Poet’s clever approach serves to inspire at workshop

In her latest poetry collection, Open 24 Hours, Suzanne Lummis distills the grime of life in a Los Angeles tenement into celluloid silver. Her imagination feeds on car wrecks and neon. A fortune cookie serves as a writing prompt, and a literary foul becomes a stroke of genius.

The poet Lynn Emanuel calls the book “a glittering, mordant, ravishingly clever book,” adding that it’s as much about life as a writer, as it is “about the shifting lives of those who live just on the edge in LA.”

Last Thursday, Ms. Lummis stopped by the easternmost edge of LA County to speak with students and faculty members in the Scripps College writing program. The hour-long workshop was arranged by Scripps writing teacher Roseann Simeroth as a belated celebration of the October 20 National Day on Writing.

Having studied poetry with Ms. Lummis—a poet who also has gigs as a writing teacher with the UCLA extension program and as a museum teacher at the Autry Museum—Ms. Simeroth considers her a literary mentor.

“Suzanne really was helpful in pointing to nuances, bringing out subtleties, inspiring me and introducing to many poets who I’ve loved over the years,” Ms. Simeroth said in her introduction.

Appearing in a workshop room in Scripps’ Vita Nova Court, Ms. Lummis had a simple agenda, to instill in students that writing, and reading, poetry can be a fun, gripping experience. She started by asking students to define poetry and then offered her own thoughts on the matter.

“It’s an experienced perception or mood conveyed in an extremely economically, surprising and pleasing way,” she said. “Pleasing doesn’t necessarily mean pretty.”

She went on to share three poems she admires, each underlining another of her assertions: “Poetry is the enemy of cliché.” 

Her selections had great lines that stuck out like sore thumbs, awakening the senses and evoking feelings with no easy descriptors. Nancy Willard’s “Questions My Son Asked Me, Answers I Never Gave Him” is like that. Her son asked if gorillas have birthdays. Her inward response? “Yes. Like the rainbow, they happen. Like the air, they are not observed.”

In Martín Espada’s “Rednecks,” hip young gas station attendants mock their countrified customers until their arrogance is deflated by a quiet show of love, a man kissing his wife, seemingly unbothered by the fact that her face has been destroyed in a fire.

“He kissed her/all over her happy ruined face, kissed her/as I pumped the gas and scraped the windshield/and measured the oil, he kept kissing her.”

It makes you think. So does the poem Ms. Lummis chose to read from her new book, Hot Pursuit. A fugitive of some crime once ran a streetlight and crashed his car into a light pole just outside of her apartment. Forget the 10-second TV news blurb. She tells the story behind the story.

“Here is the art of disaster, the art/of the split-second fatal bad choice. I know how our mistakes change/the shape of things but to look/at the twists and turns the kid put in this Ford coupe, you’d think/what he wanted really was to make/a crazy staircase and climb up.”

Ms. Lummis believes a good writing prompt can be a step towards literary transcendence, as evinced by her The Fate Cookies series that appears in 24 Hours. She turns a cheap, say-nothing paper fortune, “You’re Broad-Minded And Socially Active,” into a meditation point: “Who writes these things?/We’d fire him but perhaps/he’s supporting a family/Please explain we want our future/to follow the runs of the Peking duck/not a personality profile.”

With this in mind, she proceeded to write lines on the board aimed at kick-starting the poetic process. Paper and pens in hand, students and teachers were asked to write about things like “the best advice you ever didn’t follow” and “important instructions regarding something you cook and “that place to which you long to return.”

The wheels started turning, with one student sharing a line about why, despite her mother’s warnings, she relishes walking alone down dark streets, and a writing teacher describing “the cabin on the Sound where the killer whales come close.”

Along with the a-ha moments, the workshop featured lots of laughter. It’s not always something that is associated with poetry but, then again, Ms. Lummis is one of the acknowledged pioneers of the LA-based stand-up poetry movement as well as one of the masters of the noir poem: “I’ve got bad news/and worse news/first, I’m in hell/and secondly, I’m calling collect,” she writes in Euridice.

Attendees at the workshop said they got a lot out of the experience.

“I thought it was really fun—she was charismatic and very engaging,” Scripps freshman Cecilia Sambrano said. “I don’t necessarily write for other people. I write for myself. But it was helpful in finding ways to better express myself.”

Google “Suzanne Lummis” and “New Yorker” to read, or hear, her featured poem. Open 24 Hours is available through Lynx House Press (lynxhousepress.org/). For more information, visit SuzanneLummis.com.

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com

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