Literary Boroughs #9: Berkeley, California

The Literary Boroughs series will explore little-known and well-known literary communities across the country and world and show that while literary culture can exist online without regard to geographic location, it also continues to thrive locally. Posts are by no means exhaustive and we encourage our readers to contribute in the comment section. The series will run on our blog from May 2012 until AWP13 in Boston. Please enjoy the ninth post on Berkeley, California by Andrew David King. -Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

What have I lost? Spook singer, hold your tongue.
I sing a newer song no ghost-bird sings.
My tongue is sharpened on the iron’s edge.
Canaries need no trees. They have their cage.

– Jack Spicer, “A Postscript to the Berkeley Renaissance,” 1954

There are two cities called Berkeley—the city of the nation’s imagination, and the city as it actually exists—and they are constantly at odds. Popular media would have one believe that this suburb with a gaze through the Golden Gate’s columns is filled with politicos who are so far left, they’ve come full circle back to right. There are activists and the socially conscious, but such a depiction isn’t the only truth of this town; Berkeley is filled with as many stripes of ideology as flavors in the gelato stores that line Shattuck Avenue. And it is filled with histories humming alongside each other: that of the Vietnam War protests, the Beats, the Berkeley Renaissance, and the discovery of new elements of the periodic table. It’s no coincidence that Berkeley is named for the poet and philosopher George Berkeley, whose idealist philosophy suggests that all exists only in the minds of perceivers. The city’s made rich by the beehive of students at the University of California and those who, moved by art or history, make pilgrimages here. The campus sits at the base of the Mediterranean-looking East Bay ridges (“…The ripened brown of these magnificent hills… reminds me of my beloved Greece,” said University of California President Benjamin Ide Wheeler in an 1899 address to the student body), but it is not the center of town, per se; it is one center in a city that spins on countless axes.

The town’s writing mind oscillates between the university and local intellectual  culture, with both spheres habitually intersecting. Café culture is strong here, as is the counter-culture (self-proclaimed or otherwise); a walk down Telegraph Avenue will demonstrate that despite the installation of several chain stores, the avenue is native territory—a clone of nowhere else. Public art, like dust, makes its way into every conceivable space; during the Occupy protests of 2011, UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza filled with a miniature Renaissance of spray-paint and sculpture. Dreadlocked travelers strum for change near bike racks and lampposts plastered with advertisements for concerts. No other Bay Area city so consistently straddles the line between bourgeois and bohemian sensibilities. But wherever you go, you’re bound to find a place to buy books, and a place to read them.

City: Berkeley, California

What the City is known for:

The University of California, Telegraph/Shattuck/University Avenues, the marina and Caesar Chavez Park, the Greek Theatre and its events (including Paul Simon, the Dalai Lama, the Berkeley Jazz Festival, and the annual bonfire hosted there), political activism from the ‘60s to now (with education being the current concern), the Free Speech Movement and Mario Savio, an abundance of indie bookstores and coffeehouses, gourmet multicultural and vegetarian restaurants, its proximity to San Francisco, and temperate—though frequently foggy—weather.

Resident literary writers (a very incomplete list):

Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin both graduated from Berkeley High in 1947, though they weren’t acquainted at the time; other literary graduates of Berkeley High include Thornton Wilder and Ariel Schrag. Writers and creative people affiliated with the city or university include Robert Penn Warren (who earned his MA there in 1927), Leon Litwack, Robert Hass, Larry Eigner, William T. Vollman, Rebecca Solnit, Mona Simpson (Steve Jobs’s sister), Frank Norris, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Joan Didion (“Berkeley is so much a part of who I am…” she writes in There Was Light, a book of essays about the university collected by Irving Stone), Barbara Guest, Michael Pollan, June Jordan, Czeslaw Milosz, Josephine Miles, Lincoln Steffens, Robin Blaser, Michael Chabon, Ishmael Reed, Pauline Kael, Terry McMillan, Robert Pinsky, Landis Everson, and many more. In 1947, Philip K. Dick moved into a converted barn at 2208 McKinley Avenue, which he shared with Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, and Gerald Ackerman. Allen Ginsberg lived in a cottage behind 1624 Milvia Street for a time (he wrote parts of Howl there; also, see his poem “A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley”), and Jack Kerouac stayed at 1943 Berkeley Way.

