Category: Films

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Suzanne Lummis, Poet, Educator, Arts Organizer, and Performer, inter...


Suzanne Lummis (photo by Arlene Karno, taken at The Apple Pan, established 1947)

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Suzanne Lummis, Poet, Educator, Arts Organizer, and Performer

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Click here to read Suzanne Lummis’s contribution to Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

 

DG: You have quite a fascinating family history. It’s your great fortune to be the granddaughter of Charles Fletcher Lummis, an important activist for indigenous rights, and the founder of the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, located in Los Angeles. He was also the first City Editor for the LA Times. On top of that, your parents were in the Secret Service. In this respect, to what extent was poetry present in your upbringing, and how did your youth ultimately influence the work you’re doing today?

SL: Ah, that’s many questions wrapped into one—maybe even more questions than you realize! I grew up in Northern CA, the High Sierras. No one up there knew about Old Man Lummis (a.k.a. Charles Fletcher Lummis), nor did they in San Francisco where I was born, or in Berkeley where I went to high school. And most definitely no one connected my name with the original Lummis who walked into early Los Angeles—from Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1884-85—in Fresno. It wasn’t till I moved to L.A. that, now and then, I’d run into somebody who’d say, “Are you related to that amazing house up in Northeast LA …” or “… that museum …?”

After many years here, the Lummis name started to set some things in motion, which includes my involvement with the annual Lummis Day: The Festival of Northeast LA (the live event is on hiatus for the second year due to the pandemic), and my ten years working in the Education Department at The Autry Museum of the American West. I think the influence expresses itself in my interest in history. Americans, in the main, know little of their own history, and that includes those people who accuse others of not knowing history—they themselves know very little, just a thread of history. And it’s a short thread.

I’m among those who accuse others of not knowing history but know little myself—only difference: I have a sense of how much I don’t know. History’s huge, layered, and the interpretation of it shifts from era to era, place to place. It’s like outer space, hard to get one’s arms around.

You mentioned my parents, and of course I was far more affected by them than by my grandfather, whom I never met. Keith had retired from the Secret Service, a division of the U.S. Treasury Service (now, as of 9/11, renamed The Department of Homeland Security) by the time I was born. But the government called him back to join the Foreign Service—he spoke fluent Italian, which he leaned while pursuing the Mafia in San Francisco’s North Beach district and elsewhere. That’s why my earliest memories are set in Palermo, Sicily, and why I was bilingual for a while—until I lost all my Italian, somewhere between age 5 and 6.

My father had one of these big, virile, life-loving personalities—he often made a striking impression, on both men and women. Keith was a type of man who belonged to a certain era, and to an earlier American West—don’t see many like him around anymore. My mother, I think, came to terms with taking a backseat to him publicly, but she was equally rare and distinctive. She had an inner life. I think there was something almost mysterious about my mother, Hazel McCausland Lummis—she didn’t show her whole hand. But like my father, she had a strong character—by which I mean courage and perseverance. By which I mean a sense of what’s right.

I can’t tell you what any of this has to do with my poetry. I don’t know what my poetry would be like if I’d been raised by criminals, or slackers. Or two wimps.

DG: In 2015, Pacific Coast Poetry Series published an anthology you edited called Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond. What is it about LA that makes it both a unique epicenter for poetry, and at the same time a place that shares cultural, aesthetic, and social similarities with other important cities where poetry is written?

SL: I figure this big city includes poets who, collectively, represent all the writing styles currently practiced around the country. So, the question becomes: To what extent are various poets influenced by the landscape and culture, or cultures, which we associate specifically with Los Angeles and Southern California. To what extent are particular poets influenced by the climate—sunshine or drought, or floods, and houses sliding down cliffs. To what extent are they influenced by the car culture and urban expanse traversed by freeways, or the looming and overshadowing entertainment and movie industries which draw so many here and have spawned their own mythology and literature. Or by the wildlife that comes into the city from the hills foraging for food, or by the ocean, the seascapes …. Or are they, for example, interested in the myth of Los Angeles, as opposed to the true day-to-day life. And if so, for them, what is LA really?

One doesn’t have to be engaged with all that—some poets are, some aren’t. That’s how it is, how it’s always been. Poets like Whitman set out to capture the spirit of America, whereas Emily Dickinson could’ve written most of those poems anywhere. I don’t think one type of poet’s more interesting or correct than the other. I only care that the language fastens my attention to the page.

DG: For a long time, you’ve been associated with the LA poetry scene; still, having studied with Philip Levine, you naturally have a place in the Fresno school. Can you talk about some of the fondest memories you have of studying with Levine, the impact his tutelage had on your work, and to what extent the Fresno aesthetic is both unique and similar with respect to what’s being written in LA?

SL: That first class with Levine—I was an undergraduate—I kind of fell in love with him, in Crush. He was audacious, outrageous and funny, and unfailingly honest. He’d say anything. We students would pick up copies of everyone’s poems that were scheduled to be discussed in the next class. I’d look at these and think What lousy poems! They’re all dreck! Except for mine, of course. Then, I’d go to class and find out mine were lousy too.

Gary Soto was in that class. Years later he said, with some humor: “Levine would come in and just trash everything.” I didn’t see it quite that way myself—I mean, no one knew what the hell they were doing. People’s early poems did not work.

I got better. But I wrote my first passably OK student poem out of terror. I was terrified of writing another crap poem. And, by chance, it happened to be about my grandfather, the first and only poem I’ve ever written about him. I haven’t presented that work at any reading for decades. Why would I read the first immature-but-not-awful piece I ever wrote? At the time, though, it got me to the next level.

As far as the Fresno sensibility, that anthology, edited by Christopher Buckley, David Oliveira, and M. L. Williams, is titled How Much Earth for a reason. Seems to me that an attention to not only to the physical, tangible thing, but even, in some sense, the ground under our feet, recurs in various ways through many Fresno-influenced poems. There’s an engagement with the natural world, but in a way that doesn’t always fit the definition of “nature” poetry. Maybe it’s an interest in the rudimentary. At the moment, I’m thinking of Larry Levis’s well-known poem, “The Oldest Living Thing in Los Angeles.”

However, the element that recurs through my first collection is water. So, there you go. I just can’t get with the program.

