Berkeley Talks transcript: Poets laureate share works about creation, sacrifice and home
Listen to Berkeley Talks episode #173: Poets laureate share works about creation, sacrifice and home.
Intro: This is Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can follow Berkeley Talks wherever you listen to your podcasts. New episodes come out every other Friday. Also, we have another podcast, Berkeley Voices, that shares stories of people at UC Berkeley and the work that they do on and off campus.
[Music fades out]
Beth Piatote: (Greeting in Nez Perce)
Good evening everyone gathered here. I’m happy to see you. We are all friends here. My name is Beth Piatote, and I’m the director of the Arts Research Center. We are honored to sponsor tonight’s event of poet laureate readings, bringing in powerful poets from near and far. This event is co-sponsored by the Engaging the Senses Foundation, the Center for Race and Gender, and the departments of English and Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley.
We are gathering this evening on the unceded homelands of the Ohlone people who are of this place and will always be in this place. We know too, that land acknowledgements without action are empty gestures. The Arts Research Center is committed to giving material, creative, and other forms of support to California Native and other Indigenous writers and artists, and particularly to supporting Indigenous language revitalization through the arts. We encourage each person here to make material commitments to the well being and autonomy of Indigenous communities. So, to begin, happy National Poetry Month. Yes.
What better way to celebrate but with a room full of poets laureate, I cannot believe we got away with this. Does everyone know that we’ve got them all here? It’s just an ostentatious display of wealth, so let’s really savor it. And tonight’s not the only night. Please join us tomorrow night when we’ll be screening Kealoha’s beautiful film, the Story of Everything at 7 p.m. in Wheeler Hall, just across campus. Brought to you by the Engaging the Senses Foundation, Arts Research Center, Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, and the Orion Press. Before I introduce our poets tonight, I do want to take a moment and acknowledge someone with us tonight who is a great advocate for the arts, Mona Abadir, the CEO of the Engaging the Senses Foundation.
Since 2019, the Engaging the Senses Foundation has provided generous support to the Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley to promote poetry. The gifts from ETSF have allowed us to support poetry fellowships, workshops, publications, and many, many public facing events, such as a series of flash poetry readings for National Poetry Month, and poetry performances by luminaries such as Joy Harjo, Patricia Smith, Chin Chin, Ross Gay, and the phenomenal poets tonight. Please check out the archives section of our website if you want to catch any of those previous events, and please follow the ongoing events that we have. So to recognize Mona again, please join me in thanking the Engaging the Senses Foundation for the incredible support of poetry.
And now to our performance tonight. Our first performer tonight is Kealoha, Hawai’i’s first poet laureate. He has performed at hundreds of venues throughout the world, from the White House toʻIolani Palace, from Brazil to Switzerland. He is the first poet in Hawai’i’s history to perform at a governor’s inauguration, was selected as a master artist for the National Endowment for the Arts program, and delivered the keynote address for MIT’s special commencement ceremony in 2022.
Kealoha’s latest work, The Story of Everything, is a science-based theater production that has toured in various cities throughout the United States and is now a feature film, and you can see it all on the big screen tomorrow night at Wheeler Hall at 7 p.m. Kealoha is the founder of Hawai’i Slam, ranked second in the nation, Youth Speaks Hawai’i, the two time international champions, and First Thursdays, the largest registered slam poetry competition in the world.
In the genre of storytelling, he has gained national recognition by showcasing at high-profile events such as the National Storytelling Network Conference, the Bay Area Storytelling Festival and the Honolulu Storytelling Festival.
After Kealoha, Nadia Elbgal, the Oakland youth poet laureates will take the stage. She is a Berkeley High graduate, currently taking a few classes at Berkeley City College during her gap year, and writing poetry. She is a Yemeni American Muslim woman who advocates for and raises awareness on topics relating to the Middle Eastern and Muslim communities.
Nadia has been a literacy mentor to Yemeni students in the OUSD elementary schools, as well as a teaching assistant in mental health class at Hoover Elementary Summer program. As an artist-activist, Nadia’s themes range from the Middle East to American cities. She is an older sister and a cousin whose values and insight come from her upbringing in mixed cultures and families. As a storyteller, she identifies as an actor, playwright, lyricist, and poet. She plans to get a degree in social work and pursue a career that will help keep youth out of jails.
We’ll close our evening with Lee Herrick, the current California poet laureate. He is the author of three books of poems: Scar and Flower, Gardening Secrets of the Dead and This Many Miles From Desire. He is co-editor with Leah Silvieus of The World I Leave You: Asian American Poets on Faith and Spirit.
He served as the city of Fresno poet laureate from 2015 to ’17. His poems have appeared widely in literary magazines, anthologies and textbooks, including the Bloomsbury Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Berkeley Poetry Review, the Normal School, the Poetry Foundation, ZYZZYVA, A Seed from a Silent Tree: Writing by Korean Adoptees, Highway 99: A Literary Journal Through California’s Great Central Valley, That Place That Inhabits Us: Poems from the San Francisco Bay Watershed, Naming the Lost: The Fresno Poets, Interviews and Essays, One for the Money, The Sentence As Poetic Form, Indivisible, Poems of Social Justice, Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy and Here: Poems for the Planet, with a forward by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
He serves on the advisory board of Terrain Org and 16 Rivers Press, and co-founded Lit Hop in Fresno. He has traveled throughout Latin America and Asia, and has given readings across the United States. He was born in Daejeon, South Korea, adopted at 10 months of age, and raised in California.
He lives with his family in Fresno, California, and teaches at Fresno City College, and in the low-residency MFA program at University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe. He is the 10th California poet laureate, and the first Asian American to serve in the role.
We are so honored to have each of you here tonight. I’m going to get off the stage, but I’m coming back as soon as they finish reading so we can have a conversation. And I want you to think about your comments, your love, your questions that you might want to share with the poets tonight. So with that, Kealoha.
