2015 George Drury Smith Presentation Speech

DATE: April 12, 2015

PLACE: Church in Ocean Park, 235 Hill Street, Ocean Park, CA 90405

EVENT: Beyond Baroque’s Annual Fund-Raising Dinner

OCCASION: The bestowing of the 2015 George Drury Smith Award

RECIPIENT: Suzanne Lummis

PRESENTER: Bill Mohr

AWARD PRESENTATION SPEECH

      The Doubly Improbable:

 Suzanne Lummis and the Wide Awake Poetics of L.A. Poetry

Years ago, back in the mid-1970s, I was at a book fair in San Francisco and I began talking with another poet-editor-publisher, J. Rutherford Willems, who ran Isthmus Press, about what it meant to operate a small press and he said, “Well, I am a cultural worker.” I was not certain at the time that one could volunteer for that job, but it has proved to be an accurate rubric to describe the bodhisattvas of contemporary literature, those who care about more than their own careers. It’s no small miracle when a poet comes along whose ambitions for the communities of poets she or he lives in the midst of exceed the aspirations that that poet has for her or his own writing. It’s even more miraculous when that poet goes on to produce poems that merit a place of canonical memory. In exemplifying that selflessness that has still enabled her to mature as a writer with a distinct, singular voice, Suzanne Lummis has pulled off the doubly improbable.

Specifically, in the final two decades of the past century, her work as the founding director of the Los Angeles Poetry Festival was crucial in nurturing the development of a variety of scenes in the Los Angeles area. This spring, in the second decade of this century, she has edited an anthology, Wide Awake, that demonstrates how many new poets have come up through the ranks in the past 30 years. This is not her first anthology; Grand Passion (1995) served as her initial survey of the impact that her festival had in integrating a younger generation of poets with the core of the L.A. poetry scene of the 1970s.

Such a grasp of several generations of poets would seem possible only if one had a grand design for one’s life, and such appears to be the case. Born in 1951, Suzanne Lummis wasted little time in deciding on her vocation. According to her bio note in Grand Passion, she was nine years old when “she alarmed her friends and family by announcing she intended to become a poet.” Subsequently, Lummis added, “all worst fears were realized,” fears it should be added that were compounded by also adding playwrighting and acting to those ambitions. Though she won much praise as a playwright, and her acting as a member of the theatrical troupe, Nearly Fatal Women, alongside Laurel Ann Bogen and Linda Albertano, retains an impeccable timing, her enduring legacy will be her own poetry within the context of her splendid work in the community. Not the least of her contributions has been the consistency with which her poems have amplified the poetics of Stand Up poetry, a school that has its roots in Los Angeles County, all the way from Long Beach at its southern border to Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley.

Not everyone here tonight may realize exactly how much our poetry is starting to get critical attention. Most recently, Laurence Goldstein, who has taught at the University of Michigan for over 40 years, has written an entire book devoted to poems about Los Angeles, and we who live and work here are acknowledged throughout as superb writers. It is no accident that Laurence Goldstein leads off his introductory remarks by quoting an entire poem by Suzanne Lummis and giving her comic vision of L.A. a deeply appreciative close reading. It is one thing for her friends and peers in Los Angeles to praise her work. To find her singled out in a book such as Goldstein’s Poetry Los Angeles or to find her featured in a recent edition of the New Yorker indicates that we have chosen well this year. Indeed, Professor Goldstein’s praise of Suzanne’s latest anthology sums up exactly why we are here tonight. Both in her own poems and in the poems she nominates with her own discerning eye and ear for enduring poetry, Suzanne “constantly surprise(s) and enchant(s) the contemporary reader and bring(s) glory to the City of Angels.”

It is, therefore, for Suzanne Lummis’s accomplishments as a risk-taking poet and performer of poetry, an extraordinary teacher of poetry, and a canonically-impacting editor and cultural worker that we have gathered to honor her tonight. With applause worthy of these contributions, please summon to this stage the recipient of this year’s George Drury Smith Award, Suzanne Lummis.

— Bill Mohr