11 May 2012

Suzanne Lummis Interview

Los Angeles poet Suzanne Lummis sat down with HipPoetics founder Nicole Street to talk Snooki, Facebook, teaching poetry, Noir, and everything Lummisian.

NS            You recently put together an extensive series on noir called “Night in the City,” that took place at over a dozen locations spread throughout Los Angeles within a week. It must have been a tremendous amount of work to organize.  

SL            As far as I can tell, everything is a lot of work. If I were trying to make a small farm become self-sustaining, it would be a lot of work. If I wanted to enter politics as a congresswoman, that would be a lot of work. If I had invented something and I were trying to get a patent for it . . . so, everything is a lot of work. I’m not feeling sorry for myself in that respect. The thing about poetry is that unlike many other endeavors, the stakes are very low…The remuneration isn’t very good, unless you get to the superstar level, and start receiving those ten, twenty, hundred thousand dollar grants that go to a small elect group of people. Also, the recognition compared to celebrity fame is very small. Its just a little group of people across the country, a little echelon of people who might know your work and know who you are. But on the other hand if you’re aspiring to write something so good that it endures for a very very very long time -- maybe one “very” is good enough. Maybe it doesn’t need any “very”. Let’s just say you want to write something that endures for a long time, something that will outlast the fame of Kim Kardashian or Snooki. Is that her name, Snooki? Then poetry has its possibilities.

NS            I’d like to talk about what you’ve been doing the last several years, but I’m wondering if we could move in chronological order. Charles Webb suggested exploring your early life, particularly the influence of your parents.

SL            Yes, my parents were very interesting.

NS            How they’ve affected your life choices, your direction

SL            My father was a very adventurous man, a great lover of beauty and all of its forms in nature and art and women. My mother also a great appreciator of the arts, always fascinated that I wanted to write, and it was something I feel that in a way that she always wanted to do, and that it seemed to be working itself out in this generation.

My father and mother, Keith Lummis and, back then, Hazel McCausland met in the US Secret Service. My father was a Secret Service agent, under the Treasury Department, so his job concerned crimes against the federal government, and smuggling and counterfeiting.  My mother was the third woman to be hired in the Secret Service office after WWII when all the men went overseas and they started giving women these jobs that opened up. The job description back in those days was “secretary,” but she once remarked to me – “the truth is Lois and Diane and I ran that office”.

When Keith – all his children called him “Keith” because he always he felt the word “daddy” sounded silly, “Dad” too glib, and “Father” too grave and formal – when Keith first set eyes on my mother he was still heart broken after the death of his first wife several years before . He was devastated -- it almost killed him. He was not interested in women for a while. But, as he tells it, when he first walked into the Secret Service office and saw my mother sitting at the front desk, the thought went through his mind -- I wonder if that will be the girl that I’ll marry. Later, he couldn’t explain to himself why he had that thought because he didn’t think she was a beauty, that she was some lush babe.

They dated for a long time.  My mother did not particularly want to get married, ever—that was highly unusual in those days, almost unheard of.  She wanted to be independent. And my father really courted her, pursued her, worked to convince her.  After both had died we found letters going back and forth between them – my father persuading her, allaying her doubts, telling her how much he loved her. My mother was afraid she wouldn’t be a good wife and mother. In fact she proved to be wonderful in both areas. Once she committed she gave it a hundred and ten percent – she put others happiness before her own, sometimes too much.  But thank goodness my father was a persuasive and eloquent letter writer or I would not be sitting here today with you. You’d be in some other coffee house interviewing a different writer.

Click below for the rest of the interview.....

NS            From what you’ve said, your mother encouraged you to write?

