Patt Morrison Asks

Eloise Klein Healy, L.A.'s first poet laureate

She has foraged deeply for poetic material in the city's weave of cultures and freeways. Now she's tasked with writing for big occasions and with making poetry a public matter.

It's a match made in heaven — or heav'n, as a poet might write. Eloise Klein Healy and the city of Los Angeles share a birthday, Sept. 4, and now, for a couple of years, they'll officially share a future. Healy has been named the city's first poet laureate, tasked with writing for big occasions and with making poetry a public matter. She's a Valley gal, to wit, Sherman Oaks, with her partner, Colleen Rooney, and their Portuguese water dog, Nikita. The founder of the MFA program at Antioch University, she has foraged deeply for poetic material in the city's weave of cultures and freeways. Her next collection, "A Wild Surmise," comes out in March.

What do you want to do as poet laureate?

"Go out into the highways and the hedges."

There are no guidelines about this position; it's totally new. There are things I'd like to try that I'd probably have to raise money for or use my big salary. I've gone to schools where they have no books in the classroom, and I've brought books and the students get to keep one. Maybe I can get some presses to give me some books to take along.

I'm going to meet lots of people who are going say, "Oh, I always wanted to write." Maybe that's the first time they even vocalized it.

I want to hunt for poems in Vietnamese or Spanish or Farsi. It'd be nice to have [poetry] posters in the buses but in two languages which aren't English: Spanish and Chinese, or Russian and Armenian.

About that "big salary" — $10,000 a year for two years, from the Cultural Affairs Department budget. Some people will say that the city's in terrible shape, this is what they're spending money on?

The city's in terrible shape with its literary reputation too. People in New York support the business end of literary culture — presses and literary magazines. That's a problem [in L.A.]. The mayor's saying we're the kind of city who should have something like this. That's what the job's about. It's not about who's the best poet. It's about, can somebody speak to literary culture?

We take ourselves seriously in entertainment, we take ourselves seriously as a port city, but we don't take ourselves seriously as a literary city. It's time to step up and say this is a world-class literary city.

When did you come to L.A.?

I was 10 1/2 and that was 1954. My parents came here on vacation. My father had always been interested in leaving Iowa. He was not interested in farm life. Carmen was my mother — her mother loved the opera "Carmen" so much she named her first child Carmen, in the middle of South Dakota! I moved from a small community as a small person and grew up in a really big place.

I feel my parents were immigrants. They came here because they felt it's not happening for us in Iowa. I understand immigrant children who come from other places to be part of a big enterprise their family's involved in, making a new life that's different from what the rest of your family did.

What makes somebody an Angeleno?

I don't know that there is one kind. When I was teaching at Cal State Northridge, I'd have students who'd never been out of the Valley. Everything they needed was right there.

For my own self definition, it's that I live in a place that's a small country, and I can go to all different kinds of places in my country and find different people, different landscapes, different architecture. I don't think there's any other city in the United States that I'd live.

How did you discover poetry?

When my father went off to war, [our] entertainment was [my mother] reading to me. I fell in love with "A Child's Garden of Verses." I was a voracious reader. I didn't really write until I was in high school, when I had the traditional experience of some teacher saying to me, "This was really great, you should do more writing."

I think it was all based on reading and in some way standing in front of a juke box or listening to live music; I learned a lot about rhythm from listening to music like that.

Make the case for poetry for people who say it's a frill.

That is kind of a stupid attitude, and it's not the attitude that's held worldwide. I went to the Shanghai art institute and guys were making [poetry] scrolls. [One] said, "What does the government do for you?" I looked at him like, are you nuts? I don't have a government job. I make my own way. He said you should come here, you can live in our [arts] building.

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