When Joyce La Mers sits down to write,
She naturally turns on the light
Forgive me! I apologize, mea culpa, I am truly sorry! La Mers is an acknowledged master of light verse, and I don't qualify as even a hack. Still, when you write about a woman whose work has been likened to a marriage of Dorothy Parker and Ogden Nash, it's tough to keep the doggerel leashed.
A 78-year-old great-grandmother, La Mers last week took first prize in the Ventura County Poetry Festival. She has been published in the Wall Street Journal, several anthologies, and such literary journals as Light Quarterly--advertised as "the one place in America that regularly prints new work by the best unserious poets alive."
Sadly, these are not the best of times for the best unserious poets. The prevailing literary view is that poetry "can't be good and fun at the same time," laments John Mella, the Light Quarterly's publisher. His circulation hovers under 1,000, and his contributors tend to get older and older.
A generation or two ago, witty quatrains, diverting ditties and cunning couplets were sprinkled through the nation's mainstream magazines like raisins through the gruel. But times have grown harsher. Yesterday's Noel Coward is today's Howard Stern; the market for bits and pieces of intelligent frivolity is just about gone.
"Even the New Yorker doesn't accept light verse any more," La Mers said with a sigh. "People have lost their sense of humor."
Or have they?
Try stifling a grin at the following bleak truth from La Mers' collection, "Grandma Rationalizes an Enthusiasm for Skydiving":
When I am sick It hurts a lot To think of people Who are not.
But if I hear A friend is sicker I get well A whole lot quicker.
Or how about this musing on graffiti:
The L.A. River's concrete banks Bear proof along their gaudy flanks That taggers are exploring ways To dam a river with paint phrase.
Or this "Nursery Rhyme, Revisited":
Rings on her fingers?
That's not how it goes-
She has rings in her navel
Her eyebrow, her nose,
And in intimate places
Best covered by clothes,
For that's how you tell
That a belle's on her toes!
At her home on Channel Islands Harbor, La Mers putters in the garden, puts off writing her memoirs and shoots poems off to small magazines. She and her husband, Herb, a retired inventor, occasionally chug through the harbor on their powerboat, Paradigm. She gets together regularly with poet friends and stews eternally over the word not chosen, the line not written.
"Poets should get up in the morning and write a poem, good or bad, whether they want to or not, whether they feel like it or not," she says.
She doesn't--but she's written plenty.
Her first published work appeared in a periodical called Southern Churchman when she was 7.
At her dining room table one recent gray afternoon, La Mers recited it. It was about a plucky farmer.
"It was onward and upward from there," she said.
She has written a lifetime's worth of poetry--all of it disciplined, metrical, precise. She bemoans the Sixties, when trust in form crumbled and a generation of poets "wallowed in ignorance."
She wrote through a marriage gone sour and another still sweet. As a secretary, she typed 95 words per minute by day and wrote perhaps a dozen or two per hour at night.
At a time when women held few professional positions in advertising, she wrote copy for, among other places, Forest Lawn--a perfect job for an aspiring poet.
For two decades, she worked with her husband, marketing inventions such as the mechanism that moves vertical blinds and the machine that stamps labels on supermarket fruit. And for those decades, she wrote.
Understandably, not all her verse has been light. Take a recent lament called "Old Story":
I waited far too long to find my way,
And while I did the laundry, life moved on.
Who'd listen now to anything I say?
Assuring her I was listening, I asked what she gets out of poetry.
"It's fun, it gives me a certain satisfaction, and it brings me in contact with some very interesting people," she said. "And I don't take dictation any more."
And how does she write?
"Sometimes, the last line comes to me, and if I get the last line just right, I can get the whole poem."
When Joyce La Mers writes the end
Her start is somewhere 'round the bend . . .
Steve Chawkins is a Times staff writer. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.