DG: Your newest creative undertaking is the Michael Caine Project, three reading events, which has, at least with the second installment, attempted to bridge the great poetic divide of our wonderful land. David Lehman and Michael Lally represented New York, while Kim Dower, Shahé Mankerian, and you read as Angelenos—all very noble, and to some extent even necessary. The only curiosity in all of this—why Michael Caine and not Michael Douglas, or even Michael Keaton? Didn’t he play an amazing Batman in ’89 and ’92?

SL: Oh my God, there’s no comparison between the span and significance of Caine’s career and the filmography of those two actors. And now I’m going to add that I adore Keaton in Spotlight and Douglas in Wonder Boys, two of my favorite movies ever. I’m going to add that because I don’t want Douglas and Keaton to get offended and see to it that I never work in this town again—which would not be hard, since I’ve never worked in this town.

Michael Caine was the first Cockney or, more-accurately, English working-class actor to achieve A-list stardom, and he came up from nothing. And I do mean Nothing. I mean no-hot-running-water-one-bathroom-down-the-hall-shared-by-several style poverty. I mean his mother was a char woman and his father a fish monger—who expected his son to follow in the trade. Not only did Caine become a star, a romantic lead—at one time an unobtainable dream for anyone with his accent and lineage—but also the only other actor besides Jack Nicholson to be nominated for an Academy Award for acting in every decade from the 1960s to 2000s. (He won twice). He’s made 120 movies. He’s now 88.

Beat that record.

After the reviews came in for The Ipcress File, Caine realized that after struggling—sometimes in debt, sometimes going hungry—for ten years to break into the movies, he’d finally made it. But he couldn’t get his mother to stop working. Although he could provide for her now, she was still going out to clean houses. At last, he came up with a way to persuade her. He told her that if she, the mother of a successful international film star, was seen scrubbing down rich people’s kitchens and bathrooms, everyone would think he was a terrible son and it’d hurt his career. Only then did she agree to retire.

When asked why he continued throughout his life to make movie after movie he said, “I’m from the working class. I can’t be idle. The only thing I know how to do is work.”

Unless someone’s close to 88 years old, it’s a sure thing Michael Caine has spanned their lifetime or most of it. For The Michael Caine Project, Expressions First, Second and Third, I invited a few poets and writers to evolve pieces that pertained, in some kind of way, to his life, his quotes, his movies, anything that got them going. I figured if out of his unusual life story, out of all those genres and styles of movies, action-suspense, comedy, love stories, historical, character studies, all those themes and images, and personal memories we all associate with the movies, if a poet couldn’t find anything in there, well …  Gosh. I don’t know what it’d take. A trip to the moon?

For example, in the Second Expression, which you mention, the Zoom event, Kim Dower read her poem inspired by a bit of dialog in Get Carter, her favorite line in the movie. Carter says sleepily to the woman he’s waking up next to, “You must be joking. I never eat breakfast.” It struck Kim as such an odd thing for a vigilante, cut-throat gangster killer to say. Turns out she never eats breakfast either. Come to think of it …. neither do I! (What can this mean?)

The Third Expression took place live at Susan Hayden’s celebrated Library Girl series in Santa Monica. Susan brought in some additional writers and musicians for that one—and we had great fun collaborating, promoting the event, and behaving ridiculously about Michael Caine, as if we were teenagers again.

In the First Expression, a video in the They Write by Night series, which draws contemporary poetry together with film noir and crime movies, I mention the first Michael Caine movie I ever saw, but then focus on one that opened shortly later. That episode, “First Blood—Spy Noir: The Ipcress File,” can be found here at Poetry.LA, on YouTube, and also via Cultural Daily where I always write a little hardboiled lead-in.

DG: It seems we’ve transitioned into movies. The creative sensibilities which seem to capture your greatest interest are those of film noir—to the extent that an article you wrote in the Malpais Review called “The Poem Noir—Too Dark to Be Depressed” was practically the thing which, if it didn’t invent that genre, it certainly was the catalyst for defining the work previously written with that aesthetic—giving it a name, an identity, if you will. At the same time, all poetry, in a sense—at least when black ink meets white paper—has elements of noir; everything else is no longer visual. What elements of film noir appeal most to you, and how difficult is it to translate those sensibilities into your poetry? In addition, what are things the visual genre can do that the written genre can’t, and vice versa, and how do you navigate that territory as a noir poet?

SL: I first became interested in the noir style and crime writing through books, Raymond Chandler—that wit, that imagery, the scrumptious and startling details, the humor, that charismatic lone wolf private eye, Philip Marlowe, the most attractive character in all crime fiction. From those books, I found my way to film noir. And then there’s this: My life. It features noir elements—picked them up here and there along the line. I’ve got noir cred.

I can understand the confusion regarding this, but I don’t actually call myself a noir poet, because I only write what I consider a noir poem now and then—rest of the time I write other types of poems. I probably have less than two dozen poems I’d call pure noir. So, I’m a poet who’s interested in the noir style and sensibility and have written on the subject.

I wouldn’t say all poetry has elements of noir—unless you take “noir” simply to mean the appearance of the color black or dark themes, in which case the term becomes meaningless. Noir as a style didn’t exist before the 20th century, and specifically the rise of the modern 20th century city, along with the crime of that time period. Before that you had, say, Jane Eyre—mad woman in the attic and all that. It’s not noir; it’s Gothic by definition—Gothic because of the setting, the strangely empty manor, deeply buried secrets, and shadowy, supernatural mood. Before that, Poe—Gothic horror. King Lear? Hamlet? Treachery, Bloodshed, Madness—they’ve got that, but it’s not noir. They’re Elizabethan, those plays, or simply Shakespearian. (The great ones become a category unto themselves. A Hitchcock movie isn’t usually referred to as film noir. It’s a Hitchcock Movie.)

I wrote a downright bossy essay for the now-retired Malpais Review, where I served as the California Correspondent, because people kept throwing the term around and making it mean … whatever. I wasn’t the first one out of the pen. David Lehman had published an article years before, but while he folded in examples of poets who at that time were inspired by film noir, and discussed their approaches, it seemed to me he stopped short of defining the poem noir/noir poem. (His full-length book on the subject is forthcoming from Cornell U. Press, The Mysterious Romance of Murder.) So, I wrote this bossy essay asserting that a thing must have some of these features or it’s not a poem noir. It’s this and not that …. Then, I sat back and waited for the world to attack me for my views. No one did, which threw me a bit off-balance—like when you’re bracing yourself to get smacked by falling debris, but nothing happens.