SL            Certainly she was quite interested in my writing, so was Keith. What they wanted most for me though -- and I was never able to really calm their deep concerns regarding this, or my own deep concerns -- was security. And their questions tended to concern, how are you going to pay your rent, where is your salary coming from?  They would have been proud of me if I’d just worked in a shop.; they didn’t care if I made lots of money, they just wanted me to make enough money. They had both lived through The Depression and like everyone who survived the 30s had been deeply and permanently instructed by the suffering they saw. Both of my parents had a job through the depression, that is what they were like, and that they hung on but they saw people who were ruined. Especially my mother – she came away with the feeling that nothing was certain, that everything was temporary, that there almost was no true security.  When I was a child I remember whenever a newspaper report indicated that stocks had dropped a bit she’d say We’ve got to hang onto everything, we can’t overspend -- there could be another depression. She wouldn’t say that to my father, because he didn’t overspend. It was more likely to be a situation when I was asking for money for Barbie doll clothes.

NS            I had the impression you were first into acting and then writing.

SL            And I am now again acting, oddly enough, in a new odd format which I’ll tell you about in a moment. But yes, it was largely the acting prospect that drew me to Los Angeles. That and the fact of I love the vastness of the city, the variety of the city.  Also, I was drawn to the movies. In the 80s and 90 I did a fair amount of theatre as well as writing…  Right now I’m working with a wonderfully idiosyncratic ensemble of actors in an outrageous, giddy, over-the-top, YouTube series, written by a playwright, Justin Tanner, who’s quite visible and successful in the L.A. theater world. Extremely prolific. You can turn up his YouTube series by searching Ave 43 (Ave not Avenue) Justin Tanner, and you’ll glimpse me in most episodes from Chapter Thirty on.  Be aware that it’s got a kind of pan-sexual sensibility, lots of supernatural goings-on – time-travel and witchcraft (in Highland Park, L.A.!) and it’s darkly, hysterically comic.  I’m using the word “hysterical” in the Freudian sense; all these characters have gone off their rockers – if they were ever on them to begin with.  They keep trying to murder each other. Justin writes and shoots these episodes to resemble movie trailers – you only get the high points. I play this character named Dahlia, whose a nice woman, or was, until she went to sleep in a room that had been painted with an especially malevolent lead paint and woke up crazy.

NS            You are able to stretch yourself as an actress?

SL            Yes, a lot of madcap things I’ve never had a chance to do in theater, because I wasn’t cast in this sort of role – few people are. The last little scene he gave me I found most intriguing because I don’t know why in the world I’m stabbing this man. It’s a character my character is in I’m in love with – and of course I’m insane, so that explains a lot.  But it’s an interesting challenge for an actor – you’re playing mostly the high points without the background and build-up, so you just take the situation and do your best to make it truthful and convincing. And funny, but the funniness kind of takes care of itself; it’s in the writing and the absurd situations.

NS            I’ve gotten a lot already. I’m hoping the recorder works because I’d like to get every word.

SL            Well, you know, if there is anything. But I noticed you have very good handwriting. If there is any part of it you can’t read I’m sure I can fill it in, so you don’t need to worry about it.

NS            Is there anything else you’d like to mention about the early days?

SL            What people must understand about me: I did not grow up in L.A. People keep assuming – those who don’t know me too well -- I was born and raised in Los Angeles. I’ve always been from Northern California. Never moved to Southern California until I was right about 27. I grew up age, 6 – 14, in the Sierra Nevada mountains at a ski lodge, The Clair Tappan, a Sierra Club Lodge about nine miles from Truckee.  So, back then, being stuck in deep snow country far from the city, nothing was more thrilling than visiting the big city was like a dream – and that would always have been San Francisco, which seemed to have everything The mountains, on the other hand were sparse. Every morning I’d look out the window and saw the same pine green trees, brown bark and white, white white, or if it was spring and the snows were melting, mud colors.  Many years later I decided that as a child I’d been color famished – not enough of the red end of the spectrum, the plums, the fuchsias, magenta.  Now, see these big Bakelite bangles? I’ve got my color with me at all times. In the Bakelite lexicon, this is called cherry, this is cinnamon, and – I guess I’d call this burnt umber.
I chose Los Angeles in part because I had the impression it was the biggest city in the world. Later I realized there are bigger cities. Had I known that before, who knows . . .? I might have gone to Bagdad.

