I saw an announcement from Los Angeles Magazine this week about an upcoming issue on the quintessential L.A. Woman. Readers were asked to email nominees and potential choices. Over the last few weeks I have listed a few dozen L.A. women writers and musicians in this column. This week L.A. Letters discusses Iconic L.A. Women.
I have always appreciated list poems or catalog essays because it's important to record an inventory of influential voices together in context. Inevitably it's easy to miss a few important figures even when you think you are being comprehensive. Language poet and literary scholar Ron Silliman wrote about the similar difficulty of choosing poets for an anthology: "Today, when estimates of the number of publishing poets in English start at 20,000 -- and some more than double that figure -- the notion that anyone could represent the progressive side of American verse with just 115 poets is, on its face, preposterous." This same idea for choosing an archetypal woman for a city of four million and a region of close to 12 million is just as preposterous.
Nonetheless, last year the activist/writer/professor Sharon Sekhon from the Studio of Southern California History wrote an epic list poem of Iconic L.A. Women. Her piece was so detailed and comprehensive that it took one of her students over 30 minutes to read it aloud to a crowd of listeners at a pop-up reading I hosted in Chinatown. Sekhon has a Ph.D in History and has done extensive research on the last two Centuries of Los Angeles women. Her perspective as an author is from a position of social justice. Rather than writing about actresses or divas, Sekhon has her own idea about LA Women:
They are givers, doers, makers and the lovers.
They are the teachers. the artists. the doctors. the janitors.
They are the daughters. the activists. the planners. the retirees.
They are the sisters. the architects. the lawyers. the engineers.
They are the writers. the grandmothers. the chefs. the anthropologists.
Her poem is an outgrowth of an earlier research project from 2007, in which Sekhon organized a gallery event at the Studio for Southern California History called "L.A. Women: A Record of Experience." The exhibit included a colorful graphic timeline that listed over 100 L.A. women.
Sekhon's poem, co-authored with scholars Stephanie Christian and Aimee Dozois, uses the women in the timeline and focuses on activists, authors and dynamic women who are "pioneers who make new definitions and shape new fields. Ladies who do not need labels to live." Though I knew many of the names in her poem, like Gloria Allred, Michelle Kwan, Lauren Bon, Biddy Mason, Dorothy Healy, Judy Baca, Judy Chicago, Jenny Price, Nina Revoyr, Anna Deavere Smith, Carolyn See, Lisa See, Anna May Wong, Betty White and Marisela Norte, Sekhon also included dozens of influential women I knew nothing about. She even has a footnote that extends the dialogue, "If you feel I have missed someone, please write your own poem and spread the love."
My hats off to Sekhon, she did a meticulous execution with her tribute to L.A. women.
I'd like to add a few other names right here. One of the most prolific L.A. women poets of the last generation is Gloria Alvarez who, like L.A.'s poet laureate Eloise Klein Healy, spent a lot of her early years in poetry organizing workshops and readings at the Women's Building in Downtown L.A. She also organized several of the first poetry workshops for Chicana women in Boyle Heights back in the mid-1980s. She's mentored countless up-and-coming women writers over the last few decades and has performed and published internationally. Writer Sesshu Foster has described Alvarez, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles and left home at age 16, as a poet who
...speaks for the feminine dark side of this city in language that shifts image and shadow, mixes Spanish and English, articulating the profound daily wonder of survival. Beyond the glare of Hollywood, this city on any given late afternoon remains a blur of shadows and taillights in traffic on Sunset, Alvarado, Vermont, Olympic. Behind a city of appearances, her tone vibrates in the very air itself like the gently struck tone of wonder, like a plumed trill on the codex.
The last time I saw Gloria Alvarez was at 826LA in Echo Park, where we both teach poetry workshops from time to time. I've written about 826LA before and their community service to young writers is well known. Two women I have worked with at 826LA are up-and-coming writers following in the footsteps of Alvarez.
The first one is Zoe Ruiz. In addition to being a fiction writer, essayist and poet, Ruiz is one of the Editors of the Rumpus and works as a yoga instructor. She hosts readings at Stories Books and is always involved with the literary arts in one way or another. Chiwan Choi describes Ruiz: "She's part of the backbone of the literary community. She spends most her energy promoting and building up the energy of the whole, even though she's clearly one of the best writers around herself."
Marisa Urrutia Gedney is another excellent writer-teacher I've met at 826LA. After growing up in Downey and then studying in college with notable poets like Lorna Dee Cervantes, she landed in San Francisco at age 22, where she taught writing workshops and participated in literacy programs for Bay Area youth. After several successful years up north she came back home to L.A. and is now the Director of Operations and Programming at 826LA. Energetic and caring, she's an outstanding teacher, as well as poet. She was just chosen by Forbes Magazine as one of their "30 Under 30" in Education.
Corrie Greathouse is a novelist and poet that has just published her novella, "Another Name For Autumn." Her book is the first in a series by Black Hill Press, a publisher that specializes in the novella -- "a distinctive, mid-length fiction often overlooked as a literary genre. This art form is commonly described as being too long to be short and too short to be long." Her story of a New England woman coming of age in season-less L.A. is pathos-filled. "For three years I've been alone in Los Angeles," she writes, "watching the world through windows that are sometimes dusty and sometimes clear, listening to the outside and searching the hole where my heart used to be for clues."
Vickie Vertiz is a poet and writer who grew up in Southeast Los Angeles. After living in the Bay Area for a few years after her undergrad, she is now attending the UC Riverside MFA program. Similar to other outstanding alumni from her class, like V Zamora and Rachelle Cruz, Vertiz has been studying with California Poet Laureate and UC Riverside Professor Juan Felipe Herrera. Herrera just published two of her poems on his website. Her forthcoming book by Finishing Line Press is titled "Swallows." Vertiz and her classmates and alumni from the UCR Writing program have been very active over the last few years at venues like Skylight Books and in publications like the literary journal "Boom" and the "Los Angeles Review of Books."
Jaz James is a singer-songwriter and vocalist that falls somewhere between Joni Mitchell and Billie Holliday. James is a lifelong L.A. native that can rightfully be called a child of Laurel Canyon. She grew up around industry figures like the Dude himself, Jeff Bridges. Her live set blends her own bluesy songs with jazz standards and unexpected covers of Bob Marley and Fleetwood Mac. She's been playing with a live band that includes tenor saxophonist and young jazz giant Kamasi Washington, along with other stellar musicians. Their live show is something to see. There's a timeless familiarity about her voice that harkens back to Sarah Vaughn, Etta James, Janis Joplin and the two other singers mentioned a few sentences ago, but she still manages to very much be a vocalist of her own era. Her songwriting and musicianship convey a deep commitment to the craft. Jaz James is a rising star.
These aforementioned writers and musicians are just a few of the incredible women representing Los Angeles with strength and integrity. As Sharon Sekhon so eloquently stated, "If you feel I have missed someone, please write your own poem and spread the love." There's a creative renaissance currently flourishing in Los Angeles and these women are central figures. Here's to the Iconic L.A. Women, they are each Queens of L.A. Letters.
Top: Vickie Vértiz. Photo courtesy of Finishing Line Press.