Literary references:

A heap of literary works take Berkeley, California as their background or incorporate it in some way. Here’s a sampling of some noteworthy titles: The Armies of the Night by Norman Mailer; The Transmigration of Timothy Archer and “The Lucky Dog Pet Store” (ostensibly autobiographical) by Philip K. Dick; The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon; Songs Without Words by Ann Packer; The Drifters by James Michener; Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby; “The Cabinetmaker” by John Sayles (in his collection The Anarchist’s Convention and Other Stories); Prizes by Erich Segal; Cop Out, A Dinner to Die For, and other books in Susan Dunlap’s crime series featuring Jill Smith, a Berkeley detective; The Fortress of Solitude and Guns with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem; many books by Jack London; Queen of Dreams and other books by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni; Imaginary Speeches for a Brazen Head and You Didn’t Even Try by Philip Whalen; Pageant of Youth by Irving Stone; The Last Days of Louisiana Red by Ishmael Reed; The Men’s Club by Leonard Michaels; The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac; My Own Two Feet by Beverly Cleary; Love, Stars and All That by Kirin Narayan; When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka; The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 by Richard Brautigan; A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers; Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives by Greil Marcus; Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book by Maxine Hong Kingston; Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The White Album by Joan Didion; The Red, White, and Blue by John Dunne (Didion’s husband); The Case of the Seven of Calvary by Anthony Boucher; Reality Sandwiches and Howl by Allen Ginsberg; The Year of the Hunter by Czeslaw Milosz; Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner; Changing Places by David Lodge; The Western Shore by Clarkson Crane; Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker.

More recently: The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman; Mathematicians in Love by Rudy Rucker; Lola, California by Edie Meidav; Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (forthcoming).

UC Berkeley Bancroft Library cataloger Randal Brandt has put together a compendium of mystery and crime fiction set in the Bay Area.

Where to learn:

The University of California offers the only baccalaureate degree in the city, but doesn’t have a department of creative writing. Instead, classes in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and more are offered through a minor program facilitated by the Department of Undergraduate and Interdisciplinary Studies. (To paraphrase professor Lyn Hejinian in a talk she gave this year, the English Department sees students’ creative endeavors as coextensive with their scholarship.) Classes in the departments of English, Art Practice, Rhetoric, Comparative Literature, Philosophy, and Ethnic Studies offer students opportunities to work with creative texts and materials. The university’s College Writing Programs (CWP) department is another option for students, as is the English Department’s innovative Chernin Mentoring Program.

Berkeley City College also provides a range of classes in English and creative writing. And at the UC Berkeley Extension, you can take courses in screenwriting, magazine journalism, poetry, and even revision. If you’re preparing to get your MFA, check out the Post-Baccalaureate Certificate Program in Writing, which is also available online.

Non-students might be interested to learn that UC Berkeley’s CWP hosts an annual Summer Creative Writing Program, with Daniel Alarcón, Brenda Hillman, Camille Dungy, and Anthony Swofford on the faculty roster. Outside of the university, The Writing Salon has been furnishing local poets, memoirists, playwrights, fiction writers, essayists, and writers of all types with seminar-style courses in Berkeley and San Francisco since 1999.

Where to find reading material:

Moe’s Books is, according to Malcolm Margolin in his introduction to Berkeley!: A Literary Tribute (1997), “widely acknowledged to be one of the three or four great used bookstores in the nation.” With four floors of books in the heart of Telegraph, it’s impossible not to be mesmerized. Friends of the Berkeley Public Library, near Moe’s on Telegraph, is a nonprofit used bookstore that donates its proceeds to services and goings-on at the Berkeley Public Library—which is, of course, a foremost establishment for local book-borrowing. (“I’m obsessed by Time Magazine,” Allen Ginsberg confesses in his poem “America,” written in Berkeley in 1956. “I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.”) Other stores in the Telegraph area include Revolution Books—perhaps the most explicitly politically-minded out of the bookstores in town; perched directly across from the Friends of the Berkeley Public Library—and Shakespeare & Co Books, which looks and feels its age in the best way possible.