NS            As you know, Bill Mohr’s book Hold-Outs just came out. From his suggestions, I have some related questions. One is, how do you feel you work, style or purpose in your work, is related to, and/or is different from the Beat generations. For instance, Allen Ginsburg wrote that at one point he decided he would write what he wanted to write without fear, let his imagination go open, magic of lines for my real mind. The idea that freedom is doing what makes you happy.

SL            I’m the diametric opposite. However, I respect Ginsburg. I think Ginsburg was probably a very nice man. I kind of like that most about him – that he was a nice man. We don’t put enough value on niceness anymore, but when you look at a lot of prominent artists and poets, people in the arts, sometimes they’re people of terrible character; they’re mean to their wives, they betray their friends. But I haven’t heard many bad things about Ginsburg. But getting back to your question, no, that Beat era, and that notion of “First thought, best thought,” has no influence on my poetry because I was schooled in Fresno, under Philip Levine, and the other two fine teachers there Chuck Hanzlicek and Peter Everwine.  Phil Levine, who as we know is now Poet Laureate, demanded a lot of his students, not that he was a task master. It’s that if you brought a poem in that just didn’t work from the get-go, he wouldn’t let you walk out of that class thinking you’d written a really good poem and all you had to do was drop two lines, revise two lines, and switch two stanzas around and it’d be perfect.  You walked out knowing you had to start all over again, either scrap that poem and work on something else or make another start on that subject, because this just was not it. Sometimes the experience was emotionally tough, but you got the truth. I feel some creative writing classes are somewhat deceptive, maybe because the teacher doesn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings -- something like that. I had a student who went off, a student who had worked with me a long time, I wrote her a strong reference letter and she got into an MFA program.  In fact I’m constantly losing UCLA Extension students because I help them development strong manuscripts, write them a reference, then when they get into a program I’ve lost a student. I’m in danger of teaching myself out of a job. Anyway, she wrote to me after she’d enrolled. She said, “I always remember what you taught me, the poem has to be lively enough, vigorous and engaging enough that we want to keep reading from beginning to end. In this workshop everybody is trying to be so nice. They’re so worried about hurting anybody’s feelings. I feel a lot of weak writing is slipping by, and no one’s addressing it, so how will anyone get better?” But then she said “I remember what you taught me. I’m doing my best to be completely honest in this class, telling people what I really see in their work, the strengths but also the areas that need attention.” later she wrote me saying the class had gotten better. “People,” she said, “ are starting to be more honest. I hear your voice in my head all the time”.

Now I believe I got that largely from CSU Fresno. And the teachers were the ones who held us to that standard. But it’s tough at the beginning. Emotionally it’s tough.

NS            Did you ever consider quitting?

SL            No, I got very scared, but I never considered quitting. I think I wrote my first not-too-bad poem, anyway a poem better than anything I had brought in so far, after I got so terrified of writing another poem that failed that the fear propelled me into writing better. Why not – poetry can come out of any sort of emotion. I would’ve been 22 then.

Now, Ginsburg, the reason I say I’m temperamentally opposite to him and the idea many of the Beats embraced -- First thought/best thought – in other words, Whatever popped into your head first is the best it’s going to be – is because I haven’t found that to be true. I’ve found that‘s just a way to get around the hard revision work. Usually you must keep returning to the poem. Every now and then I will get a series of lines that seem to come out of an mysterious inspired place. When that happens I don’t mess much with those lines, just tiny fixes, little adjustments. But often I go back to a first draft and I think O.K., fine, but this needs to be much much better. Writers, poets, say joke about this all the time, how the new poem, or prose piece, that seemed so brilliant and luminous when you went to bed looks suddenly so dingy in the a.m. light.

From that era the poem closest to my heart is Gregory Corso’s—“Marriage”. Have you ever read this? A wonderful poem. It’s not a “Great Poem,” but it’s immortal anyway, even without being Great. Fifty years old and it’s as fresh as if it were written last week.  It is not really a Beat poem but it’s identified as such simply because Corso fell in among the Beats. Really it’s closer to what Charles (Webb) and I call Stand-Up poetry, actually a precursor to Stand Up poetry. The language is so funny and inventive, mischievous and alive. Also, it captures what much of the country, the culture, looked like in the late 50s, the choices that faced men and women.  Around 1960, which I think is about the time “Marriage” got into print, James Wright came out with “This Branch Will Not Break” – and that also heralded a new approached to poetry, clear, directly spoken, unrhymed. But in that age, Corso’s “Marriage” would probably have struck people as equally surprising.

