Heyman leaves his stamp: A commemorative set honoring poets

A set of postage stamps honoring 10 American poets from the 20th century will be issued Saturday in California, completing another piece of the late UC Berkeley Chancellor Ira Michael Heyman’s legacy.

Heyman, chancellor from 1980 to 1990, later served on the U.S. Postal Service’s Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, which evaluates and recommends stamp designs from among the thousands submitted yearly.

Ira Michael Heyman

Ira Michael Heyman. (Bancroft Library photo)

While individual poets including Langston Hughes and Robert Frost have been represented on stamps, this is the first time a multiple set has been dedicated to poets, according to the music and dance critic and poet Paul Hertelendy, who holds a Ph.D. from Berkeley and played a role in Heyman’s stamp project.

Heyman launched the idea five years ago over lunch with Hertelendy at Adagia, now Freehouse, next to campus on Bancroft Way. The two men were friends from their service at the Smithsonian Institution, Heyman as the education and research agency’s secretary and Hertelendy as its board’s poet laureate.

Heyman announced that he wanted poets to be honored in a commemorative stamp set. “He said, ‘Given your interest in poetry, why don’t you put together a list?” recounts Hertelendy. Instead of doing it himself, he enlisted a committee of a dozen nationally recognized poets, including Berkeley professor Robert Hass, the former U.S. poet laureate.

To be honored on a stamp, the poets had to be Americans, from the 20th century, and they had to have been dead at least 10 years — which excluded one likely candidate, longtime Berkeley professor and Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz, who died in 2004. But Joseph Brodsky, another Nobel winner, was selected, along with Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Plath, Robert Hayden, Theodore Roethke, Gwendolyn Brooks, Denise Levertov and e.e. cummings (whose last name is upper-cased on his stamp, though he preferred using lower-case letters).

The selection committee worked quickly, but the project took years to move through the USPS’s process and finally scheduled to emerge this year — along with stamps representing aloha shirts, wedding cakes and bonsai, among other things. The poets’ set — forever stamps — will be officially issued Saturday at USC, and Hertelendy plans to be there.

“To me, it’s phenomenal,” says Hertelendy, who, despite earning his doctorate in mechanical engineering, has devoted his life to the arts as music critic for Bay Area newspapers and, in the last decade or more, as a poet.

“I think will it encourage people to write poems, to read poems, to study poetry. I think the whole thrust of American poetry will be furthered,” he says.

The stamp project was the last that Heyman completed. A month before his death last November, as he was retiring from the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, its members held a reception for him in Berkeley’s Morrison Library, honoring his service and the set of stamps he initiated.

“I see it as a very positive thing for poetry in general,” says Hertelendy, who edits the webzine artsSF.com and posts his own poetry at TheColumnists.com. “I think the whole movement deserves a shot in the arm.”