Trying to Put a Little Poetry Into Our Lives


If Webster’s ever put a picture next to its definition of the word “poet,” it would likely be one of Suzanne Lummis: slight, almost bird-like, dark hair wisping from beneath a habitual beret, blue eyes framed by large glasses that tend to slide to the end of her nose and perch there precariously, unnoticed, as she reels off the most sublime images of this poem or that.

But make no mistake: There is steel in those eyes, ironclad determination enough to have made Lummis into not only a poet of note, but L.A.’s most famous poetry impresario, a tireless literary advocate who has worked to raise poetry’s visibility and bridge the cultural gap between the written and spoken word in a city that, partially because of its geography, is full of cultural gaps itself.

No small undertaking, this--especially in a film-dominated town--one that resonates with vision, commitment and not a little bit of odds-bucking madness.


Exactly the qualities associated with Lummis’ famous grandfather, Charles Lummis, a journalist who walked from Ohio to the L.A. region in 1895, fell in love with the land and went on to become a key figure in the preservation of Native American culture and Southern California history.

Although she is loath to call herself a pioneer of such magnitude, Suzanne Lummis unquestionably shares his passion for cultural preservation, for a place many people once dismissed as a desert (and still do) as well as a burning desire to show the world the stuff it’s really made of.

“The city tends to forget that it needs its poets,” Lummis says. “This is a center of movies, of commerce, but there’s still an emotional and spiritual hunger for poetry. Culturally, we can’t get by on . . . TV.”

Her high, girlish voice is as ethereal as her appearance, but Lummis speaks with precision and deadpan certainty, qualities bred of a fundamental optimism about her work. Since “plunging headlong into poetry” in the early ‘80s, she has supported herself solely by writing and teaching. She co-founded the L.A. Poetry Festival in 1990 and served as director for five years. Then she turned her energies to co-editing “Grand Passion: The Poets of L.A. and Beyond,” a sweeping anthology of Southland poetry featuring more than 80 authors. Published last year by Red Wind Books, it is the city’s largest poetry collection to date. Lummis says the book was the logical culmination of the festivals--poetry curated on the page rather than in places--and her piece de resistance.

“Live readings are so ephemeral--you do them and poof! they’re gone. I wanted something of permanence, which is why I did ‘Grand Passion,’ ” she says, brushing unruly strands of hair from her eyes. “I see it as a handbook for young poets who may have to end up reading some Boston poet who lived 30 years ago just to find out what the genre is all about.”

“Grand Passion” also serves as “a calling card outside of this city to the rest of the literary world,” says poet and co-editor Charles Webb. “It’s archival. Any poet anywhere now can pick it up and know what’s going on in the L.A. poetry scene, which has changed drastically since the mid-’80s. It’s long overdue.”


Despite having prominent family roots and obvious civic pride, Lummis is not a native. She grew up in the Bay Area, and her arrival here in 1979 made her the first Lummis to return to L.A. since the 1920s.

She initially came to seek her fortune as an actress, but “poetry eventually consumed me” and her life began shaping itself around it. Encouraged in literary endeavors by her parents (“I declared to them--and the world--that I was going to be a poet when I was 9,” she recalls), Lummis honed her talents in a graduate program at Fresno State with such poets as Phil Levin, Peter Everwine and Chuck Hanzlicek. Particularly influential was Levin.

“Phil said of my first poem, ‘You’re not writing well, but you will,’ then proceeded to tear it apart,” says Lummis, laughing. “I knew it was very great praise. I stuck with it.”

Like her grandfather, and many other artistically inclined Angelenos, Lummis is a vocational maverick. Poetry is her livelihood, but she has been an actress and playwright. Several of her shows, including “Oct. 22, 4004 BC” and “Night Owls,” were critically lauded. She is frequently cast in character roles in plays around town, including a Justin Tanner show last year.

“I don’t know, people think I’m funny onstage,” she muses, looking genuinely puzzled. “I don’t really see myself as comic.”

