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Suzanne Lummis, LA's ambassador of poetry, on LA poets and what makes a bad poem bad

Suzanne Lummis.
Suzanne Lummis.
Suzanne Lummis

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Charles Lummis, one of the founders of modern Los Angeles, was many things… and not all of them good. But luckily, the literary gene made its way to his granddaughter, the poet Suzanne Lummis, who turns 64 on Sunday, Sept. 13. She talked with Off-Ramp contributor Marc Haefele.

It’s been a big season for Suzanne Lummis, who has long been something like the Southland’s prime poetic muse… as a teacher, a poet and, most of all, an ambassador of poetry.
Lummis has just published two books, including “Wide Awake,” her anthology of L.A. poets, the first such book in decades.

"In Los Angeles, there were poets when I came here, in '79. It was a smaller group of poets, earlier in their career. Now, this many years later, it's a strong, vibrant, much more sophisticaed scene. There are poets who've come in from elsewhere around the country and poets who've been here all along who've just gotten better," Lummis said.

Lummis studied poetry at Fresno State with one of America’s great poets and teachers of poetry, Philip Levine, who died early this year. People have called the Pulitzer Prize winner “The Blue-Collar Walt Whitman.”

"I felt in that class the bar was set very high. He didn't discourage people, but he didn't lead people on. He didn't lie to people or fudge, at all. You know, you had to want it the way a dancer wants to be a dancer, the way a painter wants to be a painter; you had to go through that apprenticeship, you had to humble yourself, you had to start out with the idea 'I don't know how to do this yet,'" she said. "If anybody went in there with the idea that they were already a good poet, they were going to be divested of their delusions."

That experience taught her the two requirements for writing good poetry.

"Well you have to be absolutely engaged with language, you have to be in love with language. And it would be helpful to have some talent," she said.

In “The Poetry Mystique,” she gives some excellent observations as to what makes a great poem great. It’s edifying and engaging. But not nearly as deliciously fun as her list of what makes a bad poem bad.

"I mean poetry in which the language is not alive — holds no charge, does not spring from precise observation, vivid recollection, luxuriant or stark imaginings," she explained. "I mean poetry couched in platitudes, generalities, absent of imagery, physical details, texture and surprise. Or, I mean poetry with language that's energetic but chaotic, murky, unfocused. Or, I mean poetry that's careless, ungrammatical, not because the poet has set out to capture the vernacular of a particular speaker, but because the poet has not bothered to learn the basics of language."

Let’s end with a third Lummis book, a collection of her own poems from last year. It’s named after one of our town’s key singularities: “Open 24 Hours.” Here’s the ending of “The Night Life is for You":

"Some Doo-wop tune on the airwaves says the night's thousand shifting eyes around the watch you guess — two of them are yours.

Tonight, Mr. Good or Bad might pluck you from the crowd, there's some place you're supposed to be, some fun you're supposed to have.

It's late, your fate, and it's open 24 hours."

Suzanne Lummis says writing poetry is usually a struggle, although sometimes, she says, “When you’re really hot it just comes to you, I call it getting one for free.” She says we now call that “the unconscious,” but she seems to prefer Garcia Lorca’s idea that it comes from the duende, a sort of dark goblin who inhabits you, and the poetry it’s responsible for “comes up from the soles of your feet.”