La Loca : Literary Fame Is at Her Door and Valley Girl Pamala Karol Is Still Incredulous
She is “La Loca,” a self-described “poetess/philanderer.” A Valley girl of another kind and time, she grew up there in the ‘60s, a rebel who defied her parents and neighbors by hanging out with Chicanos and lauding black men.
A “pretty girl” no one thought lovely, a “brilliant girl” whose work no one respected, she has nevertheless recently joined the rarefied company of men and women of letters with critical acclaim for her just-published epic poem, “The Mayan.”
This week the incredulous poet--"I mean, I was born in Hollywood. I live in Los Angeles"--shares the stage with literary luminary Lawrence Ferlinghetti, literary brat-packer Jay McInerney and the lesser-known but critically hailed poet Sam Hamill of Washington state as one of the four official U.S. representatives to the Olympic Arts Festival in Calgary, Canada--being held in conjunction with the Winter Games there.
Recognition at Expo
Festival organizer and poet Trevor Carolan acknowledges that “very few have heard of her in the literary world.” But her appearances in Canada, beginning with a reading at the World Exposition in 1986 in Vancouver, generated intense interest.
Later, Carolan said, she read “at this hard-as-nails coffeehouse frequented by leftist, Latin-American exiles in Vancouver called La Quena. She came in with this L.A. hipster, show-biz repartee and had this hard-boiled, left-wing crowd eating out of her hand. It was truly something.”
Shortly after her La Quena performance, Carolan was hired to organize the writers segment of the Olympic Arts Festival.
“What we needed were people from the cutting edge of performance art. Everybody thinks of New York, but I had seen her.”
(In fact, all but one of the writers--McInerney--representing the U.S. at the festival are from the West Coast; La Loca and Ferlinghetti are both Californians.)
La Loca, Carolan said, follows in the tradition of Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg. “These people revolutionized poetry and took literature out of the polite salons. They kicked in the walls.”
La Loca, the crazy one, is reading her lyrical, humorous, violence-tinged verse. She is a performance artist with a harsh-hip, Hollywood bravado variously dressed in a black bustier or concealing layers of black cloth against pale white skin. She is a survivor of micro and macro domestic wars, the scars of which are reflected in her extravagantly made-up, hazel eyes, and in her poetry. She is reading from “The Mayan,” a song of domestic violence, bigotry, the joys of adolescence and the resilience of youth.
I had to live on my knees
as an ear.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you!”
and I would snap into microphone....
There is silence in this cool, white space called the Sand and Sea club in Santa Monica as she reads.
into the seraglio
came her new man.
She showed him my bound feet
and I called him
as big as a door.
He wore green slacks and
a yellow shirt
with a plastic pen holder
in the shirt pocket
that said Drone Spark Plugs.
Soon, he had a belt, too, which at
dinner time hung over the back of his
La Loca, nee Pamala Karol, was born to the Valley’s struggling working class on March 29, 1950. Her mother and father divorced when Karol was very young and she was raised by her mother and stepfather. Her work, she says, “is scrupulously autobiographical.”
She is open, vulnerable. Her attentive audience, filled this night with friends celebrating the Bone Scan Press publishing of “The Mayan,” applaud her work. They applaud her existence. She was near death less than two years ago, a victim of ovarian cancer. “They cut my guts out,” she says.
She tears at the sound of applause, the salty liquid smudging the dark paint decorating her eyes. To watch this kinetic portrait of sass and blood and fire and gentle weeping is to wonder if an eggshell shaved translucent could be more fragile than her soul.
Pamala Karol--child of the ‘60s, Berkeley graduate, Sorbonne attendee, aspiring screenwriter and winner of two Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences film study grants and the 1986 Academy of American Poets College Prize--autographs copies of “The Mayan” for friends after the reading at the Sand and Sea club.
She published “The Mayan"--her name for the movie theater where she and her pre-adolescent friends hung out--as a gift to herself after winning the war against cancer. The several thousand dollars it cost to print came from money saved working as a legal secretary--still her primary source of income.
Scrawls Personal Messages
Garrulous as she scrawls personal messages along with her autograph, she is overheard to say that her last relationship contributed to the cancer she developed.
“I personally do think so, the stress of it, though there’s no scientific evidence,” she says later. “This guy was like a major, major blackout drinker. It was like being with a wild animal that you would put a leash on.”
Not having a man in her life was the worst part of facing a potentially fatal illness. “I went through cancer alone, without a hug.”
The night she was released from the hospital after a hysterectomy, she lay in her bed in immense pain, unable to move and the object of a misogynist neighbor’s taunts.
“He stood outside my cottage yelling my name. And all I could think of is ‘They’ve taken all my organs out, stitches are holding me together and if he breaks in and rapes me I’ll bleed to death and die.’ ”
As she got better and was able to move, she would walk to the corner store for food because she couldn’t drive. Along the way, men she describes as immigrants would spit at her and call her whore.
They did it “because I was single and live alone,” she says. It started when she first moved on the block. “I was a sensation,” a peroxide blonde.
“If I was a man, it wouldn’t have happened to me,” she says, choking still with hurt.
Incredibly, “I looked like the rich white American to them,” she says. “I had a brand new car, which was broken into constantly . . . I was like the closest they could come to dispensing their direct hostility toward Americans.”
But she says, the pain of an unhealed wound in her voice, “I’ve been poor my whole life.”
Identity With Victimized
In “The Mayan” and earlier poems, particularly “Why I Choose Black Men for My Lovers,” the woman who was to become La Loca intuitively identified with society’s victimized. Though she says of the latter poem, “I do think it could be seen as racist,” because it suggests that she only likes black men “when I really think all men are the same.” But what she saw in black men’s eyes was a reflection of her own pain, an instant understanding, she says.