From the other side of the world, the writer, educator and critic Wiktoria Klera picked up news of my article and wrote to me. In her piece “Noir Poetry,” a survey of Polish noir, she quotes from my essay, “The Poem Noir: Too Dark to be Depressed.”

DG: Let’s go back in time, 1984, to be precise, when your first collection, Idiosyncrasies, was published. A poem there called “Earthquake” caught my attention, and I would like to quote it in full:

EARTHQUAKE

Whole neighborhoods
will begin traveling like lemmings,
mine first.
Meanwhile, I go through this city
achieving, at some cost, these poems.
I’ve done what they say I’ve done
or else I invented it,
which was almost as taxing.
So at night when the house settles
I half fly out of bed,
then lie awake reasoning with the earth:
I’m too old to die!
If it was gonna happen at all
it should have been years ago,
before all this started.

Surely, this work is about more than just an earthquake. The cost of achieving poems in a city like LA is indeed high. For years, you’ve worked to promote poetry by organizing festivals, readings, and events, paying, perhaps, too great a price for it. A 1996 LA Times article says the following: “Poetry has extracted a price from Lummis in other ways. Money is a constant inconstant; for many years she lived in a ramshackle East Hollywood building that harbored gang activity and was routinely littered with hypodermic needles.” Looking back on all of it, what are things you would’ve perhaps wished to do differently, and what are things you absolutely don’t regret?

SL: That particular poem you mention is a very early one, from my 20s, when I was living for a time in the family’s San Francisco house—(now no longer our house since my mother, then father died). It was on a hill overlooking the ocean. I had a horror of earthquakes, more specifically of being buried alive—the fate of many in serious earthquakes. It’s not a pleasant thought even now, but at least I’m living in structure likely to remain standing. Of course, one never knows where one’s going to be .…

Funny thing: About 15 years after writing that poem, I’d just flown in from Los Angeles to visit my family, just gotten home, just walked upstairs to my old room—in time for the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. I’d had enough earthquake experience to feel the first warning signs through the soles of my feet, rising from deep underground. It’s a singular form of terror. I’ve never flown down a flight of stars so fast.

I couldn’t do it now—couldn’t move that fast to save my life.

I don’t think the poem’s much good though—it’s stupid. I hadn’t evolved my style. Well, I have several styles, but back then I hadn’t yet evolved any. As of that writing, I wasn’t yet living in the Vermont Avenue building, East Hollywood. The line “achieving, at some cost, these poems” makes me wince. What cost? Nothing had cost me—yet. I mean, it was going to. But at the time I wrote that it was an empty grandstanding gesture.

Regardless, I’m lucky that the late Robert Mezey included that little poem, and another little one from that same period, in that great Pocket Poets Knopf anthology, Poems of the America West, together with—by contrast (and what a contrast)—the blistering “Poem Noir.” I wrote that in the Vermont Avenue building and, whoa … nothing ridiculous about that one. I’d honed my talent and sharpened my skills. It’s a tough poem, though, not a fun one. I rarely include it in my set at readings.

When I finally moved out of that place, Charles Webb said: “I’m glad you’re moving. I was always afraid you’d be murdered there.” The thought had crossed my mind. In fact, though, I faced more threats in other parts of the city than I ever did in the building where I lived. Those people knew me. I was “The Writer,” or “Miss Lady,” or “La Roja Loca,” or the “tough little white girl.”

DG: Let’s stay in 1984 and look at another poem from your first collection, mainly “Things that Catch Fire,” which I will also quote in full:

THINGS THAT CATCH FIRE

Your comb stands on end,
sparking and crackling.
The goldfish are little lights
too far gone to save.
You wonder what variation
of the Midas touch
you’ve got that turns things
not to gold but to flame.
You can make a little window
in your dreams to peer out,
but cannot prevent
your shoes from flattening into
footprints of charcoal.
Next morning, your possessions
have been restored, the goldfish
behaving as if nothing happened.
Even your favorite old coat
won’t let on where
it went last night. It hangs
unrisen, blank
as winter light, its sleeve
brushed with traces—sly,
immaterial ash.

Similar to the poem “Earthquake,” this one uses fire as a symbol to talk about things that simply won’t come to fruition, develop, or even do what we expect—in a strange way, here, we wouldn’t want that to happen. Looking back at your first collection, what are sensibilities that have remained constant over the years, and what are things that have changed in terms of your poetic approach? In other words, regardless of subject matter, do you write basically with the same method as you did in 1984, or have changes in aesthetic also produced variations in your writing habits?

SL: That first collection got one review in a small, local publication, Electrum Magazine, which vanished long ago, but it was a lovely review, to this day among the most insightful reviews I’ve received. The late Roger Suva—back then, a poet in Los Angeles—called the work “bright and vibrant,” and laced with “humor, wit and sardonic bite.” But he also wrote: “Fantasy, imaginative and extraordinarily credible, is what fuels many of these poems,” and I found that especially interesting. He might have substituted “dream” for “fantasy” and that would also have resonated with me. The poem you’ve chosen, “Things That Catch Fire,” speaks exactly to that quality Roger Suva caught on to.

To your question what traces through my poetry from then to now, it seems to me that even though most of my later poems spring from cityscapes or actual environments, or in other ways seem rooted in the real world, sometimes an element of fantasy and dream runs alongside them. Sometimes, fantasy and dream bear them up. Sometimes, behind the worldliness there courses an otherworldliness. This is certainly true of my two poems that appear in Interlitq’s Californian Poets, Part I.

Few remember that tiny oddball publication, Electrum, and, perhaps, beyond his family and friends, few remember Roger Suva. And few know of a poetry collection called Idiosyncrasies, published by Illuminati, a one-man press run by Peter Schneidre—whom few remember. Be that as it may, I find Roger Suva’s comments noting certain characteristics in my poetry to be perceptive, useful, and surprising.

DG: The YouTube series you host, They Write by Night, fuses film noir and poetry in a very visual, and yet poetic way. In the fourteenth episode, “Homme Fatale,” you’re in LA’s famous Frolic Room, a former speakeasy, but as you say, “it’s not so noir these days. When it’s crowded, there are very non-noir people, nice people, regular people, good neighbors, good citizens, good students. It’s empty right now—very uncharacteristically—so it’s very noir, and you know why? Because I’m here.” It’s so refreshing to hear you say that because we get the sense that noir isn’t a specific place—it’s an atmosphere, a mood, a feeling, a way of life, even. It was probably the Biltmore Hotel, and not the Frolic Room, as you say, where the Black Dahlia was last seen, but does it really matter, especially if the atmosphere is right? In terms of aura, then, what’s your favorite LA noir place, and, in this respect, how has the city’s character changed over the years?

