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Noir Goldilocks: An Interview with L.A. Poet Suzanne Lummis

Michael C. Baradi, Librarian, West Valley Area,
Suzanne Lummis at the Skirball Center, 5/6/2017 photo by Penelope Torribio
Suzanne Lummis at the Skirball Center, [2017]. Photo credit Penelope Torribio

I used to be a Messenger Clerk at the Cahuenga Branch Library many years ago, still undecided about being a librarian. Back then, my favorite pit stop before my shift was over was the 979.41 area, where my book truck occasionally blocked the aisle, as I browsed through anything devoted to the history of Los Angeles, anything with photographs. I probably came across the name Charles Fletcher Lummis on those detours, that he was the City Librarian in 1905, and helped increase library use by implementing outreach programs. But before Charles became a librarian, before becoming an author at Scribner’s, and before becoming the first City Editor at the L.A. Times, Charles had published a poetry collection, while still a student at Harvard. The library owns two reference copies of Birch Bark Poems.

Now while Charles didn’t devote his writing-life to poetry—since he had many interests—one could argue that poetry runs deep in the Lummis blood. The subject of this interview is his granddaughter, Los Angeles poet Suzanne Lummis. Suzanne earned her MA in English in 1978 at California State University-Fresno, where she studied under Philip Levine, Peter Everwine, and Chuck Hanzlicek. At Fresno, Suzanne absorbed the poetic sensibilities of the Fresno school of poetry, which is “characterized by a direct personal voice, a language both lyrical and colloquial, and an image-based fidelity to the tangible world, whether rural or urban,” to borrow Suzanne’s words from her website.

Suzanne is also associated with another school of poetry based in Los Angeles: Stand-Up Poetry, which embraces the energy of performance poetry; the term was coined in the 1980s by another Los Angeles poet Charles Harper Webb, who collaborated with Suzanne to assemble an anthology. The library owns a few copies of that anthology, Stand Up Poetry: The Poetry of Los Angeles and Beyond (1990). Suzanne also edited Wide Awake: Poetry of Los Angeles and Beyond (2015). In 2013, her third full-length poetry collection Open 24 Hours won the Blue Lynx Prize for poetry. Her first full-length collection was Idiosyncrasies (1994). Suzanne has been teaching poetry at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, since 1991.

After reading In Danger during lockdown—Suzanne’s second full-length collection—I nurtured an interest to interview her. I love her wit and humor. But more so, she was refreshingly candid about many things in this interview, from where she used to live on Vermont Ave, to Bukowski, Marilyn Monroe, and her grandfather, Charles Fletcher Lummis. Now at one point, I read some of Suzanne’s poems on my iPhone at a Kaiser Permanente waiting room, when I drove my parents for the second dose of the Moderna vaccine. One of those poems was published in The New Yorker in 2014. I started the interview on that poem.

Suzanne Lummis at the Southwest Museum of the American Indian
Suzanne Lummis at the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, [nd]; Portrait of Suzanne Lummis by Carol Colin. Oil on canvas. 60"x36"

Back in 2014, The New Yorker published your poem "How I Didn't Get Myself to a Nunnery." The poem talks about—from my perspective, at least—a great escape. Was there an element of escape, when you chose to devote your life to poetry, early on, before going to grad school in Fresno? Was it always poetry, as opposed to, say, fiction or theatre, even the sciences?

I decided on poetry in elementary school, I'd been attracted to acting even before that. I'd hardly seen any movies; we never owned a TV, ‘till I was into my teens. My first experience of a non-animated movie was The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, special effects—I now know—by the ground-breaking Ray Harryhausen. I wanted to escape then, yes. I wanted to be an actress, to beat fate by living more than one life, to beat death (almost), and—above all—to inhabit magical realms.

Of course, I didn't know how movies were made, really. I didn't know actors spend most of their hours waiting in trailers—that is, trailers if they're the stars, waiting somewhere else if they're less important. I believed you really got to step into these other worlds, where magic lived, where heroes defeated monsters, and everyone could be the hero of her own, his own, story. What can I say? I was very young.

Today, we probably consume special effects, in film, at a level that Ray Harryhausen could never have imagined, when he was pioneering it. The numbers prove it for Netflix during the lockdown, the tremendous increase in viewership because of social distancing protocols, the need to escape, and, in many ways the need "to beat death [...] and inhabit magical realms," to borrow your words. Now one can argue that you've been inhabiting more than one life, through writing itself, in poetry, like the persona you inhabited in The New Yorker poem, and other poems. Here, the magic happens the moment you work with metaphors, or seduce the reader with irony. I'd like to think that metaphor and irony are like the main apps that create the most memorable special effects in poetry. In fact, they're probably the main tools you use to confront monsters in your work?

Tantalizing to think in terms of poetry and monsters. Does poetry fight monsters? Can one poem take on one monster approximately its own size? Could there be a David vs. Goliath match, with, of course, the poem as the underdog, the long odds? The Dark Horse. Ali versus Sonny Liston. Some thought Ali might get killed, as in—Killed. I've read that for that bout an ambulance lingered nearby.

Who knows? Maybe sometimes the Poem is the fall guy. Or, is Poetry itself the monster—the freak, the misfit, the oddball? Maybe, just maybe—it depends on the poem. What kinda poem are we talkin' about here? And what, who, is its opposition? These are my questions.

I know what I'm fighting. Lies and hypocrisy. Fighting and losing, 'cause it's a losing fight. I've developed an aversion to hypocrisy, which is too damn bad for me because in our age I can't walk down the street and turn a corner without running smack into it. I loath cowardly lies—from those who don't have the guts to face the truth, so they cower behind these manufactured conspiracy theories and other forms of lies.

Therefore, some of my poems also hate lies, for example, the poem I evolved for my COLA (City of Los Angeles) fellowship, seven-and-a-half pages of—mostly—280 character stanzas without line-breaks, "Tweets from Hell." The poem's spoken by a figure who's been condemned to a netherworld, some realm where the button that calls a steward to enter with a diet coke no longer functions.

