Over the past thirty or forty years, one of the most popular and visible people in the Los Angeles spoken-word scene has been Suzanne Lummis. She is admired as a poet, an actress, a performer, a festival organizer, a poetry promoter, and a skilled promoter of herself. Last year Lynx House Press published her most recent collection, Open 24 Hours.
I’ve got to confess, right off the bat, that most of my interactions with Lummis have not been positive. For example, I once approached her at an event to ask if she might like to read at the series I host. She asked if I paid. I told her I couldn’t. She then informed me that, due to her popularity, she only did readings for a fee. “Wherever I perform, it’s standing room only!” she declared. Recently on Facebook, when asked why more writers of color were not included in an anthology she’d put together, she began her defense by saying, “No one knows the L.A. poetry scene better than I do.”
And, speaking of confessions: a priest friend of mine always tells me, based on what he hears from me about the L.A. poetry scene, “It just sounds like a bunch of people shouting Look At Me, Look At Me!” On the other hand, I doubt people can get very far in the arts, or in any field for that matter, without vigorously and tirelessly promoting themselves the way Lummis does.
I have heard her read aloud. She is a good performer and always gets the laughs she’s looking for. So I was curious to find out how her work holds up on the page. Open 24 Hours has been my first exposure to Lummis as a writer.
Last week I read the whole book, and just now I’ve opened to a random page, to a piece called “Eurydice Finally Finds a Working Phone Booth.” After a long quote used as an epigraph (having to do with a massive L.A. sardine die-off), it begins:
I’ve got bad news
and worse news: first, I’m in hell
and, secondly, I’m calling collect. Come get me.
And hurry up, will you, I don’t like the weather—
muggy most days. And this seaside town
that maybe served once as an annex to heaven,
is shot, well, to hell I guess, the wharf eaten,
strewn with threadbare nets, stalls
where fishermen displayed the open-eyed shine
of the day’s catch just rotted sticks now,
the storefronts turning to salt then
to thick and itchy air. Wow—
what was that? Can you believe all those words
jumped from my mouth? Don’t know
how I did it . . .
This material is nice, and it’s entertaining, kind of funny stuff. If read aloud by Lummis herself, I’m sure it does well at spoken-word events. One of the “schools” Lummis belongs to is the Stand-up Poetry school; as a performance piece, it would work. She has a good voice: it’s feminine, well-trained, expressive, just the right volume; and her appearance usually includes her trademark red or black beret, jet black dyed hair, dark clothes, and a deathly pale face, which brings me to the other school she belongs to, that of the “poem noir.” And what is the poem noir? There are two ways to define it. In a broad sense, as explained recently in a lecture given by British scholar John Challis, the poem noir takes characteristics not just from the famous ‘40s and ‘50s U.S. movies commonly labeled as noir, but much later ones such as Taxi Driver and more recent ones still, such as the series Breaking Bad. What do they all share? Here are my lecture notes on the films:
“Ordinary people get into extraordinary situations in which they break the law . . . Complex studies of the human condition . . . we are in the age of the film noir: hopelessness, sense of speculation . . . anxiety, paranoia, obsession, pessimism, death.”
And Challis goes on to cite some poems whose characteristics are (again from my notes): “running through the city at night . . . cemeteries . . . hard-boiled tone of voice . . . seen-it-all-before tone of voice . . . wit . . . unresolved endings . . . drinking & smoking . . . black and white: shadows . . . descent into underworld . . . hellish urban environment . . . tattoo parlors, clubs, etc. Hopelessness, despair . . . being trapped . . . ALSO: bars, trench coats, booze, cigarettes, diners.” Interestingly, he states that the poets he mentions (all males with international reputations) are not aiming to actually write noir poems and might even be unaware of doing so.
As far as Lummis’s own, more specific definition, I have not had a chance to read her essay in which she spells out her ideas (there’s a paywall for anyone wishing to read it, or the journal it appeared in can only be ordered). What I gather from her poems, however, is that many of the above characteristics apply to her work too, with the crucial difference being the tone Lummis is going for: she works and thrives in a noir atmosphere, yes, but we’re not supposed to take it seriously. There is no hopelessness or anxiety in her work, at least not on the surface. There’s not much crime; there are no tortured souls. On the other hand, she does give us an atmosphere, a setting reminiscent of the film noir world: Los Angeles, night, diners, rain, tenements, people down-and-out, definitely a “seen-it-all-before” tone of voice, a “hellish” city of night. I put that word in quotes because it’s not of course really hell. Films noirs took themselves very, very seriously. What Lummis gives us is, essentially, high camp.
I note from Challis’s lecture the phrase “descent to the underworld” and this applies perfectly to the poem I quoted above, which is all about someone stuck in hell. It ends:
Get me outta here! And this time,
Orp, we’ll make it. Because at this dump,
believe me, you will not look back.
Oh, but one good thing—no flames here,
no brimstone, like the Fundamentalists believe.
Although when I wade thigh deep
in that infected, oil-glossy tide, it kinda burns.
