The “Deep Bench” of L.A. Poetry

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The “Deep Bench” of L.A. Poetry

I received an e-mail from a poet in Los Angeles inquiring about the absence of several poets from either my list or Mike Sonksen’s list of potential candidates for the poet laureate position. No doubt about it: there are many obvious omissions and a couple that were not as obvious. I didn’t intend my list to be comprehensive, and I doubt that Mike did, either. For my part, in fact, I was concerned that it would seem like an endless recitation in which the value of each poet named began to cancel out the adjacencies. The reality is that there is a surplus of well-qualified poets. Well-qualified? Dare I say overqualified, given the pittance that the Cultural Affairs Department has allotted as a stipend for the position?

Certainly, one of the poets I left out would have every justification for turning down the position, even if he were to be unanimously petitioned to accept it. David St. John is one of the most honored poets of his generation, and he is consistently eloquent in speaking in a respectful and insightful manner about a large number of poets in Los Angeles. At this point, though, the only poet laureate position that I would nominate David for is the national post. While he has indeed made his home here in Los Angeles for the past 30 years, I really don’t believe it would be fair to ask him to undertake the amount of local work entailed in the position at this point in his life. I have long admired his writing. Here is a long review I wrote of his poetry over a quarter-century ago:

For much the same reason, I would also imagine that Carol Muske-Dukes is not a feasible candidate in that she has already been poet laureate of California. Along with David, she deserves the expectation of being in the conversation for the national position.

So exactly how deep a bench does L.A. poetry have? Any city that can boast the line-up of candidates I cited and leave out Lynne Thompson and Sarah Maclay ought to start its own Fulbright program in which poets are sponsored by the city to live for a year in another city and work with young poets there in some kind of community-based organization. Of course, this would cost much, much more than $10,000, and I am perfectly aware that my proposal goes beyond any possibility of ever happening. After all, this is a city in which $20,000,000 can be spent on a film that will only earn back a third of that amount, even when overseas residuals are counted, and the tax accountants shrug because somehow that film turned a profit, once the tax laws get factored in. How outrageous, therefore, for me to suggest a poet be paid $75,000 to work with poets over the course of a year? Nevertheless, I can’t think of two people I would rather have me represent me elsewhere, as well as in Los Angeles, as Lynne and Sarah.

Someone did ask me why I didn’t put myself on the list, given my efforts on behalf of the Los Angeles poetry scene the past several decades. I hope the following suffices for an explanation as a statement of self-exclusion:

I do not need to be named as a poet laureate of any locality or region to feel that I have accomplished a small portion of my hopes for the art of poetry in Los Angeles, the city in which I have found a multitude of companions devoted to this art. There has been a renaissance in poetry in Los Angeles since World War II that is now internationally recognized, and that alone suffices to gratify any personal ambitions I might still retain in the final stages of my life. As it stands, I have my hands full being a 69 year old college professor with responsibility for a 95 year old mother who is in the throes of dementia. Furthermore, I live and work in Long Beach, which technically makes me eligible, but being poet laureate would require me to put in at least 15 hours a week just driving my car to get to Los Angeles proper and fulfill the duties of the office. Quite frankly, I am tired enough as it is right now of driving in Los Angeles without taking on this job. Furthermore, there are many candidates whose poetry is far more visible and accessible.

If I were to narrow down the list, therefore, here would have been my top ten for the selection process of 2017 (in alphabetical order):
Laurel Ann Bogen
Elena Byrne
Suzanne Lummis
Sarah Maclay
Harryette Mullen
Marisela Norte
Holly Prado
Lynne Thompson
Amy Uyematsu
Cecilia Woloch
Terry Wolverton
Gail Wronsky

Oh, did I just name 12? Well, as I said, there is an abundance of deserving poets who have walked the walk of being present over a long period of time in various communities in Los Angeles. Hmmm, all women. If that surprises (or even a tiny bit dismays you), then take a good look in the chauvinist mirror. OK, OK, I suppose I should include one man. Brendan Constantine makes it a baker’s dozen. In point of fact, Brendan would make one hell of a great poet laureate in L.A. Choosing him out of this list with a dozen women, though, would make everyone’s eyes roll high enough to break a glass ceiling. Sorry, Brendan, not this time around, unfortunately. But I’d be just as proud to point to you as poet laureate as any of the above.

As for the final choice, if Wanda Coleman were still alive, I think she would look over this list and be happy to spare the Mayor the effort of picking a laureate who has helped redefine the social meaning of a life in L.A. devoted to poetry (once again, thank you, Cary Nelson).