By J. Ruth Gendler
A few years ago, Berkeley ceramic artist Susan Felix invited her wide circle of friends to write poems for her — both well-known writers and people who never had written poems before. Some of the poets, like former California Poet Laureate Al Young, appreciated the assignment, while others, such as poets David Shaddock and Susan Griffin, initially expressed doubt that one could write a poem on request. Yet her friends, inspired by Felix’s generous nature, creative life and service, honored her invitation, making poems celebrating Felix’s resilience, artistry and spirit.
Felix, a ceramic artist and the City of Berkeley’s art ambassador, was so touched by the 30 or so poems that she received that she created a book, Stay Amazed, published by Poetry Flash Flyers. (That’s also the phrase Felix uses to sign off her emails. )
Published in the summer of 2014, the project has taken on a life of its own to include poetry readings in Berkeley and Portland. The next reading — a benefit for Poetry Flash, the literary magazine and website founded in Berkeley in 1972 — will be at Café Leila at 1724 San Pablo Ave. on Jan. 14 at 7 p.m. Readers include Cheselyn Amato, Toby Furash, Rafael Jesus Gonzalez, Elizheva Hurvich, Joyce Jenkins, Jahan Khalighi, Kirk Lumpkin, Claire Ortalda, Jeanne Powell, Floyd Salas, David Shaddock, Leah Shelleda, and John Oliver Simon.
Here’s the backstory of how this book came into being.
After being married for nearly 55 years, Felix missed her husband Morton terribly after he died in 2012. Susan and Morton were a very lively couple. Susan, sunny and enthusiastic, is known for attending art openings, peace demonstrations, and getting up to lead dancing at religious services. Morton, a psychologist and writer, was more reserved and curmudgeonly. Their romance began in New York as students at Queens College.
Susan read and loved Morton’s poems in the college literary journal before she even met him. She was reluctant to meet him “in case she liked his work more than him.” But that was not the case. Throughout their years together, on birthdays and anniversaries, Morton penned many love poems to “his bride.”
After Morton died, Felix told her friends that she missed receiving poems from Morton. He used to pen them for birthdays and anniversaries, or just because he felt like it. So, when friends offered support, Felix was very specific. She asked for them to write poems to her, a request that might strike some as audacious. Instead, it has proved to be a catalyst for creativity and community. (Full disclosure: I am a friend of Susan’s and I contributed a poem to Stay Amazed.) Susan has reminded us that poetry can be a gift and an act of friendship, a balm, a comfort and a celebration.
Rooted in such a love story, how could Stay Amazed be anything but a book of love poems? In addition to the 30 poems from writers such as Anita Barrows, Chana Bloch, Rafael Jesus Gonzalez, Jonathan Lethem, and John Oliver Simon, the book includes poems from Susan’s daughter, the writer Lisa Felix-Smartt, and Susan’s late husband, Morton Felix.
The poems gathered in Stay Amazed offer windows into many different aspects of Susan’s life as an artist, seeker, and activist. Susan has been a ceramic artist for 55 years, with pieces in the permanent collection of several museums including, locally, the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life. Her pit-fired works, ceremonial vessels, candle holders, wine cups, blessing bowls, and wall pieces are often inscribed with Hebrew and, occasionally, Arabic words.
Several poets celebrate the potter’s ancient craft of making objects out of clay, and the unpredictable and mysterious meetings of earth and fire. As Susan notes, pit firing is the oldest known way to fire clay. “It is very much an act of faith; there is no way to know how the pieces will turn out until they emerge from the fire,” she said.
Alongside her solitary studio practice, Susan has long been an activist working in housing and the arts. In the 1970s Susan took a temporary job working with UA Homes, and ended up staying there for 20 years. In his poem “SAS,” Raymond Nat Turner noted that when his life was “Unraveling like/Rope from a New York/99 cents store” Susan came to his aid and helped him turn his life around, “Sprinkled blessings like sawdust/Pit-fired it as sacred/Art in the kiln of your heart.”
Susan served on the Berkeley Arts Commission for six years in the 1990s, and is now the art ambassador for Berkeley. She represents the city at a variety of arts openings and events, attends Berkeley Cultural Trust meetings, networks, and advocates for the arts. One of her main tasks is honoring an artist once a month at City Council meetings, a reminder that there are many creative people who inhabit Berkeley.
The culture of appreciation and honoring that Susan fosters as Art Ambassador is very much in evidence in the poems in Stay Amazed. In the introduction, Lisa Felix Smart writes, “Each poem… recognizes our precious connections — and reminds us that none of us should wait a minute longer to be celebrated or to celebrate those dear to us.”
The City of Berkeley has twice declared a “Susan D. Felix Day,” — once on March 16, 1989 and once in 1996.
In addition to the Stay Amazed reading at Café Leila on Jan. 14, which would have been Mort Felix’s 80th birthday, there will be readings in Athens, Georgia in April and at the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay in July in honor of Susan’s birthday.
In the video above, Susan reads some poems written by her late husband, Mort Felix.
To get a copy of the book, please email Joyce Jenkins of poetry flash at email@example.com. All proceeds go to Poetry Flash.
J. Ruth Gendler is an author, artist, and teacher living in Berkeley.
To find out what is going on in Berkeley and nearby, be sure to check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. And submit your own events: it’s self-serve and free.