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Supporters of the arts come out to enjoy the Writers Harvest

Photo by Halie Johnson

Last Friday poets and writers gathered to help raise money to end hunger at Mills' annual Writers Harvest.

The proceeds from Writers Harvest – an annual literary event put on by the Place for Writers and the English department – went directly to Alameda County Community Food Bank.

The organization provides nutritious meals to 120,000 people each month in Alameda County through 300 community-based organizations. Last year, the event raised $1,580 dollars. This year, the group hoped to raise $2,000.

The featured poets of the evening were Ruth Forman and David Mura. Forman is a former teacher in the Poetry for the People program at UC Berkeley. Her second collection of poetry, Renaissance (Beacon Press, 1997), was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Mura is a poet, memoirist, critic, playwright and performance artist. His first collection of poetry, After We Lost Our Way (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1989) won the 1989 National Poetry Series Contest.

The Conspiracy of Beards, an all-male, San Francisco based a capella choir that exclusively performs songs written by Leonard Cohen, also performed. All performers volunteered their time to help the cause.

"This is a really excellent event. It brings a different set of people, educates them on issues of hunger. We can't forget that hunger is an issue in our backyard as well," said Kassandra Kaplanes, events coordinator for Alameda County Community Food Bank.

English professor Elmaz Abinader created Writers Harvest in 1993. This year's event was organized by MFA student Carly Anne West and staffed by volunteers.

"Writers Harvest is more important than ever. It's not only the visible hungry in Alameda county that we're concerned about, but the invisible hungry," said Abinader. Past readers include Gail Tsukiyama, Tobias Wolff, Ishmael Reed and Dave Eggers.

For a television character that David Mura performed in his poem, he used a pair of glasses propped on the tip of his nose and took the accent of an eccentric television personality learning English.

The character was an amplified, distorted example of a Chinese stereotype. Before he began, he moved a second microphone closer.

The audience chuckled when Mura said, "I'll teach you how to be a stereotype." At the second microphone, he sat on the stage and took the posture of an educated critic.

Using performance and disguise, Mura illustrated his poems. He used his movement between two places on the stage to create a dialogue between the characters and between the reality of the television character and the critic.

Mura's manipulation of physical space worked to convey a distance in identity. Many of his pieces dealt with identity as a third-generation Japanese American.

Mura also used humor to satirize a ridiculous fear of Asian women that date white men. The character was so frightened that he considered not going to coffee shops anymore.

"He took the stage, commanded everyone's attention and literally made me sit straight up in my chair," said Alison Peters, a second year MFA non-fiction student in her introduction of Mura.

Author and poet Forman also dealt with themes of race and identity, yet her presentation was quite different. The language she used in her work was more subtle and more grounded in emotion.

Her reading was less of a performance, not relying on props or characters. The low volume of Forman's voice drew attention; the audience had to be silent to grasp her work.

"Her soft voice cushions the harsh reality of her words," introduced Robyn Brooks, an MFA in poetry.

Forman's voice would sometimes drop to a whisper, yet in the quiet hall she could still be heard.

"If you cannot find your tongue, do not look for it," Forman read Renaissance.

In the lobby, volunteer students dressed in black served Heineken and fudge to attendees. Members of the Conspiracy of Beards stood out of the crowd with their multi-colored ties, top hats and old suits.

When asked whether all of the members of the Conspiracy of Beards had facial hair, one singer who only went by "Bob" said, "We do. They come and go."

As a finale, 18 singers with the Conspiracy of Beards took the stage en masse. The group has been around for "a couple of years, a lot of incarnations," said Daryl Henline, the group's teacher and conductor. The group started out with six men and has grown to 30.

"They were fantastic. I would see them again," said Elizabeth Andersen, an MFA student, of the Conspiracy's performance.