After 20 years, UC Berkeley professor Robert Hass, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. poet laureate, will hand over direction of Lunch Poems, the beloved campus reading series, to poet and associate professor Geoffrey O’Brien.
O’Brien, who was once a student of Hass, is associate professor of English, the author of four volumes of poetry and an instructor in the Prison University Project at San Quentin. O’Brien, says Hass, is “a completely brilliant poet and it will be great to have him creating a landscape over time of new voices.”
O’Brien will take the helm at the end of the academic year. He calls the series “vital to the cultural life of the university,” and says listening to poetry is especially important now. “At a time when public speech is rapidly emptying or becoming hateful,” he says, “it’s good to be periodically reminded of what else our speech can be and do.”
The series kicked off in 1996, the brainchild of Hass, graduate student Natalie Gerber and poet and staff translator Zachary Rogoff. The three imagined a monthly noontime poetry reading that would make it possible for everyone in the campus community to “dive in out of the flow of the day and listen to some very great and amazing artists,” says Hass.
Over the years poet laureates, Nobel Prize winners and poets from all over the world have come to Berkeley to read their work, though the focus has been primarily on U.S. poetry. Videos of the readings on YouTube have become one of the most popular poetry resources on the web.
When asked about his favorite memories of the reading series, Hass describes running late to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s reading and finding a line out the door of Doe Library and people standing on the stone benches outside hoping to catch a glimpse and hear Ferlinghetti read. He also recalls when Nobelist Czeslow Milosz returned to campus at the age of almost 90 to read at Lunch Poems and students from Berkeley High filled the galleries above Morrison to hear him. And he remembers when Adrienne Rich gave one of her last public readings to a packed auditorium at International House, filled with a new generation of young women she had inspired with her work.
Both Hass and O’Brien acknowledge the role the Berkeley campus has on the writing community here. Berkeley, says Hass, “has worked hard to make the reading and studying of literature, and the writing of it, feel like a common enterprise,” adding that “there is a deep connection between the creativity of the research that goes on at the university and the creativity of art.” O’Brien calls the Bay Area writing community “one of the most important in the country for the last 75 years.”
Looking back, Hass reflects on how people connected with poetry after the Beats made reciting poetry a performance, a tradition he says was revived by hip-hop music and slam poetry. But poetry’s value, he claims, is much deeper: “The only way we know what people are thinking and feeling is if they tell us,” he says. “Poetry is a great archive of what people imagined, of what they felt, what they thought in a rich, receivable form. That is its value.”
Lunch Poems is held at noon on the first Thursday of every month during the academic year in Morrison Library. On Thursday, Dec. 1, current U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera will be on campus to read.