Kealoha: (Sings in Hawai’ian)
Good evening. How you doing? OK, so what I wanted to do tonight is I wanted to share a short … Well, a long short piece from the film that’s going to be shown tomorrow night so I can entice you to come. This is a project that I’ve been working on for about 12 years. It’s called The Story of Everything. It’s a creation story from the Big Bang until humans. So, it tells 13.8 billion years worth of time in an hour and a half. An hour and 38 minutes actually. So, what I want to do for you is just a 15-minute part of it to give you a taste.
Of course, this is naked without all the visual effects, and the art, and the dance, and the chanting, and the music, but just this is us in the raw, in the theater. So, this is scene four from The Story of Everything, inspired by my son. When I found out he was going to be coming into this world, I wrote this for him.
(Sings and dances on stage)
Where do we come from? No one knows. But we do know a lot about everything though. So many different crossroads, but the paths look the same. It could have gone different, but it went this way. Like a hopscotch game of infinite time, every time we move forward, there could have been nine parallel dimensions, but it’s all in the past.
(Stops dancing and singing)
What came when life first appeared on this planet? It depends who you ask, because if you ask an evolutionary biologist, she’ll tell you that Mother Earth (Hawai’ian language) during her labor.
(Sings in Hawai’ian)
(Moves on stage, performs story)
And when she was ready to push, the moon pulled with one last tug on her womb, and then as her embryonic waters rushed forth it contained a single cell, like a single thump floating over the base drum rumblings of the night. It was a bacteria, a slime, nourishing and nursing the nutrients of her fluids, an infinitesimal infant unconscious of its existence, persistent in its will to survive.
And as night turned into day and day turned into night, it grew too big for its limits. And with the quick twitch it split into two, giving birth to an identical twin. And they thrived and reproduced, and produced more children. And they thrived and reproduced exponentially like a cascade of ripples scattered throughout the sea. Over a billion days and nights they thrived and reproduced until an entire tapestry was woven. Generations of descendants dispersed through her waters and over time. After endless days and nights, after trillions of beats had come and gone, had echoed into the darkness, one of her single celled notes made a mistake when it replicated, gave birth to a strange sound with mutated genes different from anything that had ever been heard before.
It was an archaea, a cell at a different frequency, able to survive the harshest of environments, and it thrived and reproduced, and they thrive and reproduce, and they spread, scattering in out and around mother the earth. They thrive and reproduced while the base beat continued near her womb. And we stayed that way for millions of years, trillions upon trillions of beats come and gone until one day one of our single celled notes made another mistake when it replicated, gave birth to another mutation that was both profoundly different. A bacteria that came out photosynthetic, able to catch the sun’s race for sustenance. It played on the surface of the water each day, became independent, went off the grid, held the blueprint for chlorophyll. Like a mistake played beautiful, it was like jazz, man.
And it thrived and reproduced, and they thrived and reproduced, filled the world with oxygen they thrived and reproduced, spread through mother earth’s oceans they thrived and reproduced alongside bacteria and archaea. And life stayed that way for over a billion years, echoing into the cosmos, shaping the atmosphere, laying the foundation for our future.
And then something really, really interesting happened, and we’re not quite sure how but we have our hypotheses. Somehow, some way in archaea ate a bacteria without actually eating it. And this bacteria lived inside, and together they thrive symbiotic, like how lovers come together to make each other better, entwined in each other’s essence through the night. It seems an archaea ended up with that bacteria in its gut, but they became one entity of changing genes, thus a new form of life plucked itself into existence. And this new sound was organized with a nucleus for its DNA, which meant that we now had a dedicated space for our genes, our own little laboratory for genetic transfer and mutation, which is a fancy way of saying that this whole entire thing was about to get insane.
The first thing we did was get multifaceted, arranging ourselves into multicellular life forms. Multiple cells acted as one like how many brushstrokes combine colors and textures to create a singular masterpiece. They caught billions of tiny water droplets combined to make up one cumulus cloud. And some of us stayed that way, evolved into the mold and fungi we see today, while others of us went symbiotic with the photosynthetic bacteria, evolved into the seaweed, plants, and trees that help us to breathe. But the rest of us, we broke off from the chain. Went a new direction with our multicellular lineage, mutated into simple animals who gained the power of digestion, who could eat the energy of other living organisms that thrive and reproduce.
And some of us stayed that way. Evolved into the coral polyps, worms, and starfish we see today, while others of us grew exoskeletons for structure and protection, evolved into the crustaceans and insects with mind-blowing diversity. But the rest of us, we broke off from the chain, went a new direction with our animal lineage, mutated spines, and our insides then developed into creatures who could swim long distances or change directions, and began to take greater control over our own lives. Learned to swim against the current when we needed to. Grew brains and eyes, learned how to hunt and avoid being hunted, and some of us stayed that way. Evolved into the fish, sharks, and rays we see today, but the rest of us, we broke off from the chain.
Went a new direction with our vertebrae lineage, mutated lungs and limbs into our DNA so we could take our first gasps of air. Explored land for part of our lives, took our first steps toward a new frontier, and some of us stayed that way. Evolved into the frogs, toads, and salamanders we see today, but the rest of us, we broke off from the chain.
Went a new direction with our amphibious lineage, mutated the ability to lay our eggs on land. So we can be born and raised in the ina, so we can be safe from predators in the sea. And some of us stayed that way. Evolved into the reptiles who … Man, you should have seen them, they used to run this land. Mutated to epic proportions and became the dinosaurs, and some of them mutated even more, grew wings and feathers, and mastered flights to the evolution to new heights and the, ruled as that for over 100 million years, kings and queens from the mountains to the valleys, from the jungles, to the plains. But then the world changed, and because of a massive asteroid that smothered the sky after impact, shooting its dust into the atmosphere like slow motion confetti blocking the sun and ushering in a lingering winter, most of the dinosaurs died out.
