Okay, next up we have Suzanne Lummis. She is a writer, a poet, a teacher with the
UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. She received her MA from Fresno State and
also is a co-founder of the L.A. Poetry Festival with Sherman Pearl. She is a recipient of the 2015 Beyond Baroque’s
George Drury Smith Award and has written three books, In Danger, Idiosyncrasies, and Open
24 Hours, which also won the 2013 Blue Lynx Prize for Poetry. I recently learned she has an extensive knowledge
about the history of the poet laureate. So welcome, Suzanne Lummis.
[applause] Well, alright. I also would like to thank Jefferson and all
of the master minds behind the Larry Levis Scholarship, right? Which you’re raising money for here tonight. And my teachers — I want to thank my teachers. There’s Peter Everwine over there who taught
me so much. There’s Chuck Hanzlicek who taught me so much. Fran Levine representing the immortal presence
of Philip Levine, who I think– whose spirit remains with us as an inspiration for his
stunning work. Now– yes!
[applause] So, I’m going to overlap with Kenneth a little
bit in a few ways. In fact, I was sitting there thinking, I’m
going to switch out– [Laughter] switch out my program a little bit because
you gave me some ideas. For a long time I lived in East Hollywood. Not the fashionable, not the wealthy part
of Hollywood. The down-and-out part of Hollywood. Naturally that’s where I’d land. I lived in a four-story brick tenement with
a fire escape down the front right on Vermont Avenue. Well it was never quiet on Vermont Avenue,
you could wake up anytime of night and there were sirens coming down the street and activity
on the street. Another thing that happened in that particular
building is whoever wanted to crash their car, they came to 1175 N. Vermont and crashed their car. [laughter] It was the– yeah, sort of car crash central. So, after a while I learned– for a lot of
different reasons, many different reasons, I learned to sleep more or less dressed. Earthquakes, car crashes, people knocking
on my door at 2 AM, and when I opened the door they would say, “Would you like to buy
some tamales?” [laughter] So therefore, I didn’t– I couldn’t sleep
naked in that situation. [laughter] This was one of the many real events that
happened. It’s called “Hot Pursuit.” It wasn’t just the grind of brakes, cry
of metals un-forgiving each other– no. It was that delirious and slow plowing
headlong into and past Traffic Light, Street Lamp, then the disruption
of Parked Truck, that got me out of bed and down four flights of stairs onto
the street. The rubble of smashed
glass makes the sidewalk shine. The traffic
light’s lying knocked flat. One cop car stopped behind the spot,
the other’s in pursuit– the kid hit the ground and took off. By foot. Everyone’s drained out the Donut Shop,
the Armenian dance hall, Owl Drugs– homeboys in T-shirts and blue tattoos. In L.A. it gets like this at night–
hot. We stare at the parked truck
that got punched from the back, then at the criminal car. Under the flung hood
the motor stamps and steams. Look
at that bumper, we yell, that twisted wheel! And the glove compartment’s sprung, so
the deeds of legal ownership drift out the driver side. The driver door’s
bent wild. It’s, like, so ajar. It’s like
Chamberlain’s sculptures from crushed cars. Here is the art of disaster, the art
of the split-second fatal bad choice. I know how our mistakes change
the shape of things but to look at the twists and turns that kid put
in this Ford coupe you’d think what he wanted really was to make a crazy staircase and climb up. [applause] When I was living in my tenement– I’ll be
reading some poems from my most recent book called Open 24 Hours and– several of
poems in here come from that time in my life. So, I would sit around, doing what people
do when they don’t have a lot of money– is try to come up with good ways to make money. So, I came up with all these ways to make
money. None of these were really very good when I
went through the list. [laughter] This doesn’t sound too promising, so I have
my series of poems called “Ways to Make Money #1,” “Ways to Make Money #2.” Alright, this is “Ways to Make Money #1.” We will wash your cat … [laughter]
your budgie, your small, untidy, unlicensed, tree-dwelling beast from Tanzania. We will walk
your spaniel, your grandma, smooth the specks from her spectacles,
prop her against a sturdy surface like a liquor store, let her stare at the view. We will write some poems for you, for
your birthday, which everyone forgets– not us! Or, we will write
your poems. We can make them rhyme. Look. From sea to shining sea
and from the shores of Tripoli. Or– pay
us in advance, for when your time comes. Let A Po-et Write Your Ob-it!
[laughter] We will fix your broken stuff– we
own glue. [laughter] We will guard your guard dog. We will wash your car. We will remove from your windshield
the cheap business cards, Bible quotes, news of parts store openings, little cries
for help cast on the waters, all the slips of rained-on, fading paper, including
this one. [laughter] I hope. This one, this second one of ways to make
money, I dreamt. I dreamt this way of making money. And it’s in the dream it seemed– this is such
a great way to make money! And for about a minute after I woke up and
then I went, no, no! [Laughter]
It’s a terrible way to make money. Okay, so it’s called “Ways to Make Money #2,
or: Rent Your Indy Mom.” Okay. One. Sad Boy! You never had the mom you wanted. Rent our 1960s Counterculture Mom.
