Poetry and the Senses: UC Berkeley’s Arts Research Center

Credit: University of California, Berkeley
One of Engaging the Senses Foundation’s most exciting new collaborations this year has been with UC Berkeley’s Arts & Humanities/College of Letters & Science.

Poetry and the Senses is a two-year initiative established under the leadership direction of Anthony Cascardi, Dean of Arts & Humanities, in which poetry— including poetic and mindful modes of engaging with the world— is the central focus of creative investigation across the UC Berkeley campus and the community. The program was launched in August of 2019 under the robust direction of UC Berkeley’s Arts Research Center’s (ARC) Interim Director Natalia Brizuela (Professor of Spanish & Portuguese and Film & Media). In 2020, ARC Director Julia Bryan-Wilson (Doris and Clarence Malo Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art),  Associate Director of ARC, Lauren Pearson, and Laurie Macfee, Program Director of ARC, have done a remarkable job of growing the initiative despite unexpected, exigent circumstances. They have beautifully fulfilled their mandate of exploring, “the relevance and urgency of lyrical making and storytelling in times of political crisis, and the value of engaging the senses as an act of care, mindfulness, and resistance.”

In a time when, in the words of Laurie Macfee, “simply showing up is a radical act,” the eight multidisciplinary fellows chosen for this year’s program were tasked with holding the space of poetry and resilience in virtual meetings serendipitously focused on the theme of emerge/ncy with the word and concept of “emergence” also a focal emphasis. Working apart, yet always together, their projects included crafting unique personal projects relevant to the topical theme, exploring a range of artistic responses to crisis and extremity with renowned writers, arranging provocative online readings with artistic and social thought leaders such as Joy Harjo (recently appointed to her unprecedented third term as U.S. Poet Laureate), and putting together a feature issue showcasing poetry and art created in response to the concept of “emergency.”

For the launch celebration of the Poetry and the Senses program early in 2020, Bay Area poet/performer Indira Allegra, UC Berkeley faculty and former Stegner Fellow Chiyuma Elliott, and poet, essayist, translator, and publisher Lyn Hejinian came together for a introductory reception, reading, and discussion.  In April, navigating successfully in response to Covid-19 restrictions, the program hosted an incandescent and extremely-well-attended online reading by U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo followed up by conversation with 2020 Fellow Beth Piatote and response to audience questions.

To cap the end of this year’s individual and collaborative efforts, Poetry and the Senses presented an online evening with guest luminaries Danez  Smith and Patricia Smith in reading and conversation on December 5th. Then, Laurie Macfee and 2020’s eight fellows shared their final event, an hour-and-a-half of readings from their new work, questions, and discussion, on December 9th. It turned out to be a profoundly moving evening filled with not only poetry and visual art, but a forcefield of intimate conversation between Undergraduate Student Fellows Menat Allah El Attma and Gracia Mwamba, Graduate Student Fellows Jared Robinson and Jenif(f)er Tamayo, Faculty Fellows Beth Piatote and Alex Saum-Pascual, and Community Fellows Nathalie Khankan and Rusty Morrison. The group of creators, with their diverse backgrounds, disciplines, and ages, had begun the year meeting in-person, but pivoted to online gatherings when Covid-19 conditions mandated social distancing. One of the evening’s most powerful moments came when the fellows agreed that meeting online to explore the theme of “emergency” and to plumb the depths of their projects together had helped them remain open-hearted, hopeful, and sustained through the unthinkable year we have all lived through.

Rusty Morrison shared that she, “found it fascinating that when we have been together {on Zoom}, there’s been a kind of breathing… that is unusual… that is the breathing of the language… the breathing of the breath space between the words… and I calm down after our time together, despite how scared or frustrated or lonely or overwhelmed I feel… {I realize} that emergency is my limitation to not see where emergence arises, but I then find it in your eyes.” All of the fellows agreed to this in word and gesture, and also as Menat called everyone’s recitation a kind of prayer: “each a different holiness.” Laurie Macfee finished the event by discussing what a remarkable chance the group had taken, “because it was a brand new program and to be able to pull people together and then say ‘leap’ and ‘are you willing to take this journey with us?’ and you all have so beautifully. …I’m so grateful to all of you for continuing to show up, for bringing your whole selves… for bringing your vulnerabilities and your full sense of the world into this small space.”  And she gave thanks to “these eight poets that have not only changed my life but are going to go out and continue to change the world.”

We can’t wait to read the chapbook that will be one tangible product of this extraordinary collaborative effort, when it is released in 2021. And we are thrilled to support the coming year of the Poetry and the Senses project, and to meet the new fellows who will explore what we all hope will be a time of true and radical emergence as the year unfolds after the struggles and collective pain of 2020. One major event we can all look forward to will be Poetry and the Senses spring festival which will include several panels, curated by both the 2020 fellows and 2021 fellows, within the framework of “what voices to carry with us in emergency,” and inclusive of robust audience participation.

Engaging the Senses Foundation’s CEO and UCB alumna, Mona Abadir says, “We are inspired and grateful to be a part of this necessary, urgent partnership which delves into ways poetry and art can guide us through our uncertain contemporary social and political landscape.”

We hope you find joy and comfort, as we do, in the knowledge that art speaks truth in times of grave trouble, even as it helps affirm new forms of awareness and the potential for true healing.

Engaging the Senses Foundation wishes you all a peaceful, healthy holiday season and best wishes for the dawning of a brighter 2021 full of hope and possibilities.