, Poets from Hell. Her poem “For Jack Gilbert, On Hearing He Was Dead” appears in great weather for MEDIA’s The Understanding between Foxes and LightShe has won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation for The Jerusalem Poems, and a Pushcart Prize for her poem “The Young Men Who Died of AIDS”. In 2004, she received an honorary Lifetime Achievement Award from the City of Berkeley, and June 4 of that year was declared “Julia Vinograd Day.” She resides in a modest apartment in the center of Berkeley, and continues to montage the streets to this day. Find Julia's books at Zeitgeist Press. Julia will be reading for great weather for MEDIA at The Art House Gallery and Cultural Center on Thursday November 14th 2013.


RL:  You've been writing poetry for, I believe, a long-ass time. When did you write your first poem?

JV:  High school, in the late-50's. I wrote a lot of poems in high school. The first poet that I admired strenuously was Yeats, and I tried to write like him. I had no idea how all those old Irish names were pronounced. I was sort of like a garter snake trying to swallow a harp, so it came out a little lumpy.

RL:  And when did you write your most recent poem?

JV:  About three or four days ago. It's called "Dream." I had a dream about a supermarket that was selling wounds. A very expensive supermarket.

RL:  About how many poems have you written altogether?

JV:  Oh, come on, Richard. Many many many many. I do a book a year, though I don't put everything I write in my books. My current book is number 59, which just came out from Zeitgeist Press. It’s called Night.

RL:  Not that we're counting, or going for quantity over quality, but you are what some might describe as extremely prolific. What keeps you writing so frequently, after so many years?

JV:  It's necessary. I can’t do anything else. A lot of other people have lives, hobbies, other things they do. If something happens to me and I don't write a poem about it, it didn't even happen, and I can't have a decent memory about it. It’s not even a virtue, it's a necessity. It’s survival.

RL:  Describe what it feels like to write a poem.

JV:  There isn't anything to compare it to. If it works, I guess, it's like flying.

RL:  Where does that come from?

JV:  Because if it doesn't work, it’s like falling.

RL:  Now a bit about your subject matter. Most frequently I've heard you referred to as a street poet. So, a two part question. First, what do you think of the term "street poet"?

JV:  I'm all for it. I don't write as much street poetry as I used to. I used to write mainly street poetry, and I still write quite a lot, but definitely not only.

RL:  Is it a fair term to use?

JV:  Yeah.  I've spent a lot of time in the Med [Cafe Mediterranean, in downtown Berkeley], and my poems walk by on the street, and I write them down. The only problem is, they don’t stay put. I can’t call them back and say, Hey, come back, I'm not done with you yet. But my work isn't always just what people think of as "street". I had a lot of the Occupy kids in my last book, which was a thing that was going on and it was on the street, but they weren't what you'd think of as street musicians or a sparechangers, but they were still on the street.

RL:  How would you classify yourself as a poet, if at all?

JV:  A little bit of everything.

RL:  How would you describe the things you write about? What in your mind is your subject matter?

JV:  Sometimes it's people I see, sometimes it's people I imagine.  When I first came to college, I was so shy. I came from a small girls' high school in Pasadena, and landed right in the middle of Berkeley. I didn't have the nerve to talk to anybody, so I got one of those little cameras, and I took photographs of people that I thought looked interesting. And I didn't even know how to tweak the photographs, so they all turned yellow or brown or whatnot. I'd try to write something about them before the photograph died. Not intentionally; it just worked out that way. I didn't go on with that.

RL:  Do you think your poems are purely pieces of observation?

JV:  They're ideas, sometimes they're reactions. Like that one you heard about the government spying on everybody. I can’t help being a poet. The first thing I think about when we find out something like the government is spying on everybody is not to be indignant because it's a bad thing, or to talk about patriotism, but to wonder, What exactly are they hearing? Then the poem just writes itself. It's that kind of sideways thinking that makes a lot of my poems.

RL:  Still the poems that you write aren't purely objective, are they? Isn't there an element of mysticism in some of them?

JV:  Of course. And emotion. I don't write essays. We had to write essays in college and I loathe essays. It's a form that can only be written by an octopus:  on the one hand, on the other hand, and the next hand and the next, then the conclusion when you tie the octopus in knots.

RL:  One of the reasons I ask that is because amongst all the other books, you have The Jerusalem Poems.

JV:  Oh, yes. I can tell you sort of where they started. I don't know if there're as many Jesus Freaks on campus as there used to be, but there used to be tons of them. And I didn't pay that much attention to them, but they were entertaining, rather funny, particularly Holy Hubert.  His refrain was along the lines of, "You’re wicked, evil, violent, degenerate, and I love your dirty little heart."  (Laughs sinisterly.) He was Irish and he had freckles and red hair and missing front teeth. It was quite a good show. But, you know, I'm Jewish. It's not a big thing with me, I'm not Orthodox or anything. I think my father was an atheist Zionist, and my mother made up her own religion. My grandmother was the only person in the family who spoke Yiddish, but she was officially a Christian Scientist, to irritate my dead grandfather who had been a doctor, and if there's anything that irritates a doctor, it's a Christian Scientist. You get the idea.

RL:  How did this evolve into the Jerusalem poems?

