Berkeley Poetry Readings
An Interview with Dan & Dale Zola
About The Great Night of Soul Poetry

Q: What is The Great Night of Soul Poetry? What happens there?

Dale: The Great Night of Soul Poetry is a unique spoken word event which combines elements of theatre, improvised music, and poetry. Poems are presented by members of a wildly talented group of performers. Each performance is backed up by differing combinations of four awesome musicians who play a wide range of western and eastern instruments.  The poems are powerful, deep, beautiful, accessible, intelligent, and often funny. All the poems are presented from memory, which creates an intimacy between the presenter and the audience.  There is no book or piece of paper to get between them.

Q: How do you choose the poems that will be included in The Great Night of Soul Poetry?

Dale: Let's start with what we don't like in any performance.  We both hate to be annoyed or bored so poems of this sort get the axe.  We don't have much interest in obscure or sentimental poems, so those are excluded too. Neither of us cares for pretension or preciousness, so those don't make the cut either. 

We love performances that make us both laugh and cry.  Our evenings of poetry contain a wide variety of poems, so we never settle into one groove.  A startling, thought-provoking poem is followed by a poem with a lyric, melancholic mood, which is in turn followed by a laugh-out-loud funny poem. 

We look for poems that skillfully use language to create images, insights, or ideas that open the heart and make the world a more lively and wonderful place.  When such poems are experienced as a group, something magical happens and an ephemeral community of like minded souls is created.

Q: Where did you get the term soul poetry?

Dan:  I heard Robert Bly use it once or twice at a Men's Conference in the 80's. I haven't heard him or anyone else use it since but it stuck with me.

Q: What makes a poem a “soul poem?”

Dan:  I think of soul as that place where the sacred meets the secular. I first heard the word soul in the sixties in relation to music. Remember soul music? I just loved performers like Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, James Brown and so many others in that style. What they had in common was that they had sung in the black churches and had moved on to singing about worldly matters like love, sex, money and the like.  The music expressed an intensity of feeling that was more than worldly, yet stayed grounded in worldly affairs. It had a depth and richness that I found addictive.

I still love that music and I look for that soulful quality in any art; that is what I look for in the poems we choose for The Great Night of Soul Poetry.

I was lucky enough to study with Jungian psychologist James Hillman who has spent a lifetime working with the idea of soul. One thing that I took from him was his distinction between spirit which longs to transcend this veil of tears, this mundane world, and soul which moves deeper and deeper into the world, valuing the things and experiences of the world. Words associated with spirit might be “moving above” while words characterizing soul might be “going deeper”.

And don't forget “soul food” - an art of creative and culinary genius which creates food which nourishes one out of scraps and leftovers.

I feel drawn to poetry which expresses this perspective of soul because it honors and ennobles our human strivings and is usually full of life.

And let's not even get into the definition of poetry.

Q: Who are some poets that you include in The Great Night of Soul Poetry?

Dan: We tend to favor contemporary poetry, so we start with the “usual suspects” of the contemporary poetry world like Billy Collins, Galway Kinnell, Gary Snyder, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Bishop, Jane Kenyon and Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska. We go back a little in time for poets like D.H. Lawrence, Carl Sandburg, W.B. Yeats and Antonio Machado.  We have gone as far back as Philoctites.

When we are digging around for poems to present sometimes we find them in unlikely places. A column by S.F. Chronicle writer Jon Carroll sounded like a poem to us because of its humor and sharp writing and will be in the program. At our friend Clydene Von Koss' memorial service, we found a poem that she had written many years ago. We were deeply moved and have included it. On a CD of beat poetry, we found a piece by hipster lyricist and musician Bob Dorough which is a unique vision of San Francisco in the late fifties. I have not been able to find it in print, only on CD.  Le Pham Le will present a poem she has written in the original Vietnamese and English translation.

Sometimes poems become songs. Kirsten Falke will sing two songs that are settings of poems by James Joyce and Shakespeare which Dale has set to music. This year there will be a poem by Lisa Prosek based on Leonardo Da Vinci's notebooks which will be both spoken and sung in the Italian and English.

Q: Who would like The Great Night of Soul Poetry?

Dale: Just about everyone. All the poems are accessible although by no means “dumbed down”.  We have a truly inspired group of presenters, any of which could headline his or her one person show. Combined with the music of flute, sax, oud, tabla and accordion the poems come alive.

Sometimes people have been dragged to our poetry nights and they come away happy that they attended. I remember one young man, who was an aspiring rap artist whose girl friend made him come to a Great Night. He had never before heard poetry presented like this. He loved it.

Anyone who loves language or even speaks a language would love this event.

Q: What is your background?

Dale: I am a music teacher specializing in teaching solfege which is the language of music. I love to sing and to teach singing especially to those learning to carry a tune. I sing the songs from The Great American Songbook, the songs of Gershwin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen and more in retirement homes and senior centers. I am a songwriter and have recorded several CDs. My latest is The Breeze at Dawn: Poems of Rumi in Song. My current passion is learning to play string bass.

Dan: I am a gardener with EBMUD, the East Bay Water Company. I have been with them for 21 years. I am studying the work of contemporary philosopher, Rene Girard. I love to sing and have the pleasure of singing with Dale at the senior centers.

Q: How many years have you been doing this?

Dan: About 20 years ago, we started having poetry salons in our home and attending poetry salons at friend's homes. We just loved hearing poetry spoken aloud from memory or as the expression goes, by heart. Twelve years ago we went public and started producing evenings of the poetry of Jelaluddin Rumi. We branched out from there and started producing evenings of all the other poets that we love. This is our fifth year at The Freight and Salvage in Berkeley producing The Great Night of Soul Poetry. It still surprises and delights me how much interest there is in spoken poetry.

Q: Any final thoughts?

Dan:  Sometimes I think our slogan should be “Poetry…honest, it's not as bad as you think.”

The Great Night of Soul Poetry is August 26, 8pm at The Freight and Salvage in Berkeley . More info at or .

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