The Safe House Education College Fund’s benefit poetry reading Saturday was an event engrossed with unique experiences. At the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, the minutes filled with poetry just as easily turned into an impromptu dance contest. The night began enthusiastically, even without heat to comfort the crowd. As founder Kim Rosen insisted, the “heartbeat of the poetry” was enough to keep the audience warm.
The S.H.E. College Fund works to provide young girls in Narok, Kenya with higher education opportunities as well to stop oppressive cycles such as child marriage and female genital mutilation. The organization aims to provide tuition and housing to further these girls’ learning opportunities.
Led by Rosen, the S.H.E. Fund’s benefit poetry reading event was an homage to the poetry that ignited the movement. At the beginning of the event, Rosen revealed her inspiration for what would eventually become the S.H.E. Fund, recounting visiting disadvantaged young girls 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 filling the girls’ eyes due to the poem’s relatability, Rosen set out to create an organization that would benefit girls seeking better lives.
The fundraising event showcased a range of poetic styles. Marie Howe’s soothing voice and sexually explicit poetry started off the night. When she spoke, it was casual, almost as if she was having a conversation with the audience instead of performing to a crowd. This conversational tone continued as Howe revealed she was the one who invited Rosen on the trip that eventually jump-started the S.H.E. Fund.
The work Howe selected for the night was unabashedly obscene. Her work ruminating on the characteristics of the penises that come into her life was definitely a highlight. Lines such as “One penis was large and thick. And when he put it in me, I said, ‘Wow!’ ” almost felt out of place, perhaps because the event was taking place at a church. It was entertaining nonetheless — quirky and pleasantly honest. After these erotic details came Howe’s deliberations on religion, relationships and mortality. She even admitted to the audience her uncertainty in selecting which pieces to read, and her desire to change everything at the last minute. As a whole, Howe’s reading explored a variety of poetic genres.
The next poet, Jane Hirshfield, gave an explanation about why she selected each of her pieces. Hirshfield mentioned choosing a certain poem because she imagined young Maasai girls experiencing similar emotions to those the poem depicted as they searched for a safe space to go to. She had the most diverse range of pieces of the night, moving from analyzing the complexities of an artichoke to discussing climate change and the Donald Trump administration.
Before the last poet of the night, Rosen returned to the stage with video clips of women who have benefited from the S.H.E. Fund, igniting a joyous response from the crowd as audience members began to dance to the sound of pounding drums.
While the poets that preceded Ellen Bass were undoubtedly honest about their experiences, Bass was able to bring a vulnerability to the stage that hit especially close to home. She joked about the enthusiastic audience humming in tandem with the poets’ words. She laid her soul bare with her detailed description of the grotesque aspects of birth, and even brought to light her dismay with the state of her relationship with her husband. The crowd responded enthusiastically every time she spoke, but Bass’s voice never wavered from its soothing qualities. Her poetry was poignant while still remaining humorous.
While the poets were adorned with traditional Maasai jewelry after the poetry reading ended, the crowd buzzed about, ablaze with energy despite the chill of the night thanks to multifaceted elements of the event that the S.H.E. Fund was able to put together. Although awkward in some of its moments, the event still managed to inspire the audience to come together, intertwining a variety of cultures and mediums of art.