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Writing Noir Poetry, With LA As A Backdrop



This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Coming up, a talk with the new host of this program, Arun Rath.

But first, noir poetry. When you think about the noir genre, you think hardboiled detectives and femme fatales on darkened city streets. What better place to imbibe noir than in Los Angeles, city of Raymond Chandler and detective Philip Marlowe. But noir poetry? Meet the daughter of a California pioneer, a local legend and a woman who's turned her life's misadventures into edgy poetics. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: granddaughter, not daughter.]

SUZANNE LUMMIS: My name is Suzanne Lummis. We are now, all of us sitting on the Los Angeles riverbed, a section of it that is covered with concrete.

LYDEN: Suzanne Lummis wears turquoise cowboy boots, a peaked cowboy hat and brilliant lipstick that contrasts with her hair and pale skin. We're perched by one of the most abused rivers in America, here a trickle, really, of skanky water flowing through concrete. It's her inspiration.

What draws you to this gritty scene before us, although I think it's gritty beautiful because you've got the water flowing through these steep walls, which I've only ever seen used for car chase scenes. Why are you here?

LUMMIS: I think there is an intensity and a depth in fierce, hard landscapes. I also think there's another kind of intensity in beauty and serenity. And I'm not opposed to beauty and serenity. It just happens that that's not the landscape I live in.

LYDEN: Maybe we should start by reading a poem.

LUMMIS: OK. Now, taking the contrarian point of view, which is in itself rather a noir sensibility, to be contrarian, I wrote a poem called "Why I Am Not The Los Angeles River."

(Reading) I don't trail for miles under cement and steel girder bridges as a spindly brook then sweep out to spread an inch of melted snow and smoky runoff across a concrete floor the width of several lanes. I'm not the L.A. River.

LYDEN: Like it. Suzanne Lummis' poem winds around her episodic life.

LUMMIS: (Reading) My molecules don't convert like a comic book hero's. I have no shifty, shadowed other self. I'm not the L.A. River.

LYDEN: I think noir must mean many things for you. But certainly, one of the ideas you like to explore is that Los Angeles is not only a 1950s, midcentury golden dream.

LUMMIS: Yeah. Well, I think that Los Angeles has been likened to both a utopia and dystopia. But the thing is, Los Angeles is certainly one of the cities of the world that was pitched, sold to the rest of the country as a utopia. And some of the people, such as my grandfather, truly believed it.

LYDEN: You know, I'd love to know more about your grandfather. You're a multigenerational Californian. Your grandfather was Charles Lummis. Tell us about him. He was an editor, he was many things.

LUMMIS: Charles Lummis walked across the country from the East Coast; Chillicothe, Ohio, to be specific. 1884, he started his walk; took him a little under four months. He walked down the railroad tracks 20 miles away, stopping off at times in certain Native American pueblos, getting to know the people...

LYDEN: Charles Fletcher Lummis became the first city editor of the L.A. Times, and his house is, in fact, a historic site. He built it out of river rock, and it's open to the public not far from where we sit in Highland Park. Suzanne never met him. He died in '28. But she's got his bold spirit.

She's one-third of a poetry ensemble called Nearly Fatal Woman, and she organizes the L.A. Poetry Festival. Her passion is the noir poem, which she says must link to a crime and she's had them.

LUMMIS: Yes, I got mugged.

LYDEN: What happened?

LUMMIS: I had a gun held to my head. I got robbed. The worst thing I lost in that was my grandmother's gold ring, the one that my grandfather had given to my grandmother. I became very interested - surprise, surprise - in writing about violence. The film noir sensibility gave me a way to do that without being sentimental.

LYDEN: She teaches a poetry class at UCLA Extension. As a young woman in central California, she studied with the American great Philip Levine, who was honored just this week by the American Academy of Poets. For decades, Levine was considered the dean of the Fresno school. That, she says, is where she learned the power of language.

LUMMIS: Rich, deep, imagistic and impacting on the page - when those poems really work, and when my poems really work, there is a dynamic visual charge to the language.

LYDEN: There's a charge to her blue eyes as she reads another poem, "Venetian Blinds."

LUMMIS: (Reading) The silence of two AM's not talking; I may have to get tough. When he touched it to my head it seemed somehow like a toy. After, the cop said, yeah, people think that, then they're dead.

LYDEN: We leave Suzanne Lummis down by the river, her muse. Maybe she'll create a school of poetry. She could call it the L.A. River School. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 16, 2013 at 11:00 PM CDT
In the audio of this story, we incorrectly identify Suzanne Lummis as the daughter of a California pioneer. She is the granddaughter.
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