But the ones who could fly remained, and they evolved into the birds, direct descendants with royal dino blood so when they fly overhead, it is their way of letting us know that they once owned the land below them too. But the rest of us, we broke off from the chain before the dinosaurs came. Went a new direction from our reptilian lineage, mutated the ability to regulate our temperatures, then mutated to hold our eggs inside our wombs from inception to birth. Nursed our infants with milk, developed bonds between mother and child. And some of us stayed that way. Evolved into the wolves, primates, and horses who roam under the trees, and some of us even went back into the oceans, evolved into the seals, whales, and dolphins that roamed the sea. But the rest of us, we broke off from the chain.
Went a new direction with our mammalian lineage, mutated the ability to move upright, mastered carrying, and running, became hunters and gatherers. We crafted tools to realize our ambitions through bigger and better brains. We started to shape our environment, and some of us stayed that way. Evolved into the Neanderthals and [inaudible] who thrived in the regions. But the rest of us, we broke off from the chain. Went a new direction with our human lineage, mutated the capacity for high intelligence. We harnessed the power of language, built greater, and more complex tools, and whether it was our ability to adapt to our changing environment or just sheer luck, we are the only ones of our humankind to have survived the passing of time, so far.
And here we are. Homo sapiens. Billions of years descended from our bacteria-like ancestors, for this path wasn’t easy or mistake-free. We estimate that for every species of animal that exist today, there are about 1,000 species that didn’t make it, 1,000 mutations that came and went through billions of years of trial and error through natural selection and catastrophe. Whether they were stronger, or smarter, or more prolific, or more resistant, or just plain luckier, here we are the thrivers and the survivors. And we come from all of this. So, tonight I want you to think about your life. I want you to think about what you stand for and realize that all the mistakes you’ve ever made mean nothing in the long term. For every year you live, the universe will be around for trillions, and for every friend you’ve made there are billions yet to be born that you will never meet. In the grand scheme of things, we are nobody.
And yet, at the same time we are everything. We are X and Y chromosomes. We are G, C, A and T genomes. We’re encompassed carbohydrates, simple proteins, soft tissue, hardwired neurons. We are strong bonds linked in nervous systems. And while this earth’s surface is covered with 65% saltwater, we are walking bags made of 65% saltwater, merely mimicking the environment that we evolved from. And when we are done, this flesh we call our own returns home to the scene when we dissipate, evaporate into water vapor. And these bones, these bones will be broken down by the roots of the tallest trees while this earth, hurdling through space will freeze and boil as it has for eons as it orbits the sun, which in five billion years will transform into a red giant and scorch all life as we know it, its last blast before it fizzles into a whimper remembered by nobody.
Or maybe charted by aliens as they appear through telescopes, logging our son as a piece of data that came and went. And these aliens, whoever they may or may not be, you don’t want them to think about their lives. I want you to think about your life as you study me through your primitive telescopes, and I want everybody, the aliens, you and me to realize that even when our hearts break or when work gets rougher, when rents due, or when someone somewhere says something stupid about you, even in the face of homicide, genocide, and suicide, in the face of racism, sexism, classism, and insert really bad word here-ism, no matter how hard life may get for you or for other people, zoom out.
Zoom out and realize that all the evil in this world is transient. Heck, all the good in this world? Transient. You, me, all of us, transient. You would not be you in the grand scheme of things, which makes all your suffering temporary, which makes your ecstasy the most exciting thing [inaudible] as part of the universe expressing itself in one giant orgasm known as the big bang. We are its aftermath sigh.
Its alibi for not having a reason. You are the universe learning about itself. You are the universe asking itself why it’s here. You assume that the universe not learning or asking anything, you are everything and nothing at the same time no matter how hard it is to admit, no matter how afraid we get and how much we want to deny the truth. Well, the truth is we’re going to die. Maybe not tonight, tomorrow, or next year, but sooner or later we’re all going to die. You should eat more vegetables though.
The truth is hard to swallow. And so, we do everything we can to avoid the big picture, because the big picture is paralyzing. And so, we focus our eyes on the day-to-day dramas of our lives, but not today. Today, I want you to think about your life right here. Not here, this wonderful studio theater on Berkeley campus, but here, this world, planet earth, here, this galaxy, this universe, we are not cavemen anymore.
There are no saber-tooth tigers lurking in the shadows, yet most of us cling to our fears like the animals we evolved from. What are we so afraid of? We’ve been etching the same patterns and the same predictable places for years. Why do we live the way that they tell us to? And yo, who the heck are they anyway? It’s about time we start doing what’s in our hearts because that’s all we really got. I want you to think about all the things you wish you could do. And tonight I want you to do one of them, and tomorrow another. Our lives are temporary art pieces. We are works in progress, so I say paint your butt off. Use fluorescent yellows and reds in the places that aren’t any color. Dance for the moment. Scoop your life out of soil and make the universe smile. Be the expressive process that is humanity. Tonight I want you to think about your life, and tomorrow? Y’all, go on out there and live it. Thank you.
Nadia Elbgal: Hi everyone. My name is Nadia Elbgal. I have about four poems that I want to share with you all today, and I’m going to start off with one called “Product of a Blended Culture.”
What is culture to a blend like me?
A lemon tree bearing ripe dates
purple Jacksons with 30 faces
dirty as gums yet clean as untouched marble
Is it (speaks in Arabic)
or is it the lamb arteries painted above my door?
Is it my Middle Eastern brain or my contrasting creamed skin?
