MAILANDER ON … LA - “One name leaped to everyone’s mind,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported when Mayor Willie Brown proposed the idea of a Poet Laureate for San Francisco in 1998. Of course, the name was Ferlinghetti, who became that city’s first Poet Laureate later that year.
There may be no such figure presently in LA. Even so, not to be outdone, Olga Garay and Dana Gioia—the same out of town arts hucksters who thought it would be a good idea for LA to build a pavilion in Guadalajara for a book fair a few years back—have hit the pueblo with an encore: they have installed a Poet Laureate for the City of Los Angeles. Working their ties to USC Annenberg and the Mayor’s office, they have created the post in perpetuity. And local media have fawned accordingly.
It may be too late here in LA to find someone who might be a consensus First Poet Laureate. Bukowski of course is dead, mercifully, and he would likely both come closest to filling the bill and outraging everyone as he filled it. Absent louche Buk, the name that would have leaped to my mind was Suzanne Lummis, not especially well known outside of Los Angeles but known to all here.
Wanda Coleman? Holly Prado? Carol Muske-Dukes? No, no. The name of LA’s first Poet Laureate didn’t exactly leap into many minds either here or elsewhere before her dubbing. The winner was ... Eloise Klein Healy.
Having written the stuff for over thirty years myself, I suppose this is how I came to be misinvited to Council Chambers to watch the new esteemed poet laureate of Los Angeles greet City Council this week. It figured to be an admirably rough mix, because LA Council Chamber is about the least poetic zone in the whole city, maybe the whole state. So I dutifully trudged downtown, to do my part, whatever my part might be.
If there was another poet present other than the laureate and yours truly, I didn’t see her.
The laureate came with books in hand, to dole out to every Council member. I can’t imagine Baudelaire, Ferlinghetti, or Cavafy all who came to represent their cities in the minds of readers, doing this, but this was done.
Then the laureate stood before Council to receive her lauds.
Eric Garcetti, the Councilmember with the most poetic soul, strangely said not much at all. Maybe he didn't want to call attention to the enormous gift sitting on his portion of the horseshoe, the size of a large box of whiskey. Given how I remember Jackie Goldberg's fabled "NO GIFTS" sign hanging above her City Hall office door all those years, and how Garcetti absorbed much of Goldberg's district, I hoped that Garcetti was giving and not receiving. It seemed very odd to see a wrapped gift sitting right on a Councilmember's desk; it was audacious, in fact. But Garcetti, ordinarily loquacious on all arts matters, passed in this case, which was a surprise.
Tom LaBonge of course never passes at an opportunity to hype and haw, and he recited a poem mentioning Hope and Grand and Olive and Flower and Figueroa, and ascribed it to Mick Jagger. He wanted the laureate to throw out a first poem at Dodger Stadium sometime this upcoming season. I shook my head—this is my Councilmember.
Richard Alarcon, standing with the laureate, who resides in his district, admitted that before the announcement, he didn’t know exactly what a poet laureate did until our city named one. This was at minimum refreshingly honest. How can the District Attorney possibly doubt this man?
Cultural Affairs jefe Olga Garay noted that the City received a whopping forty completed applications for the Poet Laureate position, and that Eloise Klein Healy’s was the nicest and the most thoughtful and the most complete. I found this praise faint and the number staggeringly low, given that there are easily 1,000 poets in Los Angeles, and none of them make anywhere near the $10,000 stipend the laureate will receive annually. But this is City Council, where General Managers need to show results, and Olga seemed very pleased with the number, and insisted it was a good one.
Deputy Mayor Aileen Adams was quick to praise the work of Dana Gioia, reporting to Council that because Dana had had a hand in naming a few poet laureates in the Bush Administration, he could reasonably be expected to have facilitated a fine choice here in LA. Of course, Bush’s six poet laureates were all white as sheets, as are Dana Gioia, Eloise Klein Healy, and Aileen Adams herself.
LA is something different than that cosmetically, and before this year Dana hadn’t himself lived in LA for over thirty-five years; nonetheless, the Deputy Mayor gave big props to Dana for a fine selection process.
There was some dicey dancing around the word “lesbian.” The Councilmembers were eager to call the laureate a “feminist” poet—the L word never came up. A feminist of course is not the same thing as a lesbian, though both identities may happily coexist in the same being. But in the real litchatting world, if you had to identify Healy at all, you would certainly identify her first as a lesbian poet, especially as the imprint at Red Hen that publishes her work aspires to publish work by “high quality by lesbian writers.”
Sappho is a topic of considerable contemplation. There’s lots of hedging about these things in Council, and I was saddened to see that Council couldn’t quite pull the trigger on the L word on someone who gladly brands herself as a lesbian poet. But that’s just my own poetic thing, not looking for euphemism and hedging so much as I am for precision and truth.
The laureate herself, having received the various laurels such as they were, was a tad demure and a tad more under-prepared—more so than I would have expected in someone being presented to Council for heaps of praise.
She mentioned in comments, for instance, that she couldn’t hope to meet all ten million people here—and at that moderate gaffe I even wondered if she truly understood that she was poet laureate of the City and not the County.
She also read a poem that I found oddly patronizing towards Latinos, not especially decorous for an Angeleno laureate to read on such an occasion, about soft tacos and Kent Twitchell’s old downtown mural “The Bride and Groom.”
She also confessed to not knowing for sure if the mural was still there or not--it would have been easy to check on her way in from the Valley, as the site is three blocks south of City Hall.
Another of our laureate’s more candidly “feminist” poems, far more representative of her overall work, admits:
“I am thinking about romance and its purpose.
Children and why I didn't have any.
I would have left the cave and them with it
or I would have tied them to me forever
with my own sad dreams and finicky order.
“I've liked young animals better.
I could put their heads in my mouth.
I could lick and clean them like a mother,
but I could not raise a child.”
That snip, from “Artemis” in “Artemis in Echo Park,” conflating the Greek goddess of childbirth with an early nineties stripe of lesbian activism that perhaps even bordered on mommy-dissing, made it past all screeners without giving anyone any pause whatsoever. But Eloise had filled out her forms in a way that pleased Olga, Dana, and the Mayor. Good luck to our first Poet Laureate, and nuestro pueblo.
Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of New World Triptych and The Plasma of Terror. Mailander blogs at www.josephmailander.com.) Photo credit: Dan Krauss