I was never exactly interested in politics. On any campus there are groups with theories and projects and fiery long speeches. I was vaguely in favor of a lot of stuff—for example, I signed civil rights petitions, but it would never have occurred to me to go south and organize voters. I didn't keep track of wars or laws or names of government officials. I was a very ordinary student. And precisely because I was ordinary, I wound up getting arrested in the Free Speech Movement. Every little table the university was trying to shut up and close down signed a petition and they ran the gamut from the John Birch Society to the Communist Party to some totally nonpolitical groups, one for hiking, sailing, and mountain climbing, if I remember correctly. No, I can't tell you what it was like; let me show you.
THE SPROUL HALL SIT-IN
for the 30th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement
I remember telling my legs,
legs you aren't going into that building, no way,
stop walking legs, you listen to me.
My legs didn't listen
they walked into Sproul Hall
carrying me with them.
I was scared silly and not just of the cops.
Joan Baez was singing, it was too beautiful
the way the air on a high mountain is too clear.
I was scared of the beauty, it was hard to breathe.
I remember everything.
Girls dressed as secretaries,
boys dressed like law clerks
and we expected America to keep the promises
it made in 8th grade social studies.
Freedom to Assemble.
I remember the food when we didn't get arrested at once.
Organized people brought cardboard boxes
of cardboard baloney sandwiches and oranges.
But I also remember a big cauldron of cold spaghetti
and even a tin of caviar and we took
a fingernail each till it was gone.
I remember classes springing up in every corner.
I remember passing the huge black walnut table in the lobby,
the constitution was probably signed at a table just like it
and a TA was standing on the table
giving a lecture about the war of the roses
to his class who were sitting under the table,
cross-legged and taking notes.
It looked like a scene from a foreign art film
but the subtitles was the Bill of Rights.
About every 45 minutes
someone would hear the cops were on their way
but people did try to sleep.
That was the first time I saw tv cameras,
they didn't look electrical,
they looked like high noon on another planet.
"These are the protesters asleep in Sproul Hall,"
the reporters said, and they shone those cameras
and everyone woke up.
It was a long night, it isn't over yet.
I got arrested by a young black cop with a big adam's apple.
He was half my weight and looked at me and said
"Please miss, don't go limp."
Nothing went as planned.
I hadn't planned to be there;
part of me hasn't left.
I remember a light brighter than the tv cameras,
stronger than fear.
I remember us.
(From The Eyes Have It)
I'd been writing steadily of course and of course making the same mistake everyone makes which is resolving to make no mistakes at all. I thought avoiding failure meant success. It took me years to learn that if you don't expect to crash and burn sometimes, you'll never set the world on fire. There's no rulebook for poetry. If it works, use it. If it doesn't, forget it. I don't care if Shakespeare used it to sell toothpaste to his mother.
After I got my B.A. at Berkeley I went to the Iowa Writers' Workshop for a Master of Fine Arts. Everyone there seemed to be from California or New York. I only met one Iowan in the workshop and he looked lost. We lived in three falling-down old houses with a connecting basement that held the falling-down stoves and iceboxes. Poetry classes in an English department, even a very good one, are very different from classes in a school where everyone thinks of himself as a full-time poet. And some really inspired teaching, mainly by Paul Carroll, blew the lid off all my safety boxes. Paul made me appreciate Ginsberg and Whitman by reading them aloud, he called it the test of breath. Paul taught a catch-all class called Form of Poetry, theoretically from seven to nine in the evening. We yelled cheerfully at each other and at nine we adjourned to the local bar and continued the argument. In the morning no one was quite sure what the argument had been about, but we were all sure we had won.
There was only one problem. It took me till I left Iowa to digest what I was learning. During the two years I was there I couldn't control it, never wanted to control anything again and simply wallowed. While I was there, everything I wrote stunk.
When I came back to Berkeley in '67, the world had totally changed, and I hadn't heard or seen any of it in Iowa City, Iowa. There'd been politics before I left, but I used to have a picture of all of us arrested in the Free Speech Movement. The girls all looked like secretaries and the boys all looked like law clerks. Now everyone had long hair, bare feet, bright clothes, and looked like they'd just stepped out of a tapestry. Over it all hung Bob Dylan's early lyrics, which were poetry for me. I decided Telegraph was Desolation Row, and I liked it that way. I was in total culture shock. I scuttled around with my mouth and my notebook both open, staring at what I saw and trying to write everything down at once. I forgot about writing styles and just wrote; I didn't want any of it to get away. I've lived in Berkeley ever since, trying to write the autobiography of the street which keeps changing.