NS            The Noir Festival.

SL            “Night in the City”

NS            You organized a 25-event, city-wide series called…

SL            “Night and the City: L.A. Noir in Poetry, Fiction and Film”

NS            Regarding the work-load to do anything worthwhile it requires a tremendous amount of work, but I’m curious, your turn out, because the events were spread out all over, and how you decided to do the project, and the attendance.

SL            Well, one last thing about work—I’ve got no problem with working hard or being busy, if I enjoy the work that is.  What I don’t like, what really gripes me, is working for gratis, for no pay. That’s not okay. For Night in the City my only remuneration, from my own organization, I’m the director – the Los Angeles Poetry Festival paid my health insurance, for about six months. I told the board -- actually it’s the organizing committee which functions like a board --I said, “If we want this to happen you’d better keep me alive.” So it basically that just took one bill off my back, that’s all. But because I had all these other medical bills that I was paying, it didn’t actually raise my living standard in the least, because the money I was saving on my health insurance I then used to pay exorbitant medical bills for an overnight in the hospital last year. So it’s gotten…  Well, any major festival or series of events I organize in the future can’t be done on that basis, ever again.  It’s unsustainable.

In terms of audience, certain ones drew especially well. Almost all of them got decent audiences. “Alternative Noir- not your Grandma’s Noir” (and then it, in parenthesis, says “but on the other hand, how much did you really know about your grandma?) attracted a robust audience to Beyond Baroque. That night featured great performance art, Linda Albertano, Philip Littell, and a screening of several episodes of Justin Tanner’s Ave 43.  Most in the audience didn’t know about this aspect of my life, so my first appearance on screen drew quite a reaction.  That must be what they mean when they say “a murmur ran through the crowd”.

And, let’s see, opening night, “Noir Immersion,” with Robert Polito all the way from NYC attracted an amazing variety of poets, all dressed noir. Never in its 40-year-history has Beyond Baroque looked so glamorous. The PEN sponsored event at The Last Bookstore had a really nice turnout, and “Full Moon Noir: The Lighter Side of Noir” filled up Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park. At The Japanese American Cultural Center, Alan Rode -- such a terrific, warm guy -- introduced “The Crimson Kimono”.  The audience included a number of elderly Japanese people who’d heard about the film but never seen it.  In the middle of the movie someone cried out “That’s Riku! (Or something – a name I couldn’t catch.)  It turns out an old local character whom everyone knew had made a brief non-credited appearance in the movie when it filmed in Little Tokyo back in the late 50s.

Earlier that evening mystery series writer Naomi Hirahara read, and I, and others presented the poetry of Carol Lem, who was too sick to make her last reading.  She died of cancer about three months later – so this was the last reading of her poetry while she still lived.  - One of several reasons I’m so glad I launched this noir series of events.

A number of events were filled to capacity – of course, in most cases they weren’t huge venues. A couple or three should have gotten a lot more people, and I think it’s ridiculous that they didn’t, and in fact I’m a bit irritated.  A scrumptious event—food for the body and nutrients for the mind—took place on a Sunday a.m., the Noir Continental Breakfast with Eddie Muller. He’s founder and president of Film Noir Foundation, Host of Noir City Film Festival in San Francisco, author of Dark City, the lost world of film Noir. James Elroy’s called him “the Czar of Noir”. And, really, who wouldn’t want to have a Sunday brunch in a lovely historic venue with the Czar of Noir, especially when he’s so much warmer, more generous and interesting than an actual Czar. I mean we had – I don’t know—twenty-five people, and he was totally understanding and fully engaged.  He told me he’s used to all sizes of audiences.   But we should’ve had twice that.

