The Touch of a Poet was an open reading series that rose out of the rich poetic traditions of Berkeley and the San Francisco Bay Area. In 1996, the basement area of the old UC Art Museum was their gathering place for these readings and performances. Formerly, the meeting place had been a basement storage room with no windows and was only big enough to seat an audience of about thirty.
Each Monday night the room would be transformed into a stage. A bamboo, bi-fold screen was positioned in a corner of the room and a brightly-colored, tie-dyed cloth was draped over it as the backdrop. When the mic was plugged in and the track lights were swung away from the walls and onto the poets, their stage was set.
It was during this first year that the Touch of the Poet readings became a Berkeley cable TV series on the city’s fledgling cable-access channel. The idea of filming a series of local poets was a very ambitious notion. The weekly two-hour recordings of a couple dozen poets were edited and shown on Channel 25. The poets were viewed on “primetime Friday nights” at 8 PM. Back then, if you were played on a local public access station like Berkeley’s, you were broadcast over and over again all days of the week.
L A Wood, founder of the website Berkeley Citizen, shot and produced the series using a 3-chip Canon camera. Editing choices were made with the idea that everyone should have an opportunity for TV exposure and not just a few well-known poets. This contributes to the great diversity seen in the programs.
Today, in a digital age where everyone owns a camera, it might be hard to imagine how unique an enterprise it was to produce a television series of over fifty programs for local broadcast. It is not surprising that the Touch of a Poet series was the first of its kind in Berkeley. The series propped up our public access facility in the first few years of its operations and promoted the possibilities of this new resource to our local community.
As might be expected, in 1996 the high-profile series also began to have a noticeable impact on Berkeley’s poetry scene. The presence of a camera and the possibility of wider exposure via local TV brought a special air to the readings. The program’s poets were linked together much like a large poetry festival. This is why the Touch of a Poet cable series has been seen as Berkeley’s first poetry festival. Clearly, the TV series contributed directly to the idea of a broader poetry venue beyond the many local “coffee-shop” readings of those days.
The 1996 Public Access Series morphed into what became the Berkeley Poetry Festival, now more than two decades old. These annual poetry festivals owe much to the Touch of a Poet cable series beyond its history. Back then, the cable productions helped influence the city’s funding of the Poetry Festivals, now linked with Berkeley City College. The first Berkeley Poetry Festival was recorded and produced in 1999 by the Touch of the Poet production crew, and of course, was broadcast on Berkeley’s Public Access channel.
Each generation has it’s own look, its own songs and unique voices. The 130 hours of archived poetry performances are a rare glimpse back to that time, sharing in the intimacy of the moment, more than a quarter of a century ago.