Monsters. Tony Barnstone and Michelle Mitchell-Foust edited a terrific little Knopf anthology, Monster Verse: Poems Human and Inhuman. I recommend it—not just because I'm in it but because Elizabeth Bishop, Patricia Smith, Robert Browning, Charles Harper Webb, Robert Frost, and Oscar Wilde are in it too. Oh, and Apollinaire. And Grant Hier, first poet laureate of Anaheim.

You mentioned metaphors, similes, figurative speech—yes, that matters to me. I love all that. When it works I certainly do, but best a poet not push for it if it doesn't come naturally. If it's selling itself as a poem, though, it better have something.

I like language that has a certain imaginative charge, an inventiveness, an element of strangeness. I like poetry shot through with details both sharp and surprising. I hear an awful lot of stuff that's...hmmm...It's O.K. But it lands in my ear like prose or flat speech. Sure, you've got poets like Frank O'Hara and Jack Gilbert who wrote in rather plain, straightforward language, but they did interesting things with it. Their poems, the good ones, had compression, and, in Gilbert's case, a quality of understatement that suggested great emotion below the surface. O'Hara exuded energy, a sense of freedom, spontaneity, and wit.

I just the other day went over Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays" with my Deep Poetry Knowledge Zoom group. That's now a famous poem, and it sure as heck should be. It's among the great 14-line poems of the past, I don't know...65 years? The poem speaks quietly without embellishment or carrying on, but, wow, the details, and wow the economy. The quality of silence. And yet—the force of it. And the absence of self-pity.

I remember being in a class many years ago when Frank O'Hara's poem "The Day Lady Died" was up for discussion. And I could hear a few murmurs behind me that the poem is not quite a poem, despite the weight of the closing lines. Now I also remember a poem last year in The Best American Poetry Blog posted by editor David Lehman, where a reader made a comment and asked "where is the artfulness" in that poem. And David said he was charmed by the poem because of its "calculated artlessness." His comment, of course, has a wider resonance, which really comments on how poets gravitate to plain language in contemporary poetry, that, indeed, there is a calculation on how they land on the page so plainly, that the seeming disappearance of artfulness is precisely where the art is. Do you ever encounter these kinds of questions in your poetry workshops at UCLA Extension? And how do you answer those questions? Do you invoke evolutions in art itself?

To be sure, I haven't worked with any students lately who would doubt “The Day Lady Died” is a poem, not with that title and that knockout closing. The title reveals the headline on the New York Post, so the poet doesn't have to tell us. And from the closing lines, we know what she meant to the narrator. And we know what she meant to Everyone. Because Everyone stopped breathing.

"The Day Lady Died" is one of the most perfect and enduring examples of a poem that captures a moment, isolates that moment, freezes it in time. And, shrewdly—probably instinctively—O'Hara knew to end the poem at the instant he takes in the headline. No more needs to be said. If he'd gone on about Billie Holiday and how sad he felt, it probably would've ruined the poem. It certainly would've made it more ordinary.

This is a craft issue many beginning poets have trouble with, and not only the most beginning ones. If the poem's working at all—and of course sometimes it isn't. Sometimes one must simply start all over, taking a different tack. But if the poem's working at all there's liable to be a moment when the meaning, implication, and emotional force of the poem coalesces. Writers have to know, feel, where that is, then get the hell out of the way and let the poem do its work.

My students will tell you they've heard me say, to them or to others: Look at this killer line. Nothing that comes after that equals it, and nothing that comes after adds anything you haven't already said with that line. But you sailed right past it and kept blathering away. But that's your end. The Thing beyond which there's nothing left to be said.

But I haven't altogether addressed your question, which I think is about casual or colloquial language as opposed to richer or more charged language. O'Hara, Ginsberg sometimes (though certainly not in Howl), Bukowski always wrote in a plain, unornamented, conversational style. And, of course, before them, William Carlos Williams brought poetry closer to common speech—and he did it on purpose. However, I think that kind of writing requires either the guileless charm and wit of an O'Hara or the exuberant energy and inventiveness of Ginsberg's best poems. Bukowski, though, turned out a heap-load of poems that were just plain flat—slack, too easy. Even so, he's got maybe ten terrific ones, maybe twelve. That's ten to twelve more potentially enduring poems than most people ever write.

Poetry began with a cry to the gods, to the unknown, a cry for mercy. Or, it came from power, magic, spell casting, from the men of power, the Shamans, the Celtic bards, who called forth the visible out of the invisible. And it came from the Oracle of Delphi who, possessed by the gods—or one of them—spoke prophecies in some disorganized language no one could understand.

On the other hand, some maintain the Oracle prophesied in perfect dactylic hexameter.

Which makes me think of Homer, Odysseus, and his Odyssey. Not many surviving poems predate that. It's the story of the tribe, one of the stories, the saga of a tribal hero and his sufferings. Which are like all our sufferings. (Except our sufferings wouldn't make great movies to be animated by Ray Harryhausen with his stop-action technique.)

Suzanne Lummis at A.G. Geiger Fine Art Books poetry reading in Chinatown
Suzanne Lummis at A.G. Geiger Fine Art Books poetry reading in Chinatown, [2016]. Photo credit: Alexis Rhone Fancher

Now if I may go back to the first question. Being published in The New Yorker is a big deal, which is probably a dream magazine for many poets. Is there a story behind the publication of your poem there, and/or the poem itself?

I suppose most people think poets write when overcome by emotion, or by way of "emotion recollected in tranquility," or in response to some dramatic experience. W-e-e-e-ll...Sometimes.

The late poet Kurt Brown, anthologist and founder of the Aspen's Writers Conference—he was one of the country's most beloved poets—asked me if I had a poem that would work for the anthology he'd proposed to Knopf, this one to be called Afterwords: Poems that Continue the Stories, and, if so, could I get it to him soon. These were poems that imagined what happened to characters in literature or popular culture after the story ended. Well, I was strongly motivated to be included in this Knopf publication—bookstores everywhere carry those anthologies. I told him I had the perfect poem, and I'd get it to him soon.

