Draw a Bigger Circle: Q&A with Joyce Jenkins

Meryl Natchez

To anyone in touch with the Bay Area literary scene, the publication Poetry Flash is part of the furniture—comfortable, essential, taken for granted. Its small office on Fourth Street in Berkeley is crammed with books, journals, and broadsides—a crush of continually incoming poetry, reviews, and fiction managed by Joyce Jenkins. She is the force behind this literary nexus, and  has been dedicated to the Bay Area poetry world since the early ’70s, working daily to serve that community and advocate for the arts in general.

This interview describes her history with Poetry Flash and how the non-profit organization has grown over the years.

ZYZZYVA: How did you get involved with Poetry Flash?

Joyce Jenkins: Poetry Flash started in 1972, the brain-child of Creative Writing graduate students at San Francisco State University. One of them, Jon Ford, had taken a trip to London and seen their Time Out, a publication of theater events and reviews easily available in the theater scene, and thought it would be great to have a one-page broadsheet of poetry events. He called it Poetry Flash, with André Breton’s “Poetry is the heart of liberty,” as the tag line. It had two or three poetry events listed and a couple of two-line reviews—very snarky, humorous reviews. That just kept going in San Francisco—they distributed it at City Lights, and at Cody’s in Berkeley, and other bookstores.

I moved to California in the mid-Seventies, and started working on the San Francisco International Poetry Festival. In 1977, I wrote a grant, put that on at the Palace of Fine Arts in 1978. I got $20,000 to present the festival, one of the first grants from the newly formed California Arts Council, and later got funding from the San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund. We formed a coalition of bookstores and poetry centers, City Lights Books, Cody’s Books, Intersection for the Arts, The Poetry Center at SFSU, University of San Francisco, and Poetry Flash, which I wasn’t involved in then. [The festival] was really Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s idea; he conceived of it as a sort of international poetry Carnegie Hall in San Francisco. I think Neeli Cherkovski and others had put it on before, but this was a big expansion. Jack Hirschman, of course, organized a later, more recent version of an international poetry festival in San Francisco.

So I presented that with a group of others in 1978, and in the fall of 1978 Jon Ford and the others who published Poetry Flash at that time owed $75 to the printer, and they were mad and weren’t going to pay it—some kind of dispute with the printer. I went to a meeting about it at Jon’s house. At that time, in that environment, I knew they weren’t going to turn it over to a woman, especially a young woman, but I went and I listened and went home. They passed the baton to Steve Abbott, who was a wonderful poet and writer, very edgy. As soon as I got home, Steve knocked on my door and said, “Please help me!”

Z: What were you doing at the time to support yourself?

JJ: I had a full-time job at Cody’s Books. I was the poetry buyer, reading coordinator, priced foreign language books, did bookkeeping, did window displays, managed publisher-sponsored book parties—so many wonderful people presented there, Buckminster Fuller, Allen Ginsberg, Harold Brodkey, Alice Walker in the early days, just so many amazing events.

Z: I remember Fred Cody telling me that his store sold as much poetry as it did science fiction.

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JJ: That’s true, he was very proud of that—maybe the only bookstore that could say that. Anyway, I started working on Poetry Flash in late 1978—November and December.

Z: Tell me about the early days. How did Poetry Flash evolve?

JJ: In the beginning, Steve Abbott was the editor-in-chief and I did everything else. He wrote a column at first (as I did later for over thirty years), and I did the mechanical for the printer, wrote the connective tissue, put it all together. But it became too much for him. He had his own literary magazine called Soup, and it was just more than he could manage—he wasn’t interested in copyediting or choosing what to publish, so I just started doing it. We worked together really well. I really liked him. He died of AIDS in 1992. Nightboat just published a collection of his work, Beautiful Aliens: A Steve Abbott Reader.

At that time, Poetry Flash was put together in the basement of a mom-and-pop print shop. One of the owners was a sculptor, and he took on the position of publisher of Poetry Flash, because of the outstanding $75 debt; that was one of the conditions of Steve and me coming on. But as Poetry Flash grew, it began to overwhelm the print shop. At one point, a miffed poet who hadn’t been included staged a sit-in at the print shop, and that was the final straw.

Steve and I met with the publisher, who was concerned about my being a woman and taking over as editor and publisher—this was 1980, a different era. Steve thought that was ridiculous; he just stared the guy down. A perfectly nice guy, he just didn’t see how a little hippie girl could do this. But I was pretty fierce, and finally he gave in.

