Reliving Poetry's Heyday 

Laureates line up for Valentine's Day poetry benefit.

During the '70s, when he was the Bay Area's most popular FM-radio personality, Wes "Scoop" Nisker's trademark challenge was: "If you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own." He's a Buddhist sage, a meditation teacher, an author, and a comic. And a poetry fan? Heck yes. "I came to the Bay Area partly because of poetry, after reading Kenneth Rexroth, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gary Snyder," says Nisker, who will emcee "Hearts Gathering: Poets, Laureates, and Music for Valentine's Day," a benefit for KPFA and Poetry Flash, in the King Middle School Auditorium (1781 Rose St., Berkeley) on February 14 ($15 - $20). The event's headliners include U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, California Poet Laureate Carol Muske-Dukes, jazz bassist Dan Robbins, and local literary legends Diane DiPrima and Michael McClure.

Nisker, whose new comic monologue "Crazy Wisdom Saves the World Again" is available on DVD through his web site, remembers when "poetry was a vibrant and public affair:" when, well into the '70s, poetry readings were major events. Back then, "poetry was sharing the stage with rock 'n' roll, offering messages of freedom and defiance. Who can forget Allen Ginsberg onstage with his harmonium, chanting 'om' and singing out his incantations against war and injustice?" With its impressive roster of icons, "Hearts Gathering" harks back to the Bay Area's beat heyday, that postwar, pre-'60s era "when poetry began to come out of the academic closet and into the streets," Nisker remembers: That's when poetry "came off the page and found its literal 'voice,' becoming a spoken, public experience." Since then, like much of what once counted as counterculture, poetry has branched out to reach specialized niches. Nisker cites hip-hop as well as "astoundingly popular poets like Mary Oliver and Billy Collins touching the hearts of the liberal intelligensia. And in the Buddhist and yoga circles I travel in, you've got the great mystic poets like Rumi, Hafiz, and Kabir being quoted profusely. So poetry is still alive and well across the land, because it is so necessary — especially in difficult times — to hear the deep, eternal verities as well as the hard truths." And these days, hard truths abound.

"These are difficult economic times for everyone," Nisker acknowledges, "but most writers and artists are used to some level of poverty. If your motivation for creating art is to offer your insights and help diminish the world's suffering, then these times are rife with opportunity." Petitions, he points out, are "being circulated to request that President Obama start an agency dedicated to supporting the arts, which I think is a grand idea. I personally have been advocating for a Department of Wisdom, which would be staffed by poets, philosophers, anthropologists, historians, maybe a few mystics and jesters. ... We need some 'right brain' thinking inserted into the predominately 'left brain' government, to achieve a real balance of power." 8 p.m.


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