I had no such poem. But now I needed one fast. And it better be good.

I knew it should be a persona poem, a poem where the poet speaks out of the mouth of the central figure, like a dramatic monologue. Or, like an oracle who takes into herself one of the gods, then speaks. I landed on the idea of Ophelia because I'd always been fascinated by her predicament, how trapped she was, how blameless. Ophelia was collateral damage in violent psychic conflicts and power struggles going on around her, which she knew nothing about. Poor kid, she was only a teenager.

I returned to the play and plunged into the mind and experience of that figure—I really got her. The poem is tricky, takes a lot of turns, and yet a good first draft came out close to there. I think I wrote it in an almost trance-like state, though it wasn't a trance really. I just called on all my resources. Well, actually…That might be similar to a trance-like state. As you notice, I empower her—finally, she's nobody's victim. Except that the castle haunts her, and what happened there. The past haunts her, as the past is wont to do. And she'll never again love a man like Hamlet. There never was, never will be another man like that.

So, I sent the piece to Kurt and he liked it but had already accepted an Ophelia poem, and he had resolved that he'd feature just one poem for a character, otherwise he'd have competing versions of what happened next. He asked if I had anything else. Of course, I did—I had just the thing. I said.

I delved into my bank of memories and emotional touchstones and landed on the only other figure I felt connected to, and which I felt I could manage in a persona poem: Poe's raven. I sent Kurt that one—"'Uh uh'—The Raven Quoths Some More"—a very dark thing. He wrote back, "We editors like the poem very much and would like to accept it for our anthology. It has an original perspective, and is written in strong, taut language."

Knopf never did bring out that anthology, though. They had published Kurt Brown's previous one, "Killer Verse." They might've found this one's theme more esoteric than others in their series, certainly more so than, say, "Poems About Trees."

So, I now had two poems that "continued the story," at a time when there wasn't much demand for poems that continue the story. I'd like to thank the couple of important—or self-important—literary journals that roundly rejected "How I Didn't Get Myself to a Nunnery," making it possible for The New Yorker to accept it, specifically the then editor Paul Muldoon. That acceptance certainly brightened my day. And the next couple weeks.

Wow, a thrice-rejected poem before The New Yorker accepted it. Does rejection ever get a little easier over time?

No, but it's O.K. if I feel the poems a publication does accept are equal or better than mine. I feel that way...sometimes. It does irritate the bejeezus outta me when the journal that rejected my submission includes weak poems. In some cases, they don't strike me as strong, resonant writing any which kind of way—you could take out the line-breaks, they'd be weak prose. You could put them in the mouth of a character in a play, as dialog they'd come across as rambling, or over-wrought, or leaden. Couldn't make a song out of 'em either. If they were left on the refrigerator as notes, whoever read them would experience a trace of disappointment.

I'd like to request that editors who reject my work then make it their policy to feature poems equal or better. That would make sense. And, in light of everything going on in the world, I'm increasingly in favor of things that make sense.


How I Didn’t Get Myself to a Nunnery

That girl they found ensconced in mud and loam,
she wasn’t me. Small wonder, though, they jumped.
To a conclusion. Water puffs you up,
and we pale Slavic girls looked much alike—
back then. Deprivation smooths you out.
Yes, that was the season of self-drowned maids,
heart-to-hearts with skulls, great minds overthrown.
And minds that could be great if they could just
come up for air. Not in that town. Something stank.

But me, I drifted on. I like rivers.
And I’m all right with flowers. I floated
on a bed of roses—well, O.K., rue
and columbine. It bore me up not down.
That night I made a circle with my thumb
and finger, like a lens, and peered through it
at the moon—mine, all mine. My kissed-white moon.
“Moon River wider than a . . .” Mancini/
Mercer wrote that, sure, but I wrote it first.

You wonder where I’m going with all this?
Where water goes. It empties into sea.
Sold! I’d take it—the sea or a fresh life.
Some other life. A good man—good enough,
fair—fished me out. He’d come to quench his thirst.
No sun-god prince, of course, like him I’d loved,
still loved. (Some loves don’t die; not even murder
kills them.) I married his thatched hut, hatched chicks—
kids running underfoot. Don’t cry for me,

Denmark. I’d learned the art of compromise
back there, in the black castle—then came blood,
ghosts. Something in me burst. If not lover,
father, king, then whom can you trust? Alone,
I took up some playing cards. I played them
into skinny air. A voice said, Swim or drown.
It said: Your house caught fire, flood, caught fear—
it’s coming down. No one loves you now, here.
By land or water, girl, get outta town.

Reprinted with permission by Suzanne Lummis: The New Yorker (October 27, 2014, online)

Have you ever composed poems (in your mind) while driving, stuck behind the wheel in a traffic jam? You celebrate Los Angeles in your poems with an intensity that some of them were probably conceived while you were waiting for the light to change at an intersection?

Never yet managed to come up with a whole poem while at a stoplight, but that'd be a good challenge. I do have many poems set in cars or that reference freeways—and on-the-road poems, too. I've got a little poem I really like—it's not in print yet—called "I'm Driving to Fresno and Don't Care Who Knows It."

In your first(?) full-length collection In Danger, you mapped the "grit and glitter" of Los Angeles, to borrow a phrase from its back-cover. You can feel the city at ground zero, on street level. On the other hand, it's also a meditation on the nature of urban environments breathing on ambition and despair. And somehow this collection reminded me of something Bukowski told Barbet Shroeder in his 1985 documentary of the poet, "Charles Bukowski," where Charles said: "When you clean up a city, you kill it." (I actually verified this on Google, too, just to make sure.) Of course, Bukowski was being deeply ironic, even if he was talking about specific things I'm sure. But what do you think about that statement? How does that ring in your registers, as a poet?

In Danger, yes, actually my second full-length collection, and the first edition of the first book, was published by a little one-man press in L.A., Illuminati, in the 80s. (The name of the one man was Peter Schneider.) That first book was called Idiosyncrasies. Impossible to find that now; I've got a couple of copies. Those poems of my younger self, many of them, have a more haunted, dream-like quality.