I discovered that I really like the noir crowd. Noir may mean “dark” but for the most part they’re really vibrant, the least gloomy people, except for James Elroy. He’s, well… He’s got a darkness about him all right. Of course in his presentation, his act, the show he puts on, he goes on attack mode – faux attack.  Then outside his act he has a guarded, blunt, rather anti-social quality. But his mother was horribly murdered, so – that explains a lot. Or, who knows, maybe he’d be that way anyway.
The two panel discussions – with noted authors and crime writers who’ve never spoken at Beyond Baroque – they drew O.K. audiences, solid. And I was grateful to, and delighted to see, the folks, poets and regular folks, who did come--but I noticed that quite a few poets who’d been scheduled to read at events, were actually a part of Night and the City, didn’t bother. And these panels explored the meaning of Noir and its particular connection to Los Angeles.  That struck me. That’s a barometer of sorts. A few poets didn’t come to any event they weren’t scheduled to read in. 

You know I tend to champion Los Angeles poetry, but sometimes I don’t just want to be a booster. Sometimes I want to talk about what’s absent, what’s wrong and what’s missing. And I feel that that we’re probably running behind, for example, New York City in terms of intellectual curiosity. Now I may go to New York City and be utterly disappointed, I don’t know, maybe I’m idealizing that place -- I’m imagining first-rate intellectuals pouring through the streets.  O.K., I’m not imaging that—I’ve seen Scorsese movies. But the New York Times can sustain its pull-out book review section, whereas Los Angeles let its book review section die, because the readers didn’t support it.  The L.A. Times’ market research repeatedly showed that it was the least popular section.  And sometimes Los Angeles poets didn’t even read it.  So—I mean, what’s with that?  I got kind of vexed at a couple people, two or three.  I said,’ O.K., when you have a book come out don’t complain if there’s no place for it to be reviewed, because we’re lucky enough to have one of just three pull-out newspaper book review sections in the country and you don’t support it.’  Now, though, I think it’s down to one.

NS            How did you get all these people on board for the Noir series?

SL            For those I didn’t know personally: Facebook.. That turned out to be a great gift to me even after I resisted it for so long and swore I’d never sign up. I’d be the last person on earth not on Facebook – that was my goal. I felt that being on Facebook would expose me in some way, but now I’ve discovered how, oh gosh, I can control it! I wish I could control and design my whole life the way that I can manage my Facebook page. Strange, this was one twist of fate that worked in my favor. (Numerous twists of fate have not worked in my favor.) Cece Peri, my long time student and friend who’s been a valuable assistant to me, was setting up a Facebook page for “A Night in the City”.  Because she’d never done this before it defaulted, took my information that she’d put in, and instead of creating a page for L.A. Noir it created a page for me.

Suddenly I started getting email requests -- it uses your email. Friend requests. People from all over emailing me wanting to be my friend! I was horrified. Then I went around to my newly created page and thought, well, I can’t have this page with my name on it no friends. That looks pathetic. So I went— okay, I’ve got to make this work for me. I’ve got to create a page that really expresses my sensibility and is not pathetic. At that time I didn’t realize I could delete it; I thought I was trapped. I built up a sizeable list of friends fairly quickly then I started to play around -- who can I find? I began to search out various names in the literary noir world and discovered I could reach them, and quickly. That was a revelation. Before, if you wanted to reach an author you didn’t know you’d have to write their publisher, or find someone who knows them. But I went, wait a minute! I can send messages to all these noir writers.

I contacted Gary Phillips, Judith Freeman, Dick Lochte and others via FB. But not Robert Polito, author of various books and noir explorations, and director of the Creative Writing Department at New York City’s New School. That came about in a different way. Cece was heading to New York, and I said, half kidding, “See if you can meet Robert Polito—I’d love for him to headline in the Noir series”.  Two days later the phone rings, “Suzanne, I’m in New York. I’m just about to meet Robert Polito.”  By pure chance—another instance where the dice fell in our favor—Robert Polito had organized an in-house noir festival at The New School just at that time.  Cece spotted it in the paper, noticed RP would be introducing a speaker, and had gone straight there.  Now, at the end of the event, she was about to approach him.  She wanted to know what to say.  I said “Tell him what we aspire to do, a multi-event noir series of readings and performances, film showings.  Ask him if he might want to come to L.A. to headline an event.  Tell him we’d love to have him.  Ask him if he’s expensive.”
All went well. That marked the beginning actually—he was the first notable person we scheduled.  He got eleven hundred dollars, and was the only person who really got paid—‘cause we had no funding and had simply broken open a long-standing CD.