My first five books were written in total street persona, first person plural. My first book, Revolution and Other Poems, was beautifully put out by Oyez Press, cost five dollars, and didn't sell. My second book was a chapbook put out by Fred Cody called The Berkeley Bead Game and priced at a dollar. I rescued my book from the elegant mortuary of the poetry section and sold it on the street and in coffee shops. I traded with the vendors and the deadheads; I got half my holiday presents trading. I sold 3,500 copies and could have sold 4,000 but my feet gave out.
It was a revelation. Often enough people would buy one of my books just to make me go away and later on come look me up, part bewildered and part suspicious. "Are you sure that was poetry? I mean, I liked it." That was how I established my main audience, people who hate poetry. Or at least they thought they hated it. They became regulars, asking if it wasn't time for my next book yet. I wrote a summer and a winter book to keep up with the street. My shorter poems began appearing on bathroom walls all over Berkeley, and my books became popular as souvenirs of Berkeley, sort of like New York postcards with the Statue of Liberty. It wasn't literary elegance, it was communication. There are people out there; they need us.
Eventually I made an arrangement with a printer at GRT; he paid for the books and I paid him back through the sales. He said the only other person he had that arrangement with was a minor rock star. It was only sort of vanity because I didn't front the money. A grey area that worked very well till he sold his press two years ago.
I was here for People's Park. I lived just across the street from it in a room at the Berkeley Inn. The Park was almost my front yard. I couldn't have avoided it if I'd wanted to. The Park caught the local politicians by surprise, and they didn't really approve. They thought we should all be out protesting Vietnam and not wasting our time on some silly little issue. But we'd been against so many things it was intoxicating to be for something for a change, to plant a whole block of yes and be able to look at it afterwards and say, "that wasn't here before us."
To begin with there wasn't much trouble. The first night we lit a fire. The Berkeley cops came and said, "Put it out." Someone asked why. "Cause you can't have a fire at night unless you got stones around it." "Oh, OK." We put the fire out, got some stones around it, relit it, and when the cops came back they saw the stones and said, "Oh, OK." The drummers played late into the night around the fire. A church was being torn down across town and donated some pews for park benches. Even one of the newspapers had an article claiming "at last those street people are doing something useful." There were roses, and—because it was Berkeley—a revolutionary corn garden, and the slogan was "Everybody gets a blister." Then Governor Reagan called in the army and all hell broke loose. You've seen the pictures; everyone has. Ten years later one of my People's Park poems got misquoted in Life while they were attempting to figure out what happened.
As well as being a local poet, I'm known as the Bubblelady. And that got started as part of People's Park. There was going to be a riot the next day, but I was a pacifist and didn't want to throw stones and besides I'd probably miss. At the same time I was angry and wanted to throw something. I decided I'd blow soap bubbles all night in the park, and if they wanted to arrest me for it, fine. I bought two large bags full of bottles. There were two rookie cops in the park, and I marched up to them and announced my intentions. They pretty much shrugged.
I started making bubbles and after a while one of the rookies asked if they could try. I told myself this wasn't happening, didn't say anything out loud, and handed them each a bottle. They started a contest. "Mine's bigger than yours." "Yeah, but look at mine go, it's the motion that counts." I quote. After about twenty minutes of this, a cop car with a real cop in it turned the corner, saw us all blowing bubbles, and screeched to a halt. (I think he thought I'd dosed his rookies. This was the sixties when everyone, including the cops, believed some morning we'd all wake up with the water supply doses and everyone stoned.) Anyway, he ran up to us, checked out the rookies, and damned if one of them didn't try to hand him a bottle. He said he didn't play childish games and stalked off, while the other rookie commented, "He's just scared 'cause his would be too small to see." Again I quote.
I'd only planned a one-night symbolic protest, but I hadn't expected this much reaction. And from cops. I started carrying bubbles with me to see what would happen, and I discovered they could both heckle and applaud. Little kids came running up to me and saying, "Bubble? Bubble?" I'd make bubbles for them and they'd chase them, but if I didn't have a bottle they'd say, "No bubbles?" and look sad. Pretty soon I always had bubbles and wound up a lot more famous as the Bubblelady than I was as a poet. Oh well. Bubbles don't help anyone, don't solve any social problem, and are totally unimportant. But I'd never realized it was so easy to make people happy.
Being the Bubblelady made me an honorary street person, trusted in worlds I need to write about. When my first selected works, Berkeley Street Cannibals, was published, the review in the San Francisco Examiner book section was headed "Bubblelady Writes Book" and had cartoon bubbles coming out of it. When the mural of the People's History of Telegraph Avenue was painted, I posed for my portrait with the bubbles. Right up there with Mario Savio on the police car and the famous picture of James Rector dying. They painted me from the back, preserving my posterior for posterity, and my bubbles floated through all the great issues.