I wrote most of the In Danger poems in a four-story, brick structure, circa 1928, that now stands vacant, 1175 N. Vermont—used to have the tenement style fire escape zigzagging down the front. The owners were in the process of remodeling it into a more upscale property, but for some reason, the renovation stopped. And there it stands—but with no plaque stating: The interesting Los Angeles poet Suzanne Lummis wrote many poems here, in Apt. 403.

When I moved in, mostly pensioners and maybe a few semi-transient people rented those single apartments—low-income place but not a tenement really. By "tenement" I'm referring to lifestyles not architecture. Within five years or so it went to hell—I don't think it was entirely my fault. A couple of years after that, the building turned into Section 8 housing. I didn't know at first what Section 8 Housing was, only that it lowered my rent—so I liked it. Then I realized—'Oh dang, Heck. I'm on welfare.' "On the dole," as they used to say during the Depression. 'I am Such a failure.'

I liked the place, though—I was fond of it. Or, well, not necessarily every day I wasn't. Some culprit—all of us were convinced it was one person—kept pissing in the elevator, and it was a tiny elevator. You had to press yourself against the wall to stay out of the puddle. But the building had many interesting people—I liked the vitality. In a poor building, the life spills out of the apartments into the halls, onto the stairs, sometimes, onto the streets. Once, during the years I was living in the Vermont Avenue place, I visited a friend in a nice apartment house. The silence of the corridors struck me as strange, almost ominous, all the apartment doors locked tight—nothing but silence on the other side. Someone could be getting strangled in there and you'd never know. In my building, you'd know—there'd be a lot of commotion.

My collection Open 24 Hours also includes a section of poems written about that building. There's a poem, "Man's Shirts Flung from Window." I went to the back to dump out my garbage one day and discovered all the scrappy trees and bushes draped with glittering or patterned shirts—obviously came from the top floor. Some sharp dresser, some frequenter of dance clubs, had cheated on his wife.

Regarding Bukowski's comment re. losing the spirit of a city by cleaning it up, I only agree with him up to a point. There can be something compelling, powerful, about squalor, but it's dangerous to romanticize it. It's a mistake to romanticize, or idealize, anything, anybody—Ever. To romanticize a thing is to get it wrong. If children are growing up in an environment without color, art, poetry, and the language of poetry, visual beauty, growing things, that's not good, and a price will be paid for that. If they're growing up in the absence of delicate things that must be cared for, blossoms, for example, a price will be paid.

Image of Suzanne Lummis by Rachael McCampbell, billboard photo by Elena Secota
Image of Suzanne Lummis by Rachael McCampbell, billboard photo by Elena Secota. April Poetry on Billboards project at West Hollywood Gateway curated by poet Steven Reigns

Now there's a poem in In Danger that's big and, to an extent, overshadows the other poems: "Empty Shell - L.A. '92." 2021 is the 29th anniversary of the 1992 L.A. riots, which happened on the 29 of April. And I love these lines in that poem: “I can’t put it to my ear and hear the sea; / the thing won’t deliver—no history / worth hawking,” which underlines the idea of absence as though the city has gone back to its original state as a desert, though, this time, instead of sand, it’s ashes. Was there a moment around that time when you felt that leaving L.A. was a possibility, so you can hear the sea again somewhere else, and imagine the horizon in it? Did you have flashbacks of 1992 in 2020?

Oh, oh, oh—fascinating that your attention landed on that poem. I'm glad you're singling it out—only one time before has anyone mentioned that poem to me, and I was astonished then. It's a nearly undiscovered poem in the collection. The best known, that is to say, most anthologized, re-printed, and requested at readings, is "Letter to My Assailant," followed by a very early noir poem, "Femme Fatale." (My current noir poems take a different approach), And, finally, the one that Lawrence Goldstein used to open his book-length discussion of the poetry of Los Angeles, an exploration called Poetry Los Angeles: Reading the Essential Poems of the City (University of Michigan Press). I'd recommend this unique anthology of essays—his appreciations also focus on poems by Wanda Coleman, recent California Poet Laureate Dana Gioia, current U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, South Pasadena Poet Laureate Ron Koertge, plus the great Czech poet Miroslav Holub and ex-patriot from Nazi-occupied Germany, poet, playwright Bertolt Brecht. ('Cause a poet doesn’t have to live here to be inspired by Los Angeles,)

But of "Empty Shell - L.A. '92,"—it's a blisteringly angry poem, a poem of disgust and self-disgust. I'm sorry, friends and neighbors, but such poems exist, and I've written a couple of them. O.K.—three. And Baudelaire and Bertolt Brecht wrote even more. Maybe such poems have a place somewhere in the pantheon—I'll leave that to others to decide.

Before I go on, I want to make clear, the Los Angeles poetry monde has not only grown but deepened since 1992. Better poets have come here from elsewhere; better poets have sprung up here on home turf; and many poets around then and still writing now, years later, have become stronger writers. At that time, though, I was disgusted with the poems I'd seen about the riots—all of them bad and depressingly similar. For the most part, I heard loose, loud, baggy rants and, then, the timid poems, lazy pieces of writing. In such times a community, a city, a country, needs the voices of the poets, insights, that transcend the common rhetoric and socially approved ideas, language that startles us into a new way of seeing. But the poets of the city, at that moment, had not readied themselves for such an event—the city on fire. Probably, those who really had the chops laid low, 'cause they knew how hard it is to pull off an impacting, affecting sociopolitical poem. I didn't even try—until that little poem burned a hole into me.

The Los Angeles Times featured a big story with some headlines like "Vermont Avenue Burns from its Southern to Northern End"—or "The major artery/corridor of the fires"—words to the effect. My street. I had a front-row seat. And I lived right above a Korean-owned market. Very hard for anyone to argue with me about this issue—because I saw it all, and from different perspectives. So, I'm just impossible—no one can tell me a damn thing.