A few blocks from Telegraph on Shattuck Avenue is Pegasus Books, which opened as part of a cluster of bookstores in the East Bay in 1969; the owners operate an additional location on Solano Avenue, too. An extensive library of books published by university presses can be found at the aptly-named University Press Books on Bancroft Way. And though they’ve shuffled around over the years, Black Oak Books—founded by former Moe’s Books employees—and its wealth of volumes now sit happily on San Pablo Avenue. Half Price Books a few blocks from campus has a formidable grab bag of subjects.

On the southern side of the city can be found Dark Carnival, a shop specializing in works of science fiction and fantasy. For the agriculturally inclined, the Virginia Woolf-inspired Mrs. Dalloway’s Literary & Garden Arts hosts a dedicated section for green thumbs and botanists a brief walk south from the university on College Avenue (which runs parallel to Telegraph on its eastern side). For those with a penchant for freecycling/recycling, the Bay Area Free Book Exchange, located in Berkeley’s neighboring city of El Cerrito, is a gold mine—as is the city’s own Urban Ore, which includes a sizable collection of books and newspapers. And for those inclined toward graphic novels, The Escapist and Fantastic Comics await.

And then there’s the graveyard of the greats: Cody’s Books (another de facto Library of Alexandria that used to sit on the same block as Moe’s), Serendipity Books (an archive of rare manuscripts and hard-to-find editions; after the owner’s death, the collection was sent to auction), and Analog Books (a gritty but cozy north-of-campus literary niche).

Where to get published:

The Berkeley Poetry Review and the Berkeley Fiction Review are two campus-affiliated magazines that regularly produce issues of poetry, short stories, criticism, essays, and interviews written by students and professional writers alike. A related publication is the Cal Literature & Arts Magazine. One of the only magazines of translated writing around is the student publication Vagabond.

Administered by UC Press, the academic journal Representations publishes cultural criticism on everything from gender theory to political aesthetics. (UC Press has published a number of poetry collections through its New California Poetry series—the most recent being Cole Swensen’s Gravesend.) Reclamations is another local journal, one that focuses exclusively on analyzing issues in higher education and the UC system. There’s also the English Department’s Mixed Blood, edited by C. S. Giscombe and Margaret Rhee, a journal with an emphasis on avant-garde poetry and race. And the collaborative projects of three UC Berkeley creative writing graduates known as the ‘Lectric Collective are always of interest.

Lyn Hejinian’s Tuumba Press, founded in 1976, is based in Berkeley; Hejinian also directs Atelos Press and the online publication Floor. Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan’s Omnidawn Publishing resides in Richmond, just north of Berkeley. Watchword Press publishes a literary journal and single-author collections, while Achiote Press is noted for its catalog of transnational and cross-genre work. Sinister Wisdom is a journal with a multicultural and lesbian lean; Milvia Street Art and Literary Journal (coincidentally the street where Ginsberg lived for a time) is supported by Berkeley City College. Arts publisher Malthus Press publishes titles ranging in nature from graphic novels to narrative haiku. Wendy Lesser’s The Threepenny Review is housed here, as is the culture and religion magazine Tikkun. The free tabloid-style Poetry Flash features reviews, essays, and bulletins in its pages. Kelsey Street Press publishes innovative fiction and poetry, as do Soft Skull Press and Counterpoint Press. And there’s always North Atlantic Books (founded by Miranda July’s parents), as well as the University of Michigan-sponsored poetry and translation publisher Canarium Books. Independent poetry outfit Berkeley Neo-Baroque produces small chapbooks, including one by local author Brian Ang—who publishes his own zine, ARMED CELL. 