[laughter] She’ll stich and knit and macramé your
clothes, and chew leather till it’s soft to shape sandals for your
precious feet. You’ll catch your first Brain Swamp concert just before they switch from light to heavy metal)
at twelve days old. She’ll need no man but you. She’ll rock you in her arms along with
everything she swears– she knows– is true: that you’ll grow up to
be a successful, happy man, the sky will shower blessings shaped
like tiny birthday cake rosettes, and soon– no more war.
[laughter] Two. Sad and Cheated Boy! Your mom wasn’t what you’d hoped for. Rent our Traditional 1950s Mom and Apple Pie.
[laughter] Oh the delight of
peeling back thin foil to reveal three white slices– protein floating
in its tray of pale gravy– then the patch of yellow kernels, then
boiled, sugared apples with some dough. And, yes, the mircale
of TVs on, an old man delivering the news, then Cowboys! And
tomorrow, a trip downtown! She’ll take your tiny hand in hers
and drag you, red and howling, away from department store displays filled
with every gleaming, shining, candy-colored thing you
ever wanted and still can’t have. [laughter and applause] Alright, alright. I’m glad something amusing came out of my
poverty. [Laughter] I have a question. Does anybody here– I left L.A. several hours
ago, leaving behind something I really wanted, which was my copy of Larry Levis’s “The Fish,”
does anybody here– he’s reaching in his pockets. Do you have Larry Levis’s “The Fish?” [Jefferson, off camera] I can Google it. Oh, you could google it for me! Oh, ’cause I love that poem so much! See, I always forget about these little devices. I can’t believe — [Jefferson, off camera] I’m working on it. Okay, he’s going to work on it. Okay, so I’m gonna go to– it’s a little bit
of a darker, edgier mood– most of my work is a little edgy. I wrote a series of poems inspired by– this
is what happened to me. It was back when video had just come out. It was a miracle. You could even own– you could own a movie! This was unthinkable when I was growing up. I mean, only the wealthiest people in the
land had their own movie theater growing up. So, I decided to stay inside, I dropped out
for about four days, stayed inside, watched video, and I ate fortune cookies. And at the end I was in a hallucinatory state.
[laughter] It was like — sort of
a dream quest where they would go into the forest and they would — until they had a vision. So, I had some visions and they were that
if I picked up all these little slips, now scattered all over the place, of fortunes,
that I could make each one the title of a poem. And I actually wrote these first three or
four poems in a very altered state of mind. How are we finding– doing on “The Fish?” [Jefferson off camera] Still working on it. We’re working on “The Fish.” I think it’s in there somewhere though. [Laughter] So, this one– has anybody ever gotten the
one, “Take that chance you’ve been considering?” You’ve gotten, “Take that chance you’ve been
considering?” I get that one too periodically. So– did you? [Jefferson off camera] It starts with, “The
cop holds me up like a fish?” Yes!
[Jefferson off camera] Okay. I’m just going to read– I have to read that! It’s so– [Jefferson] It’s very small, I’m sorry. It’s okay. I hope. Yeah, I think I can see it, but stay — don’t go too
far away because it might disappear on me. Okay, this happens to me with these devices. [Jefferson] I’ll scroll. Okay, this a– gosh this is a beautiful poem! Alright. An early Larry Levis poem and it is, to me,
one of the great poems of that era. It’s a poem that just keeps getting better
as time goes on and more relevant as time goes on. “The Fish.” The cop holds me up like a fish;
he feels the huge bones surrounding my eyes,
and he runs a thumb under them, lifting my eyelids
as if they were envelopes filled with the night. Now he turns my head back and forth, gently,
until I’m so tame and still I could be a tiny, plastic
skull left on the dashboard of a junked car. By now he’s so sure of me
he chews gum, and drops his flashlight to his side; he could be cleaning a trout
while the pines rise into the darkness, though tonight’s trout
are freezing into bits of stars under the ice. When he lets me go
I feel numb. I feel like
a fish burned by his touch, and turn and slip into the cold night rippling with neons,
and the razor blades of the poor,
and the torn mouths on posters. Once, I thought even through this
I could go quietly as a star turning over and over
in the deep truce of its light. Now, I must
go on repeating the last, filthy words on the lips
of this shunken head shining out of its death in the moon—
until trout surface with their petrified, round eyes,
and the stars begin moving. Damn. [applause] Now I don’t even want to read my poems. [Laughter] Really. I really think that is one of the
great contemporary poems. So, I’m going to read a different theme. I’ve decided I just changed my mind. I’m gonna go to a different place. I’m still going to read the poem I introduced,
because after all I did spend all that time introducing all the fortune cookie things.