I drove from the east end to the ocean, trying to find a friend of mine—the city on either side of me in flames, smoke-choked air, my car almost the only one on the 10 freeway. I will never forget that. And the writers who did all the talking, more talking than writing, all they could come up with was the same formulaic language and thinking I'd been hearing for 30 years? Not even a memorable image? Well—heck.

If you look at the roster of fatalities you'll notice many died on Vermont Avenue, and the one farthest north occurred at Santa Monica and Vermont. The southern end of my block. I didn't have a name when I went down to the corner and picked up the empty bullet shell, the one the poem's titled after. I now know he went by Jose Solozano or Noel Solorzano (L.A. Weekly, April 26 - March 2002), age 25.

I'd begun writing the poem, the empty shell in my hand, with the idea it'd involve a grieving for this unknown person who I'd heard, word of mouth, had been killed the night before on that corner. Then I got angry at myself, and—keep in mind—I was plenty angry already. I thought, 'You phony! You don't feel a G-d damn thing for this person you know nothing about and can't even picture. Stop congratulating yourself for your feigned sensitivity! Stop lying! The poem takes a turn—to the utter failure of everyone, the dead, the living, and the poets.

As far as who got the 1992 riots right? Maybe several writers or sociopolitical analysts, but the only one I know of who captured the contradictions, paradox, bitter ironies, layers of tragedy, and glimpses of humanity? Anna Deavere Smith. Her theatrical enactment of many people involved or affected, well-known or little-known—"Twilight in Los Angeles." It's brilliant. It's the only account I've seen that feels like truth. And it feels like truth in part because it offers no answers or solutions. It’s a kaleidoscope capturing that doesn’t come down firmly on one side or the other. I read that she felt deeply depressed after interviewing dozens of people to create this work. That made two of us. And, very likely, even more than us two.


Empty Shell – L.A. ‘92

I don't like the smell it leaves
on my fingers, dumb brass
worthless as the husk from corn,
shuck of bean, skin the snake
gets rid of. This is no eggshell,
though someone did break
into flesh and bone. Too late
for the cavalry to ride in now, king's
horses, king's men. Look at it,
just a bit more of the miscellany
that makes up the world, useless.
I can't put it to my ear and hear the sea;
the thing won't deliver—no history
worth hawking. It didn't kill what-
was-his-name? at the corner of Vermont
and Santa Monica where Payless Shoes
burned all night on TV. The bullet
did that, the gun, the finger
on the trigger did it, the man
pulling the trigger, the man's mind,
his failed life did it. Hell,
poets, who cares about our tiny
productions congratulating ourselves
on our sincerity and deep-felt feelings?
Who cares about our swell-headed sermons?
Friends, we've gazed upon the heart
of darkness steaming in a raw heat, a lump
no dog would gnaw on, and our poems
failed us. We failed our poems. This one,
see, peers into a small burnt hole
in itself it can't fill, then
comes to a bad end.

Reprinted with permission by Suzanne Lummis: In Danger (1999)

You have a poem in In Danger that dramatizes the arrival of death on Marilyn Monroe holding a phone receiver. And in your third full-length collection, Open 24 Hours, you have a poem on the actress again, though, this time, it involves our library, "Marilyn Monroe in the Los Angeles Central Library." It's a list poem, the titles of books on Marilyn Monroe in our collection. We currently have 400+ cataloged titles on Marilyn, in different formats and languages, and you used 32 titles to create a poem out of these titles years ago. It’s a fantastic way of sourcing texts for a found poem! Now Marilyn fascinates many artists. Warhol puts her in technicolor mode, but not for you, I think. You put her in noir-mode, in your poems. Are you fascinated by the shadows behind the name, in the smile of Norma Jean, of the idea of someone coming from a chaotic childhood, who became an icon? And, too, you appear to be fascinated with shadows in the age of information, in this collection, where Medusa has a bad hair day, and you are "Frank O'Hara in a / Joan Didion Mood." Or maybe they're not shadows, but something else, a place between shadows, the spotlight, and the sun?

I think Marilyn Monroe's extraordinary screen presence fascinated me first—without that, I might not've been more interested in her than any other star of the era. She radiated in a way that can't quite be explained by the blonde hair and beautiful face; after all, it's mostly hair bleach and the world's most ingenious make-up job we're looking at. Hollywood had lots of beautiful blondes. Some, like Bette Grable, had charm and talent, some had sex appeal, but no one else captivated with that strange luminosity. From there, I became interested in her psyche and her life—and what a life. Full of tragedy, triumph, struggle, and contradictions -- and the threat of madness. As full of all that sort of thing as the lives of Ezra Pound, Malcolm X, Lincoln, and other large figures of history.

For "Marilyn in the Los Angeles Central Library" I remember printing out a list of all the Marilyn Monroe related books the library had. (This was long ago—sounds like the collection has grown considerably!) I then reordered the titles so that they seemed to tell the story of her life chronologically, each line of the poem a separate book title. The poem ends "Marilyn Monroe/Marilyn Monroe/Marilyn" because that library list included two different books titled "Marilyn Monroe," and one simply called "Marilyn."

It’s a poem that doesn’t tell you what to think, so readers, listeners, have different responses. One woman told me she experienced the relentlessness reciting of the titles, the public obsession, as a slow, methodical destroying of the woman.

Interesting that you mention my Monroe poems along with another poem in which I imagine Medusa as a sort of Valley Girl biker chick. I think poets, some of them anyway, keep circling around and returning to certain figures, real or mythic, who can be seen and re-seen and be adapted to different sociopolitical eras. They're touchstones for the creative imagination. It seems people can't get over Marilyn Monroe—she was and is both all real and all myth.