Berkeley is also home to a number of general-interest, commercial presses. These include Random House’s Ten Speed Press (more on the eclectic side), Carousel Press (travel editions), Wow Cool (comics and zines), Yerba Buena Press (books Native Americans in California) Dharma Publishing (Tibetan texts), Parallax Press (Buddhist resources), and Heyday Press (books specializing in California-relate topics). Sales and distribution company Publisher’s Group West operates out of Berkeley. The now-defunct Lemonade Factory, founded by the late Mark O’Brien, used to publish books of poetry by people with disabilities.

Where to write:

Though Berkeley is often seen as a dense knot of streets and buildings, the dueling backdrops of the East Bay hills and the San Francisco Bay give the concrete some good competition. The city’s diverse physical and cultural geography make for writing spots that spread from one end of the spectrum to the other. Those looking for a place to get comfortable with a new book of poetry might head into UC Berkeley’s Morrison Library, with its sofas and lounge chairs arranged beneath dark wood paneling and busts of famous thinkers. The chthonic Doe and Moffitt Libraries, along with the Gardner Main Stacks, feature cavernous collections and pristinely silent study spaces. Those seeking a place to write or work sans sound should also check out the Morrison Hall practice rooms, located on the ground floor of the building. Although they’re primarily reserved for music students, others can still access these semi-subterranean spaces that cut out the noises of bustling passerby. The central Memorial Glade consists of a field with some shade and a perspective on many campus buildings, including the Campanile, where Jack Spicer (according to Ariel Reynolds, quoted in Poet Be Like God) ate lunch every day during his time at the university.

Head down Addison Street, and from Shattuck all the way to Milvia, you’ll find 128 cast-iron plates with poems on them set into the sidewalk. This is the Berkeley Poetry Walk, curated by Robert Hass and completed in 2003—a place to find some cemented-in inspiration from poets ranging from Sappho to Gary Snyder. The university’s Sproul Plaza (and the steps of Sproul Hall, where Mario Savio gave his famous 1964 speech and the police violence of November 9, 2011 occurred) is many things, but it is never boring; find a bench there and people-watch the throngs of students and visitors. Across Bancroft Way from the university, the looming Berkeley Art Museum is a place for artistic immersion, with its stream of thought-provoking exhibits and the Babette Café. Two other cafes of note can be found on the southern side of the campus: the open-air Caffe Strada and Caffe Mediterraneum—where Aldous Huxley, Allen Ginsberg, Jerry Rubin, Jack Kerouac, and Patty Hearst were once regulars, as is the unofficial poet laureate of Berkeley, Julia Vinograd.

Other cafes of interest to writers include the Nefeli Café on Euclid, the book-filled People’s Coffee & Tea, Yali’s Café, Café Milano, The Musical Offering (a combined classical music store and eatery), Espresso Roma, Au Coquelet Cafe, Fertile Grounds Café, Caffe Intermezzo on Telegraph (which may or may not be coming back after a fire gutted its building), and the International House Café, with its bay views and Spanish Mission-style architecture. The Free Speech Movement Café on campus is of interest for its ironic commodification of the movement for which it’s named—everywhere ‘60s history is turned to kitsch—but not much else; it’s usually impossible to find a seat among the sea of studiers.

Those more inclined to the outdoors should take investigate the Berkeley Marina and its panoramas of San Francisco. In the hills behind the university, the UC Berkeley Botanical Gardens and the summit of Grizzly Peak (and Tilden Regional Park) provide fresh air and glimpses into the wilderness of the area. From nearby Lake Temescal, it’s hard to see either Oakland or Berkeley—though you can hear the freeway. The city’s public Rose Garden is home to roughly 3,000 bushes, and the Albany Bulb is a haven of public art; another spot of historical and literary interest is People’s Park, which served as the stage for some of the bloodiest Vietnam War protests in the late ‘60s.


