Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa named lesbian writer Eloise Klein Healy today as the first poet laureate of Los Angeles.
The newly appointed Poet Laureate has been a Los Angeles resident since she was 10 years old, and considers the city a major source of inspiration for her work. “I’m really a person who writes out of 'place,'” Healy said to The Advocate. “I’m interested in the tectonics of the place, from the ground up. The writing of a poem means you go into the underground of a poem and watch it move around. The earth works the way poetry works.”
“I don’t think of it as a city,” she added, speaking about Los Angeles. “It’s a country.”
Healy has written six collections of poetry, including Passing and Artemis in Echo Park, which were both nominated for Lambda Literary Awards. The latter publication is inspired by a Los Angeles neighborhood. She also received the Grand Prize of the Los Angeles Poetry Festival and has been honored with several Pushcart Prize nominations. Her latest book, A Wild Surmise, is forthcoming.
Healy will "serve as the official ambassador of Los Angeles’ vibrant poetry and literary culture,” according to a press release
, with responsibilities that include oversight of several readings, programs, and the composition of poems dedicated to the city.
"It is wonderful to announce the new Poet Laureate position,” Poet Laureate Task Force Chair Dana Gioia said. “Los Angeles is the creative capital of the 21st century. Honoring poets and writers with this new public office is a fitting symbol for the power of the language and the imagination in our remarkable community."
A longtime educator, Healy is the Founding Chair of the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Antioch University, and was the former Director of the Women's Studies Program at California State University Northridge. In addition, she is the Founding Editor of Arktoi Books, which publishes works by lesbian writers.
At an early age, Healy formed a special relationship with words. “I was a big reader,” said the poet, who recalled devouring books with her mother, even before entering kindergarten. “We didn’t have much money to spend, but we could read. It was my favorite thing. Words could take you places. I wanted to see.”
Healy discovered her poetic voice after meeting a student of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, who encouraged her to become more engaged with L.A.’s writing community. A recent college graduate at the time, she signed up for her first reading at Skylight Books, which was initially reluctant to let a greenhorn on its stage.
“You’re not going to know who I am unless you let me read,” she remembered telling the staff. They granted her request.
Throughout her teaching career, Healy made a point to come out to her students on the first day of class. “[I tell them:] I am a lesbian, and a feminist, and I’m a good teacher. So if you want to learn something, stay.”
She aspires to bring this spirit of inclusion to a greater audience in Los Angeles. “I feel that the literary output of Los Angeles has been sadly overlooked by the national press,” Healy said. “Things can be done to address some of that. I want to get poetry in places where it typically isn’t seen. A lot of people think that there’s no place for them in poetry. But I’ve taught enough to know that you can surprise people in being interested in it.”
Healy thanked the mayor, as well as the Poet Laureate Task Force that elected her as Poet Laureate, for their “courage” in selecting a lesbian writer. “It came out of the blue. I’m still a little bit shocked,” Healy stated. “I think it’s a sign that we have moved out of the shadows.”
Read three of her poems on the following pages.
I am thinking about romance and its purpose.
Children and why I didn't have any.
I would have left the cave and them with it
or I would have tied them to me forever
with my own sad dreams and finicky order.
I've liked young animals better.
I could put their heads in my mouth.
I could lick and clean them like a mother,
but I could not raise a child.
The first thing a child should see
is the pink sunrise of a nipple, not the green wind
of a branch whipping in passing.
I chose to keep animals around me instead
because we are the same. We have habits
and make strange circles before we sleep.
We don't like to be watched while we eat.
The Suicide's Numbers
I subtract the dates using pencil and paper
because it’s one take away eight,
eight take away five and the calculation
involves borrowing. I’m too tired.
to do this mentally tonight and even more,
I can’t believe she was only twenty-two.
So I run the numbers again, and yes
she definitely was a very young woman,
her body in the portraits smooth
as a fine-grained print.
She was on to something, she was
beyond technique or costume or the body.
The geometries she captured
would intoxicate a snowflake
with their patterns, with their quick array.
Was she as wise as everybody said?
Or could it be she was falling
from such a great height
and casting every which way to capture
her vision that she hit the ground
before her shadow let her know?
Was that ache caught by her lens
somewhere near the frame
herself intruding or herself escaping?
Francesca Woodman, celebrated for her self-portraits, committed suicide
at the age of 22. Her photographs are collected in Francesca Woodman.
Selling My Mother's House
Here is the treasure map,
erasure as measure,
and what was she thinking
while pinning these pins,
and whose vest was this
and what did it match?
Where are the Wheat Back pennies
in the rainbow of dust,
the Lady Liberty silver dollars
that must never be spent,
and coins of the realm of silence
and coins of the realm of tears?
Where is the stamp block, the first day cover,
the collectible from Certified Dreamtime?
Let me shake the tin plate
passed down from Grandmother,
let me push the button
on the back door knob,
right twist the Dial-A-Lock on the workshop
and drop the steel rod in the sliding door track.
I seem to have missed everything—
the alarming X's on the calendar, the sibilant drapes.
There was one kind of money
hidden in the bread drawer
and another kind of money
in the embroidery thread box
and money that should be
somewhere but isn't.
The only treasure left,
the empty living room where my father died.