She calls to Orpheus to get her out. Yes, it’s hellish here all right, but the tone is worlds away from the films noirs of old, or even the deadly serious poems which Challis quotes from (one of them is by Paul Maldoon, I believe). Lummis inhabits the world of noir, but she doesn’t want us—on the surface at least—to take her seriously. Under the surface, I believe she does have a very serious intent (doesn’t all comedy?). “When things are really hellish, all we can do is laugh”—that’s what the poems communicate. The subtitle of her poem noir essay is “Too Dark to Be Depressed.”
Lummis as stand-up and “noir lite” poet—she succeeds in being both. Her poems are the edgy contemporary artifacts she wants them to be. How good are they, though? Hold on! What is “good”?!
Lummis does not try to be anything like Robert Frost or Wallace Stevens. That’s not her intention. She is not a “failed Wallace Stevens.” She is very consciously doing something different. We can’t fault her for not being Frost-like or Stevens-like any more than we can fault Andy Warhol for not being more Rembrandt-like. We judge Warhol’s Campbell soup and Marilyn Monroe and Mao prints as “important” and “successful” by a different set of criteria than we would a Rembrandt.
Having said that, it does seem that Lummis’s poems work better when read out loud, and especially when read out loud by Lummis, than they do on the page (she even warns us in subtitles, just half-jokingly, that some poems do not “work on page”). She has her good voice, her good beret, her pallid face, her very black hair, but on the printed page? In recent comments on KPCC radio, she quoted from some of her writing about what good and bad poems are (and not specifically stand-up or noir poems): First the good:
Well you have to be absolutely engaged with language, you have to be in love with language. And it would be helpful to have some talent.
Then the (more fun) bad:
I mean poetry in which the language is not alive — holds no charge, does not spring from precise observation, vivid recollection, luxuriant or stark imaginings. I mean poetry couched in platitudes, generalities, absent of imagery, physical details, texture and surprise. Or, I mean poetry with language that’s energetic but chaotic, murky, unfocused. Or, I mean poetry that’s careless, ungrammatical, not because the poet has set out to capture the vernacular of a particular speaker, but because the poet has not bothered to learn the basics of language.
Let’s go back to the last part of the Eurydice poem I quoted above. Where’s the charge? Where’s the precise observation? Where is the vivid recollection? Where are the luxuriant and stark imaginings? Where are the textures and surprises? If we go to the first part of the poem, the only interesting lines (and they are very good) come here: “where fishermen displayed the open-eyed shine / of the day’s catch just rotted sticks now, / the storefronts turning to salt then / to thick and itchy air.” I enjoy this, especially the “thick and itchy air.” But we see that, going by Lummis’s own criteria, there’s not much going on (verbally) that’s worthwhile, that can stand alone on the page without the femme fatale, phantom-like presence of the poet herself.
In another poem, “About Misses Iverson,” narrated by the voice of a low-rent building’s super/handyman, we have an old lady locked up in her apartment, dying in her bed. It has the noir characteristic of taking place in a sleazy residential hotel; there’s death; there’s Los Angeles; and above all there is an inconclusiveness to the piece, and an air of speculation, which are both noirish things I jotted down in my lecture notes. But what of the actual writing? The style on the page? Here’s how the poem starts:
She don’t open the door,
that old lady there, four-oh-six.
You know she shy, quiet, and never
do nothing, never call attention.
But the manager come for rent and she
don’t open. And he, you know,
’s calling Misses Iverson!—Come
back the next day—Heriberto—she
All very plain and simple. This would make a good passage in a screenplay or play. And the poem ends with speculation about Iverson’s motives:
The way I see it,
she work for some boss,
you know, some little place, her whole
life, where they do your taxes or sell
you insurance, something like that,
and she shy and she never do nothing. Well—
she do what she supposed to do.
Now she dying she push back some—
she don’t have to answer to nobody.
Don’t have to jump up for every knock.
Ahh no, she think, Uh Uhh.
I ain’t gonna open the god damn door!
This piece, with its lack of resolution and its speculations, works as a bit of noir; but how does the poem hold up if divorced from its avowed noir and stand-up intentions? Can it really stand on its own? Would you want to commit this to memory? Again, where are the precise observations, the vivid recollections, the luxuriant and stark imaginings? Okay, I admit there’s plenty of starkness here, nothing but starkness. What we have is a kind of torso, a short speech from a play.
In another piece, “Last List: Tenement Lexicon,” Lummis writes a list of things she is (or may be) called, things such as “Boss Lady” and “Tough Little White Girl” and “La Roja Loca.” Then she has a list of things she should be called, and one of them is “Our Lady of Beneficent Talent.” She also says “She Who Should Be Paid Attention To.” And she goes on to say “Miss Netherworld” (again, a reference to hell) and concludes:
Astarte Leaping Deer
A Relatively Sober Dorothy Parker for the New
Frank O’Hara in a
Joan Didion Mood
La Mujer Bellisima
This is fun and it’s revealing. She no doubt does fancy herself a kind of L.A. Frank O’Hara for the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. She does, I’m sure, fancy herself a kind of poetry incarnation of Joan Didion. Lummis is a good performer and a fabulous self-promoter, but, I have to ask once again, where are those precise observations and vivid recollections and luxuriant imaginings she imagines we’ll be dazzled by in her poems?
Where is the love affair with language?
The empress of L.A. poetry has no clothes.