Scenes from the Watershed Poetry Festival

Yesterday Barb and I hit the Watershed Poetry Festival for the first time. A stellar line up, gorgeous day and attendance credit for my poetry class made this a must-attend for us.

We missed out on the Strawberry Creek Walk but got their in time for the Open Mic and got to enjoy almost all of the day’s features. Almost because the allure of the Berkeley Farmer’s Market was way too strong,  I had to return a book to the Berkeley Library, and (on the real) the day was just way too hot.  Next time we hit the Watershed, we’re coming armed with blankets, umbrellas and picnic food. Believe that.

Some highlights of the festival:

  • David Mas Masumoto is a brilliant storyteller with such vivid details, rich history and intense nature imagery that I was shocked to find out he is a novelist and not a poet.  His “Sweat” story had a great refrain that channeled all the energy and traditions of the finest Fresno literary traditions.  He also displayed some fine oratory skills with his call-and-response story, “Buddhist Tractor.”   Masumoto also spoke of the backstory behind his latest work, Wisdom of the Father; where he helps his father recover from a stroke by reteaching him how to farm, reversing the roles of father/son, master/student and (in my estimation) historian/audience.  I can’t wait to jump into Letters to the Valley, Masumoto’s pastoral epistles that we happen to already have in the Sexy Loft Library.
  • Carol Moldaw presented a beautiful set of poetry directly referencing various definitions of watershed.  Her work balanced a fine line between high academic diction and accessible locales.
  • Not only would this be my first Watershed but also the first time I hear Kim Addonizio read.  She read mostly from her latest work, Lucifer at the Starlite, both off-page and with musical accompaniment from the guitarist of her band.
  • The youth poets from Poetry Inside Out, River of Words and California Poets in the Schools really brought their A-game.  All of them had strong poetics that clearly came from some clear poetic form instruction with the favorite seeming to be personification poems.  All of the poems stayed true to their poetic intent and allowed the various poets to really enter into the text which showed in their strong presentation skills as well.
  • Marilyn Chin started off her set with some off-page work which, I gotta say, surprised and delighted me before moving onto some newer prose work. Good stuff.
  • I really wish that Arthur Sze had some more reading time because his work was so multi-layered that I’m not sure I got all his nuance and references.  I did appreciate his command of language and how he weaved so much nature into his poetry.
  • Robert Hass not only closed out the reading with a wonderful reading but also led all the reader through a group reading of Brenda Hillman’s “Berkeley Water,” a poem celebrating the neighboring Berkeley Farmer’s Market.

If there was one thing that had me scratching my head, it would be when Poetry Flash host Richard Silberg was promoting the upcoming Individual World Poetry Slam and then presented performance poet Chris Olander, a poet whose work embodied all the techniques and tools of a typical slam poet.  It’s not Olander’s performance I’m questioning but the fact that Berkeley has an abundance of poets who not only self-identify as slam or performance poets but have also excelled in local, regional and national competition.  Why not choose one of those poets to help promote the IWPS?  It just felt odd that the person who was being presented as an example of slam poetry isn’t a part of the upcoming national slam competition.  Makes me feel that if you present yourself as a page poet, you have to have a set degree of credentials before you can be taken seriously but if you present yourself as a performance poet, then set standards go out the window.

Other than this one ciritique, Silberg and the rest of the organizers did a great job of bringing poetry out into the open field of MLK Park.  This was my first Watershed but I’m sure I’ll be back for the next one.

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