L.A.'s first poet laureate chose her path decades ago in Burbank

Eloise Klein Healy made history as the first poet laureate of Los Angeles, but her own story starts decades ago, when as teacher in Burbank, she set out on path of repeated rejection and, eventually, validation.

Appointed in December by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Healy is now leading a new conversation on poetry in City of Angels — her position is long way from where she started as a freshman at Providence High School in 1957.

“It’s totally amazing,” she said. “I’m 69 years old. All of a sudden somebody pays attention to what I’m doing.”

In high school, Healy played basketball and competed in the Burbank Ponytail softball league with her team, “The Pixies.”

At age 21, she began teaching, and in the early 1970s, she lived for a few years on Pepper Street in Burbank, writing six days a week.

She was 28 when she made up her mind about herself as a poet.

“I really felt I could say, ‘I’m in this, I mean to do it,’” Healy said.

Then, while attending a conference with 300 women at the former Woman’s Building downtown, Healy saw what was possible in an era when, she said, “the struggle was to be a woman poet and to be taken seriously.”

“That was the beginning of a very different relationship between me and poetry because I felt something was possible that wasn’t possible before,” Healy said.

But she would endure plenty of rejection and obstacles on her path to being a professional poet.

She would receive 80 letters of rejection before her second book was published.

“Sometimes I got five [rejection letters] a day,” Healy said. “It’s like having a big bag of cement dropped on my head.”

But she was undeterred. As the letters of rejection came, Healy would toss them in the trash and give herself two days — “then start up again.”

Healy later moved to Echo Park and spent several years writing her third book of poems, “Artemis in Echo Park.”

She taught for years at Cal State Northridge and then Antioch University, where she established the MFA program in 1997.

She retired in 2006 after 42 years of teaching.

Now, for up to two years, Healy will earn $10,000 a year visiting Los Angeles schools and neighborhoods as an ambassador for literary art.

“This is an area that we have not been very good with here,” she said. “I think it’s just part of the culture that, in a place that’s known as a production for entertainment, we then live in an age of spectacle. Poetry, for the most part, isn’t spectacle.”

Her parents, though, would likely consider her latest achievement to be just that.

“If they were alive now, their feet would not be touching the ground,” Healy said.

-- Kelly Corrigan, Times Community News

Follow Kelly Corrigan on Twitter: @kellymcorrigan

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