Her unaffected quirkiness and theatrical sensibility have served Lummis well in her goal of marrying performance-based poetry--”spoken word”--with more traditional, literary works that, as she puts it, “stand up on the page.” Her airy delivery of her work at public readings and keen sense of line structure evidence her great appreciation for both. Although “Grand Passion” showcases everything from strictly metered verse to narrative poetry bordering on prose, Lummis insists that everything lead with craft.


“The people working the hardest are writing the best poetry,” she says simply. “The poetry monde here is so varied, there really is no one community. On one end are the raw, unschooled poets, and on the other are trained, seasoned poets or academics. Then you have the hobbyist poet who reads in coffeehouses, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”


Despite her best efforts at democracy where the L.A. Poetry Festivals and “Grand Passion” were concerned, Lummis has been accused of being exclusionary, of cultivating favorite poets and benignly ignoring the rest. Other poets say that such criticism simply comes with the organizer territory and that Lummis on the whole has done a yeoman’s job of unearthing poetry from the most far-flung of L.A.’s many corners.

Indeed, the festival regularly featured readings by Cuban American, African American and other groups, staged in such unlikely places as the Echo Park United Methodist Church and Kelbo’s tiki lounge in West L.A. (now defunct). All this, with no funds save an occasional city grant.

“The L.A. festival functioned as a poetry village, poetry central,” Webb says. “It’s been a very, very positive force. The poetry scene really owes Suzanne a debt.”

Longtime poet Eloise Klein Healy says that while many poets espouse the same feeling for poetry that Lummis does, few commit the way Lummis does to pulling off large events.

“It’s pretty much a thankless task,” Healy says. “Suzanne’s a catalyst, which also makes her a punching bag. But she does this pretty much out of her hat. Most of the work in the world is done by 2% of the people, and Suzanne is one of those people.”


Poetry has extracted a price from Lummis in other ways. Money is a constant inconstant; for many years she lived in a ramshackle East Hollywood building that harbored gang activity and was routinely littered with hypodermic needles. It provided, if nothing else, inspiration for her “Night Owls” play and for an upcoming poetry collection tentatively called “In Danger.” Lummis’ other volumes include “Idiosyncrasies” (Illuminati Press, 1984) and “Falling Short of Heaven” (Pennywhistle Press, 1990).

Bill Mohr, editor of the last L.A. poetry anthology of note in 1984, “Poetry Loves Poetry,” admires Lummis’ sacrifice not merely for her art, but for artists everywhere.

“She’s committed to quality poetry, and also to diversity, and that’s what makes ‘Grand Passion’ work,” he says. “She’s a very intelligent, articulate editor. She also has an extreme sense of individuality and honesty that’s pretty rare. There’s a commitment to living life the way she wants. She realizes in the old-fashioned sense that she’s alive, and she has all the vulnerability that goes along with it.”

Lummis does seem like L.A.’s perfect poetry doyenne, funky and freewheeling but also surgically precise in her explications and expectations of poetry. “She understands that good poetry is like mathematics, that it’s universal,” says Eric Priestley, an original member of the Watts Writers Workshop and “Grand Passion” alumnus. “What’s unusual is that she’s a poet who also edits and is sincerely interested in other people’s work. Most poets are egotistical. They’re for themselves.”

Lummis coordinated reading dates the first National Poetry Month, just ended. Now she’s thinking ahead to larger, ongoing tasks: reviving the poetry festival to mark the millennium, somehow establishing L.A.-based publishing companies so that West Coast writers will no longer have to endure East Coast snubbery or try to contort themselves into the supremely wry, pithy style embodied by poetry published in New Yorker magazine. As she talks on, I toss her a question that would be a curve in any writer’s book: How would she rate herself as a poet?

Lummis pauses midstream only a moment before answering.

“I’m one of the great poets of my age,” she replies without a trace of irony. “I had a calling. If there’s such a thing, I got it--the sacred and profane fire.”