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December to Remember: L.A.'s New Poet Laureate and 'Visions & Affiliations'

Whether or not you believe in the Mayan Prophecy this month is already becoming a December to remember -- and it's not even halfway finished. Over the last year, LA Letters has covered literary Los Angeles as well as the live music and art throughout our city. This week covers two epic events: our new poet laureate and a California Literary Time Line. If I've said it once, I've said it a million times -- there's a golden age of arts flourishing these days in L.A.

It was announced on December 7th, 2012 that Echo Park resident Eloise Klein Healy has been chosen as the first poet laureate in Los Angeles history. Healy is an excellent choice because her long career has always bridged the not always equivalent worlds of activism and the university. She's mentored hundreds of California writers over the last 40 years, authored seven books, received several awards, and started the Antioch University's MFA Program. Dating back to the early 1970s, Healy is one of the earliest participants in Venice's legendary Beyond Baroque Wednesday night poetry workshop, which has remained active since 1969. She was a central figure throughout the '70s at the poetry events held at the Woman's Building, the influential feminist art school and workshop venue.

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Eloise Klein Healy at the L.A. Public Library where she was named the city's first Poet Laureate | Photo from LAPL FacebookMany longtime denizens of Los Angeles poetry, like the writer William Mohr, are ecstatic that Healy has been chosen. Mohr's 2011 book "Hold Outs" published by the University of Iowa Press, is one of the first real treatments of the history of Los Angeles poetry. Mohr has known Healy for over four decades and has also been a participant-observer in L.A. Poetry since the early '70s, when he began attending readings at Beyond Baroque. His book cites multi-generational evidence of independent publishing and the writers behind the scenes. Mohr sees Healy's appointment as a well-deserved honor for a poet who loves her city deeply.

A few days before the announcement was made, Mohr was quoted in an article written by Hector Tobar for the Los Angeles Times shortlisting a handful of select poets as top candidates. He mentioned Healy, Wanda Coleman, Suzanne Lummis, Paul Vangelisti and Will Alexander. A few paragraphs later Tobar also named other top candidates Marisela Norte, David St. John, Ellyn Maybe, Holly Prado, Sesshu Foster and Luis J. Rodriguez. A few other names that also could have easily been added to the short list would be Kamau Daaood, Lewis MacAdams, Michael C. Ford, Laurel Ann Bogan, Peter J. Harris, Pam Ward and Terry Wolverton.

Over the course of the last few weeks Hector Tobar has written several articles in the Times on the poet laureate subject and literary L.A. with great knowledge and insight. This makes sense -- he himself is an award-winning novelist. His latest book, "The Barbarian Nurseries," is already being hailed as one of the great L.A. novels of this generation. The LA Weekly has been recently spotlighting the all time greatest L.A. novels.

The day after Healy was announced I was at Beyond Baroque for a one-night only reading called "Visions & Affiliations." Before any of the poets showed up I spoke with Beyond Baroque staff members Ellyn Maybe and Richard Modiano. Maybe is a dynamic poet known for books like "The Cowardice of Amnesia." Her monthly Poetry Rodeo event with live musicians is one of a kind. Every time I go to Beyond Baroque I love seeing her and talking about books. Richard Modiano is the Director of Beyond Baroque, and knows the literary landscape like no one else. He always refers me to new authors, like when he schooled me a few years ago on the avant-garde work of Will Alexander. Modiano also introduced me to the charismatic writer Donald Sidney-Fryer, one of the readers for the night's event. Sidney-Fryer shared a few anecdotes and looked like a modern-day Rimbaud. I hope to explore more of his work. Beyond Baroque is in great hands with Modiano at the helm, he really knows the scoop on local poets and loves the community.

Beyond Baroque in Venice | Photo by Kelly Simpson

"Visions & Affiliations" was a reading in support of a new two-book volume of the same name that clocks in at over 1,000 pages long, chronicling California's literary history from 1940 to 2005. Published by Pantograph Press, the Herculean task was completed by the Bay Area poet and historian Jack Foley. He describes the book as a chrono-encyclopedia. The text itself is organized from year to year and his literary time line jumps from bullet point to bullet point describing specific poets, their ideas, an excerpt of their work, and sometimes a comical anecdote. For example in 1976: "Eloise Klein Healy's 'Building Some Changes' wins the Beyond Baroque Foundation's New Book Award and is published by Beyond Baroque. It is Healy's first book."

His coverage mixes Beat poets, Language poets, Black Arts poets, Chicano poets, neo-formalists, queer poets; he covers a wide range and shows empathy to each movement, giving all equal space. This same open spirit of Foley was present in full force at "Visions & Affiliations." Fourteen highly venerated poets appeared on the bill with Foley, who curated the line-up and asked them to read a specific poem that appears in his two-volume set. He opened the night by reading from the book's introduction and saying a few words about Eloise Klein Healy. He saluted her long career and commented on how great it was to be at Beyond Baroque, one of the first places that launched her livelihood.

As the night's line-up was organized alphabetically, Will Alexander began the night off with his poem, "The Neutralized Sore of the Unshackled Bear." Alexander is a Los Angeles native and one of the best known Surrealist poets alive. After attending Washington High School in South Los Angeles with fellow City Lights poet Kamau Daaood, he was briefly affiliated with the Watts Writers Workshop during the early '70s. Soon Alexander drifted towards Surrealism -- initially it was the recordings of Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane that inspired Alexander. "It was during my early teens and listening to the music was absolutely electric. It made me feel that I had allies, that there were others who knew that the material world was completely permeable, and that none of the rationally stated boundaries could contain the imaginal. Of course all this happened before I knew anything of poetry."