19 years of wondering if I shall be left toothless beneath a dragon blood tree
unfit for my body so I twist like my values
I creep on ostrich eggshells
worry to roll a snake eyes with fear of getting my parcel tongue slit
I speak in unmatchable tones
so I’m going to take a minute like K’naan to tell the people like me that I come prepared
I come from wedding halls and immortal technique
Vinnie Paz, Mac Dre, Mista F.A.B, and Keak Da Sneak
I come from sand dunes and dirt roads
algebra, coffee and stolen domes
Yet I feel like I’m fake repping the set and accustomed to my family’s speech
The baboon raised in a cage, unable to feel the air her father first breathed
I am a seam
the split in the sea
the slit near identity’s thigh
waking up and having to choose which side I’ll be today
the Arab with the morals or the American with the weighted pain
I live a burnt reality, skin scorched and bubbly with goosebumps
as my inverse relationship demands closeness to my ancestry
stepping stone shortage
each knob locking me out from the home I wish to lay my head
The orcs within gallops to each crevice
pressing its ear to soak in when it can
before realizing it is a sponge that will soon release its contents into Tartarus
responding occasionally just to be slaughtered upon its return
I conceal my trusses in exchange for tenderness
But when met with the desert, all they see is the eagles aim
So again, I must decide this time between dilated pupils and religious shame
It’s become my responsibility to merge so my sisters won’t have to
laying pedals before her as my heels fill with rusted nails
a sacrifice I’m willing to make until my bones are caked with soil
For her, I will push through the turmoil
I will take my 13 carpets engraved with evil eyes and fly her through my experiences
I will continue to pave a path towards my own grave just to make sure her heart won’t bleed the same
Products of a blended culture
we all stress trying to figure out who to be and who to please
It’s time to embrace all of who we are
each characteristic that deems us complete
We are complete
and we demand to be seen
This next poem is called “Spark,” and this was one of my very first poems.
celestial orbs and icy lashes, both the color of Vantablack
The phantom’s back
though some may call it the spark that travels through each and everybody
home to home
soul to soul
bone to bone.
It shows up when we need it the most
like an unspoken language that is somehow flooded with disconnected alphabets
It enters our souls and lifts us up
giving us reason
showing us purpose
Y’all might not know this, but the truth is in the power
The power that keeps our lives kept together
even if it seems like the glue is dried out
and there’s no motivation to pour yourself a glass of water
Limbs limp and no joy of feeling like you’re going farther
It’s a stuck feeling
dangerous and repetitive
I know too well the negativity that settles rent-free in the brain
the pain from knuckles that crack and bleed against sleepless nights and peeling wallpaper
In reality, my heart is more shattered than Chernobyl windows
but my personality
that’s where I really start to come in handy
for it has more depth than the amount of rings on a bristle cone pine tree
It helped me find my spark within the art of poetry
made me see that it’s a dream I can reach
one that I can extend my hand to and feel the words flow into my fingertips
painting my fingerprints with silky words and controversial lyrics
Now, ever since I was a released egg, I’ve been set up for failure
an immigrant dad and a maternal gang banger
My vibrating vocal cords were sliced with colored cards in elementary
children being muted alongside their ideas, starting at a young age to constrict our abilities
A silent child grows into a cooperative adult
a puppet of the power system
But puppet strings look a lot like chains when they’re up close and personal
Chains like the ones that keep draped on the back of our necks
adding another layer each time we attempt to succeed
We live in a nation built on more torment than we like to believe
definitely more than the amount of masks on in this community
And if only they knew how uneven we breathe when we turn on the TV
the fear that would eat us faster than Ros Mussolini ’cause
while some of us go from straight jackets to suede jackets
I’m stuck replaying the image of my homegirl’s casket
Those sparks that I was speaking on?
They give us a leg up to win
but sometimes you got to suffer with death before you live again
The youth are constantly battling from being so exposed to hatred
I know that if I dodge the bullet, it’ll fly and hit the next kid
But my one goal at this moment in time is to educate and stimulate the minds of whoever will listen
because then there will at least be hope in this generation
I grew up bombarded with cousins and conflicting culture
I grew up in constant trouble
in liquor stores and back and forths between houses
My mother’s swollen tummy, the reason for her missed prom
the reason for my diploma, which I took with both of our hands
I grew up with a hatred for authority
watching the police shoot venom through their sweat glands at my father figure’s tattoos
spitting at him to cover the Malcolm X on his leg
but not the ones on his face that would link him to violence
I watched their ignorance unfold as they ignored my crying baby sister in his arms
fully focused on whether or not he’s a threat
fully unaware that their metal fingers could pierce this baby’s heart
That my pop’s only weapon was his mind
I grew up in split families
seeing how even blood will sweep you under the rug
Keep nieces hungry while you enjoy your two stories in the hills
Most of my uncles struggle to pay bills
lucky to find housing in today’s climate
I grew up giving
because I saw the product of neglect
My dad’s home country that he hasn’t seen since he first came out here
The immigrant, terrorist, the labels we worked our blood out to erase
but the lead just spread into more nasty words
Destroyers of communities
a label I provided myself
though it’s a struggle to speak out against a system that’s been benefiting most of us for years
I could say my main dream is to stop being the alcohol provider, diabetes supplier
But this desperation, this need goes beyond a wine lease
It extends to the racism backed by the white men who placed us in the hood to corrupt it from the inside
And we took the bait
but we too have to live there and supply to our neighbors
We seem to forget that we’re all placed strategically
We are the chess pieces, and everyone wants to be king due to the title
when the queen is the one who makes the real moves
and ignorance keeps us all pawns
My dreams for my city are along the lines of equality
but that’s too broad of an answer. So specifically
I want to be able to see my ethnicity when I’m checking a box that’s meant to define me
so I don’t get grouped with just white and my needs become hidden amongst those who are systematically
systemically set up to do better
Because just because you put Middle Eastern in parentheses does not mean that you’re inclusive
I want to be able to point to a map and show the people in power my country
not the one I reside in but my country
Show them how we’re ignored though we’re going through a civil war
The world’s largest humanitarian crisis
So, the least you can do is acknowledge my background
The least you can do is have my language as an option to learn in public schools
because despite what you may think the world doesn’t limit itself to Spanish, French, and German
The least you can do is try to say our names correctly
I know the sub has hit me on the roll call sheet when there’s a long pause before they say my name
And I didn’t know that Nadia was super hard to say, so imagine when my sister Hising gets into school
I don’t want to have to worry about her being made a fool
I guess my dream is that we all talk to each other respectfully
hold no opinions with an unknowing claw
learn before we speak
But it’s hard to think of goals that are not so out of reach
So, I plan for the stars and if the edge of the earth is what I meet
I won’t be upset
I won’t let other people’s limits stop me from achieving what I wish for my community
Grocery stores in the Deep East, defunding the police
because putting money into a Beretta won’t take people off the streets
won’t put sheets over the shivering bodies of unhoused individuals
will only put the captor of my heart and the cell at 15 years old
will only ruin lives and put a rehabilitation sign on the chains linking children
leading them to spend more time behind bars than out in the open
My dreams run soul deep
meaning it’s a change that must take place in our hearts and in our brains
because hatred causes division, causes hatred, causes division, causes pain
causes violence, causes misery
Yet I’m confident the problems we face will be solved by unity
So in turn, unity is my dream
Thank you all very much.
