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A City of Poets: L.A. Emerges as a Place of Verse, Diversity

October 19, 1990|ITABARI NJERI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Twenty years ago, Los Angeles couldn't have had a poetry festival.

Today, the city leads the American poetry scene because the work of its poets is "more accessible, more contemporary and it has more heart," says Jack Grapes, the Los Angeles poet whose work--labeled obscene by a conservative congressman in 1985--provided ammunition for recent attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts funding of controversial works.

Grapes will be among a group of banned, nearly banned and harassed poets appearing at the second Los Angeles Poetry Festival, Sunday through Oct. 28 at venues from churches and cafes to bookstores and banks.

Sponsored by the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, the festival's poets and their subjects are as diverse as the city's population. Witness sessions such as:

"The Middle East: A Dialogue in Poetry," 7 p.m., Oct. 27, at the Otis Parsons Art Institute.

"Deaf Poets," 8 p.m., Thursday, at the North Hollywood Library.

"Korean Poets," 7 p.m., Thursday, at the Korean Cultural Service Center.

"Soul in Words and Music," an afternoon of Afro-American poetry, 2 p.m. Sunday, at the Southern California Library.

And "Poems From Hollywood and Beyond," 3 p.m., Oct. 28, at the Francis Howard Goldwyn Hollywood Library.

These are just a smattering of the festival's offerings.

Of particular interest to the local literati will be a session on "Literary Criticism in L.A. (Where Is It?)" at Loyola Marymount University at 7:30 p.m. Sunday.

Poet Suzanne Lummis, founder and director of the festival, says her goal has been twofold: "I want to introduce poets to the larger public and introduce poets to one another. The Westside poets never get to meet the Eastside poets." After last year's festival, she says, she heard stories from poets who went around and heard the work of other poets they had not seen before. It gave them a sense that they were part of a community, she says.

Further, she says, "poets have no advertising budgets, unlike dance troupes and literary publishing houses. That's one of the reasons no one has heard of us. So we have to come up with imaginative ways to present ourselves."

After a full day of events around the city on Sunday, the festival's official kickoff occurs Monday on the campus of Cal State Los Angeles, featuring poets Henry Morro, Timothy Steele, Amy Uyematsu and Kate Braverman, the best-selling novelist, poet and Cal State professor.

Like Grapes, Braverman articulates the sensibilities that shape Los Angeles' unique literary terrain.

"All over the country, L.A. writing is perceived as being declasse, tawdry, vulgar . . . the very landscape that is L.A. offends the Eastern sensibility. Anything being done in California has a geographic stain that lays on it," she says.

California writing, she adds, is "less formal, less traditional," because many of its writers don't come out of academia: "That's unheard of in the rest of the country. In other places, if you didn't study with the right person you can't even purport to be involved in a poetry festival."

In other places, she says with passion, "the same set of prejudices have been institutionalized. Everybody is writing about professors' wives having lunch. And I can't tell you how much this is considered to be \o7 the\f7 subject for modern writing."

For Grapes, Ron Keortge, Tim Miller, Terry Wolverton, Nan Hunt, Terry Kennedy and Deena Metzger--the group of banned, nearly banned and generally harassed poets who will read or have their works read at Highways in Santa Monica at 8 p.m., Oct. 28--ladies who lunch are definitely not the subject of their poetry.

Grapes' poem, "Bodies," was one of seven poems cited in 1985 by Rep. Tom DeLay, a conservative Republican from Houston, Tex., as pornographic and its authors unworthy of the NEA grants they received.

"My poems have had different responses for different levels of so-called obscenity," says Grapes, also editor of the highly regarded, Los Angeles-based literary magazine "ONTHEBUS."

"It might be a four-letter word, a reference to sex or--as in the case of the poem 'Bodies'--a misunderstood reference to homosexuality," Grapes says.

Grapes believes the Houston congressman thought the poem was about two male lovers. It is about a woman making love to a man.

"Bodies," as with other of his poems that some consider obscene, "is really about love," says Grapes. "The mystery of the body, not only your own body, but the other person's you are in love with." He recites a stanza from "Bodies":

. . . \o7 throughout the night;

a kind of dance, a breathing,

a small exchange of words.

To wake in the morning

beside someone you love

is a miracle in itself.

Then the bodies get up

and have breakfast.\f7

Nan Hunt, author of "My Self in Another Skin," a volume of poetry, was banned five years ago by the San Jose chapter of the California Chaparral Poets Society, she says.

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