L.A. Times Book Festival: 2019’s Poetry Parade

The L.A. Times Book Fair will feature many of the best known fiction writers and poets in the United States, including Joyce Carol Oates and T.C. Boyle. The one panel I wish I could find the time to attend features Lynell George and William Deverell, and I would urge you to try to get a ticket to the panel, if you are planning to spend time at the Festival this year.

Of the poets who are scheduled to read, my favorite is Rae Armantrout, and I am delighted to see that she was accorded a slot on the poetry stage. Other poets include Terrance Hayes, Kathy Fagan, Laura-Anne Bosselaar, Lynne Thompson, Ilya Kaminsky, Robin Coste Lewis, Carl Philips, Marilyn Chin, Brendan Constantine, Charles Harper Webb, Carol Muske-Dukes, Sonia Greenfield, Michelle Bitting, Claudia Keelan, Chase Twichell, Elena Karina Byrne, Kim Dower, Victoria Chang, and Kevin Prufar.

It’s an odd list of prominent figures, in which something is definitely “off.” I can’t really imagine an anthology that would be able to make this assemblage a cohesive ensemble. This line-up is the kind of thing that gives “eclectic” a bad name. I am quite certain I’m not alone in being able to think of two or three dozen poets in Los Angeles whose combined readings would make for a more interesting program, one in which a stronger influence of the past century’s avant-garde poets would be more audible.

Perhaps the problem is the time allotment for each poet. Once a decision is made in which each poet is asked to read for a brief time, a festival presentation will accelerate towards a “talent show” compendium. Why not instead give each poet at least a half-hour, which would include a three-minute introduction by another poet, and make the entire afternoon of poetry no longer than three to four hours? A program that started with Robin Coste Lewis, and then presented Terrance Hayes, Lynne Thompson, Michelle Bitting, Rae Armantrout, Marilyn Chin, Kathy Fagan, and finished with Carl Phillips would be much closer to being a delectable festival’s outpouring than the “eat and run” quality of the current surplus. A follow-up afternoon that began Carol Muske-Dukes, and then featured Kim Dower, Victoria Chang, Brendan Constantine, Elena Karina Byrne, Charles Harper Webb, Laura-Ann Bosselaar, and Claudia Keelan would be more than worth attending, too. A selective tightening up of the scheduled program would boost the overall timbre of its contiguity.

As it stands, though, I will be elsewhere next weekend. Aleida Rodriguez, one of the poets I published in MOMENTUM magazine in the mid-1970s, was awarded a COLA grant in 2018, and is giving a featured reading at Beyond Baroque on Saturday evening. One can hardly blame me for wanting to spend time at a place where I have read or lectured over a score of times. I’ve never been asked to read, even briefly, at the LA Times Book Festival, in large part because I haven’t had a book out that’s been available for Small World Books to sell at its nearby booth after the reading. Having a book come out this past fall, however, doesn’t seem to have made much difference.

I’ll grant you that HEADWATERS OF NIRVANA hasn’t met with the same acclaim that its forerunner of a bilingual edition in Mexico received, in which both translators wrote substantial comments on my poetry as an introduction or back cover material. I remain a distinctive outsider in the United States. In Mexico, PRUEBAS OCULTAS was listed by a panel of poet-critics as one of the two dozen best books of poetry published in mid-decade.

In contrast, not one of the above poets in this year’s LA Times festival knows more than a small fraction of my poetry, or would be able to assess in a meaningful, accurate way the literary worth of my poetry. Now while that is a justifiable reason for leaving me out, I suspect that it is also one that would not be admitted by some of these poets without nonplussed hesitation, or awkward, unconvincing denials.