Julia Vinograd on Grandpa Ben’s Bookcase
Poet Julia Vinograd attended the famous Iowa Writers Workshop before moving to Berkeley during the era of the Free Speech Movement and anti-war protests. Not wanting an academic career and resisting mainstream assimilation, Julia has spent 40+ years as a street poet in Berkeley, hawking poems one book at a time (she has written more than 50 of them) to passersby. Recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Berkeley City Council, she is often referred to as the unofficial Poet Laureate of Berkeley.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them … ?
I write poetry. And I also publish for the kids.
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
Getting from one end of a poem to the other when it is not cooperating. Handling the normal catastrophes. The polio is a bloody nuisance, but it’s been around for so long I almost don’t notice it. Besides, when I read books as a kid I was never sick in any of the characters I imagined. When I was a beautiful villainess I could dance all night. When I was a pirate I could do elegant sword fights. A young person’s mind is very elastic. I never quite imagined a sort of out-of-order body. I dealt with it when and if I had to. But I still don’t like stairs and I will kvetch about them.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
I’d tell them to do what they do. They’ve got to be themselves. I’ve seen too many talented people ruin themselves trying to be somebody else.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
Probably Grandpa Ben who died when I was three. He was supposed to be a very famous doctor. Grandma Sarah became a Christian Scientist after they were divorced.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
That involves explaining Grandpa Ben’s bookcase. It was one of those old-fashioned glass front bookcases and you locked the little glass doors with the key and mother kept the key in a candy dish on top of the bookcase and I wasn’t supposed to get anywhere near it. When I was supposed to be in bed and asleep, I’d wait until they were asleep, get on a stool, climb up to the top of the bookcase, steal the key, open the bookcase, choose a book and get a knife because many of the books hadn’t even had their pages slit and I’d take a flashlight and the knife to bed with me and rape a book. That was exciting. They weren’t always what I was looking for, but I knew it was a forbidden pleasure. I’d get in trouble if they caught me. My grandfather had some very strange books. The complete works of Arthur Machen. De Quincey for God’s sake. de Sade. Tolkien: Combine Winnie the Pooh and the Wagner Ring Trilogy. That’s all that is.
How much money do you have in your checking account?
Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?
Yeah. I have to take medication for my epilepsy. And it does mean that I can’t take fancy drugs. I can take pot. But I never really got into it.
What is your fondest memory?
It’s hard to choose. I had friends who had a huge place in west Berkeley that used to be a mortuary. Christopher used the embalming room for the kitchen. Sometimes he’d roast a whole pig and sometimes he’d go fishing with my sister’s boyfriend. There’d be these parties and they went on for like three days and people came in shifts. People came in marvelous costumes. There was all kinds of music around. Bad music. Good music. Music that got made up as it went along. Wonderful conversations. Just a lot of excitement.
How many times do you fall in love each day?
Not really each day. When I’m writing a poem and somebody gorgeous comes by I need to fall in love a little bit to write the poem right. Seeing as I’ll never know who they are or anything …
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
Oh … I want my sister to get a famous art show. I would like to have somebody put out a real selected works of my poems with massive distribution. I’m just not that good with distribution. I can walk less and less, schlepping things around.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
It’s necessary. I don’t think anybody knows what it is. It’s like asking what is breathing? I can’t define it but I couldn’t do without it either. And it’s got nothing to do with what you see in museums.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or, what kind of writing do you most admire?
I don’t really like doing work. That’s probably why I’m a poet. It’s more like playing. It’s very hard, determined play and you have to work at it. I like different kinds of writing. Very different kinds. I think half of the writers I admire wouldn’t be able to get along with each other.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change what would it be?
What can you do with 50 words? $50?
Begin. Spend it.
If you got an all-expenses-paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
I don’t know? What would be yours? I had a good time in New York, although I couldn’t stand the weather. I don’t know if I’d want to go back. I did get a couple of good poems out of it.