Berkeley Poetry Goes
Prime Time via Cable
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By Sara Sutler-Cohen, Berkeley Voice, February 19, 1998

Berkeley Poetry Goes Prime Time via Cable...seen weekly on public access cable TV, since 1990.

While the beginning of each installment gives about 20 minutes to a featured reader, including such Bay Area figures as Ishmael Reed, Jennifer Stone, Jack Foley, and a host of others, the rest of the hour is wholeheartedly open to anyone that wants a shot at getting their words out there.

Founded by Telegraph Avenue street merchant Louis Cuneo, the series began at the West Berkeley library, and has since traveled to various locales in Oakland and Berkeley. It now resides at the Berkeley Art Museum.

L A Wood and Louis Cuneo producers of "Touch of a Poet"
L A Wood (left) and Louis Cuneo, producers

Since 1994, producer L A Wood, who has shot a number of activist documentaries -- has made the series a weekly show on Berkeley TV (BTV) cable channel 25 (Touch of a Poet airs at 8 p.m. Fridays and 8 am. Saturdays).

Poetry sessions convene every Monday evening at the Museum, and anyone can show up to listen or read, or both. The video project's main purpose, Wood says, is to create an audience for poetry readings, which typically consists almost exclusively of other writers.

Wood also hopes to promote a feeling of community with the weekly shows.

"Video provides that special kind of record and helps (bring together) the community," Wood says. "Berkeley has more poets than you can imagine. I've filmed 200, and I know there must be 600 besides that."

It is this feeling that pushes the two to keep the project going, despite the absence of any promised financial gain. They do it because they love it, and, as Wood puts it, "Poetry is my contribution to public access."

Ishmael Reed, professor of poetry at the University of California at Berkeley, was featured last year with his students. The readers; varied background, was reflected in their words. Some were nervous, some were confident, and all blasted heartfelt words to an enthusiastic audience.

For teens and college students, poetry has long been a safe outlet for expression. Cuneo provided a space for such expression on one of the many successful evenings he's brought together.

Cuneo has hosted numerous Cal students. He also gave Madalyn Theodore's Berkeley High School creative writing class an entire night dedicated to youth in which seniors read their original material.

Theodore's voice penetrates the air with excitement when she recalls the event: "I was amazed at their ability and that they went for it. Their poems were really on the mark."

Most of the students were first timers. Theodore's class had practiced for the preceding two weeks and, although nervous and even somewhat embarrassed, the seniors embraced the opportunity and, at Theodore's advice, wrote "from their own experiences."

The students from Reed's UC poetry course also heeded this advice. Some spoke of lost loves, some of losing close friends. One young woman recited a piece recalling the fondness she had for her father as a young child. One thing's for sure, this generation of young adults isn't holding back anything when it comes to using the spoken word.

Creating a physical space for these weekly readings has been a struggle. The readings began in 1990 in the conference space at the West Berkeley Library. From there, it has bounced back and forth between Oakland and Berkeley several times before finding its current home at the Berkeley Art Museum.

Though not affiliated with the university, there is a verbal agreement, according to Cuneo. This agreement allows Touch of a Poet to be taped on university property, yet remain open to the community.

"The goal of Touch at the museum is to act as a bridge between the academic and non-academic community. We want to bring that gap together," Cuneo said.

With the series' openness to the entire community, Cuneo is taking advantage of this and working on two upcoming events in celebration of the spoken word. The first event, entitled "Berkeley Poetry Festival," is tentatively scheduled for October 10 and 11. The event will feature 32 featured poets, as well as offering an open mic to approximately 94 poets and readers. The theme of the festival will be, "encouraging open mic for the public to go and poets to read," Cuneo says. With support from Mother's Hen, the Berkeley Art Commission, as well as in-kind gifts, it's likely that Berkeley can look forward to this Festival.

After the festival, Cuneo and Wood will prepare for a 10-year anniversary for the series, combining the celebration with New Year's Eve 2000.

With the amount of support and exposure Touch of a Poet Series is getting, both from poets and the watchful audience, the weekly event seems likely to continue for decades to come.

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