Suzanne Lummis with late poets  Austin Straus, Steve Kowit and Wanda Coleman
Suzanne Lummis with late poets; Austin Straus, Steve Kowit and Wanda Coleman, [nd]. Photo credit: Cece Peri

German Expressionism in film became an ex-pat in Hollywood back in the 1920s and 1930s, because the Nazis were gaining power. And soon, it became a citizen of the movie industry; but more so, German Expressionist cinematography became the industry itself, and defined a sensibility, a low-key, black-and-white visual presentation or style. Now over time, the style acquired something in California, it gained something from the climate: it acquired a certain dimension, perhaps a sensual dimension, with fetishes, the Venetian blind shot, the cigarette, and the long shadows. It became film-noir. You have a certain attachment to film-noir. You married it with poetry. In fact, you have a YouTube program called They Write By Night, produced by Poetry.LA., a video series on the poem noir and other noir arts. What's the program about? And you're not even faking your drinks in the program; in one episode, you sipped gin in a hip-flask you bought from eBay! Do you wake up sometimes and feel you're in early 1930's Berlin, as an American spy, taking notes on someone that would soon be called der Fuhrer? Or Vivian Sternwood Rutledge (Lauren Bacall) in The Big Sleep? Or perhaps there is an element of your parents in this love affair with film-noir since they worked for the U.S. Secret Service in San Francisco?

Yes, yes—all that stuff. Well, maybe not the part about waking up in the morning feeling like I'm an American spy in 1930s Berlin. These days I wake up annoyed that I've had another dream about washing dishes. Because, what with the worldwide pandemic, I've been doing far more than usual cooking at home. So, I'm always washing dishes—and thinking ‘Didn't I just wash this pan yesterday!?'

My YouTube series, They Write by Night, now 17+ episodes and growing, began when Wayne Lindberg and the poet Hilda Weiss of poetry.la invited me to evolve a series on noir poetry, because they knew—like a few others in the know—that's my racket. My side-hustle. Or as the academics would say, my area of scholarly exploration. Wayne and Hilda had already gone ahead and created a little noir-themed studio space for me, with the iconic Venetian blinds.

I had to come up with what this show would be, though, how it'd work. My first idea involved an interview show, with me talking to noir experts, writers, and other noir mavens. They said, "No, we just want you." Well, that certainly narrowed it down.

My They Write by Night persona is just a slightly more hard-boiled version of my public self—in fact, probably closer to who I really am.—Feels like it, anyway. My public self's a bit nicer because—well, because I want to have friends. Many episodes into the series, I realized I'd never really introduced myself the way most people do, first show; I'd never once said my name. At that point, I told the camera, "If you don't know who I am by now—why don't you hire a private detective and find out!"

Each episode features one noir poem—usually not my own, almost always—except for Weldon Kees and Diann Blakely—from a living poet, and one or more films noir the poem suggests to my imagination, theme-wise. And then there's my meanderings. And for a time a man we never saw, who'd phone in. Joe. Figures it'd be a "Joe," not an Otis or a Cecil. And, because it's me, and I have my ideas about things, sometimes the recent-but-no-longer president, gets shaded.

I have my own definition of the poem noir, and it's not just anything dark. In that case, nearly half the poems written would qualify. There needs to be a crime—if not occurring now then in the past, or around the corner. Or, there must be danger, or the possibility of danger, an environment, a mood, that sets the scene, that creates a sense of risk, gives us the sense something illegal might happen here. Someone might be there to stop it. Someone might be there to start it. Also, the writing must be disciplined, no sogginess, no flab. The poem must be about something. It must be more than an opportunity to talk tough or imitate a by-gone vernacular.

Crime fiction and the lone wolf private eye stories drew me to noir—the classics, Raymond Chandler, in particular, his brand of wit. My interest in film noir followed. Plus, I had some encounters that made me interested in criminals. And made me dislike them. "Dislike" is a polite word for it.

Re. that scene in the "Power and Corruption/Sweet Smell of Success" episode, with my vintage prohibition-era flask—people probably think I'm over-acting, exaggerating. A good actor knows that on stage you're never supposed to drink liquor as if it's water, even though it Is water. But water doesn't register in the mouth or on the senses like alcohol does, so the well-trained actor drinks water-passing-for-gin-or-vodka but thinks tastes alcohol.

Well, what I swallowed was not water, and it sure registered on me. I'd followed Chandler's recipe in The Long Goodbye, and not modified it like most people do. I mean, I'd made that gin gimlet before but not lately—I'd forgotten. Fifty percent gin, and fifty percent Roses Lime Juice. Super concentrated stuff. It was really sour. I practically strangled.

I didn’t buy the flask on eBay. I inherited it. My father took it away from a bootlegger. That’s another story. He’s a story all by himself.


Letter to My Assailant

On such occasions
one comes to know someone spectacularly fast.
Even with your unfriendly arm at my throat
you could hide nothing from me.
Your failures with women, for instance,
filed through my mind.
And I knew your father was hostile to doors.
He liked to slam them or break them down.
Your mother worked her way up from dimestore
to drugstore. Even in her grave
her hopes kept shrinking.
Now she’s thin as a spindle.
I even knew without looking
your socks had red diamonds
like a small town boy’s. In fact,
with my breath stopped in my throat
your whole life flashed past my eyes,
but I didn’t let on.
“I can’t breathe,’ I gasped,
and you loosened your hold.
I suppose I should have been grateful,
instead I felt impatient with men,
with their small favors.
I suppose you felt the same about me.
You’d no sooner reached through my torn blouse
when my screams made you bolt.
We leapt from each other
like two hares released from a trap. Oh, oh,
something’s not right between men and women.
Perhaps we talked too much,
or did we leave too much unsaid?
When you ripped my shirt mumbling
“I don’t want to hurt you,”
I replied, “That’s what they all say.”
I’ll admit I was glib if you’ll admit
you were insensitive. Look,
the world is brimming with happy couples,
benign marriages, with men and women
who’ve adjusted to each other’s defects.
Couldn’t we adjust to each other’s defects?
I’ll begin by trying harder not to forget you,
to remember more clearly
your approximate height, your brown shirt
which I described to the police.
Our encounter must stand out in our minds,
distinct from all others.
I never intended
all this to become blurred in my memory,
to confuse you with other men.

