Doris Curran; Founded UCLA Poetry Readings
Doris Curran, who created UCLA’s Poetry Reading Series three decades ago and turned it into a nationally recognized program for poets, has died at 67.
Plagued by a host of health problems, Curran died April 27 at UCLA Medical Center.
The poetry series has attracted a who’s who of poets, including Gwendolyn Brooks, Tess Gallagher, Louise Gluck, Seamus Heaney, Galway Kinnell, Stanley Kunitz, W.S. Merwin and Robert Pinsky. Now called the UCLA/Hammer Poetry Series, it moved to the UCLA Hammer Museum in Westwood several years ago. The series is still free of charge, as it was when Curran ran it.
A native of Dallas, Curran graduated from North Texas State University in 1954 with a degree in English and moved to San Francisco, where she took acting workshops and performed in numerous small-company productions.
She moved to Southern California and took a job in the office of Franklin D. Murphy, UCLA’s chancellor. By the early 1960s, she was running the UCLA art gallery. She later joined UCLA’s cultural and recreational affairs department.
The department, which had just taken over a complex of meeting rooms in Sunset Canyon, had one goal: to enrich the cultural life of UCLA students. To that end, Curran brought in ethnic dance, folk music, visual arts and fashion shows. But her real love was poetry, and over time it became the focus of her efforts.
The readings were held most often in the Buenos Aires Room at Sunset Canyon, a long, rectangular space with a fireplace, big sofas and overstuffed chairs, and folding chairs along three sides. The setting was intimate, and poets didn’t need a microphone. Attendance at this and other venues would range from 40 to more than 100.
Curran often seemed to fund the program with blue smoke and mirrors, stretching her budget by drawing in other other departments on campus to co-sponsor events. She also worked with other area universities to co-sponsor poets’ visits to Southern California. She sometimes persuaded visiting faculty members to read without compensation.
When times were particularly tough, she would use her own money to help keep the program going. She and her husband, Darryl, often would house visiting poets and after readings would sometimes throw large dinner parties in their Cheviot Hills home.
Stephen Yenser, a professor of English at UCLA and current curator of the poetry series, said the program was invaluable for sustaining interest in poetry.
“It became the best venue in the area . . . maybe even the West Coast, for poetry reading,” Yenser told the UCLA Daily Bruin. “Most of the best American poets of our time came through here over the years.”
Curran, who battled heart disease, diabetes, failing eyesight and pernicious anemia, took early retirement from UCLA in the early 1990s. She continued to work part time and did volunteer work to help sustain the program, but had to stop five years ago after breaking a hip.
When asked by a Times reporter some years ago why running the UCLA program had been so important to her, Curran replied, “It’s a connection of sorts; it gives me something to do and people to care about, and an excuse for reading a lot.”