SL: Oh, I’ve never heard or read anyone quote verbatim my TWBN dialogue before, what fun. I’d forgotten about those lines because I don’t remember everything I’ve said after the filming. I work aspects of the narration out in my head but some moments (for better or worse) I improvise—unless it’s one of the episodes that’s in voiceover. For voiceovers I do write a script with descriptions re. imagery to accompany my voice, which Wayne Lindberg then finds or creates.

Noir places in Los Angeles—oh, oh, oh … so many have disappeared, most of them. It troubles the hell out of me. Each time a place vanishes, one I associate with memories or periods of my life, a piece of my past goes. That big sidewalk newsstand with a large interior space with all kinds of stuff in it, including, way in the back, a few literary journals, World Book and News on Cahuenga just below Hollywood Blvd., must of been there for—who knows how many decades? Now it’s been cut back to a small storefront. I never thought that would happen. At night, that location was very noir, so reminiscent of some earlier LA. Some other time. Some other life.

And, I was thinking about this the other day—there used to be a big strange space that I knew was doomed. I knew because it was so different from everything else on that stretch of the Boulevard, and it used up so much real estate for what it offered—couldn’t possibly make enough money. Chicken Delight. Unlike other fast-food places, it inhabited a sprawling, kind of cafeteria-sized space. In fact, it was a cafeteria—serving Chicken Delight and many sides. No doubt one time it burst with activity, but by the 80s, usually, most of the tables were empty. To me, it had a post-war feeling, though the joint probably opened in the late ‘50s, maybe ‘60. You could get a lot of food cheap and stay as long as you wanted. It felt like the past—and it was the past. That was its problem.

I loved that place—very noir. Of course, I wouldn’t have wanted a murder to occur, but for a movie it’d be a good spot to set a crime. Or, the beginning of a crime. A man and woman down on their luck, meet at Chicken Delight, among all those interesting sides, plus chicken, outside—dark, inside—dim, yellow light, people shuffling along the sidewalk past the windows, but the place is almost empty. Except for them ….

And the woman’s just late off the bus, which reminds me—the old Greyhound Bus Station, Downtown LA. Talk about Noir. Talk about desolation. Cheeto wrappers and chewed gum, a couple melancholy vending machines …. By the 80s it was run down. But to sit there and think of the stories of those thousands, or hundreds of thousands, who rode into LA with their ambitions, maybe some talent ….  And what became of those people? The station’s long gone of course—I think it’s now a big market of stalls with cheap stuff. People catch the Greyhound at Union Station.

I don’t know if there are any truly noir places left in the city—seems they’ve all been gutted or revamped, remodeled, in a way that erases the past. Thing is, if a place has a truly noir vibe, no one wants to go there. Except me. Apparently.

DG: In the first episode of They Write by Night, you feature the poetry of Weldon Kees, specifically his piece called “Crime Club,” which you consider “the first poem noir because it has all the qualities a poem noir has to have—its control, its cool, decisive wit, its tone of concealed despair—not melodrama, there cannot be melodrama. If there’s melodrama, it’s not noir. It’s complete absence of sentimentality. If it’s sentimental, it’s not noir. It might be dark, and sentimental—it might be dark and melodramatic, but it’s not noir.” I would like to quote the poem in full:

CRIME CLUB

No butler, no second maid, no blood upon the stair.
No eccentric aunt, no gardener, no family friend
Smiling among the bric-a-brac and murder.
Only a suburban house with the front door open
And a dog barking at a squirrel, and the cars
Passing. The corpse quite dead. The wife in Florida.

Consider the clues: the potato masher in a vase,
The torn photograph of a Wesleyan basketball team,
Scattered with check stubs in the hall;
The unsent fan letter to Shirley Temple,
The Hoover button on the lapel of the deceased,
The note: “To be killed this way is quite all right with me.”

Small wonder that the case remains unsolved,
Or that the sleuth, Le Roux, is now incurably insane,
And sits alone in a white room in a white gown,
Screaming that all the world is mad, that clues
Lead nowhere, or to walls so high their tops cannot be seen;
Screaming all day of war, screaming that nothing can be solved.

Indeed, this is a poem which embodies all those traits you mention—cool, decisive, and controlled. Can you talk about how it felt to first discover the genius of Kees, and was it he, specifically, who first got you interested in the genre, or was it a combination of factors?

SL: First and foremost, Donald Justice gathered together and found a publisher for his poetry when it might otherwise have slipped into obscurity. And for years after the publication of the Weldon Kees’s Collected Poems in early ‘60s, it still seemed he might slip away. Then, others stepped up to champion him. Dana Gioia threw his weight behind him, and later Christopher Buckley, along with Christopher Howell, published an anthology called Aspects of Robinson: Homage to Weldon Kees. Various people started saying: “Hey, here’s an utterly distinctive voice from mid-century American poetry, and readers should know who he is”—and they were poets who had clout, which (I notice) makes all the difference. I must have first seen his work in the groundbreaking Naked Poetry, edited by Robert Mezey, a good friend of Donald Justice.

In June 2005, Anthony Lane published an article about Weldon Kees’s life, poetry, and mysterious disappearance in ‘55—the pair of red socks left in his sink, his Plymouth Savoy with keys in the ignition, abandoned near the Golden Gate Bridge—that article ran in The New Yorker, so ….  He’s good. We don’t have to worry about Kees’s poetry being lost to posterity anymore. Outside of the fact that in time nearly everyone’s forgotten.

As soon as I started to think about the poem noir, I knew Kees’s “Crime Club” was the first perfect modern example. Of course, there are always forerunners.

DG: Classic films often get remade in Hollywood, with varying degrees of success, but with some exceptions, the results are often poor. What’s your favorite noir film and would you like to see a remake of it, if one hasn’t been done, and what do you think of remakes with respect to the genre in general? In other words, film noir was as much about its production (unassuming, low-key, absence of major stars, and so on) as it was about theme—and so, would you say it’s possible to make noir films with sophisticated Hollywood budgets and production techniques, even if you manage to capture the essence of the original plot?

