In Conversation with Suzanne Lummis

Georgia Jones-Davis 

Suzanne Lummis’ collection Open 24 Hours won the Blue Lynx Poetry Award in Washington State and will be published in Fall 2014. Her poems have appeared in such journals as Ploughshares, The Hudson Review, The New Ohio Reviewand she has one forthcoming in The New Yorker.
She’s included in California Poetry from the Gold Rush to the PresentHow Much Earth: The Fresno Poets, and the Knopf anthologies Poems of the American West and Poems of Murder and Mayhem.
Known for her irreverent humor, she was a key figure in the Los Angeles-based, Stand-up Poetry movement of the 90s—and also known for her essays defining the poem noir. In 2013, NPR’s All Things Considered aired a segment on her, “Writing Noir Poems with L.A. as a Backdrop.”
GJD: Why is it a poem if it doesn’t rhyme? I have been asked, especially by older people. I reply that the piece in question is a poem because it is a “history of secrets.” I said that without fully knowing why or what it means exactly, except that it some angle of poetry’s mystery has been illuminated. Would you talk about what you believe brightens those shadows that make up poetry’s mystery, your “history of secrets”?
SL: I love your answer to that question—it’s in many respects a more appealing answer than mine would’ve been, and a hell of a lot shorter. Before I address poetry’s mystery or shadows, I’d like to back up and approximate what I’ve sometimes said to people who think (still, after these many decades) poetry must rhyme. I ask them who do they imagine might be the most popular U.S. poet around the world, the one translated into all major and most minor languages, who has influenced other giant figures in poetry around the world, and whose appeal never wanes –the most American of American poets. It is Walt Whitman, who rarely wrote in rhyme. It’s hard to imagine anyone today suggesting that Whitman wasn’t a poet. He never saw the 20th century. Non-rhyming poetry has been dominant since the 1960s, but was around long before that –it’s not some fad that sprung up lately.
Ancient poetry took the form of spells, incantations, prayers, cries to the supernatural forces, a kind of beseeching, or an expression of the will to draw the visible out of the invisible. Those are the roots of poetry, that’s where it all began. And those early expressions rarely rhymed. Instead it used a chant-like, trance-like repetition.
       Comes the deer to my singing,
       Comes the deer to my song,
       Comes the deer to my singing.
       He, the blackbird, he am I,
       Bird beloved of the wild deer.
       Comes the deer to my singing.
This doesn’t rhyme in the Navajo language.
Rhyme came into poetry in part because in past centuries most of the population was illiterate and rhyme made the words easier to memorize. The way things are going in the schools, and judging by some of the posts I see on the Yahoo news threads, rhyme may soon have to be reintroduced to poetry for the same reason.
Regarding shadows, mystery and secrets—I like all this, to be sure. I don’t think these elements exist to the same degree in poetry across the board, and in some poems not at all. We probably wouldn’t describe Bukowski that way, or Frank O’Hara, or, on a totally different end of the spectrum, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Those poets say what they mean, straight up. I do think your description works especially well for poets such as Louise Gluck and David St. John (though David can be both clear and shadowy at the same time.)
It’s poetry we think, we hope, if it’s efficient in its brevity (brief compared to fiction, even short fiction), surprising in its movement—its progress—vital and lively in its language. If it is narrative, let us not foresee what’s coming next. And if it is mad, let there be a method to the madness.
Oh, and line breaks! Unlike playwrights, novelists, short fiction writers, memoirists, screenwriters, journalists, bloggers, advertising copywriters, poets turn the line. Yes, few make a fuss over this; no one’s ever been moved to tears by a line break–well, maybe three or four people—but it’s something very special about poetry. And it’s best when the poet knows what the heck she’s doing. Not all line breaks are equal.

GJD: In Danger, your first book of poems, is a remarkable, novel-like sequence of “noir” poems. There are characters—unsavory lovers, the city itself, and a tough-skinned narrator whose skin gets thicker as we travel through the narrative. She tells us early on about how, “I would listen to no one/especially me” and “my own radiant/dangerous origin, choices winking/like the city at night.” And then the shocker: “Let poetry dump her off here.” How did you come to braid the “noir” Chandleresque narration with a poetry that creates such hard-boiled lyricism? Who were your earliest influences in writing? What voices did you hear?

