The Direct Election of the Next L.A. Poet Laureate

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Direct Election of the Next L.A. Poet Laureate

One of the things I intensely dislike about the entire process by which a poet laureate is chosen is the social hierarchy that its bureaucratic administration reinforces. It mimics the manner in which direct control of governmental decisions is ceded to an indirect system, a kind of Electoral College of Art. Let me put this bluntly: it is time for poets in Los Angeles to demand an election in those who care enough about poetry – and this includes those who read it as well as those who write it – have control over the choice. In fact, anyone who is a resident of Los Angeles should be able to vote, though I would guess that the majority of those who would end up voting would prove to be readers and writers of poetry.

Obviously, the ballot could become unwieldy, but I am certain that a combination of practices that make use of internet communication can easily solve this challenge. There should certainly be more minimum requirements in place for the poet laureate. I would be in favor of a combination of length of residency in Los Angeles in the years directly before the appointment and some form of literary activism that had a direct impact on a community as a way of establishing eligibility. Luis J. Rodriguez, for instance, moved back to Los Angeles before becoming poet laureate here, but when he did move back, his projects were focused on empowering the cultural scenes of this city. He would easily qualify under the combination of residency and activism. Needless to say, the first poet laureate, Eloise Klein Healy, would have qualified for the ballot, too.

In looking forward to the process of selecting the next poet laureate of Los Angeles two years from now, I can safely predict one thing: a large number of the semi-finalists will be poets who have been published by Red Hen Press. There were 18 semi-finalists in the pool that led up to the selection of the current poet laureate, Robin Coste Lewis. I have no doubt that several of those semi-finalists had been published by Kate Gale. If not, then something was very skewed in the Cultural Affairs Department. Red Hen’s backlist is a truly impressive accomplishment. Kate Gale, who is a fine poet herself, has made an enormous difference in making certain that the hard work done by poets in the 1970s and 1980s in Los Angeles continues to flourish. Here is a list of some of Red Hen’s authors who live and work in Los Angeles or in its pertinent adjacent cities:
Chris Abani
William Archila
Tony Barnstone
Laurel Ann Bogen
Jeanette Clough
Brendan Constantine
Kim Dower
Eloise Klein Healy
Charles Hood
Douglas Kearney
Ron Koertge
Douglas Manuel
Holaday Mason
Keith Antar Mason
Deena Metzger
Jim Natal
Austin Straus
Amy Uyematsu
Charles Harper Webb
Terry Wolverton
Gail Wronsky

I have to say that it would be gratifying to have the next poet laureate be someone who has been published by a press based in Los Angeles. The current poet laureate has spoken of the need for more attention to be paid to poets whose lives reflect the multitude of immigrant communities. William Archila has not been particularly prominent in the discussion so far, and yet I would encourage him to begin thinking about making himself a candidate who would certainly merit finalist status as much as such poets as Lynne Thompson, Suzanne Lummis, Marisela Norte, and Gail Wronsky.

So much of literary politics involves personal connections. I want to go on record, however, as saying that I have no recollection of ever meeting Archila other than on the pages of anthologies in which we have both appeared. In that regard, I would point both to Wide Awake, which was published by Beyond Baroque Foundation, as well as the anthology, Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes & Shifts of Los Angeles, which has an introduction by Luis J. Rodriguez and is published by Tia Chucha Press. (Oddly enough, Robin Coste Lewis does not have work in the latter anthology.)

I have learned that William Archila is reading at the Pasadena Museum of California Art tomorrow, Friday, June 2nd. The reading, which will also include Douglas Manuel and Lisa C. Krueger, offers you a chance to hear someone who may well be poet laureate of Los Angeles in 2020. Especially if the poets and those who read poetry have a direct say in the matter.

Pasadena Museum of California Art
490 E. Union Street
Pasadena, CA 91101
Reading: 6 p.m.
Free admission.