SL: Oh, indeed there’ve been effective contemporary films noir, with good budgets, stars, and color. Three stunning examples would be Chinatown (1974), Body Heat (1981), and L.A. Confidential (1997). Roman Polanski, Lawrence Kasdan, Curtis Hanson. Neo-noir, right? These are stunning movies, immortal classics, better by far than the average film noir of the classic era, from ‘44 toward the end of the ‘50s.  Their stories, the way they unfold, the meaning and implication behind the stories, it’s all more sophisticated and interesting. The acting’s better, the suspense more skillfully invoked. Everything’s better. I mean, better than the run-of-the-mill film noir from the original era, which, by contemporary standards, was often thinly plotted.

What classic film noir would I like to see remade? Oh, absolutely a 1948 picture that’s one of the few, maybe the only, early noir narrated by a woman character. Raw Deal involves a potentially fascinating situation with complex, highly charged connections between an escaped convict, the woman he took hostage—his own defense attorney—and his lover who helped him bust out. “Pat,” played by Claire Trevor—always good as the smart, tough woman—is stuck on him, enough to risk everything and act as driver for his jail break. His idealistic attorney, “Ann,” (Marsha Hunt), is fighting a mysterious attraction to him, and incurs Pat’s jealousy. Pat knows her escapee felon is, in turn, attracted to this good looking, educated, and accomplished professional woman who’d strived to get him out of jail legally. And then there’s the escaped convict, who controls one woman by force, holding her captive, and the other through his emotional power over her. The escaped convict, “Joe,” is played by Dennis O’Keefe, who’s so uninteresting we can’t figure out why either of these interesting women would be drawn to this ill-humored, charmless jackass. His colorless, bland-but-abrasive tough-guy act is one of the biggest crimes in the history of film noir.

Anthony Mann was a fine director, and, even with what we’ve got now, it would be a challenge for contemporary production designers and cinematographers to top the great John Alton’s glorious, high-contrast shadow and light—back then, no computers or green screens to be had. But, in our times, with so many skilled writers—and subtle thinkers—a sharper, more suspenseful and emotionally moving script could be developed. And for “Joe,” get someone with old-fashioned sex appeal.

DG: How has the pandemic changed your writing habits, if at all, and are you reading or working on anything interesting at the moment?

SL: At the beginning of the lockdown, I thought, OK, now I’ll write three novels. However, I didn’t write three novels, or any. So, I’d say my aspirations have not changed, nor my writing habits.

I am producing more essays—so, that’s a different direction. One’s in this new anthology from What Books, What Falls Away is Always: Writers Over 60 on Writing and Death. A Marilyn Monroe themed poem from In Danger will appear in the anthology I Wanna Be Loved by You: Poems on Marilyn Monroe (Milk & Cake Press), coming out in 2022. Just out, an anthology of essays and interviews Naming the Lost: The Fresno Poets, edited by Christopher Buckley (Texas A&M University Press). It includes two interviews with me, one by Georgia Jones Davis, one by Olga García Echeverría.

And then there’s this: I have a nearly finished—4/5th finished—poetry manuscript, Crime Wave, which, in the current climate, might never see the light of day, only dark of night. Maybe not even dark of night. I’m anti-crime and anti-criminal, so today, 11/24/21, has delivered good news: the killers of Ahmaud Arbery convicted on multiple counts, with lifetime sentences assured. It’s such good news that even though it pertains to crime, I can’t regard it as noir.

 

About Suzanne Lummis

Suzanne Lummis was a 2018/19 COLA (City of Los Angeles) fellow, an endowment to influential writers, musicians and artists of the city enabling them to create new bodies of work. Individual poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Spillway, The Antioch Review, The American Journal of Poetry, Plume (on-line and in-print), and The New Yorker.  She teaches through the UCLA Extension Writers Program, and a series of private workshops, Deep Poetry Knowledge.

Big Night, a Short Memoir About Charles Bukowski, by Michael D. Meloan, published in Interlitq

Charles Bukowski

Big Night

a memoir*

Michael D. Meloan

*Author’s note: This is a short memoir about a wild New Year’s Eve party at Bukowski’s San Pedro home in 1983

 

Driving up the long incline toward Bukowski’s New Year’s Eve party, we could hear music. Cars were parked on both sides of the street, all the way down the block. We walked along the dark and narrow driveway toward the front door. Chrissie rang the bell and we waited. Then she rang it again. Finally, I knocked hard. Linda Lee Beighle appeared smoking one of Buk’s Indian Beedie cigs.

“Oh my God! You have got to be kidding!” She laughed uproariously, then called people over to see Chrissie’s leopard print Lycra spandex body suit. A number of other women started laughing too. Chrissie shot me an angry look. It was my idea. We stepped inside.

A man with a heavy German accent said, “I like it!”

Chrissie’s face was flushed. I grabbed her arm and led her past Linda into the living room.

 

There was a long sofa and wooden table in the living room where Bukowski held court. People were perched on big pillows arranged next to the table.

Chrissie and I sat down on the sofa. Buk said nothing as we arrived. He was already drunk, and in the midst of a story. There were long pauses as he sucked on a Beedie. The group hung on his every word.

“I read in the downtown public library during the day, and slept in the alleys at night. Told stories in the bars to hustle drinks. Normal people bored me–I couldn’t live that life, couldn’t be around that. But in the end, the bums bored me too. The only thing that lasts is wine.” He took a puff. “Just drink, and drink…and whatever else happens, is just what happens.”

Bukowski’s speech was slow; his eyes were like slits. He continued. “Later, I had my own room in a skid row hotel. After a long night of drinking, I started puking-up blood and foul-smelling chunks of flesh. It just came and came into the toilet. The stench was overpowering. They took me in an ambulance to the charity ward at County General. One of the doctors said he’d level with me–I had about a 50-50 chance. I stayed there for a month, and slowly got better. When it was time to go, a doctor sat down with me in a little white room. He said if I EVER drank alcohol again, I would die.” Long pause. “So I walked out and found a shitty little bar right down the street. It smelled good–cigar smoke and stale booze. I sat down and ordered a glass of beer. No hard liquor, because I was trying to go easy. I watched the bubbles rise up for about 30 seconds, then drank it down fast.” He paused and took a puff. “I didn’t die.”

“Amazing story!” blurted out a young guy.

