Open Door

Experience Unlimited at the East Bay Poetry Summit


I told lots of people that I was going to write about the East Bay Poetry Summit for Harriet’s "Open Door" series. And each time, I followed it up with a confession: “It was so wonderful, I have no idea how to write about it. Everyone will just think I drank the Kool-Aid!” I hoped that with enough time, I’d get some critical distance on the Memorial Day weekend poetry readings, and thus be able to write about it in a decreased state of intoxication. Sufficiently faded ecstasy would reveal to me what those of us in attendance at the Summit had created and experienced, and I would be able to write about it well enough for those who couldn’t make it out. But, as you may have already guessed, I’m unable to share what an extraordinary summit the Summit was without finding my way back to being drunk on language, and so, love. I see Adorno wagging his finger at me.

Well, one version of Adorno does that, while another loses himself to the sensuality of language and its vessels so much so that we swing from a place that prizes a particular toward a hub of collective consummation of said particular. And, “the walls of individuality” break. (If you’re curious, this is an Adorno that shows up at the end of “On Lyric Poetry and Society.”) What I mean is, the Summit was so good, if Adorno had been there, he would have turned to us coyly while humping a jukebox with Stephanie Young, a poet and editor of the anthology Bay Area Poetics. He would have been singing “because I got high (fuck tha police remix)” with poet and OMG! Press publisher Brandon Brown. He would have found himself dragged onto the dance floor, as the Poetry Project’s Friday Night series coordinator Matt Longabucco was, by karaoke stars who were covering that late 80s jam “Da Butt,” whose refrain, in case you forgot, is “doin’ da butt/ oww/ sexy sexy.” Turns out the originators of that song called themselves Experience Unlimited. Clearly, they were anticipating the East Bay Poetry Summit (EBPS). Adorno would have danced on East Bay poet’s David Buuck’s garage’s roof with his shirt off. And, on all previous days and nights, Adorno would have heard sparkling, breathless lyrics amplified down Woolsey Street (via Woolsey Heights) and 22nd Street (at a space, yes, called the Tender Oracle, organized and hosted by Kate Robinson, Brittany Billmeyer-Finn and Cheena Marie Lo). He would have squished himself beside strangers on poets’ living room floors, found himself held in place by those strangers at the Long Haul Infoshop, not wanting to leave, given that he and his new friends had just formed a quasi-organism. He would have been giddy and stunned on the pews of the Bay Area Public School and enamored on the steps of spaces too full to contain the flow.

At the Long Haul Infoshop

The East Bay Poetry Summit was organized by a number of local poets and took place May 24-27, moving to different locations in Oakland and Berkeley throughout the weekend. The schedule was simple: 5 readings, 25 poets, and a BBQ. The Summit’s aim was to “celebrate non-institutional space for poetry and writing.” As Dodie Bellamy, someone at the heart of Bay Area writing communities, writes on the EBPS’s fundraising website, “With the plummeting of arts funding and the general disappearance of public space, salon-style events ('house readings') are taken very seriously in the Bay Area . . .” The Summit, it turns out, was even more ambitious.

Lindsey Boldt, photo by Emji Spero

House readings became stair readings, lawn readings, and street readings. The weekend created what Lindsey Boldt, co-director of a mobile library with Steve Orth, called “autonomous zones of awesomeness.” From an even wider perspective, such forms of autonomy should, perhaps, be understood as extensions of the political ideals, actions, and debates connected to contemporary movements like Occupy, an explicit context for poets in the East Bay.

Mobile Library

I’ve tried to pin down the names of the organizers, but I think the magic-makers would rather share the credit than take it for themselves. It’s clear, however, that Andrew Kenower was a major force. Andrew lives at Woolsey Heights (host to Saturday’s evening reading), is co-publisher of Trafficker Press with Erin Morrill, and is also the creator of A Voice Box, an online archive of “Bay Area recordings of the recent past.” (Harriet Staff covered this extraordinary resource in 2011.)

Andrew Kenower on David Buuck’s garage’s roof

Other key figures in organizing the weekend’s events were David Brazil and Brandon Brown. Both are Bay Area poets who devote much of their free time to organizing and attending classes at the Bay Area Public School, a radical educational space in Oakland whose doors are open to autodidacts of all kinds.

Memorial Day BBQ. from right to left: Katy Bohinc, Sara Larsen, Brandon Brown, and David Brazil

Juliana Spahr is one of the most well-known and widely published poets involved. She is a professor at Mills College and, recently, co-author of An Army of Lovers with David Buuck, who played generous host to the Memorial Day BBQ.

Countless other people donated time, moolah, and spectacular skills. Other organizers included Zack Haber and Alli Warren. Steve Orth made a special Summit issue of his magazine Where Eagles Dare. Since the EBPS raised sufficient funds, they were able to pay everyone who gave readings. So that there was always food and drink available, those hosting readings got a little money, too. It was basically ideal. Even utopian. So, yes, transparent and equitable resource distribution goes a long way to making people feel at home.

