Next Tuesday, July 24 at ALOUD, the 17th edition of the annual newer poets program comes to the stage with six of Los Angeles’ freshest voices. Click here to reserve your free ticket. What exactly is a “newer” poet? And what is happening on the frontlines of the L.A. poetry scene? To get ready for next week, we caught up with the guest curators of the event. In Part One, we caught up with Gail Wronsky. Here, Eloise Klein Healy, the celebrated author of six collections of poetry and founder of Arktoi Books, a professor emerita at Antioch University Los Angeles and the co-founder of Eco-Arts, reflects on the once lonely path of writers, and how to hone your metaphors at libraries.
As a longtime Angeleno, what do you think characterizes the Los Angeles poetry community?
Eloise: I recently went to an event that is an exemplifier of what is unique to the Los Angeles poetry community—Beyond Baroque gave an award to Wanda Coleman and Amélie Frank, and it was held at the Church at Ocean Park in Santa Monica. The reason this is so significant is because Beyond Baroque is a very old presenting organization. When I first started to write, reading series were just beginning to develop and Beyond Baroque was the only place. I look at the maturation of Beyond Baroque, and it has a lot of parallels to the poetry community of Los Angeles because now you can go to three events every night and there are venues all over the place.
A lot has happened in terms of access that younger writers have to develop their skills—like being in workshops at these organizations, reading, getting practice by being interns or volunteers, or getting hired by these groups to do things like work in the archives—all of which work to develop one’s understanding of a community of artists. For a long time, that wasn’t happening here because Los Angeles was kind of a literary backwater and people here “only” wrote scripts. It’s been hard to move that image off-center and get a new one.
How has that image evolved? What has changed in the poetry community here over the last 10, 15, 20 years?
Eloise: My first book was first published in 1976 by Beyond Baroque Foundation because in that time the government was giving funds to literary organizations to help younger writers get more access and their books seen by a bigger public. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen much anymore since the government is out of the business of cultural sponsorship. But there I was with my first book, in a run of 8,000 copies, and they sent it out all over the country! You never get that coverage now. It was a different climate.
During that time, though, it was difficult to find a community of writers unless you were connected with one or two or three places in town. Now, there’s more opportunities to meet people and for educational advancement. There’s more colleges, and universities, and creative writing programs. Today, when I get manuscripts, 90 percent of those who send them in have a MFA.
Another thing that is different is the cultural and racial diversity of the poetry community. Los Angeles and places like New York and Chicago have a lot of cultural and societal mirroring going on because diversity has been happening, so more people are participating, and the younger writers are spreading out. It’s such an exciting time—there are spoken word poets, performance poets, people who are doing media stuff, animated poems, people making poems and music together.
As a guest curator for this ALOUD event, how did you approach selecting “newer” poets?
Eloise: I had a new author, Verónica Reyes, and this is the first person from Los Angeles I am publishing from my imprint, Arktoi Books. My other author, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, was a student of mine at Antioch, and she was and continues to coordinate for Beyond Baroque a reading series that brings together a teacher and a student, and they read together. She was getting involved and taking leadership in bringing a new combination to what’s offered in a public setting. It seemed perfect to put these two people together who are both ready for this type of venue. You have to be ready craft-wise and emotionally to go up on the library stage. The ALOUD audience is very educated about literature and they’re very appreciative, so I think these two will bring something interesting.
As we’re on the subject of libraries, what is your personal connection to libraries? Why are they important for poets?
Eloise: My connection to libraries began when I was seven years old. I lived in a small town in Iowa, and I was probably the main patron of the library. I was a big reader and I would get six or eights books at a time. I felt like the library was the candy store. There was so much to find out. That relates to poetry because in poetry you have to find out stuff.
In poetry you have to be acutely aware of the truth of the matter. How does a key really work in a lock? If you are interested in that as a metaphor, then you need to go find out how a lock works. Until we had the Internet, the library was the only source for that. It’s still a very important source of information. The library is like a bookstore because when you go there you will find something you did not plan for, and you can never predict that. I also think librarians are the most fantastic defenders of civil rights anywhere because they are always sticking up for books, and books are ideas.
A poem by Eloise Klein Healy (from The Islands Project: Poems For Sappho, Red Hen Press, 2007):
The Grackle On The Lawn
She wants the blossom.
She wants the seeds in the grass.
She wants the beautiful thing.
She wants to eat.
It’s so simple, she’s like a person.
She wants the beautiful thing.
She wants to eat.
She’s like a person, she wants to live
with that beautiful blossom and she wants to eat.
She flies off with the blossom in her beak.
–Posted by Bridgette Bates