Suzanne Lummis tells all about
the Los Angeles Poetry Festival

Suzanne Lummis resides in Los Angeles, where she is director of the Los Angeles Poetry Festival, award-winning teacher with UCLA Extension, and advocate in various Southern California movements and literary uprisings. She combines her background in Poetry writing and theater in the language-driven performance group Nearly Fatal Women. Her plays “October 22, 4004 B.C., Saturday” and “Night Owls” have received Drama-Logue Awards for Playwriting, and she sometimesappears in local theater, usually in characters who lean toward the tragi-comic. Previous books include Idiosyncrasies (Illuminati), and Falling Short of Heaven (Pennywhistle). She is the principal editor of Grand Passion: The Poetry of Los Angeles and Beyond (1995), selected as one of the hundred best books of the year by the Los Angeles Times. This year she is directing the Los Angeles Poetry Festival again (with a little help from her friends) and it is shaping up to be a well rounded presentation of the best that Los Angeles has to offer. Venues range from the LA Zoo to the Otis College of Design; languages range from English to Spanish to Korean; it supports causes from The Armenian Tree Project to The National Resouorces Defense Council; and the poets are just plain amazing. Suzanne took time out from her busy planning schedule to give a little dirt about what it takes to organize a poetry festival and what it takes to be a poet.

The LAPF takes place between October 11th and October 21st.

For a full schedule of the LAPF and additional information:


Carlye Archibeque: How did the idea of the Los Angeles Poetry Festival first come to you?

Suzanne Lummis: The year was 1989 and I was angry about a slight that seems utterly unimportant now –something to do with a foreign entity ignoring my poetry, some East Coast beings, or perhaps it was a publication that had rejected my work. These are not the kinds of concerns I invest in these days. Nor do I have any argument with the East Coast, or its poets.

However, it was fortunate that on that particular day, in that nascent stage of my evolution, I became extremely angry — over whatever — because I paced up and down thinking ‘This will not do!’ until I in conceived an idea: a city-wide Los Angeles poetry festival, with a whole panoply of events. And in my vision the poets would receive a stipend (rare in Los Angeles in 1989). Now all we needed was some dollars.

I rattled my idea around until a fellow poet named Sherman Pearl told me he’d heard The Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department had just acquired funding for some festivals, so we went on down. It turns out they were glad to see us. The City had parceled out a good deal of their festival funding but had just realized none of it had gone to literary events. Then we showed up looking hopeful. We were promised funding so quickly that we walked out with our heads spinning.

Most of the campaigns in my life have not proceeded so smoothly and easily. ## CA: How many years has the festival run?

SL: Since 1989 we’ve produced five full-scale festivals and three “little” festivals. On in between years, and there’ve been many of those, we’ve devoted ourselves to other kinds of poetry projects. We spent a year compiling the now out-of-print (but still in demand) anthology: Grand Passion: The Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond. In 2000 my web designer Penelope Torribio and I created an on-line experience combining poems– and excerpts of poems — from poets local and national, with noir and noir-like imagery. It was in this context that I defined “the poem noir”.

Some years we’ve brought outstanding poet/teachers in from outside the area to lead workshops. I believe a few enterprising and energetic poets in the community were inspired, and used our method as a model — which is wonderful. They too began to invite noted poets in to teach workshops. As a result, a number of Los Angeles area poets have been exposed the ideas, methods and literary touchstones of some of the best poets in the country. I’m in favor of this sort of exchange, since I am vigorously opposed to provincialism.

CA: What inspires you to take on a task as large as a city festival for a subject with as little support as poetry?

SL: Let me leap over the first part of the question and take up the assertion at the end. (Because I think I don’t know the answer to the question). A while back I altogether ceased complaining about the lack of support for poetry (though I’m not sure the world has taken note of this). After all, everyone out there is vying for attention and support. Math teachers bemoan the fact that math is not sufficiently honored. PE teachers protest cut-backs and advocate the importance their field. Theater people claim they don’t get the funding or audience support they need to survive. Dance companies… You name it. So I decided ‘wait a minute. I don’t want to be among this multitude of voices piping, “Hey! Over here! Pay attention to me!” ## I believe poetry is stalwart. I believe it’s indestructible. It has remained with us since the dawn of language, and it will survive all the ignoring the world can muster against it.

Having said that, though, I’m fascinated by the way people in many cultures are far more deeply connected to their poets. One of my favorite quotes, it goes right to the heart of the matter, is from Octovio Paz (or is it Octavio? I can’t spell.) who remarked, “It’s so sad the way Americas are cut off from the poetry of their own language, their own people.”

And now, having said that, I feel compelled to contradict myself again and note that we’re less cut off these days than, say, twenty-five years ago. The L.A. Times has lately featured some smart stories on issues central to poetry. The Book Review will feature a periodic poetry column by Carol Muske Dukes. This country now designates a poet laureate. And, above all, L.A. has a little poetry festival.

CA: There’s a lot of controversy in Los Angeles about what kind of background a poet needs to have to write well. What is your advice for someone who’s decided that they want to start writing poetry?

SL: Oh there shouldn’t be any controversy at all; it’s perfectly clear. It simply depends on what a person wants, where they want to go. People who are writing at very amateurish level have sometimes come to me for instruction and I’ve said, “Are you really sure you want to do this? It will change things for you. And if you’re happy now and your family llikes your poems…”

On the other hand, if a poet is cursed with true ambition — and I use this word in its best sense — then, yes, they must go through that process. And they must sacrifice. And they must humble themselves. And they must experience doubt frustration. That’s the way of the world — no way around it.

CA: What do you think of our new Poet Laureate, Billy Collins?

SL: I like him fine. I knew him somewhat; he’s close friends with a couple Los Angeles poets. There was excitement around town when the news broke. It was as if someone had been lifted right out of our own circle up to the stars.

CA: If you could pick the next Poet Laureate who would you choose?

SL: Oh what an enjoyable question, can I pick more than one? Yusef Komunyakaawould be wonderful, don’t you think? I’m surprised he hasn’t been asked already what are they waiting for? Philip Levine would be a popular choice, wouldn’t he, especially here in the West. If they were to look towards L.A. — those two guys in the Library of Congress who make the call — Carol Muske Dukes might catch their eye. In New York David Lehman, who edits The Best American Poetry and seems to be both a scholar and a populist, might do interesting things in that role.

Each poet laureate seems to select a different focus or cause, rather like First Ladies. I’d be curious to discover what each of the above would do with the position.

Regrettably, I can’t take the job right now. I’m too busy. Dang!