Earlier at the Sand and Sea, the audience had laughed at the spirit of adolescence La Loca so perfectly captured in another part of the same poem, “The Mayan.” She poured out these stanzas in a breathy, girlish tone of longing, an implied quest for understanding.
“I would have been a dwarf
if it weren’t for Carmen Wilson,”
she read, standing in front of an audience of about 50 and a KCET TV film crew.
“She was cool,” the poet gushed in character.
“She was 12, carried a purse and
She went to the Mayan every
Girl’s rooms of the world
lore and phantasmagoria
where Carmen would
clue me in:
He phoned her
He told her
He frenched her
He felt her
the silver chain
the St. Christopher
the tin anklet
with the little tiny heart.
She had met him at the Mayan.
Raoul, oh Raoul,” the name was a blessing and kiss on the poet’s lips.
“To have the name of a boy
written in your hand
To tuck it under your pillow
and make a wish
to have the name of a boy
way past my bedtime.
To have the name of a boy
something in the world willy
nilly and extant
and far away from
the irremediable squalor of
and she emptied his name
like a monomaniacal hosanna
the peak tremulo
of an ungovernable aria
and I listened, listened, listened.”
Looking back “with the eyes of a 37-year-old woman,” on her Mexican girlfriends in the 1960s and her own working-class background portrayed in “The Mayan,” she says: “I’m able to interpret it in terms of class distinctions.
“I have a real Marxist consciousness about everything. I really see everything in terms of labor, income and social standing. And I do understand that it was the girls and boys who were incredibly poor who rejected bourgeois values because they weren’t operable for them. In a bourgeois society they couldn’t measure up, so they were rebellious.”
Leave It to Beaver
And so she identified with them. They called themselves “greasers . . . the girls who ratted their hair, lost their virginity when they were 12" (not hers though, she says, not until she was 20). “This was horrific,” she squeals delightedly, “this was like 1962,” in Leave it to Beaver Land.
And in that world, at that time, without the aid of Marx “I thought the reason I didn’t have shoes was because I was bad.”
It was only a year ago that she moved into the one-bedroom cottage on the Hollywood street filled with immigrant male chauvinists.
Until then: “I always lived in rooms, or singles with like 90-year-old women on Social Security checks. I’ve always sought out the cheapest form of habitation.”
The consistent, low-level terrorization she says she encounters on her Hollywood street is but an extreme example of the abuse women endure daily in this culture, she says. “Women are under siege,” she assesses, quoting the current man in her life, an 18-year-old anarchist who dropped out of high school and lives at home with his father, a psychiatrist, and mother--all immigrants from South Africa.
The singles dilemma for women is the reason for this state of siege, she believes.
The number of available single women make it possible for men to have a “harem if they want.” That gives them power over women, she says. “All sex is political. And you can’t be horny and be a feminist at the same time.”
But personally, La Loca says, she wants to “bond with a man.”
“And I want to absolutely burn every book by these modern-day psychologists who have as the object of their therapy that a woman is supposed to be independent and be happy with yourself first before you can get a man. You can’t get a man if you go looking for one,” the pop psychologists say. Well, La Loca counters, “I think it is the natural state of being for a woman to be bonded in a monogamous relationship with a man.
“I don’t think it’s right that I have to learn to adapt myself to an unnatural situation. And that I have to get my stuff together first. Getting a man is getting my stuff together.”
But male rejection in her life has been a constant, she says shaking her head with dismay.
In her work, the poet says, “I always try to investigate the . . . myriad ways of subtle rejection that were as violent and brutal as if I had been beaten.”
“There is a literary establishment that is threatened by people like her,” Carolan says. “That’s why she does not get much ink.”
The establishment wants people like “Norman Mailer at the festival,” he says. “We didn’t invite him. We don’t want him.”
Carolan likens La Loca to “Cassius Clay who came out of nowhere in the 1960 Olympic Games” and ended up the greatest champion in the history of boxing, Muhammad Ali.
She “is working on becoming a star,” he says. “And by the head-shaking, overwhelming reaction to her appearances, she can do it.”
In the past, she didn’t have enough self-esteem to promote herself, La Loca says. It’s all “so vain-glorious and egotistical. I hate doing readings and publicity. But I’m not naive. I know I must market my work. Otherwise, the Tama Janowitzes of the world are going to be the only ones with books to offer. I want to be in a position where I can offer an alternative that has a lot more to say about reality and human relationships.
It is another day, the conversation of the previous night continues at a Denny’s in Hollywood. A waiter eyes suspiciously two women in conversation hogging a booth for more than the “one hour only” allowed patrons.
La Loca rolls her eyes, bereft of paint at this early morning hour. They are red from lack of sleep preparing for the trip to Canada and days of interviews. She rubs them and they tear, glistening in an innocent and ghostly pale face.
She asks for another order of potatoes to keep the waiter at bay.
Then she explains the name, “crazy woman.”
“Somebody actually calls me that. Someone who’s a major movie star now who’s Cuban, but I’m not going to tell who. We never did sleep together but we did make out in my Volkswagon torridly. It was just like a two-week thing. But after he stopped calling me he went around telling everybody I’m crazy. And until this day he calls me La Loca and laughs and snickers. And I can’t figure out what I did that was so inappropriate,” she says with sincere amazement.
“But you know what? Now that I’ve accrued some notoriety from my writing and critical acceptance, not a single man has termed me that. They don’t dare.” Only she has that right now.