Lee Herrick: So, I’m really happy to be here, and I want to just echo a few thanks from Beth, and thank Beth for the kind introduction. Oh, sure. And yes. Also, I want to thank Lori McPhee if she’s here. Really amazing. And thank you so much, Lori, for bringing me. Thank you to Mona and Engaging the Senses Foundation. Thank you very much for this event and all the events you help make possible.
I’m so happy to be here, to meet Lulani, to meet Theresa, to meet so many of you. Thank you for being here. And to all the departments who made this event happen, my thanks. Lisa and I drove down from Fresno, drove up from Fresno, the unceded and traditional homelands of the Yokuts and the Mono.
I grew up near here though after being born in Korea, I was raised in Danville. If you know Danville, I lived there for about eight years, and then moved to Modesto where I attended schools and had some of the best teachers that one could hope for.
But I’ve been in Fresno now for about 26 years, and I was appointed California Poet Laureate about three months ago. Oh, thank you. Thank you. And I’ll just say it’s been a pure joy, a pure joy. There are probably many poets who could do this, but just in these few months it’s been remarkable. This is the largest, most populous state, as you may know, in the United States, almost 40 million, 10 million more than the next most populous, Texas. Beautiful everywhere you go, you know this. Cities, small towns, there’s poetry everywhere. I’m telling you, you might know this, but if you doubt it you can go to the most remote town or the largest city where you question poetry’s presence, and it’ll be there. I’ve been to small towns, population of 1,500, and there’s a library and a friends of the library group that turn out and are writing poems and love the poetry.
And so, it’s with that spirit and with thanks I’ll just read some poems, and then I’m hoping there might be some questions after. So, the first poem I’ll read, I wrote while I was thinking about California as not just a place where I often felt like an outsider, but that it’s my state too. And so, I was thinking about things I’d seen, things I’d hoped for, and things I’d imagined.
Here, an olive votive keeps the sunset lit,
the Korean twenty-somethings talk about hyphens,
graduate school and good pot. A group of four at a window
table in Carpinteria discuss the quality of wines in Napa Valley versus Lodi.
Here, in my California, the streets remember the Chicano
poet whose songs still bank off Fresno’s beer soaked gutters
and almond trees in partial blossom. Here, in my California
we fish out long noodles from the pho with such accuracy
you’d know we’d done this before. In Fresno, the bullets
tire of themselves and begin to pray five times a day.
In Fresno, we hope for less of the police state and more of a state of grace.
In my California, you can watch the sun go down
like in your California, on the ledge of the pregnant
twenty-second century, the one with a bounty of peaches and grapes,
red onions and the good salsa, wine and chapchae.
Here, in my California, paperbacks are free,
farmer’s markets are twenty four hours a day and
always packed, the trees and water have no nails in them,
the priests eat well, the homeless eat well.
Here, in my California, everywhere is Chinatown,
everywhere is K-Town, everywhere is Armeniatown,
everywhere a Little Italy. Less confederacy.
No internment in the Valley.
Better history texts for the juniors.
In my California, free sounds and free touch.
Free questions, free answers.
Free songs from parents and poets, those hopeful bodies of light.
All right, so I’m going to read a few more. Oh, thank you, thank you. And you don’t have to do that after everyone, but thank you so much. I’m going to read, let’s see, mostly from Scar and Flower, and then I’m going to read a couple of new ones. So, I will read this poem.
I was on an airplane, and you know the seat in front of you, how it has the magazines? And in the magazines there are crossword puzzles? Do you know? And so, I was on a flight and I started to do the crossword, but two people had already begun the crossword puzzle. And I thought, “Well, I might as well jump in and add to it.” And it just became a poem about imagining people’s lives, and the places we go, and the people we meet.
So, this is titled “Flight.”
The in-flight magazine crossword partially done,
a corner begun here, scratched out answers there,
one set of answers in pencil, another in the green.
The woman with the green ball point knew
the all-time hit king is Rose and the Siem Reap
treasure is Angkor Wat. The woman, perhaps en route
to hold her dying mother’s hand in Seattle, forgot
about death for ten minutes while rememberingher
husband’s Cincinnati Reds hat while gardening after
the diagnosis. Her handwriting was so clean. Maybe
she was a surgeon. Maybe a painter. No. What painter
wouldn’t know 17 down, Diego’s love, five letters?
In a rush, her dying mother’s voice came back
to her, or maybe she was Chinese and her mother’s
imagined voice said, wo ai ni. At 30,000 feet,
you focus on 33 across, Asian American classic,
The Woman ________, when a stranger in the window
seat sees the clue, watches me write in W, and she says
Warrior, and for a moment you forget it is your favorite
memoir, and she reminds you of lilies or roses, Van Gogh
or stems with thorns, art galleries in romantic cities
where she is headed but you should not go. The flight
attendant grazes my shoulder. The crossword squares,
the letters, the chairs and aisles seem so tight in flight,
but there is nothing here but room, really.
Maybe the next passenger will know
what I do not: 64 down, five letters, Purpose.
And why do we remember what we do? We know
the buzz of Dickinson’s fly and the number of years
in Marquez’s solitude, but some things we will never
know, as it should be: why the body sometimes rumbles
like a plane hurtling over southern Oregon, how exactly
we fall in love, or if Frida and Maxine Hong
Kingston would have loved the same kind of tea.