After kicking off the Summit on Thursday night with karaoke at Nick’s (two different Kate Bush songs were performed and, thus, paradise), the first reading happened at Juliana’s. Since it was the beginning, many of us were finding our ground. And so, in hindsight, the first poets’ readings seem the most distinct from each other. This is just to say I think we changed over the weekend and the following kicked us off. Melissa Buzzeo was first. She read from For Want and Sound, was barefoot, and appeared connected to the ground. Then, David Wolach, who teaches at Evergreen College, read in a brown jacket, with a Diet Pepsi, from Hospitalogy. He said “Detroit” twice, so I asked him about it. Turns out, we went to the same high school and his younger brother was my shining friend back in the day. (Hi, Michael!!) It was a relief to find that we (the big, social “we”) were already connected. The rest of the weekend would make this palpable again and again, yielding seemingly infinite charm. Then, retrieving some Gertrude Stein-ishness from the fold, Jen Hofer read from a book she’d just sewed together. I love that she does this, makes things at readings. I think it makes her one of the best listeners in any room. Uyen Hua sat down to tell us about irresistible strawberry-coconut cookies from the dollar store; and Douglas Rothschild bore a third eye.

Uyen Hua reading at Juliana Spahr's house

Whole new levels of absorption emerged on Saturday afternoon at the Long Haul and that evening at Woolsey Heights. Mathew Timmons, publisher of Insert Blanc Press in LA, told you this was just for you, meaning us. This was just for us! Meaning you! Katy Bohinc (from DC) read her love letters to Alan Badiou and, at the same time, chewed him out for keeping philosophy all to himself. Sue Landers read from Franklinstein, where Making of Americans meets Ben Franklin meets Frankenstein meets the neighborhood of her youth in Philly. Cassie Smith gave us that so oft desired collapsible U&I (you and I), and Frank Sherlock (in from Philadelphia) showed us what we could feel good about. It was all there. We could feel good about all of it. And Frank definitely feels good now that he, along with another Summit poet, Jenn McCreary, just won PEW Fellowships in the Arts.

Long Haul Infoshop, Stairs: Bhanu Kapil bottom right; Matt Longabucco directly above her; Andrew Durbin top left

So when Woolsey Heights was so crowded that many of us had to line the steps and spread out on the ground below, we found ourselves feeling beyond good. Andrew, one of the main organizers and a fine trouble-shooter, set up speakers so that those who were sitting outside could hear. And this is where I start to lose interest in making too many fine distinctions between poets. Not because they all blended together, but because the space of the reading was changing. It was unseen voices that could take us in now. Associating words less with bodies and more with a sonic haze, I wrote down “banana jack phone wrangler” and “John Coletti’s voice sounds like Ted Berrigan’s, something to do with the amplification,” that great, quivering gentleness.

The downstairs neighbors started bringing out chairs, opening their bathroom to all the Summitteers, sharing their drinks with us. So when Dolores Dorantes, originally from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, who writes stunning poems about love and violence, started reading in Spanish and it was clear that Willy (one of the neighbors) was listening and didn’t need Dorantes’s marvelous translator, Jen Hofer, which many of us did, it seemed like poetry could steal anyone from themselves and bring them here.

Speaker at Woolsey Heights

The language, he told me, and for him Spanish was especially this way, had so many colors and dimensions that he still had goosebumps. And there were other neighbors who were pressed against the glass watching us listening.

Listening at Tender Oracle

“I was in awe as a child/ I was in awe as an adult, too.” Andrew Durbin, publisher of Wonder in NY, had that written down already and when he said it, it spiraled down the stairs. Told us what we were feeling. That and the wonderful laughter for which we had no visual cues—at this point, it was contagious.

Everyone will forgive me for not being able to account for each of our individual effects. At some point, it’s true, the picture we’re in is bigger than the names we were given or give ourselves. At some point, the Woolsey Heights party had to quiet down and everyone had to come inside. So we sat on the floor listening to Black Sabbath. “Where’s the acid?” somebody asked. And I’m thinking, “the stairs outside must have been covered in it because I’m totally tripping!” And by that I just mean, we danced our hearts out and then we danced some more.

EBPS Dancing at BBQ

I am so profoundly grateful to all the named and unnamed hands that organized and participated in the East Bay Poetry Summit. I, like everyone else, made many new friends, and engaged in countless, effervescent conversations. (I started losing my voice halfway through the weekend). Now I can say I know not one but two poets with tattoos of David Wojnarowicz’s artwork, excluding myself. Also, there was a softball game Monday morning. One team was named Fuck Tha Police and another was named Joy Division. Enough said, right? Maged said it well in a status update, “It is cemented now, I know my tribe.” East Bay Poetry Summit 2013. Next year? In your town, I mean our town, fingers crossed.

More resources on the weekend’s events:

Anne Boyer’s write-up
Andrew Kenower’s site
Bhanu Kapil’s blog
Jen Coleman’s flickr account
Evan Karp’s videos of some of the readings

Originally Published: June 17th, 2013

Anna Vitale was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. She earned an MFA from Bard College and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A poet and performer, Vitale is the author of the chapbooks Anna Vitale’s Pop Poems (2010) and Unknown Pleasures (2013) and the full-length...