Reprinted with permission by Suzanne Lummis: In Danger (1999)

In 2015, you edited an anthology published by the Pacific Coast Poetry Series, an imprint of Beyond Baroque Books. It took a while to read it. The title underlines a city that refuses to sleep, like the title of your third collection, as though the idea of time in the city is irrelevant, or maybe you're celebrating a city of insomniacs: Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond. It's a big volume that includes four poems by the city's current Poet Laureate, Lynne Thompson. Will you be editing the second volume of this anthology soon? And how do you define 'Beyond' in the title?

Yes, I edited Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond and published it through the press, poet Henry Morro founded The Pacific Coast Poetry Series; an imprint of Beyond Baroque Books. I'm the editor and Liz Camfiord the Assistant Editor of that series. David Ulin, then of The Los Angeles Times, named the anthology one of Ten Best Books of 2015.

In my Introduction, I mention that the poetry in this anthology counters the popular notion of Los Angelinos as "dreamers" and the American myth that the city's filled with "starry-eyed" people who came here with a "dream"—of breaking into the music business, the movies, what have you. The poems tell a different story. Yes, many poems involve wondrous and wild flights of imagination but, for the most part, these poems reveal the poets' interest in seeing the world in sharp relief, seeing it for what it really is. Not dreaming but Wide Awake.

At that time, I hadn't heard the term "Woke," which can be used in different contexts and land on us as either favorable or—not. I prefer the state of being Wide Awake to "woke" with its hint of the fashionable and the de rigueur.

There's a dark side to being Wide Awake. As a life-long insomniac, I'm often wide awake when I'm supposed to be asleep. And, these days, barely a month goes by that I don't see a new article on research showing the terrible things that will happen to the brain and body if one fails to get the prescribed number of hours of sleep. So…Terrible things are happening to me. I guess they've been happening for a while so I've gotten used to them.

I defined Beyond as South to Long Beach, East to Pomona, North to Ventura. I had to reach out in those directions to pick up writers engaged in the poetry of the city, and with the poets of the city, and important to the community (or, more specifically, communities), regardless of whether their snail mail arrived at an address outside L.A.

I was absolutely clear—at least, in my own head—in how I saw this compilation. It showcases Poets as opposed to random Poems from here and there that might be worthy of publication. In other words, I wasn't interested in featuring the one good poem some hobbyist poet ever managed to produce. Numerous thematic anthologies have gathered poems on a particular subject, and they're important and interesting in their own way. But like the first anthology, I edited about 18 years earlier—that one with Charles Harper Webb—Grand Passion: The Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond, the intent here was to draw together a range of the major voices of the city. It also includes more recently emerged voices but poets clearly in it for the long haul.

Did I manage to include everyone? No! Nowhere near! The anthology game is inherently unjust and never more than an approximation. I myself have been left out of many important ones, which usually strikes me as short-sighted, mean-spirited, and provincial on the part of the editor. I'm sure people feel the same way about me. But at the time I published Wide Awake there were—at least—1,500 poets associated with the city who had full-length collections, whose poems appeared in credible literary journals, and who had a presence on the reading scene or as teachers and poet-organizers. Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond includes 112 of them. It was Liz Camfiord who suggested that this time around, instead of the subtitle I used for Grand Passion, I drop the "the" from "The Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond." I immediately saw the sense of that and agreed.

Will I be editing another volume of this series soon? No, not soon because—it's too soon. I can think of people who got left out of Wide Awake who I'd certainly want to include in an updated anthology. But the poetry monde hasn't changed enough to require a new semi-comprehensive anthology quite yet. It doesn't roll over every six years. In this new wave of poets, I'd like to see who sticks with it. You know, many leave the city, or stop writing, or move on to fiction.

Important in such conversations to remember that Bill Mohr, now poet professor at CSU Long Beach, edited the first full-length anthology of Los Angeles Poets: Poetry Loves Poetry (1985). Many of those poets are now dead. Lucky me that I'm still here. Who woulda thought.

You've been teaching a poetry workshop at UCLA Extension since the 1990s. Have you been teaching poetry in Zoom, during lockdown?

I've been teaching through the UCLA Extension Writers' Program since 1991, lately a class I developed, "The Art of Craft, Secrets of Revision—Toward Publication." I designed this one because I'm getting the sense workshops don’t focus on craft and the revision process. Many workshops are what we call "generative"—that is, the participants get prompts which inspire them to generate new writings. However, the writing remains raw, or in different stages of development. From my point of view, if the poem's developed—if it becomes, finally, the poem it's meant to be—it lands on the reader with some force. Or, it echoes in the memory. Or, it shimmers in the imagination. Otherwise...eh. Not so much.

Also, I've taught private workshops for years, and during the pandemic evolved a series of Zoom workshops with a fabulous group of poet participants—we're having fun. It's not a writing workshop this time, Deep Poetry Knowledge: Modern to Contemporary to Now. In other words—the major poets and poetry movements of the 20th century and how we got from there to here.

Early in the series I realized that this was filling a need, compensating for something missing for many in the poetry monde not enrolled in university programs. More than anything, though, it's a chance for a range of like-minded people to gather (in Zoom realm) to discuss and explore an area they're passionate about. I gotta say—we're getting So smart.

Your grandfather, Charles Fletcher Lummis, a City Librarian more than a century ago, walked from Cincinnati to California, in 1884, and sent weekly dispatches to the paper he was working for in Ohio. He covered more than 3,500 miles across the continent in143 days. Do you find this journey a feasible subject for a future poetry collection?

Oh goodness no, not for a whole collection--hell, I never met the guy. Some poets have wrapped entire poetry collections around an historical figure, but while I can imagine generating a couple or three poems about a bygone figure who intrigues me I'd never try to evolve an entire book—my poetic imagination doesn't work that way. I have written some factual pieces about Charles Fletcher Lummis—and, recently, an imaginative piece, prose—when I've been called upon to do so.