When Cece returned she told me that he’d responded warmly to the possibility. Then I wanted to know if he seemed nice.  Many years back we, The Los Angeles Poetry Festival, brought in an out-of-town poet in who turned out to be a nightmare. A crazy person. A crazy, crazy, insane person. Later we learned many people knew this person was insane and we were among the last to find out what was already fairly common knowledge—in some parts of the country at least. So now, when I consider bringing in a poet I don’t personally know, I ask around to determine that they’re nice and not insane.
Cece said—yes, he’s really very nice.  And I said—then I’m going try to make this happen.
Are there any poems that you liked in In Danger?

NS            “Femme Fatal”. I love it, and I’ve underlined different things that I love especially. I guess you come across really strong on your endings, besides the rest of the poems. “Even now you’re beginning to/ Even now you’re in danger.”

SL            I always say to my students: There’s nothing, nothing, that will be as important in the poem as the end. Except for the beginning. And the middle. But the end is big. The end is very big.

NS            You have to get there.

SL             That’s right. And regarding “Femme Fatale,” a woman friend once made a point to me I thought was very shrewd. She said what interested her is that various poems in the book pertain to danger, my facing danger, earthquakes, assault, crime, emotional danger, economic  peril, dangerous men. And this friend said, but you know what’s interesting? The title of the collection comes from a closing line in a poem which describes danger to a man. It warns the man, “Even now you’re in danger.”

I found that a compelling observation. The man is in danger from the woman who is herself perpetually in danger, right? People who are in danger can become a danger to somebody else. That’s interesting—to me anyway. 

NS            In one of your poems, the one about the fish that you take to Laguna Beach…

SL            That is an old poem. That is a very old old old poem.

NS            Well, I like that poem, but in it you say that you clamber from the sea as a woman.

SL            How does that poem go?  I haven’t read that poem for so long. At the time I wrote it I felt it took my writing to another level. But I’ve gone to many other levels since then, so I never read it anymore.

NS            “Fish I Remember”

SL            Yeah (reads from the NS’s copy of Stand Up Poetry), “I had to clamber from the sea as a woman, not a new thing, drive home through the gritty air, not step from this earth and soar.” Yeah, that comes up in my poetry. If you’d asked me, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you how this poem ends. I didn’t remember that, but, boy, that recurs in my poetry--that inability, that desire not only for transcendence, but for exultation. I find—I don’t know about you—but I find transcendence and exultation hard to come by. What about you? Is it easy to come by for you? (NS answers) O.K., then I’m not alone. Here it is again, “Your heart in your mouth, for an instant you were precious metal, a star, you were manna falling from heaven, you were like the life that burst into mysterious splendor long ago from the sea.” Ah yeah, that’s Lummisian, I have to say, which is a term coined by the fellow who produced my first plays—Ted Schmidt was his name. We were sitting around at The Cast Theater and few people started wondering, “How do we define Suzanne Lummis’ style? She has a voice, she has a quality, a certain mix of edginess and humor, absurdity and gravity...” They starting trying to come up with a term. And Ted Schmidt said, “I know what it is, it’s Lummisian.”

An excerpt of this interview is featured in RipRap Journal #34.

Nicole Martine Street obtained her MFA from CSULB, where she founded HipPoetics – Creative Writing Club, was awarded the William T. Shadden Memorial Scholarship for poetry, and taught poetry as an Associate. Her poems have appeared in Prospective Journal, Carnival Lit Mag, Bank-Heavy Press, CSULA’s Significations, and Pigeon Words among others.

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