“Wow,” gasped a middle-aged woman. Everyone murmured with approval as they took deep pulls of wine.

Bukowski stared out the window toward the harbor. Then he turned to me. “I was wondering if you’d show up, man. I thought you might be grist for a poem if you have enough wine. So drink up!”

He raised his glass to me. I clinked it and took a drink. Then I glanced over at Chrissie. She was scanning the room looking for rock stars and listening with one ear to a young hipster’s monologue in the other room. He had scorched platinum hair and was surrounded by a small group, while laying out some shit about the Marqis de Sade and the French Revolution.

A guy sitting on the other side of Bukowski said, “You’re the most important writer of the late twentieth century.”

Bukowski slowly turned and asked, “What do you do, kid?”

“I’m an actor,” the guy said. He had a finely trimmed goatee and wore a black turtleneck with black jeans.

Bukowski paused and looked into his face, then took a drink. “You’ll never make it man…your eyes are dead. There’s nothing there. Give it up now, before you waste any more time. Go into insurance or real estate.”

The group went silent. Bukowski took another drag from his cigarette as the guy nervously got up and walked away.

Suddenly I noticed that Chrissie was standing next to the hipster, looking at him adoringly. I got up and walked past that group on my way to the kitchen. He was telling Chrissie more about the antics of de Sade.

“The Marquis whipped the people into a frenzy, with political rants and kinky sex monologues.” I saw him glance at her chest. Then I heard him say, “I like your outfit. It’s chic. I think you’re making a unique fashion statement.”

I sat back down on the sofa next to Bukowski.

“I’m glad you’re here man,” he said. “I need somebody with a brain sitting next to me.”

He stared at me, waiting for a response. I took a drink. The crowd around the sofa had thinned out since the encounter with the actor. Nobody wanted to get too close. Linda came over and sat on the floor next to Buk, with her legs crossed in a semi-lotus pose. Long strawberry blond hair flowed halfway down her back. She lit up a joint.

“I’ve got my own rock ‘n’ roll groupie,” he said. “She parties all night in the brand-new convertible I bought her. And I don’t even ask who she’s fucking. Do I?”

“This is not the time,” she said, taking a drag from the joint. The muscles in her jaw tightened.

“You’ve been riding my coat tails for years. If it wasn’t for me, where the hell would you be?”

“I have no idea,” she said. The room was silent. Linda’s eyes blazed with anger.

“I think you’re being too hard on her,” I said.

“I think you’d better shut up, motherfuck. You haven’t been very entertaining tonight. In fact, you’re beginning to bore me,” he said, moving his face close to mine.

His eyes were mean and glassy, like a vicious animal. As he got up to go to the bathroom, he reeled and started to lose his balance. I reached up to steady him, but he swatted my hand away. Then he staggered across the room and disappeared into the bathroom.

A group of Linda’s friends from the health food restaurant stood near the bathroom talking about how much they liked John Tesh’s music. Suddenly the bathroom door flew open. Bukowski emerged and walked quickly toward a balding man in a cardigan sweater.

“Where’s your drink?!” Bukowski demanded.

“This is my drink,” said the man, holding up a Calistoga water.

Bukowski turned to a woman nearby, “Where’s your drink?”

“I don’t drink,” the woman cheerfully replied.

Bukowski went nose-to-nose with her and said, “Then get out! You bore me!” He turned to the man and said, “You get out, too!” Then he looked around the room and shouted, “In fact, I want everybody out. I should be upstairs typing. I might die tomorrow, and I DON’T want to spend my last night on earth with this bunch!”

He started walking around the room screaming in people’s faces, “GET OUT! GET OUT! GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HOUSE!”

People quickly gathered up their purses and coats. Most looked afraid as they headed toward the front door.

Bukowski continued to scream, “GET OUT, GET OUT!” The arteries on his neck bulged and his face had turned purple. He occasionally planted his hand on a back, male or female, and pushed them out the door.

Linda watched in silence, still seething with anger. Bukowski stood guard until the last stragglers had gone. As I left, I looked over my shoulder, but there was no hint of recognition.

I walked slowly down the long driveway and scanned the crowd. Chrissie was missing. When I got to the sidewalk, three men in their early twenties were craning their necks, trying to look inside the house.

“What is happening? What is happening?” one asked, with a heavy German accent.

“Bukowski threw everybody out…because we weren’t drinking enough.”

“This is very cool,” he said. “Very Bukowski!”

“We’ve come all the way from Munich to meet him!” said another guy.

“It’s a bad night to ring the doorbell,” I said. “He’ll bite your head off.”

“We saw a guy who said he was a director!” he added. “Got his autograph as he was leaving in a limousine with a nice prostitute.” Then he smiled, “I’m sure he got a blowjob as soon as they were inside.”

My throat knotted up.

I got into my old Citroën a few minutes before the stroke of midnight. Skyrockets whizzed into the darkness. Gunshots erupted from the neighborhoods at the bottom of the hill. Rounds were going off in all directions. Suddenly I heard the buzz-and-zing of a nearby bullet.

Driving aimlessly, I screeched around corners and floored the accelerator, almost hoping the engine would blow. When I got home, the message light was on. I thought it would be Chrissie giving me some bullshit story about where she was. Then I recognized my mother’s voice. She was sobbing uncontrollably.

“It was…almost midnight. One more day…and we would have been gone on our cruise. Just one more day!” She gasped for breath. Then the message ended.

McIntyre and my mother had stepped onto the balcony of the Jonathan Beach Club for some fresh air. He lit a cigarette as they gazed out at the sweeping arc of lights spanning toward Palos Verdes Estates.

“This is the happiest night of my life,” he said, turning to look at her. “I want to marry you.”

She hesitated for a moment, then turned, and they kissed.

He looked at his watch. “It’s nearly midnight. I’ll get some Champagne.”

My mother stared at the towering Christmas tree covered in fairy lights and hundreds of ornaments. It reminded her of New York City, when she was a young woman.

She made eye contact with McIntyre as he left the bar. Smiling broadly, he walked toward her. Then his expression suddenly changed and his eyes widened. He abruptly stopped as his face became a twisted mask of pain. The glasses dropped to the floor. Clutching his chest, he staggered then fell to his knees.

“My God! Somebody help! My God!” she screamed, as she ran into the ballroom.