All right, so I will read … Oh, OK, thank you. OK, let’s see. I think I will read this one. A lot of Scar and Flower was written in about a four-year span where America’s long history of violence and present violence seemed to be televised more. The police do good difficult work, but they also kill on average about 1,000 people each year. And during 2014, ’16, I was just overtaken with these stories in the news and I couldn’t shake them. Tamir Rice was killed, Michael Brown in Ferguson was killed. Eric Garner was killed in New York. And so, I’d like to read this poem. And it was also right after I realized I have a hearing condition. As an adoptee, I never knew my family’s medical history. And so, this poem, I was working with sound also.
It’s called “What I Hear When I Hear You In My Head.”
is the little whisper, the aggregate sorrow, the father’s
heavy weeping as the son’s heavy weeping. What I hear
is your artistic response after the massacre, the family
of clasped hands, Black hands, Brown hands, a small child
whose brother never had a chance. Who holds her father’s
tearful face and says, “Your eyes are like the moon,” is
what I hear when I hear you in my head this evening,
your laughter like tiny harps. I hear your fatigue as
another way to say: deprivation. I hear recount, re-tally,
a retaliation is what I hear when I hear you in my head
is the grace, the charm, the dead, the boy, the dead boy,
the boy who died because of the fear, the forest
in the other man’s heart, the gun, the heartbreak
is the sound I hear when I hear you in my head
is how we each sigh with distinction, where
fatigue meets fire, where we wake and wonder:
if we all go out to a field tonight, sit by a fire,
say the most honest thing you have ever said in your life,
would any dead boy or girl reappear, not like a mirage
but reappear, not like a voice in my head but a body
in this room, with flesh and bones, with his big smile,
orange blossoms in his billowing hair?
OK, so I’m going to read one and then I’ll shift. Oh, thanks. I’m going to read one and then I’ll shift, and try to bring it up a little. Can I read an adoption poem that it might be a little heavy? Is it OK if I persist along this train? By the way, I am so happy to be on this campus. Y’all know this, you’re from this area, some of you. Or if you’re here for the first time you know how beautiful this campus is. I arrived in the Bay Area having been born in South Korea. So, I want to read this adoption poem. Let’s see. I should just tell you that … So, I was born sometime in late 1970. I don’t know exactly when, but I think it was around mid-December 1970. And this is common for many transnational transracial adoptees, if you’re familiar with international adoption.
And I was born in Daejeon, Korea, and then I was adopted to the Bay Area. My parents were living in Danville, and I lived here for a while. And so, this poem is about my birth mother. I’ve never met my birth mother, or first mother as we call them, or my birth father or first father. So, it’s kind of about her, but I also think it’s really a love poem for her, but also a love poem for adoptees everywhere.
So, this is titled “How Music Stays in the Body.”
Your body is a song called birth
or first mother, a miracle that gave birth
to another exquisite song. One song raises
three boys with a white husband. One song
fought an American war overseas. One song leapt
from fourteen stories high, and like a dead bird,
shattered into the clouds. Most forgot the lyrics
to their own bodies or decided to paint abstracts
of mountains or moons in the shape of your face.
I’ve been told Mothers don’t forget the body.
I can’t remember your face, the shape or story,
or how you held me the day I was born, so
I wrote one thousand poems to survive.
I want to sing with you in an open field,
a simple room, or a quiet bar. I want to hear
your opinions about angels. Truth is, angels drink,
too— soju spilled on the halo, white wings sticky
with gin, as if any mother could forget the music
that left her. You should hear how loudly I sing
now. I’ve become a ballad of wild dreams and coping
mechanisms. I can breathe now through any fire.
I imagine I got this from him or you, my earthly
inheritance: your arms, your sigh, your heavy song.
I know all the lyrics. I know all the blood.
I know why angels howl in the moonlight.
And I think I’ll just read one more. Thank you. I’ll just read one more. This is a new one. So Berkeley, East Bay, California, great food cities. This is a great food state. You like good food, right? And just for a second, I want to take you back in your mind, if you want to, and then I’ll get you out of that really quickly. But do you remember April 2020? OK, thank goodness we’re now in 2023.
But in April 2020, I was asked by an editor to write something about food and open space. Yeah, food and open space. And my mind went straight to food trucks. And honestly, in April 2020 I was eating an ungodly amount of Ruffles. So, I started, but it was very difficult to write this poem just because the time. But this is sort of my food poem. Maybe it’s about freedom too. So, thank you everybody. This is an abecedarian for you poets. It’s just a fairly simple form, 26 lines where each line is the next letter of the alphabet.
It’s called “Abecedarian Love Song for Street Food.” Yes. And it has an epigraph by the late Anthony Bourdain, who said, “Street food, I believe, is the salvation of the human race.”
All praise for the pozole glistening in midday light
by the grace of the woman near the comal. In southern
California, Raul Martinez unveiled a mobile
downtown goldmine of al pastor by a bar in
East LA for the drunk, the artists, the necessary
future waiting in line. Praise be to the ice cream truck,
glory of the van’s slow roll, so praise the van,
hut, cart, booth, tent, stall, stand, bike, or truck.
I once devoured a tlayuda in Oaxaca City, broke down
just as the sunlight burst through the heart of a woman
kissing her baby’s forehead by the plaza. When I say
love, what I mean to say is I dream of you through disaster,
malady, drought, or this nightmare anxiety pandemic.
Now, even in this late dying, let us praise the 20,000
open-hearted vendors in Bangkok and the glorious
pupusas in San Salvador I ate on a bench near a dove.
Quesadilla. Arepa. Tteokbokki. Hallelujah. The banh mi
right on the outskirts of Hue, the chili pepper, the cilantro
songs, praise the Zocalo saints who brought me
to tears with a taco so full of music I almost wept.
Under the Beijing moonlight, bao zi is made by angels,
vendors with wings if you know where to look. On
West 53rd and 6th Ave, NYC, halal, or in Fresno, no
xenophobe is welcome. Tell me what to eat—
your chuan, your eloté, your mouthful of pure
zen, like savory, surprising flashes of heaven.
Thank you. Thank you.
