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Trying to Put a Little Poetry Into Our Lives

Books: Driven by a passion for language, Suzanne Lummis strives to raise the visibility of Southland poets with tireless advocacy--and a sweeping anthology.

May 10, 1996|ERIN J. AUBRY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If Webster's ever put a picture next to its definition of the word "poet," it would likely be one of Suzanne Lummis: slight, almost bird-like, dark hair wisping from beneath a habitual beret, blue eyes framed by large glasses that tend to slide to the end of her nose and perch there precariously, unnoticed, as she reels off the most sublime images of this poem or that.

But make no mistake: There is steel in those eyes, ironclad determination enough to have made Lummis into not only a poet of note, but L.A.'s most famous poetry impresario, a tireless literary advocate who has worked to raise poetry's visibility and bridge the cultural gap between the written and spoken word in a city that, partially because of its geography, is full of cultural gaps itself.

No small undertaking, this--especially in a film-dominated town--one that resonates with vision, commitment and not a little bit of odds-bucking madness.

Exactly the qualities associated with Lummis' famous grandfather, Charles Lummis, a journalist who walked from Ohio to the L.A. region in 1895, fell in love with the land and went on to become a key figure in the preservation of Native American culture and Southern California history.

Although she is loath to call herself a pioneer of such magnitude, Suzanne Lummis unquestionably shares his passion for cultural preservation, for a place many people once dismissed as a desert (and still do) as well as a burning desire to show the world the stuff it's really made of.

"The city tends to forget that it needs its poets," Lummis says. "This is a center of movies, of commerce, but there's still an emotional and spiritual hunger for poetry. Culturally, we can't get by on . . . TV."

Her high, girlish voice is as ethereal as her appearance, but Lummis speaks with precision and deadpan certainty, qualities bred of a fundamental optimism about her work. Since "plunging headlong into poetry" in the early '80s, she has supported herself solely by writing and teaching. She co-founded the L.A. Poetry Festival in 1990 and served as director for five years. Then she turned her energies to co-editing "Grand Passion: The Poets of L.A. and Beyond," a sweeping anthology of Southland poetry featuring more than 80 authors. Published last year by Red Wind Books, it is the city's largest poetry collection to date. Lummis says the book was the logical culmination of the festivals--poetry curated on the page rather than in places--and her piece de resistance.

"Live readings are so ephemeral--you do them and poof! they're gone. I wanted something of permanence, which is why I did 'Grand Passion,' " she says, brushing unruly strands of hair from her eyes. "I see it as a handbook for young poets who may have to end up reading some Boston poet who lived 30 years ago just to find out what the genre is all about."

"Grand Passion" also serves as "a calling card outside of this city to the rest of the literary world," says poet and co-editor Charles Webb. "It's archival. Any poet anywhere now can pick it up and know what's going on in the L.A. poetry scene, which has changed drastically since the mid-'80s. It's long overdue."

Despite having prominent family roots and obvious civic pride, Lummis is not a native. She grew up in the Bay Area, and her arrival here in 1979 made her the first Lummis to return to L.A. since the 1920s.

She initially came to seek her fortune as an actress, but "poetry eventually consumed me" and her life began shaping itself around it. Encouraged in literary endeavors by her parents ("I declared to them--and the world--that I was going to be a poet when I was 9," she recalls), Lummis honed her talents in a graduate program at Fresno State with such poets as Phil Levin, Peter Everwine and Chuck Hanzlicek. Particularly influential was Levin.

"Phil said of my first poem, 'You're not writing well, but you will,' then proceeded to tear it apart," says Lummis, laughing. "I knew it was very great praise. I stuck with it."

Like her grandfather, and many other artistically inclined Angelenos, Lummis is a vocational maverick. Poetry is her livelihood, but she has been an actress and playwright. Several of her shows, including "Oct. 22, 4004 BC" and "Night Owls," were critically lauded. She is frequently cast in character roles in plays around town, including a Justin Tanner show last year.

"I don't know, people think I'm funny onstage," she muses, looking genuinely puzzled. "I don't really see myself as comic."

Her unaffected quirkiness and theatrical sensibility have served Lummis well in her goal of marrying performance-based poetry--"spoken word"--with more traditional, literary works that, as she puts it, "stand up on the page." Her airy delivery of her work at public readings and keen sense of line structure evidence her great appreciation for both. Although "Grand Passion" showcases everything from strictly metered verse to narrative poetry bordering on prose, Lummis insists that everything lead with craft.

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