Most of the bookstores listed above put together regular, high-quality events and reading series; check their calendars or subscribe to their email lists for more information (Poetry Flash has a popular series). The annual spring Berkeley Poetry Festival, founded by Louis Cuneo and city councilmember Kriss Worthington, will finish its first decade this year. The October Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival, co-created by Robert Hass, coincides with the Berkeley Saturday Farmers’ Market to group acoustic concerts, youth poetry contests, and poets whose works engage with issues of the ecosystem and environment. The largely San Francisco-based literary festival Litquake sometimes has events in Berkeley, but the East Bay-oriented Beast Crawl is an option for those who don’t want to cross the Bay Bridge. The Bay Area Writing Project hosts readings by locals. The East Bay Alternative Press Bookfair is a hotspot for wonderful and eccentric specialties, and the Bancroft Library frequently features exhibits, symposiums, and roundtables. Not to be missed: the Codex Foundation assembles an annual international fair devoted to handmade books and texts.

The university is also, predictably, a hotbed of literary activity. UC Berkeley’s Lunch Poems brings poets to the Morrison Library every first Thursday of the month, and Story Hour—its prose equivalent—brings fiction writers every second Thursday. The English Department’s Holloway Series in Poetry gives students and faculty exposure to more great writers; these include the university’s Holloway Lecturer in Poetry and guests like Claudia Rankine and John Taggart. The Pacific Film Archive shows avant-garde and cross-genre work. Those intrigued by the intersection of sound, text, and performance should check the calendars of the university’s Zellerbach Hall and the Berkeley Repertory Theater. The Chernin Mentoring Program, linked above, and many of the aforementioned magazines also sponsor reading series and events.

Berkeley City College English teacher Tomas Moniz (also the publisher of the award-winning zine Rad Dad) curates the downtown reading series Lyrics & Dirges. The Nefeli Café has, in the past, hosted a series titled The Last Word, which may still be in continuance. Also, don’t pass up the Berkeley Art Museum’s RE@DS series if you can help it—the museum’s community/collaborative book space (where all manner of books from local presses are stocked) is awesome, as are the readings themselves. Small Press Distribution, located at 1341 Seventh Street, hosts an annual open house with featured readers. Writing Without Walls at Subterranean is another monthly reading series that corrals six writers into live interaction, and the Studio One Reading Series in Oakland introduces contemporary writers of disparate backgrounds and approaches.

Next post: July 30 | Asheville, North Carolina …

BIO: Andrew David King’s first chapbook, The Forever Thirst, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. A student at UC Berkeley and the new Editor-in-Chief of the Berkeley Poetry Review, he was a fellow at Bucknell University’s Seminar for Younger Poets this June. His poems, essays, and commentaries have appeared in The Rumpus, San Francisco Chronicle, Spillway, and Poetry, among other places. Right now, he blogs for The Kenyon Review, reviews for the SF-based journal ZYZZYVA, and edits the collaborative zine vessel+velocity. In his free time, he stimulates the local economy (used books, ice cream sandwiches) on Telegraph.

Photo Credits:

  • A mural near Telegraph Avenue depicting the Vietnam War protests—IAN RANSLEY DESIGN + ILLUSTRATION (Flickr/Creative Commons)
  • The intersection of Shattuck and Addison—Sharon Hahn Darlin (Flickr/Creative Commons)
  • Sather Gate c. early 1900s—California Magazine
  • Caffe Mediterraneum at night—Sharon Hahn Darlin (Flickr/Creative Commons)
  • Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg—orionpozo (Flickr/Creative Commons)
  • A map of the residences of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Spicer et al. put together by the author using Google Maps.
  • The Berkeley campus as seen from Grizzly Peak—gimpbully
    (Flickr/Creative Commons)
  • The intersection of Telegraph and Bancroft; the southern edge of the
    Berkeley campus—Malcolm Tredinnick (Flickr/Creative Commons)
  • Sproul Plaza and Sproul Hall—prayitno (Flickr/Creative Commons)
  • Author photo by the author

Posts are by no means exhaustive and we encourage our readers to contribute in the comment section!

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