SL: Oh I am so glad that you see a kind of narrative thread or progress in that book, because—unfortunately for me—I’ve never been able to plot out a whole book of poems in advance. Nowadays, poets get “ideas” for poetry collections the way writers get ideas for novels, and creative writing students are encouraged to think that way. That’s a good, sound approach and I wholly approve of it—and I don’t do it. I write poems as they come to me, which is only once in a while. I’m not prolific, in part because I reject a lot of poems that I get ideas for, or I’ll write half a poem then abandon it. For the poem to make the cut I want it to stand out in some way. They don’t all have to be great—they can’t be, I’m not that good—but each one has to offer something distinctive, and be … not boring.
Though I wrote each poem without knowing what the next one would be, the cohesion in In Danger, such as it is, evolved because environment matters to me, “a place for the reader to plant her feet,” as I tell my students. Often I was drawing from the environs I inhabited at that time, that building, and certain lowbrow hangouts around East Hollywood.
For those who haven’t read the collection and might get the wrong idea, I should mention it’s not Bukowski-like in the least because, for one, I wasn’t living quite such an improvident lifestyle, and even more importantly, I’d had a rigorous workshop background. By rigorous I mean, Philip Levine—Chuck Hanzlicek and Peter Everwine too, all those guys—would let us know when our poems were no good. And at the beginning anyway, and for quite a while, they were never any good. Quite a few dropped out—I’m talking the undergraduate experience, not later—but those who remained were forced to get better.
So, I was living in these kind of urban underclass circumstances but with acquired formal skills, and native talent—I guess—so I turned out poetry that was of that world but more disciplined than what we usually get from someone in those environs, who is usually someone entirely self-taught. With a few notable exceptions, that self-taught stuff is so damn loose, so slack, and nearly always absent of imagery. Or for that matter they could be living in a summer cottage on the Rhine—same thing. It’s always absent of imagery.
You mentioned Raymond Chandler, and as you know, his writing struck a chord with me. Through Chandler’s classic “hardboiled” detective fiction and certain films noir I discovered not only the makings of a certain voice that I could change and adapt to our times and my own sensibilities, but also a point of view. I don’t like sentimentality or melodrama. Other people don’t like it either, but I dislike it even more. There’s a way that Chandler and the best films noir strip away every last vestige of sentimentality and melodrama that interested me. They supplanted both with traces of dry humor—that’s what interested me.

My earliest influence might have been Eugene Field’s children’s poem, “Winken, Blynken and Nod.” I believe it influences me to this very day. Even as a little kid I got its power, its other-worldly spell-casting mood.

GJD: What poets are you reading now? What other kinds of writing do you turn to for inspiration or ideas or simply fun?
SL: Well, you say “now,” and I want to be totally literal about it—you caught me when I’m reading Goethe, Faust, Part One. But I’m not usually reading Goethe. In fact, I never am, except at this moment. Every once in a while, though, I like to dip into some writing that’s stood the test of time, and to read work not originally written in English.
I’m going through a Graham Greene craze. If I ever start to get a swelled head, I read him to remind myself I’m just scratching the surface. I admire the depth and breath of his knowledge of other countries, a knowledge that embraces every aspect: the machinations of the political system, the social structure, the people themselves –culture, customs–the characters of individuals and the atmosphere, the climate, what air feels like, what scents the winds bring in.
For a time Greene worked undercover for the British foreign intelligence service. He was a practicing Catholic, a true believer, but also a kind of hedonist. Many of his novels set forth subtle, moral problems that have no easy solution. He was a genius. And spy. Having said all that—I can’t see that Greene’s novels have had any influence on my poetry. But it’d be nice if they did.
GJD: Your new book, Open 24 Hours, is just about to be published and is the winner of the Blue Lynx Poetry Prize. Please tell us about your new and much awaited new book, the inspiration or vision that lead to it.
SL: Yes, I did win the Blue Lynx Poetry Prize for Open 24 Hours to be published by Lynx House Press in Washington state. On Thursday, October 2, there will be a publication party and reading at Beyond Baroque in Venice, California.
How to describe this book without getting all abstract? It’s not sufficient to say that it includes comedy—some fairly outrageous (I mean, for poetry)—melancholy, atmospheric poems, and certain sharp-tongued dark poems. That doesn’t tell us much. Maybe it would help to describe the three sections. The first, “Substandard Housing,” has poems that rose out of that four-story brick building in East Hollywood I lived in long ago. The second, “Broken and in Need of Repair,” plays with the idea of ill-functioning or broken things, including rules—rules that various professor poets had advised their students never to break. In the final section, “The Fate Cookies,” each poem’s title is taken from an actual fortune cookie. The collection ends on Sunset Strip after dark, the last poem.
It’s a strong book I think, and markedly unusual. No one who knows contemporary poetry is likely to say, “oh no, not another one of these.” In any case, it’s the kind of poetry I believe in.
Georgia Jones-Davis has published poetry in Westwind, The Bicycle Review, Brevities, South Bank Poetry, London and Eclipse. In 2010, she was honored as one of the Newer Poets by Beyond Baroque and the Los Angeles Public Library.  She is the author of Blue Poodle, a chapbook by Finishing Line Press.