To be sure, he was a fascinating man, bold and brilliant, with admirable qualities and a nearly equal number of objectionable ones. What's hard for people to understand is that I have a different relationship with, I mean feeling about, this famous figure who died in 1928—I side with grandmother Eve in that marriage. Oh, the baloney she had to put up, and "baloney"'s a polite word for it. So is "put up with." More like endure. He was one of these larger than life-size, heroic personalities, generous to the public, to the people, and to other writers and creative folks, but at home, he was all Me Me Me. A woman should think twice before she marries one of those.

I'm much more engaged with evolving some poems about my mother and father, both rare and exceptionally interesting people. My father had his father's adventurous spirit, brains, and charisma without the bad qualities—or, without most of them anyway. Keith Lummis usually made an instant impression on people while my mother, Hazel, was quieter, almost secretive; it took more time to discover her. For me, my parents were as interesting as CFL, but of course, no one wants to know about them because they weren't famous.

But back to Old Man Lummis, as I sometimes call him, and his "Tramp Across the Continent." I re-read sections of that book recently to work up a piece for a Lummis Day event (www.lummisday.org), and it scared the flippin' Bejeezus outta me. People say 'oh what a fabulous adventure—he came so close to getting killed or freezing to death..." And I say, 'No, it's horrifying! Over and over I came so close to never having been born!'

Before I go I'd like to give a shout-out to the new Los Angeles poet laureate, Lynne Thompson, whose appointment the poets of the region are celebrating. She's an accomplished and well-published poet who's been a vibrant presence in the literary community for many years and a generous supporter of other poets. She has the mix of qualities so necessary for this position: a relationship with the long-time poets of Los Angeles as well as a national reach and awareness of notable poets and poetry across the land. Whereas, if someone has the former but not the latter they're provincial. But if they have the latter and not the former they're a snob. And, she's got that great work ethic going on; she's already started a poetry-themed podcast for the public.

portrait of Charles Fletcher Lummis
Portrait of Charles Fletcher Lummis, noted pioneer, wearing the Cross of Isabella, conferred upon him by the King of Spain, [1928]. Herald Examiner Collection

Is there a new collection in the offing? New projects?

I've completed another full-length collection that I've just lately begun to submit: DesireMart or The Garden of So-Called Eden Again. And another one's almost finished, titled Crime Wave. The first includes many poems centered in, yes, Los Angeles.

I have a UCLA Extension Writers' Program workshop scheduled for 6/29 - 8/31, Tuesdays, The Art of Craft, Secrets of Revision—Towards Publication. This one will work best for those who've taken at least one craft-conscious workshop and have some familiarity with contemporary poetry.

As far as forthcoming publications, later this year Los Angeles based WhatBooks will be publishing an anthology of essays, What Falls Away, which includes what I believe is one of my best prose pieces, something in the way of a memoir. At any rate, it has the virtue of being Not Boring. (Long ago, Peter Everwine responded to a group of my poems with the comment, "One thing I'll say about you, my dear, you are Not boring." At the time I took it as a bit of a slight, as in Q: How do I look? A: Well...Not horrible. I took it as faint praise back then. Now, I've come to realize—that's Everything.)

What's on your desk, at the moment? What are you reading?

I've finally started reading Christopher Hitchens’ book of reviews and essays, Love, Poverty, and War, which he signed for me long ago, obviously when alive. Nothing personal, no story there—I had to wait in the same long line everyone else did. I was a fan, a platonic groupie; I'd go to hear him anytime he was speaking within driving distance. Of course, I didn't always agree with him—my God, who could? I'm not even sure he agreed with himself 100% of the time. Or, at any rate, I believe he'd turned against some of his earlier beliefs.

I knew when he died an extraordinary mind had vanished from the landscape and would not be replaced by one similar or suitably equal. And it hasn't. Mind, body of knowledge, and sizzling wit. A few folks around have one of those three.

I don't know why I only started reading this volume recently. I guess I've been saving it. Also, I'm reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I'd started a different true crime story, a fine piece of writing—big bestseller in recent years—but stopped reading when I realized how horrible these true murders were going to be, and how many. Not only can I not read about them, I don't want them to have happened. I object to their happening. I would like to register my outrage with the universe, and I want action taken—what kinda universe is this anyway?

Stephen Daedalus said, "History is a nightmare from which I'm trying to awake." So do I. I say it often.

I can't say the name of the latter book because it might bring bad luck. It's a good book though, accomplished, literate, historically informative. If I could mention it I'd recommend it.

Before that, I'd read the Booker Award-shortlisted Welsh writer, Sarah Waters' The Paying Guests, set in 1922 post-WWI London. It's a fine novel, exquisitely researched from every angle, billed as a crime story but really a love story, two women's slow discovery of their love for each other. The murder's barely a murder, though, just sort of a murder, and comes late in the 500+ page book. I'd wanted a murder but got a love story. So, I turned to the other book, which I then realized had too many murders and horrible ones.

I'm hoping that Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, set in Savannah, Georgia in the 1980s, involves the right number of murders, not too many and neither too terrible nor too marginal. I'm Noir Goldilocks.


Recommended Reading


Open 24 Hours: Poems
Lummis, Suzanne

In Danger
Lummis, Suzanne

Falling Short of Heaven
Lummis, Suzanne

Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond

Grand Passion: The Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond

Stand up Poetry: The Poetry of Los Angeles and Beyond

Master Class: The Poetry Mystique

New California Writing 2012

Open Windows: Selections From the Winners of Poetry in the Windows 1995-2003

Spreading the Word

Poetry Los Angeles: Reading the Essentials Poems of the City
Goldstein, Laurence

Matchbook: Poems

The Autograph Book of L.A.: Improvements on the Page of the City
Kun, Josh, compiler

Birch Bark Poems
Lummis, Charles Fletcher, 1859-1928

A Bronco Pegasus
Lummis, Charles Fletcher, 1859-1928

Monster Verse: Poems Human and Inhuman

Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays
Hitchens, Christopher

The Paying Guests
Waters, Sarah

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story
Berendt, John


 

 

 

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