JV:  Well, we did keep Passover, somewhat lackadaisically once a year, and I got sent to Saturday School, the Jewish Sunday School, and I didn't like it any more than the Christian kids liked theirs. You know, dates of battles and names of kings, very dull. So I didn't think I gave a damn one way or the other. But these Jesus Freaks were all flapping about how the God of the Old Testament was a jealous god, and the God of the New Testament was the god of love. And it just occurred to me, not even consciously, that jealousy is a lover's emotion. Then I started writing the Jerusalem poems, the main thesis of which was that God and Jerusalem were lovers, and it was a kind of bumpy affair, and that Jerusalem wasn't just a city but a woman the Lord was in love with, and yes, he was jealous. And the language came out absolutely gorgeous, and I was sort of hanging on for dear life and saying, What the hell? And writing it down. And the batch of the first ones came out in a book, The Jerusalem Poems, that won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. I got a plaque! And stickers to put on the books. But I didn't get any money. I don’t think they had any money.

And I've gone on writing Jerusalem poems, and each book has a couple of them in it.  I don't when they they're going to turn up, or even why. They're not comments on the politics of the Middle East, and they're not exactly religious poems. If they're anything, they're love poems.

RL:  Some folks see them as different from your other work. Would you agree that they have a different tenor?

JV:  Yeah.

RL:  How do you feel about the Jerusalem poems compared to your other work?

JV:  It's difficult. If I put a couple of them in a book, I can sell the book. When I gave them their own book, I had trouble selling them. Some of my regular customers thought that I had taken acid and found Jesus. This discourages a girl selling books, let me tell you.

RL:  And you do get by selling books.

JV:  I don't make a living off it, but each book pays for the next book.

RL:  The poem in The Understanding between Foxes and Light is "For Jack Gilbert, On Hearing He Was Dead."

JV:  That's right. I'm a great fan of Jack Gilbert. The people I like don't match each other at all. I like Jack Gilbert, I like Leonard Cohen, I like Bukowski, and Helen Adams, and Jack Spicer. And then Yeats was my first.

RL:  That poem is part of another series of poems to people who have died, isn't it?

JV:  Yeah. They're usually to people that I've known who have died, like the one I wrote for Joie Cook. And I wrote one for [Jack] Micheline, and folks like that. I didn't know Jack Gilbert, but I devoured all his poems.

RL:  Do the poems in that series feel like they’re related to each other? I've never seen them all in a group.

JV:  I don't know if they exist in a group. They exist selfishly. I want to keep the person alive. So that's more or less what I do. If I'd know Jack Gilbert more as a person, maybe I could have kept him personally more alive. That's definitely what I was trying to do with Joie and Micheline.

RL:  What is your poetic lineage? Who are your poetry mamas, and their mamas, etc.?

JV:  Definitely Yeats. At one period I liked Eleanor Wiley a lot. Some of Eliot – some is profoundly annoying. MacLeish's Ars Poetica. Keat’s "Urn".

RL:  So far they seem like more traditional, somewhat formal, somewhat not, but necessarily people who address the same kind of subject matter that you do. I'm not saying that you have to have a list like that...

JV:  I've read a lot of interesting prose too. Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground. When I was an adolescent, I read the Brothers K, and had a crush on all of the brothers and even the monster father. Of course they were more interesting than anybody else around, but really. I did a lot of reading when I was growing up. I had bad grand mal epilepsy and bad polio and I didn't get around much, and I sort of traveled in books. That was when I decided I really didn't like libraries.  They always wanted their books back.

RL:  Finally, you've gained a lot of notoriety over the years, certainly in the Bay Area and beyond in all kinds of milieus. I wonder:  what is your perspective on being a well-known poet?

JV:  Well, you hang around the Bay Area long enough, you get famous, though usually for all the wrong reasons. I got more famous as the Bubble Lady than I did before my first book came out. I did tell you how the bubbles started, didn't I? It was part of a protest at People's Park. I didn't want to throw stones, but I wanted to throw something, and I wound up blowing bubbles. I wasn't planning on it being more than a one-night protest. Besides the police, all the little kids loved them, and started coming up to me saying, "Bubble? Bubble?"  So I kept on blowing them, for years.

RL:  It's funny, because I know you're not online at all, and don't have a computer, but still there's a, and the only thing on it is your poem about becoming the Bubble Lady.

JV:  That's right.

RL:  I take it that you enjoyed your notoriety for bubbling somewhat more than you have for poeting?

JV:  It got all mixed up. When my first book came out, I got a review in the Chronicle, and you know what the headline said?  "Bubble Lady Writes Book". With bubbles drawn around my name.

Here is a recent Jerusalem poem, which can be found in Julia Vinograd's newest book, Night, by Zeitgeist Press. It contains no bubbles.

Jerusalem’s Lament

"My enemies, my lovers wear my bloody stones for their hearts. My people, my lovers wear my burning stones for their hearts. My eyes send and receive rockets instead of tears. I am a siren and sirens go off. My hair, my prayers are full of billowing smoke. Troops bulging at my border all want my autograph but my name is wearing out like old tapestry. Both sides call on God, God listens to a falling sparrow but not to soldiers in time of war, soldiers singing of vengeance. Land made of flags and flags made of land. Hospitals trying to sew the sky back together with sharp needles. Photograph albums in graves.  Wildflowers wear camouflage. Prayer candles lit with kisses and cut with knives. My beauty has done all this, I am so ashamed of my beauty."

Richard Loranger is  the author of Poems for Teeth, as well as The Orange Book and nine chapbooks, including Questions (EXOT Books, 2013) with artwork by Bill Mercer. His work has been included in over eighty magazines and journals and twenty anthologies. You can find more about his work and scandals at Richard is guest prose editor for the great weather for MEDIA anthology The Understanding between Foxes and Light.