For at least 40 years the poet Julia Vinograd — “the poet laureate of Telegraph Avenue” — was synonymous with Telegraph Avenue. She was a constant daily presence on the Ave. But when I just now spotted her today on the corner of Durant & Tele, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen her up here in a long time.
I couldn’t help wondering what it had all meant to her. All the years on Telegraph. And what, if anything, it had added up to.
Julia’s picture is on at least four different murals on Telegraph. So ubiquitous was her presence on the scene.
Julia Vinograd put out a new book of poetry just about every year for nearly 50 years. And my pal Duncan collected nearly all of them. And when he died I inherited the collection. Well over 50 of them.
But it’s not something I’d read for pleasure. They’re a little too light and cutesy for my tastes (though there are a handful of her poems that I think are really great). I like my art a little grittier. And there was virtually no development over the years. It was the same thing every year, with a slightly different-looking cover. Me and Duncan used to joke that she could probably re-publish the same collection of poems every year with a new cover and almost nobody would notice.
But that really wasn’t the point. The literary merits of her poetry. Julia Vinograd was a Berkeley Telegraph icon. Like the Golden Gate Bridge and the cable cars were San Francisco icons. And people bought her books more as tourist mementos — like a “GREETINGS FROM BERKELEY” postcard — than as a work of literature.
Her personality was an odd dichotomy. The public Julia Vinograd — as presented in her poems — was usually light-hearted, playful, care-free, zany, amused. While in person she usually came across as more than a bit standoff-ish, self-absorbed, curmudgeonly and even grouchy (“Julia Stalingrad” as Aaron Cometbus dubbed her, ha ha).
I remember one time she was talking to Duncan about something at our vending table, sort of grousing about it. When a reporter showed up who wanted to interview me and Duncan for a story he was doing on Telegraph. Instantly Julia’s whole demeanor changed as she talked to the reporter. And she transformed herself into the light-hearted, whimsical Julia Vinograd as advertised. Launched into the story she must have told a thousand times over the years about how the National Guard and the police all had their weapons drawn at some tense demonstration in the 1960s. And she was inspired to blow bubbles — which would become her trademark over the years — to lighten up the situation and add a touch of magic to the scene, and how even the cops — the Blue Meanies — were won over and started blowing bubbles and playing around with her bubble blower.