Poetry Flash kept getting bigger and bigger, because we kept getting more events, and we included more editorial content. We just had so much good content to share, and people began to see us as the place to announce and report on poetry events. In 1983, I changed it to tabloid format from bookstock. We were doing it on bookstock and hand collating the pages. At that time, the circulation was 6,500, so it took hours and hours, and hand-mailing them—it just became impossible. With tabloid, it could be printed and collated and folded automatically, by machine. It became more and more a work of literary journalism. Alastair Johnston, the typographer, helped me create a design, and the artist Frances Butler did the calligraphy for the title. She used to say, “If I had known you were going to hang around, I’d have done a better job.”

As a newspaper, it just grew. I published over 300 editions of Poetry Flash, and it had a circulation of 22,000. At one time I know it was the biggest literary publication in the country.

We started a website in 1999, under a fair amount of pressure to prove that we were with it. Other than the calendar, the content on the website was different than it was in the print magazine, so we were publishing two different versions at the same time. We stopped doing the print publication in 2010, purely for financial reasons. That was a result of the 2008 crash, when sources of literary funding dried up.

We put even more energy into our other projects, which we kept going over the years, and did the best job we could online. In fact, the Poetryflash.org site has much more content than we could possibly print in a newspaper. It’s just that people have a different reaction to what they read online as opposed to print; but we do publish much more content now, and I don’t think we’ve compromised on quality.

Z: Tell me about the other events.

JJ: As far as events go, we took over the poetry reading series at Cody’s Books in 1982, at that time was curated by Alan Soldofsky, Jana Harris, and Susan Lurie, who was running the Berkeley Women’s Center Writers’ Workshop. And of course that’s grown, and we now do three, sometimes four readings a month at Moe’s Books in Berkeley and at East Bay Booksellers in Oakland.

We’ve never been just a publication. The mission has always been inclusive, to support and nourish the arts. To “draw a bigger circle,” as Dorothy Allison used to say. All through the years we have done a huge amount of advocacy for the arts. At the national level, when Newt Gingrich was threatening the National Endowment for the Arts, we got a booth at the American Booksellers Association Convention (now BookExpo) and passed out buttons that said “Words Work” and “Save the NEA,” and Jane Alexander, who was the director of the NEA at the time, gave a speech thanking writers for doing so much to save the NEA. The only category that still had fellowships was literature, because so many writers had worked so hard to save it.

I’m a member of the Berkeley Cultural Trust; we meet regularly with the city council and the mayor and advocate for arts funding in Berkeley. We have had some success in increasing arts funding. We support emerging literary arts organizations and projects that don’t have their own nonprofit status; this includes advising them, helping with grant writing. And we help with projects like the Ferlinghetti documentarty, Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder. We also sponsor Left Margin Lit with its wonderful courses in Berkeley.

We also worked to get better communication on literary events between Southern and Northern California. We got a challenge grant from the NEA in the early ’90s to broaden Poetry Flash coverage to include Southern California, took on the distribution list of a similar publication for Southern California, and went to L.A. a lot to get the communication flowing.

We manage the Northern California Book Awards each year, and the Watershed Environmental Literary Festival, which just had its twenty-fourth anniversary, both of which take a lot of time and energy.

Z: And by “we,” it’s really you, Joyce.

JJ: Well, mostly, of course Richard Silberg comes in three times a week, and he reads all the books and does wonderful introductions for the poets at the readings. But the administrative work, the grant writing, etc., the content writing and management, yes, mostly me. We have interns who come and go, and that helps.

Z: And funding?

JJ: Poetry Flash is funded by donations and grants—in the current climate this has become more difficult, with many foundations focusing on the very important aspects of social justice and equity—they don’t really understand the role of poetry in that struggle.

Z: Nonetheless, it seems like you love what you do.

JJ: I deeply love my work, and I feel it is the right thing to do, and of use to the world.

Meryl Natchez’ most recent book is a bilingual volume of translations from the Russian: Poems From the Stray Dog Café: Akhmatova, Mandelstam and Gumilev. She is co-translator of Tadeusz Borowski: Selected Poems. Her book of poems, Jade Suit, appeared in 2001, and her new book, Catwalk, is forthcoming from Longship Press in spring 2020.

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