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LOS ANGELES FESTIVAL : The Long, Lyrical Road to Visibility : The festival's 'Women's Voices' series aims to bolster the misunderstood image of literary life in L.A.

August 15, 1993|LYNELL GEORGE | Lynell George is a staff writer in The Times' View section. and

Poet Michelle T. Clinton is raging.

Not about the usual blemishes on her horizon; nor the sociopolitical imperfections that she unflinchingly tackles in her work. Of late, Clinton's been watching too many of her literary comrades recede in the distance. Too many going-away party announcements, telephone-tree rumors, sudden overnight departures. "I always get the feeling that people are just visiting, always looking for somewhere else to go," she laments.

Transience and invisibility are old battles, many of L.A.'s literary fixtures, like Clinton, are quick to point out. And she, along with a few other enduring city voices, will take part in "Women's Voices"--the Los Angeles Festival's monthlong literary series, designed to bolster the much maligned and misunderstood image of literary life in L.A.

Local poet and performance artist Akilah Nayo Oliver, poet Gloria Alvarez and writer Fadwa El Guindi have attempted to elevate the status of local literary artists in the world market by building on the festival's smaller 1990 model (readings by 10 Latin American poets). The threesome, who first met during the planning sessions two years ago, say the concept grew out of a series of conversations about the silencing of women and their role in shaping culture. With that as their charge, the group cast a wide and varied net.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 22, 1993 Home Edition Calendar Page 87 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong group--In last Sunday's Calendar story on the literary component of the L.A. Festival, writer Wanda Coleman was mistakenly said to have been associated with the Watts Writers Workshop.

Positioned behind microphones on various stages around the city, from West Hollywood and Santa Monica to Venice and Leimert Park, the writers represent a wide array of movements and disciplines and hail from all over the globe. Voices ushered in for the event include Gwendolyn Brooks, Thulani Davis, Adrienne Rich, bell hooks, Georgiana Sanchez, Partow Nooriala, Naomi Shihab Nye, Suzan-Lori Parks, Salma Khadra Jayusi, Abena P. A. Busia, Ntozake Shange and Anne Waldman.

While representing the festival's focus regions--Africa and the Middle East--the plan, says Oliver, is for L.A. writers to weigh in on salient critical issues while participating in what she hopes will be lively literary discussion with authors from around the world. In other words, showing the assembly their stuff. Instead of reading from their works, many (but not all) of the L.A.-based panel participants will engage in debate on wide-ranging matters.

"I really feel isolated out here as an artist," says Oliver, who says she was aware at the outset that this sort of structuring might make waves among the local literati. "My concern was that L.A. has this wonderful 'cool' poetry scene, cafe readings and the like. And it's fine . . . but we don't get published. So the general perception is that there is not much going on. We need to get some critical writing going on here in addition to doing the reading. Right now it's only entertainment. A scene. We need to take it one step further."

Oliver began her selection process by inviting authors whose work displayed a "critical edge," thus already stirring provocative discussion. She looks at this event as a giant step out of the shadows for L.A. writers and hopes as well that it will provide precious groundwork to be used as a working paradigm for the future.

However, long before publicity packages shot out to the various participants--not to mention the press--some locals began to lodge reservations with a just-off-the-assembly-line-model they feel may only serve to further marginalize the very artists it set out to help.

"I'm very happy with the level of (literary) discussion," says Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, a Los Angeles-based poet born in Ghana who will be participating in the "Life and Art of the Streets" portion of the series. "But," she adds, "to ignore that there is something that really exists here invalidates what people have been doing . . . all along.

"There are people working to bring our message into the community--literary workshops at Beyond Baroque, the Electronic Cafe. They're not doing it the East Coast way, they're doing it the L.A. way. And we need to start applauding ourselves."

Danquah, who before a brief residence in Washington, D.C., last year rotated regularly within the local reading orbit, perceives the festival's format as a chance for L.A. artists to garner center-stage recognition for their quiet yet persistent work. "I don't have a problem with what exists. It's what's absent," Danquah clarifies. "I am pleased that people who've been invited were invited, but I'd like to see more L.A. poets up there reading. I think that it does a disservice. I think that writers have to start being appreciated as writers, and that --their work--is their cultural activism."

The local writing community and the discussion that grows out of it might be more difficult to discern or to locate largely because of the fact that, as Danquah points out, it flows from non-traditional channels.

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