By Francesca Paris
Poetry Flash, a Berkeley-based poetry magazine established in 1972, faces a threat to its existence from a rent hike that could be as high as 27%.
According to editor and publisher Joyce Jenkins, the landlord has sent her a letter stating that he intends to charge “market rate” and increase rent as much as $600 per month. Jenkins has not yet received final details about what the rent will be.
Poetry Flash has been based out of the same work-live space at 1450 Fourth St. (between Page and Jones streets) since 1991. Though the rent has gone up every year, (the space is not rent-controlled) this is the most drastic increase ever. The space is home to Jenkins and to an immeasurable collection of books and signed poems that fill every inch of space, even the bathroom.
“We don’t want to leave, and we’ll do whatever we can,” said Jenkins. “This is a huge challenge, and if we’re not quick and smart it could do us in.”
The rent hike comes at a particularly challenging moment for Poetry Flash and for Jenkins personally, with the December 2014 passing of Mark Baldridge, Jenkin’s husband and Poetry Flash’s board chair and development director. Baldridge was in charge of advertising and grant writing, and he directed the magazine’s annual Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival
“He was indispensable and indefatigable,” said Jenkins, “and he’s very much missed in so many ways. To meet this challenge without him is tough.”
Poetry Flash was founded by two creative writing students at San Francisco State University in 1972. The first couple of issues, Jenkins said, had only a handful of events listed and a couple of short reviews. In 1978, when poet Steve Abbott took over the magazine, he asked Jenkins to help out, and she pulled current associate editor Richard Silberg in with her.
“Joyce took a small mimeo sheet and turned it into a 48-page publication,” said Silberg.
Malcolm Margolin, founder of Heyday and a longtime Poetry Flash fan, remembers the early days of Poetry Flash and the atmosphere that pervaded Berkeley at the time. What drew him and others to Berkeley then, he said, were the low rents: “Poetry Flash grew up at a time when there was a marvelous flourishing of small presses.”
Sharon Coleman, a professor at Berkeley City College and a Poetry Flash contributor, said that at the time the magazine moved into its Fourth Street space, the planning department had offered some incentives. It made sense to live in a work-live place, even without rent control, said Coleman. Today, however, the situation is different, as rising rents and increased development threatens artists.
“There is a lot of new development, to the detriment of the artists, innovators and people who have made Berkeley what it is,” she said.
Jenkins said that finding affordable living and working space is a challenge for artists in Berkeley, and she is not sure where she and Poetry Flash would move if evicted.
In addition to running the Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival, Poetry Flash also sponsors and hosts the Northern California Book Awards and the Northern California Book Reviewers, as well as long-running reading series at both Moe’s Books and Diesel Books. Silberg said that those events characterize “the Flash,” which is dedicated to creating a community through literature.
Margolin pointed out that since it is so noncommercial, poetry can say things that the main press can not. At Poetry Flash, “you have people that know poetry with a profundity and a depth of feeling, and that’s irreplaceable.”
Supporter and contributor Dawn Michelle-Baude sent an email to readers that said Poetry Flash is counting on individual donations to help make its August rent, after which it will launch an online crowd-funding campaign to keep Poetry Flash in its current location until it can secure grant money. Poetry Flash is accepting donations online at poetryflash.org.
Poetry Flash has faced – and come through –financial challenges before. In 2010, the recession prompted Jenkins to stop printing the magazine after 300 issues and convert Poetry Flash to an exclusively online publication. Though that decision was painful, this financial obstacle is more daunting because a solution is not as clear as it was in 2010, she said.
“It’s been very challenging to run Poetry Flash all along,” Jenkins said. “We’ve always tried to get more support than people thought existed for literary organizations. We’ve always pushed the envelope. We’ve done things people weren’t supposed to be able to do.”
The man behind the Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival (01.09.15)
Francesca Paris, a summer 2015 reporting intern at Berkeleyside, is a sophomore at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
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