I called my father. He said McIntyre was dead on arrival at the emergency room at St. John’s in Santa Monica. My mother had ridden in the ambulance. Then she called my father, and he picked her up at the hospital.

“She’s here with me now.” He sounded more himself than he had in months. I could hear her crying in the background. “I have to go,” he said.

 

 

I turned on the TV. It was a replay of the ball-drop in Times Square. Counting down, 5-4-3-2-1…then explosive crowd noise.

Happy New Year.

I cracked open a beer and turned on my computer to write an email to my boss Lamont at Hughes Aircraft. The company had demanded that I break up with Chrissie because of her drug busts, or my top-secret clearance would be denied.

But in the middle of the note, I deleted it. Instead I started writing a story. By 3:45 am, I had knocked out seven pages rapid fire. I had the machinegun rhythm of Bukowski’s black Underwood typewriter in my head.

Then the telephone rang. It was Chrissie. Her voice sounded faint. She was in the lobby of the Château Marmont hotel.

“That guy was a drunk and a bore and an asshole,” she said. “He promised to put me in a movie. How stupid could I be? You’re the only one who really gets me. I think I love you. Will you let me come back?”

I sighed and paused. “Yeah…come back. I think we should hit the road–Prague, Morocco, India, who knows where. Are you ready for that?”

“Cool,” she said without hesitating. “I’m there.”

 

About Michael D. Meloan

Michael D. Meloan’s fiction has appeared in Wired, Huffington Post, Buzz, LA Weekly, Larry Flynt’s Chic, and in many anthologies. He was an interview subject in the documentaries Bukowski: Born Into This and Joe Frank: Somewhere Out There. With Joe Frank, he co-wrote a number of radio shows that aired across the National Public Radio syndicate. His Wired short story “The Cutting Edge” was optioned for film. And he co-authored the novel The Shroud with his brother Steven. For many years, he was a software engineer. In addition, he does killer karaoke.

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Harry Northup, Actor and Poet, interviewed by David Garyan


Harry Northup (photo credit: Alexis Rhone Fancher)

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Harry Northup, Actor and Poet

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Harry Northup’s poems to appear soon in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: Not many can say they’ve had the privilege of finding renown in two different artistic fields—for you that has been acting and poetry. Usually, we conceive of the former as bringing the voices of others to life, while the latter is seen as a quest to find your own voice, and then express it. Is the matter really that simple, however? In other words, how has poetry informed not only your work as an actor and vice versa, but also, how are they, generally, closer than we may initially think?

HN: In poetry you learn how to make good use of time and space. Films are very expensive and they go down fast, so you have to be prepared, know what you are going to do in that frame. Poetry gives you confidence—the making of a poem, the focus of craft, finding value in the craft. It’s not really a matter of informing but the doing. Writing poetry, to me, is like breathing, walking; I just do it all the time and have been for over fifty years.

In Method acting you learn how to evoke memories with sense memories, emotional memories—your body is your “instrument.” You learn to use your experiences, your memories to evoke emotions, to create belief in the role, belief in yourself; you’re the character.

Acting and poetry are two disparate fields. In acting you can explore, let your emotions go; in poetry you have to learn the tradition, know the craft by practicing it daily, being receptive. Holly once said that the actors are extroverts and the poets are introverts.

In Method acting, you chose an emotion—or it chooses you—or situation that you have experienced and concentrate on an emotional memory that is similar or close to the character’s emotion, what’s going on in the scene: objective correlative. That’s a similarity. Method acting, using my real experiences, is my foundation not only for acting but poetry. Not an external but an internal thing.

In film, there’s the actor, director, editor, writer. In poetry, you have to do it all. Even taking your books to the bookstore and the publicity.

DG: You’ve appeared in over thirty movies and worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. What project do you look back on with the fondest memories, and did that particular period also coincide with a strong literary output, or did acting take up every minute? 

HN: Over the Edge (1979). Jonathan Kaplan, the director, came up to me at my first audition, in the outer office, kneeled down beside me and said, “I want you for Sgt. Doberman. You have to go in there with four balls, look at the producer, make him like you, show warmth to him.” I did five auditions. On the last one I had five scenes memorized and plenty of improvisation material ready to use.

George Litto, the producer, gave me a six-week contract to play Sgt. Doberman, the best part I ever had. On location, in Greeley, Colorado, at lunch time, about a week into the picture, George said, “I’m giving you top billing.” That was the only time I ever got top billing in a film. Over the Edge was the first or second film Orion did when it was at Warner Brothers. It became a cult film. It was Matt Dillon’s first picture. My character, Sgt. Doberman, shot and killed Richie (Matt Dillon).

I loved working with Jonathan Kaplan. He’s got great depth, a large emotional range, a strong narrative sense, and strength as a filmmaker. He hired me as an actor 12 times in movies, TV shows, MTV video (“Wild Night,” John Cougar Mellencamp). I still stay in touch with Jonathan.

The cast was great, Dillon, Vincent Spano, Michael Kramer, Pam Ludwig, Andy Romano. Litto liked me. He, Andy, Associate Producer Joe Kapp, and I would eat out together most nights.

My future wife Holly Prado came to Denver and stayed with me for ten days.  She said that was the best vacation she ever had. That was early in our relationship. She helped me a lot with dialogue.

I grew up in Sidney, Nebraska, 165 miles from Denver, so shooting in the Denver area was like I was home. I was 37, 38, so I was in good physical shape for the role.

I always have a notebook with me and I wrote some poems—2 are in my book, the images we possess kill the capturing. I always write poetry, but oftentimes films go down so fast that I channel that creative energy on my character, including sometimes contributing new dialogue.


Harry E. Northup (Sgt. Doberman) in Over the Edge

 

DG: Starting out, did you sometimes share your writing with those you worked with on set, or did you prefer to keep that aspect of your life separate and private?

HN: When you shoot a movie, it goes down fast, so you have to focus on your part. Also, most people in the movie and TV fields are not into poetry. They don’t know the tradition of poetry, the innovations. There are a few people who are into it. Martin Scorsese came to a publication reading for my second book at The Bridge, on Kenmore, above Hollywood Blvd, in late 1973, or early 1974. After I had read, he said some nice things about my poetry and told me he had a part for me in his next film, Alice Doesn’t Love Here Anymore, which I did. Jonathan Demme liked my poetry and our press, Cahuenga Press. He sent C.P. a check one time for 5 grand. Jonathan Kaplan, also, liked my poetry. Hector Elizondo, who was in my acting class, knows poetry. But, I never worked with him in a film. Later in my life, I met two splendid actors who are also wonderful poets, Michael Lally and S.A. Griffin. They are both erudite about poetry and acting. I never worked as an actor with them, but I have learned about poetry and acting from both of them and value them deeply.