Beth Piatote: Wow. Who else in the room feels like writing some poems? Yeah, that’s I think one of the great measures of how powerful writing is, it brings out your own desire to write and create. So, thank you so much for bringing that live wire. Yes, you should tell us. I was trying to think, what is it called? The cutting from a plant that becomes a new piece? Propagate. Yes, OK. So, I would like to invite our poets to come back up here. We have about 15 minutes that we can have a little bit of a conversation. As I said before, you can ask questions, you can hurl praise at the stage. So, please come back.
And while our audience is thinking a little bit, I have to start with a question for our poets laureate. The job of a poet laureate is a very specific kind of work, it’s to promote poetry, and this is a very special designation. And so, I want to ask our poets laureate, while our friends here are thinking of their questions or comments, I would like you to first tell us a little bit. As a poet laureate, what kinds of activities do you like to bring in, or how do you promote poetry? How do you do your job as the laureate?
Nadia Elbgal: You can start.
Lee Herrick: OK. So, the formal task is to advocate for poetry, educate wherever possible. As the California Arts Council says, from the boardrooms to the classrooms. My project that I’ll be doing, and we hope to launch it by June 1st, if any of you are interested, if you know any Californians of any age, any experience level, documented or not, free or not, I’ve been doing some work with prisons and they’re Californians too. But any Californian who wants to write a poem, I’m calling it Our California, and it’s an invitation to write a poem about what you love about your town, or your city, or your California. And all of those poems will be posted on the California Arts Council website. Also, I’ve been doing events at festivals. I’ll be going on a small book tour with the first partner, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, this summer to public libraries working with kids and teens. Wherever I’m invited to talk about poetry, I’m happy to go.
Nadia Elbgal: Yeah, I definitely just want to second what you just said. Going to different events, especially in different schools, that definitely works to reach out to youth. The program that I’m currently in is just for youth ages 13 to 18. And so, I go around to different schools usually, or I go to the Oakland Public Library and I hold events there. And that really just gets the word out and gets people interested in joining our program.
Kealoha: Check, check. Is this on? OK, cool. Yeah. To echo, my favorite thing to do is to get students fired up about poetry. Because if you can reach one, two, 10, 20 students in a single visit, then you’ve changed their lives for good. My last project as poet laureate was to film myself giving 10 workshops, basically taking a group of students, actually three groups of students through an entire 10-day program to get them from having no exposure to poetry, to being able to just perform their stuff, their best stuff out loud to crowds. So, that was the idea there. And we filmed it. We’re going to put it online for teachers to use wherever they want for free, because there’s not enough resources for teachers that they have access to just grab and use in their classrooms. We want to put it up there with writing samples, lesson plans, all that.
Beth Piatote: Now you, who has a question or a comment you would like to share? We have microphones for you. Here’s the mic.
Kealoha: They’re recording though, so they want to get you…
Audience 1: Oh, OK. OK. How did you begin to incorporate movement, and music, and chanting in with your poetry?
Kealoha: I think there’s a natural progression. I mean, it starts on the page obviously first. You’re just writing for yourself, but then you start to think, “OK, what format is this going to live in? Does it live in a book or does it live in front of people?” If it lives in front of people, I want to do everything possible to get the words to make them resonate. And I come from a dance background, dance was my first love. So, I try and weave in all that kind of stuff to give you a full kinesthetic experience, to make the words stick even longer than just that moment.
And then the chanting, culturally that’s just part of our DNA, I guess. But then, yeah, the focus for the past 10 years has been to bring other genres’ art too, so visual art. So, Solomon Enos is a great friend that I’ve been working with to do the visual art part. And then Jamie Nakama, actual professional dancers who know what they’re doing. Yeah, and just bringing all that stuff, because everybody learns differently. Some people are visual, some people are auditory, some people are kinesthetic. So, how do you reach everybody?
Stephanie: Amazing work. I’m so happy to be here. I know Lee from high school in Modesto, so I’m really happy to … He’s so funny, just like he’s always been with his poetry. As poets, how do you get started in poetry versus maybe other forms? Like just creative writing, for instance. Is it how you think the lyricism? How do you become a poet?
Nadia Elbgal: Can I answer this? OK. It’s super interesting, I actually started with creative writing and writing short stories. And then I love to sing. And so, I tried to write my own songs. And then what really got me into poetry was taking a drama class, and the first assignment being to write a monologue and perform it within the first week of school. I’ve always loved to write, English has always been my strongest subject. And so, it sort of came afterwards but I feel like writing short stories really helped me to become a good poet. And also writing songs. Songs are poetry, and I feel like I really struggle with writing full songs. And so, I realized that if I can write poetry, not have repetition in it, and I can just be more free on the page. And so, that definitely helped.
Lee Herrick: Hi, Stephanie. Yes. So, it’s interesting. I like what Nadia’s saying. I started off in high school loving music. I’ve always loved music. I was listening to a lot of Zeppelin, and Jimi Hendrix, and Janice Joplin. And then my life really changed again when in the mid ’80s I discovered groups like Run DMC and Public Enemy. And that rap in the mid ’80s was very important for me. Public Enemy had an anger, an energy that really spoke to me. And when I couldn’t articulate it as a 16-year-old, the music let me feel it, and the writing just as an open field where we can put it. And so, some great teachers I had in high school and in college. And then I just really started writing more regularly. And that’s I think when you know is when you just can’t stop the writing, or it’s always if you’re stressed or if you’re busy, or if it’s not for credit, you just doing it, then I thought, “Well, this could be something I could do for many years.” And I get a lot of joy out of it.
Kealoha: OK, so yeah, we grew up with poetry, we learned the cannon and stuff like that, and all different kinds of other art forms. But the moment I got on fire for poetry, I was probably about 22. It was in the Bay Area in San Francisco. I was living in San Francisco doing nothing with my life. I was just wearing suits and ties in a cubicle, working on Excel spreadsheets. And I opened up the paper one day and I saw a hot pick that listed a poetry event going on three blocks from where I lived. I was like, “Oh, let me go check it out. Let me go see what’s going on in the city.” And I went, and that’s when I had a visceral reaction to what was going on with the reading. My spine started to tingle, my body got warm, I started radiating, and I went home, couldn’t stop writing.
