Setting L.A.'s poetry in motion
Dana Gioia spent many years doing battle in that viper’s nest of bureaucrats and elected officials called Washington, D.C.
This fall the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and L.A. native found himself back home. In a series of closed-door meetings, he was often on the receiving end of heated comments from people who can gleefully transform words into weapons.
“These are poets,” Gioia said. “Poets are temperamental people.”
The city of Los Angeles will name its first poet laureate Friday. Gioia is the chairman of the selection committee, composed of poets William Archila, Kate Gale, Douglas Kearney and Amy Uyematsu and novelist Carolyn See. All were appointed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
For weeks, via email and in two meetings at city offices on Bunker Hill, they’ve been debating the merits of a list of writers that includes “stand-up” poets and academic poets, surrealists and others. Paid $10,000 annually, the winner will become an official city bard and traveling teacher, tasked with making school visits and giving public readings.
For L.A.'s poetry community, which has been home to iconoclasts like Charles Bukowski and Wanda Coleman, it’s a watershed moment -- and one that was unexpected. Poets are used to anonymity. L.A. poets, far from the center of U.S. publishing in New York, feel even more neglected.
“Poets live here because they love this city,” said Bill Mohr, a poet and author of the history “Hold-Outs: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance 1948-1992.” “It’s nice to see the city spontaneously give some of that love back.”
At a time when the written word seems under threat, and when schools and libraries face funding cuts, the poet laureate will be a kind of city warrior for the art of the word.
“What it says is that language, literature, the ability to take words and articulate why we suffer and why we aspire and why we survive is essential to our culture,” Gioia said.
In the community of poets, the creation of a city poet laureate means all those things too but also something more practical: It will provide the kind of official recognition that can define a career and lead to legions of new readers.
The post, funded by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, is the brainchild of Villaraigosa. Most U.S. states have poet laureates, as do many cities, large and small, including Boston, Santa Fe, N.M.; San Francisco and Santa Barbara.
Gioia said the committee began by brainstorming a wish list of 11 candidates they wanted in the mix. All but one of those poets were among the 40 people who were nominated or applied.
“We have an amazingly diverse group,” he said. “You could cast a World War II bomber picture with the poets we have.”
The committee is judging the candidates by three criteria established by its members and the mayor’s office. The poet laureate must have achieved literary excellence, have a strong personal connection to Los Angeles and demonstrate a willingness to go out and serve the people of the city.
Using that criteria, a resurrected Jack Kerouac wouldn’t necessary qualify because he didn’t plant roots in L.A. A reclusive genius in the mold of Emily Dickinson would get a no from the committee too, because, “We love you, Emily, but you won’t leave your house,” Gioia said.
The members of the committee declined to discuss the names of any poets they were considering. But taking into account the committee’s criteria, Mohr handicapped a shortlist of poets he thinks could make the final cut, including Coleman, Suzanne Lummis, Paul Vangelisti, Eloise Klein Healy and Will Alexander.
That small group has diverse styles and experience.
Alexander is a surrealist poet known for his love of abstract word play -- his books have titles like “Arcane Lavender Morals” and “Above the Human Nerve Domain.”
Lummis fashions narratives with irony and empathy, like “Letter to My Assailant,” an account of an assault that includes the lines, “Even with your unfriendly arm at my throat / you could hide nothing from me.”
Vangelisti collaborated with Bukowski and others to produce some of the first anthologies of L.A. poets in the 1970s. Healy founded the writing program at Antioch University and is a “universal” poet who often writes about lesbian themes, Mohr said.
Coleman, a native of Watts, began writing poems as a single mom in the 1970s and has since published “a whole shelf full of books,” Mohr said. She is likely among top two or three candidates, according to Mohr and other poets who asked not to be named because they have nominations before the committee.
The committee also may consider Marisela Norte, David St. John, Ellyn Maybe, Holly Prado, Sesshu Foster and Luis J. Rodriguez.
Gioia said he’s been lobbied by all sorts of people -- applicants include schoolteachers, university professors and actors, he said. In meetings at the city Department of Cultural Affairs and in a series of email exchanges, the members of the committee have been ranking lists of poets according to a point-system Gioia has used in other competitions.
In the end, the committee gave Villaraigosa a list of three finalists. The mayor chose the first laureate from that list. The poet will earn less than one-quarter the minimum salary paid to an LAPD officer. In these austere times, even that small amount of money might seem like an extravagance when it’s spent on poetry, but it buys something big, Gioia said.
“He or she will touch thousands of lives in a positive way,” Gioia said. “I have no problems defending this as a civic appointment.”
While the committee debates, L.A.'s poets wait anxiously. For some, after years of hard work and great personal sacrifice, the idea of sudden public attention is almost too much to hope for.
“I’m scared that anything whatsoever will annoy the panel,” one candidate said, explaining why she wouldn’t comment publicly.
The winner will serve at least one year as poet laureate with a second year if the city approves of his or her performance. That means that over the course of 10 years the city should name at least five poet laureates who together will represent a wide range of experiences and poetic ambitions, Gioia said.
But it’s important to get the first one right.
“I am fully confident we will have an exemplary poet laureate,” Gioia said.