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L.A. literary stalwart selected as city’s first poet laureate

L.A. literary stalwart selected as city’s first poet laureate
Eloise Klein Healy, selected to be L.A’.s first poet laureate, is shown in Echo Park. She has published seven books of poetry. Her appointment will last two years.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles TImes)

Before sitting down for tea in Echo Park, the poet reaches for her iPhone.

“I have to turn this thing off,” she explains, silencing the ringer. “It’s getting too noisy these days.”

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As a publisher, educator and author of seven books of poems, Eloise Klein Healy is a stalwart of the Los Angeles literary scene. Her phone has been buzzing more than usual in recent weeks as she prepares to take on a new title. On Friday, Healy will be named L.A.'s first poet laureate.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa decided earlier this year that his city, like others, should have a namesake poet. The mayor, who chose Healy from a pool of three finalists recommended by a selection panel, said he was moved by the grace of her writing and by her “belief in the power of poetry, and her commitment to sharing this power far and wide.”

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Healy spent her formative years in Iowa and still maintains an air of Midwestern modesty. She says she doubts the quality of her poems won her the laureate honor.

She guesses it had more to do with her long involvement in the arts community, especially the feminist art movement of the 1970s, and her subject matter: Los Angeles looms large in her work.

She writes lovingly of helicopters and bougainvillea, of strip malls and Santa Anas. Car thefts and stabbings are part of the backdrop. Freeways wind freely through her verse.

In a poem called “Los Angeles,” Healy describes the city as an older sister who was less pretty and less charming than her younger sibling. “There was something about your proportions / that was indelicate — your more abundant waist,” she tells the city.

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But in the final verse, a person enters and loves Los Angeles anyway:

Nobody expected it

and you never told about

the lover who met you

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loose and large

in the late afternoon

and loved you all night,

completely out of proportion.

Healy says she writes about Los Angeles to understand “the influence of place on people.”

It’s a technique she employs often. Once, while working on a book of poems about Sappho, the classical lyric poet, Healy traveled to the poet’s birthplace on the island of Lesbos in Greece. “I wanted to walk on a beach where she could have walked,” Healy said. “I wanted to look at that horizon.”

Healy is 69, but she seems much younger. She is trim, with olive skin and snow-white hair. For years, she lived down the street from the small Sunset Boulevard cafe where she sipped tea one morning this week. She chronicled her time in the neighborhood in a book called “Artemis in Echo Park.”

Since 1988, she has lived in Sherman Oaks with her partner, Colleen Rooney.

Healy was born in El Paso and raised in small-town Iowa, where her mother ran a restaurant and her father was a mechanic. When she was 10, the family took a trip to Los Angeles to visit relatives and decided to stay.

Her father found work in the special effects industry. Healy wrote some of her first poems on the back of the movie and television scripts he used to bring home. She remembers being outside a lot, and the thrill of the open freeway. Back then, before L.A. was hardened by gridlock, “you could just drive your car as fast as you wanted, as far as you wanted,” she said.

When people move to L.A. from other places, Healy tells them: “Don’t think of L.A. as a city. Think of it as a country.” She warns them it can “take some time to find your people.”

In the early 1970s, Healy found her people at Beyond Baroque, the legendary experimental writing center in Venice. Later, she taught poetry at the equally influential Woman’s Building in downtown Los Angeles, where artists such as Judy Chicago and other poets such as Wanda Coleman offered feminist teaching outside the confines of male-dominated universities and art schools.

Healy was married to a man when one day she met and fell in love with a woman who turned her life upside down. “It just ripped the whole cover off my history,” she said. She divorced and began life as a lesbian.

Many of her poems deal with sexuality. In 2006, she started an imprint for Pasadena’s Red Hen Press that publishes the work of lesbian authors.

Poet and author Bill Mohr has included Healy’s work in some of his compilations of L.A. poetry. Her “lesbian feminist” poems are deeply personal, he said, but still accessible for a wide audience.

“My heart glows,” he said upon hearing of Healy’s selection as the city’s laureate.

“She’s already walking the walk,” he said, recalling the day last year when Healy spoke to a small class of students at Cal State Long Beach, where he teaches.

“On her own nickel she drove all the way down to Long Beach to talk about being a poet and being an activist in the community,” he said. When Mohr told her she was too generous, Healy said: “No, Bill, this is just what you do. You give of yourself.”

Healy’s poet laureate appointment will last two years and comes with a $10,000 annual stipend. Along with making the required school visits and giving official public readings, Healy hopes to bring national attention to L.A’s literary scene, which she says is often over-shadowed by Hollywood.

“Poetry isn’t spectacular,” she said. “It’s not like the movies, it’s not like NASCAR.”

She also hopes to “introduce the city to its own writers.” She says she may select “poetry deputies” to give readings in retirement homes and at local businesses during lunch. Most of her stipend will go to pay for poetry books for students, she says.

“I feel like there are a lot of people who could really like poetry, who just don’t know it,” she said.

She has other obligations. She is professor emerita at Antioch University, where she founded the creative writing program. And she’s at work on new poems. One is about a hiking trip through the rain in Ecuador. Others are about a trying experience this summer, when she served as a juror on a high-profile murder trial. Healy and her fellow jurors delivered a murder conviction in a North Hollywood shooting triggered by an argument over a rude text message. “It felt like a Shakespearean tragedy,” she says with a shudder.

Mohr said he is looking forward to Healy’s new work. He believes she has “not yet reached her peak as a poet.”

“I think she’s still growing,” he said.

kate.linthicum@latimes.com


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