Next day, instead of Excel spreadsheets, I’m pretending I’m working on Excel spreadsheets, I’m actually writing poems. And then I just couldn’t stop going to events at Berkeley campus in San Francisco, in Oakland, and then also going home and writing. I mean, find the poetry that resonates with you is my advice. And then just write, write, write for yourself, and then start to share with smaller pockets of people, friends, family, ask them how it makes them feel. They don’t have to be writers, they don’t have to be professional anything. Just people who are willing to give you their honest opinion. And then you can start to craft for them, because ultimately your target audience are people. So, if you can get an emotional response out of other folks, you’re onto something.
Beth Piatote: Minot. Wait, wait for the mic. Sorry. Love you, too.
Minot: I’m curious, just in your wisdom, what is the role of silence, and how do we listen to those silences as readers, writers, etc.?
Kealoha: Oh, in today’s world.
Lee Herrick: That’s a great question. That’s a great question. I was just looking at quotes for a book I’m working on, because I’m working on sound and poems, and I think, I can’t remember if it was … I want to say it was Mozart, but he’s … Music’s not in the notes, it’s in the silences between. When Kealoha, it was so mesmerizing, the sound coming from that, and whether it was the leg or the instrument. I was also noticing how much beauty there was in the silences. I think as a writer, it’s essential to mute some of the noise. And I’m not sure if you’re asking about that as a writer, what role does it play, but to me it’s essential.
Whatever noise that might be, whether it’s digital, or familial, or societal, whether it’s some kind of quiet space a person can carve out for his, or her, or their writing, it’s essential. It’s essential. So, there’s that. And then also in the writing, I think a word, and rhythm, and sound can achieve a lot, but pacing, and quiet, and some modulation, and even into silences. The Chinese poets call it a moment in a poem, caesure is what other poets call it, Chinese poets call it the moment in the poem where the reader raises their head. So, it’s important to have those silences in our lives and in our poems.
Kealoha: How you feel about silence?
Nadia Elbgal: Well, I mean, this is something that I feel like I struggle with a lot. I get super nervous and I tend to rush through my poems. And so, I’ve really been trying to add more spaces in between my lines, because I do notice when I go back and I’m rereading a poem in my room by myself, I’ll try to add spaces in different places just to see. It can change the entire tone of a poem if you add spaces in certain places, switching it up can change it. Basically what you were saying, spaces are super, super important. Just to have a beat, and give the audience time to consider what you were saying and to sit with it. I think it’s very important.
Lee Herrick: Yeah, and your reading was great.
Kealoha: Definitely. I think, yeah, as a human, having those moments of silence, whether you find it in meditation or during any kind of practice you do, yoga. For me, it’s surfing. I usually surf, so no distractions, no phones, nothing, out in the water. It’s like the swishing of it all, it just puts me in the rhythm. And I don’t leave the surf until there’s a moment where the mind goes blank, and for an extended amount of time, and I’ll just be out there. And then I’ll be like, “OK, that was it. Got it.” And I go back in. So, if you find any kind of practice in your life where you can just shut the stuff off and shut off your brain too, then it allows for growth in all different facets of life.
Beth Piatote: We have time for just one more question or comment. Yes.
Lulani Arquette: Sorry. Aloha.
Lulani Arquette: Oh, I’d like to ask who are your mentors, or what is your mentor? And how has that inspired what you do?
Kealoha: You guys want to … OK. There’s so many, but I mean, it starts with the parents, the family, and my brothers. So, I was a latchkey kid, so after school, go home, parents were nowhere. So, it was just like my brothers, and so there was a lot to be learned there, but also through the parents as well. And then throughout life, poetry mentors like Marc Bamuthi Joseph, who’s from this area, that’s where he was doing his thing. I mean, honestly you have been a mentor to me, Lulani, Mona, like the wisdom of our elders, the people who have done this before, who can give you shepherding advice. I mean, don’t take that lightly. That’s jewels, that’s nuggets throughout life. They’re sharing with you experience that you can really scroll from. So yeah, there’s so many. You’re one of them.
Lee Herrick: Yeah, I really like that. My dad is a finance guy, but probably my biggest or one of my biggest mentors and influences. My mom was an artist and a painter and there wasn’t ever any formal tutelage. Like do this, do this. But I think for me it’s just absorbing what they do and how they do it, why they do it. But I think the how for me is most important, just how people are moving through the world. I had some great teachers in high school. One was a woman named Nancy Barr from Davis High School, the late Nancy Barr. She was about, by my recollection, about six feet tall and she wore about three inch heels, and she was very regal and a little intimidating. But I loved her.
She was so inspiring. And she was also hard on us, so I used to think that they were just hard and mean. But I liked what you said, don’t take that stuff for granted. That tutelage, that mentorship is so priceless. Poetry mentors, I mean, I think of Juan Felipe Herrera as a big mentor for me, former U.S. poet laureate, and many others. I try to absorb whatever I can from folks who’ve been there and who are looking out for us.
Nadia Elbgal: I definitely agree with both of you. And so, there are a lot of other poets that are currently in my program with me, our poetry cohort, as well as my boss. My boss has definitely been there to guide me since I joined the program. But I feel like, especially recently spending more time with the other poets, I’m learning a lot from other poets that are my age or even younger than me. Just being able to have a safe place to share our poetry and to get feedback from other people who are doing the same thing that you’re doing, and in the same area that you are at, it’s really helpful. And it feels really good to just have other youth to share my work with and to learn from.
Beth Piatote: I want to thank you for that beautiful question. It’s such a perfect place to end, to be thinking about our mentors, those who come before us, those who support us. Also thinking about how our work goes forward to those who come after. So, thank you again to our poets laureate, and to everyone who’s gathered here. Thank you so much.
Kealoha: Thank you.
Outro: You’ve been listening to Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. Follow us wherever you listen to your podcasts. You can find all of our podcast episodes with transcripts and photos on Berkeley News at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts.