Poet and activist Terry Wolverton agrees: "We have very few literary journals here in L.A. And very few literary journals outside (Los Angeles) include L.A. writers." She would like to see the city achieve a higher, more distinguished profile and is intrigued by the way Oliver has chosen to spend her budgetary allotment--investing in dialogues as a way to introduce voices who usually plot their words on the page.
"The literary community (in Los Angeles) isn't primarily based in the university as it is in other places," Wolverton says. "I think that's a positive thing. The literary arts are rooted in the community. It comes from the streets. It comes from lived experience." This, Wolverton believes, is the city's strongest suit. "They are not academics or theorists . . . they're folks. The artists don't just sit around in little rooms waiting for inspiration. A lot of us are activists, organizers, working for other artists."
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.
This activism has been an essential component in the life of the literary Angeleno; it has buoyed spirits that would have been otherwise lost. For all the said sunshine and wealth, L.A.'s literary atmosphere has been far from easy or kind. "We don't have a lot of institutions to support us," Wolverton stresses. So it's been catch as catch can. "We encourage and nurture each other, because there isn't a lot to compete for. There is a really cooperative spirit."
But Wanda Coleman has seen what happens when sturdy writers wear down and suffer in the chill of indifference. With seven volumes of poetry and prose to her credit, she too has the battle scars to prove her tenure. The respect factor, she maintains, transcends the arena of art and is part of a larger regional problem.
Coleman was part of the famous Watts Writers Workshop, a collective that sprouted to life shortly after the flames and sirens died down during the summer of 1965. It spawned writers and critics who have taken their careers east, toward major book deals, respect and attention. "I thought things would have gotten better after Watts," says Coleman, the pragmatist who has observed--and not silently--the mood become far, far worse. "Local artists have been marginalized. We've been closeted for the most part. That's the kind of artistic politics that have been played on this turf."
And for Coleman, simply \o7 talking \f7 about issues, work and process isn't adequate enough; impromptu panel discussions would be bereft of the passion and emotion essential to performance and, above all, to her message.
"I have found that audiences respond better when I'm \o7 doing \f7 my thing than when I'm \o7 talking \f7 about doing my thing," says Coleman, who will bring her conversation in the form of poetry and prose to the Pacific Design Center on Aug. 31.
"I'm going to be reading work shaped by this city and my life in the city. My whole life has been defined by the problems of the city of L.A," she explains. Access to an audience is "the greatest dialogue of all."
"I think sitting around talking isn't the point. As Billie Holiday sang, 'Don't explain.' "
But some will attempt to make the best of their opportunity to pursue dialogue with those writers engaged in work at the farther reaches of the country and on foreign shores. They plan to challenge ideas and view old themes and outmoded structures through a new prism constructed with their own words.
Exactly what visiting artists are expecting from the city is uncertain. The expanse, of late, looks to those on the outside like a boiling caldron--as complex as it is endless, and far too big to fit on one page. Poet Clinton looks forward to seeing how the discussion will all take shape from ground up.
"The city has become more angry and more dangerous," she says. "And that's balanced with the wealth and decadence. It keeps me looking at . . . the strength of the human spirit to recover. The multicultural force feeds my hope."
Clinton writes, she says, to forge a connection between human beings in a city that has uncertain borders. But, she points out, explicating the city is not part of her plans.
"I don't think my dialogue will center around L.A.," or for that matter, she adds, around the level of critical debate. Clinton instead will explore her current passions within the context of liberation, with multiculturalism and gay-lesbian issues at the forefront. "My work believes in the integrity of the human being in the face of this brutal machinery. We need to take risks and move into experimental prose and poetry and try to find the urban rhythms inside of L.A."
This old battle of regional one-upmanship and L.A.'s worth within a larger arena saps creative strength, writers believe. Debating whether or not Los Angeles is big enough to play hardball is a moot point. It's time writers are allowed to free themselves to simply believe--and just play.