Saturday’s poetry reading to benefit the Safe House Education College Fund was an event rich in unique experiences. At the Unitarian Universalist Church in Berkeley, the poetry-filled minutes just as easily turned into an impromptu dance contest. The night began with enthusiasm, even without warmth to comfort the crowd. As founder Kim Rosen insisted, the “heartbeat of poetry” was enough to keep the audience warm.
The SHE College Fund works to provide young girls in Narok, Kenya with higher education opportunities as well as to end oppressive cycles such as child marriage and female genital mutilation. The organization aims to provide tuition and accommodation to support learning opportunities for these girls.
Led by Rosen, the SHE Fund poetry reading benefit event was a tribute to the poetry that sparked the movement. At the start of the event, Rosen revealed her inspiration for what would become the SHE Fund, recounting visiting underprivileged young girls while on a trip to Africa. When the girls asked Rosen to sing, Rosen instead recited the poem “The Journey” by Mary Oliver. Inspired by the tears that filled girls’ eyes due to the relatability of the poem, Rosen set out to create an organization that would benefit girls seeking a better life.
The fundraising event showcased a range of poetic styles. Marie Howe’s soothing voice and sexually explicit poetry started the evening. When she spoke it was casual, almost like she was having a conversation with the audience instead of performing in front of a crowd. That conversational tone continued when Howe revealed that she was the one who invited Rosen on the trip that eventually launched the SHE Fund.
The work Howe selected for the night was shamelessly obscene. Her work thinking about the characteristics of the penises that come into her life was definitely a highlight. Lines like “A penis was big and thick. And when he put it inside me, I said, ‘Wow!’ ” almost felt out of place, perhaps because the event was taking place in a church. It was nonetheless entertaining – quirky and pleasantly honest. After these erotic details came Howe’s deliberations on religion, the relationships and mortality. She even confessed to the audience her uncertainty about which pieces to read, and her desire to change everything at the last minute. Overall, Howe’s reading explored a variety of poetic genres.
The next poet, Jane Hirshfield, explained why she chose each of her pieces. Hirshfield mentioned choosing a certain poem because she imagined young Maasai girls experiencing similar emotions to those depicted in the poem as they searched for a safe space to go. She had the most diverse range of bits of the night, from analyzing the intricacies of an artichoke to discussing climate change and the Donald Trump administration.
Before the final poet of the evening, Rosen returned to the stage with music videos of women who have benefited from the SHE Fund, sparking a cheery response from the crowd as audience members began dancing to the sound of beating drums.
While the poets who came before Ellen Bass were undoubtedly honest about their experiences, Bass was able to bring a vulnerability to the scene that struck particularly close to home. She joked about the enthusiastic audience humming in tandem with the poets’ words. She bared her soul with her detailed depiction of the grotesque aspects of birth, and even brought to light her dismay at the state of her relationship with her husband. The crowd responded enthusiastically every time she spoke, but Bass’ voice never deviated from its soothing qualities. His poetry was poignant while remaining humorous.
As the poets adorned themselves in traditional Maasai jewelry after the end of the poetry reading, the crowd buzzed, bursting with energy despite the chill of the night thanks to the multifaceted elements of the event that the SHE Fund was able to set up. . Although awkward in some of its moments, the event still managed to inspire audiences to come together, interweaving a variety of cultures and artistic mediums.
Contact Kelly Nguyen at [email protected].