Alexander is a joy to read and hear with work connected to the Surrealist legacy of CeSaire, Artaud, Bob Kaufman, Octavio Paz and Philip Lamantia. In 1994 he told an interviewer, "I find the words by chance. I do not look in the dictionary in the way the word 'DADA' was discovered. I do not read it systematically. The English language is so incredibly rich. Some of the words that I've seen appear to me like mirages, like apparitions, they appear and then vanish." Alexander is highly quotable and his work has made me want to learn more about surrealism. He writes, "And as was for Cesaire earlier, the Surrealism opened me up to animate use of language not unlike the ancient African atmosphere of consciousness; poetry is for me the celebration of that unbrokenness."

Next up was Adelle Foley, Jack Foley's wife and his co-editor in their two-book set. She read a sequence of haikus, called "60 Years Later," that reminded me of Gertrude Stein. Following Foley was Michael C. Ford, who read a poem about attending the funeral of his close friend, Jim Morrison. He performed his poetry for the first time in front of an audience with the Doors at a benefit event for Norman Mailer in 1969. Morrison, who had a special affinity for Ford because of their shared loved for poetry, asked him to read that day. When Morrison wanted to slow down from the rock & roll lifestyle, he organized his poems and collaborated with Ford. Ford's latest work, "Atonal Riff-Tunes To A Tone Deaf Borderguard" is a collection of poems about music, with pieces about Morrison, Mingus, Monk, and Gene Krupa. Every poem is perfect, with the craftsmanship that comes from practicing your craft over 50 years.

Jack

Kate Gale, poet and publisher of Red Hen Press, read next, followed by Dana Gioia. Gioia is a USC professor, an essayist, and known for his Neo-Formalist poetry. His poem about the death of his infant son was delivered from memory in a style as polished as a veteran spoken word poet. His skilled delivery helped highlight the precision of his work. Following Gioia was Pegarty Long, the sister of the influential Venice poet, Philomene Long. She read two of her sister's poems to much applause.

Suzanne Lummis was next, reading her poem "Shangri-LA." Long a booster for Los Angeles poetry, Lummis is one of the city's best known poetry professors. She is the granddaughter of Charles Fletcher Lummis, one of the city's first major literary figures. Like her grandfather, she has done much to promote the city's arts scene, having started the Los Angeles Poetry Festival in 1989. "Looking back over the L.A. Poetry Festival brochures, I can see the quality of poetry -- the skill, variety and intelligence of Los Angeles-area poetry -- improved markedly from '89 to '03," she says. "Many poets who've come through L.A. on reading tours and whatnot have told me there's a strange and wonderful energy in the L.A. poetry monde that's distinct from anything they've experienced so far. They usually express it as a kind of dynamic engagement."

A few years ago Lummis said to me, "I am willing to wager that if you took the most striking and accomplished poems that've sprung up from greater Los Angeles in the past dozen years," she insisted with a touch of reflection, "that grouping would equal or surpass any comparable mix from the creative writing programs or other urban centers around the country."

Other readers included the poet Sarah Maclay, followed by Estelle Gerhgoren Novak, the author of "Poets of the Non-Existent City," a detailed historical account of poetry in L.A. during the McCarthy era. The highly influential poet Jerome Rothenberg also read. Known for his important work as both a poet and editor, he read one of his sound poems from "Technicians of the Sacred." His translations and work with Border Poetics has helped open up the canon of traditional poetry. He's gone a long way to show just how diverse poetry can be. Then next came Timothy Steele, one of the best known Neo-Formalist poets and a recently retired professor from Cal State LA.

Amy Uyematsu then read her poem "The Ten Million Flames of Los Angeles," one of my favorite poems about the city. Uyematsu's first book "30 Miles From J-Town" won several awards, while her second book "Nights of Fire, Nights of Rain" is blurbed by Eloise Klein Healy on its back cover: "Uyematsu measures the cadences of her inner life against the cataclysmic throb of the public world in 'Nights of Fire, Nights of Rain,' and in so doing, raises the stakes for any poet who hopes to deal honestly with the overwhelming complexity of contemporary urban life." Healy is right, Uyematsu's "Ten Million Flames" is the perfect synthesis of the personal and universal, manifested as a poem about living in L.A. Written in 1994 after the Riots, it subverts the fear driven spirit from that era and instead says, "I'm starting to believe in a flame/which tries to breathe in each of us."

The final poem of the night was titled "Overture Chorus," performed as a duo by Jack and Adelle Foley. Together they perform choral poems, a process in which they go back and forth through call and response. Their years of experience performing live and hosting a radio show in San Francisco can be heard in their presentation. They've published several books and produced several CD recordings of their poetry.

Over the last 30 years, Foley has published work and tried to unify the poetry community in the Bay Area and LA. "Visions & Affiliations," is an important source of literary history for those interested in West Coast Poetry.

Only time will tell the accuracy of the Mayan Prophecy or what the rest of this December and 2013 will look like, but if the first half of the month is any indication, Los Angeles literary enthusiasts will be in good hands for years to come. This edition of LA Letters salutes our new poet laureate Eloise Klein Healy, Jack and Adelle Foley, and the poets of "Visions & Affiliations" -- because of these figures it has already been a December to remember.


About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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