But I wanted– this– Kenneth, this also– I also got this idea from you, ’cause you were
talking about the helicopter. So, a long time– this is a very dark poem. Everybody has to fasten your– I guess you
have to fasten– do you have to fasten your seat belts for
a dark poem? Put on your galoshes?
I don’t know what you have to do– [Laughter]
for a dark poem. But this was on one of these occasions– but
there’s been helicopters– a lot of helicopters in East L.A. But this time the helicopter just started
circling, circling, circling the building, but around and around, and getting closer and
closer. And each time it passed my single apartment,
the beam would flash right across my room. And it– this went on and on, and then I began
writing this poem while this was happening. And it is called “Poem Noir.” Light rakes
across my window with that sound we call chop
chop, then circles back. It’s
keeping this place under wraps, winding, winding, in a sticky
thread, the bad and the good. Seems someone used a gun
in a crime again, then ran home. And last night cries
from the street, so I looked out. But it was empty–
hell– just beat-down rain, bunkers of concrete lodged like crude
ships that sank, and the bulb-lit sign, GOOD WILL. But whenever I’d been mugged
it wasn’t here– near Fairfax once. The gun
against my head made a tiny pricking sound like a watch,
or like a click inside a watch, that pin
drop we can’t hear between the tick
and the tock. It burnt
my imagination, woke it up. But I’ve got stories worse
than that. Two assholes
dragged me off the street. Like I’d have seen them
coming, right? But
I was checking my make-up under a light. What went down (this
rhymes) was not a pretty sight. There’s things I can’t
tell, even in poetry, you understand that? Anyway,
so what. A cool beam
sweeps into my room then circles up. But I was born in ’51, see,
that far back, and still no cop’s had to trace
in dimestore chalk the outline of my shape
where I stopped, leaned forward, not
because I’d spotted my name in cement. Then
knelt on one knee, not
because I was searching for something I’d lost. Then two,
not because I was praying. Then sat,
not because I was suddenly tired of all this.
Then lay. Oh, that’s dark. Okay, now that everybody is depressed.
Okay, now you’re depressed. [Laughter] This won’t help that much. Okay. Alright! Back to “Take That Chance You’ve Been Considering.” I’m over the railing now. Down below
the gray-blue winks in the light and wrinkles up. To me it seems like
the No-Land between fact and fiction, lies and the illusive truth. But don’t trust my take on it; I’m
in a state. Trust me,
says the official in so many words, after he’s inched as close as he dares without
pushing me, you know, over the edge: Hey, what seems to be wrong? Wow, what a leading question,
but oh I do trust him, I do. Look,
I want to say, the sky is the exact untroubled blue of the crayon
I picked once years back to make the sky blue, and the broken parts of this world
are so far off that from here they’re cracks in a sidewalk. Deep down,
though, I’ll bet the sea’s fingering the bones of jumpers, rolling them like old ideas
that never quite took– what do you think? But I can’t say that. He’d conclude I was mad. The police have drawn a line the cars
can’t pass. It’s a nice day, he says, a good day to talk.
We can work things through. Want a hand? I mustn’t speak, just smile politely,
as if to say ‘Thank you’ or ‘fine, you?’ From where I stand people look like ants,
that is, their hearts like the nipping heads of red ants. I can’t explain this but suddenly
I want a bigness like the sea or sky, a largess, an inheritance, the full
embrace. I want
to take that chance I’ve been considering. Stranger, isn’t it true, isn’t it,
that out of every million, nine hundred ninety-nine thousand
nine hundred ninety-nine drop straight towards the obvious, but one
flies? And I think I will close with another fortune
cookie. Did– has anybody ever gotten the one, ‘The
night life is for you?’ [Laughter] No? It’s a popular one. I’ve gotten that about three times. It’s true.
[laughter] It really is for me. Okay. Alright. “The Night Life Is For You.” Here, on the boulevard of
run-amuck dreams, each stamped with a doll-like face you half-
recognize as yours, the neon displays its chilly, self-
possessed light. But the lips on the billboards
are raspberry cream. They say
Buy me or Be me, you can’t tell. You’re confused
like mad again, in this night of mixed blessings spiked
with a ripe curse, that line you fall for every time. You’ll drive these streets
in a trance after your death, crying ‘I’m still here!’
but now you get out and walk. This pale, feverish prescene
inside your life is you, and those are loud strangers
gripping beers. But why die,
ever, while stores shout out their bargains, hot CD’s,
and one can gaze at the bodies who’ve stopped dancing now
and stand about jaggedly because the doorways
of rock clubs pumped them into open air? No doubt about it,
all this is for you. Some Doo Wop tune
on the airwave says the night’s thousand shifting eyes
are on the watch. You guess
two of them are yours. Tonight Mr. Good
or Bad might pluck you from the crowd. There’s some place you’re
supposed to be, some fun you’re supposed to have. It’s fate, your fate, and it’s open
twenty-four hours. [Laughter and applause]