Left to right: Matt Dillon (Richie White), Harry E. Northup (Sgt. Doberman) & Michael Kramer (Carl Willat) in Over the Edge

 

DG: The poetry you write reflects the raw, gritty material of everyday life and it draws heavily upon blue-collar experiences. Although you did study literature and writing at university, the aspects which make your work unique aren’t often encouraged by professors who teach writing. Why do you feel it’s important for literature to speak on behalf of the so-called “common man,” and what can college instructors do to promote writing which is not only art-affirming, but also life-affirming?

HN: I studied Verse and Structural Grammar with Ann Stanford, at CSUN, where I received my BA in English. She is one of the best poets to come out of LA. She would go down to her studio and write every day. She always liked my poems. Poetry is one person talking to another person. It has nothing to do with status. Obviously, you have to learn the tradition, which I have done, and you have to read and write poetry. Some professors do not hold poetry primary. Poetry and acting are primary with me. It has been said that poetry is praise and affirmation of life.

DG: Do you believe acting and writing can actually be taught, or merely encouraged?

HN: Acting and poetry can be taught, have been taught, and are taught. I am not a teacher. My late wife Holly Prado was a beloved teacher. She had the ability to see the authentic self in the other. Ann Stanford would point out what was good in a poem. The work of Stanislavski at the Moscow Art Theatre, the Group Theatre and the Actors Studio in America are part of the best acting tradition in the 20th century. In Frank Corsaro’s class, the one I was in from 1963-1968, some of my fellow students, and I, all made their living in acting: Harvey Keitel, Hector Elizondo, Salome Jens, Richard Bradford, Christopher Jones, Ralph Waite, Lane Smith, Billy Bush. I love Frank Corsaro. He taught me how to relax, concentrate, how to behave realistically in front of the camera. I think the best American actors studied acting. Studying poetry with Ann Stanford deepened and broadened my understanding of poetry. We had to write the different forms: sestina, villanelle, Petrarchan sonnet, Shakespearean sonnet, ode, syllabics, and so on. 2 poems a week of a particular form for the semester. In college, I was fortunate to have two great, inspiring teachers, one in poetry: Ann Stanford, and one in theatre: Wes Jensby.

DG: If you only had the chance to write one poem in your entire life, which one would that be and why?

HN: My latest book Love Poem To MPTF is one poem. I was the primary caregiver to my wife Holly for many years and LPTM shows my devotion and love for her and hers for me. Plus we both loved, and I love, living at MPTF, which celebrates its 100th Anniversary in 2021. MPTF received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2021. It is the first time that prestigious award was given to an organization.  MPTF has a legacy of giving.  I believe that poetry is grace & grace is giving. Writing that work—it covers two years from July 18, 2017, when we were displaced by an electrical fire—the first poem begins with us living in a motel. It ends on June 14, 2019, in the ICU room at West Hills Hospital where Holly died. After living in the Dunes Motel on Sunset Blvd just west of Western Avenue for 22 nights, Holly and I lived in a room in Phoebe’s and Ron Ozuna’s home in Pasadena for 45 days. On September 25, 2017, we moved into The Villa at the Motion Picture and Television Fund in Woodland Hills, Ca. I was grateful to take care of Holly; it was a privilege. Somehow I feel there is a transcendence in this work—a transcendence of the personal. I like the language in the book. It’s about the last two years of Holly’s life. I just feel blessed to have been with her. Many family members, friends helped us get here and I will always be grateful to them, and to MPTF for inviting us to live here, and to its caring and helpful staff. MPTF is a magnificent place.

 

DG: Let’s talk about inspiration. Whitman and William Carlos Williams are two names that naturally come to mind, as both are known for their direct, uncompromising style, and the decisiveness with which they portray life as we live it. Indeed, both are great role models, but your biggest inspiration must have been your wife, Holly Prado, whose debut collection, Feasts, the CSULB scholar and poet, Bill Mohr, described as “an experimental book of prose poetry far more audacious and memorable than contemporaneous texts such as Lyn Hejinian’s My Life.” Along with a discussion of both her work and life, can you talk about the ways in which her aesthetic ended up influencing your own?

HN: In a 4-part, 3 hour and 45 minutes documentary that Channel 22 filmed of Holly and me, she said “I love to write. It’s the deepest pleasure I know.” I fell in love with Holly’s poetical, autobiographical, fiction, Feasts, in 1977.  After reading it, I called her, took her—with my son Dylan—a dozen red roses. Holly and I met for lunch, took a walk in a park and began going together. I fell in love with her. We talked poetry morning to night.

Holly wrote. That’s what she did. She did not talk bad about other writers. She quit teaching so she could write. She wanted to write full-time, work part-time. She taught in her, and later, our home for decades. Holly was my love, an inspiration. I would read her poetry that I had written the night before and she was always loving and supportive, nonjudgmental. She was in my poems. Holly put the body in the poem. She had a healthy, sexual vitality in her poetry. She was experimental. She would start a poem with an image. Her rhythms were asymmetrical. Our love was a miracle. I miss her every minute of the day. Once I thanked her for helping me. She said, “You help me more than I help you.”  “We help each other,” I said. Another time I told her, “I’m glad you chose me.” Holly loved American poetry, especially Wallace Stevens. She loved the writers she worked with. She loved Cahuenga Press. She loved my son Dylan.

DG: Over the years, you and your wife worked hard to bring poetry to the forefront of people lives—a formidable challenge everywhere, but perhaps even more so in LA, a city whose poetry she felt “the entire world is blind to,” due to its iconic association “with film, television and music industries,” a fact, that, according to her, forced poets to work in “a kind of vacuum.” It would be interesting to hear about some of the projects, events, and readings you organized together for the sake of poetry.

HN: In 1979, I had a ten-week contract to play Carmine in Used Cars, directed by Robert Zemeckis, in Phoenix, Arizona. During the time I wrote and sent Holly 40 Picture Postcards from Phoenix. On one of them I wrote, “Someday we should do a small press.” In late summer of 1989 I brought the subject of creating a small press up again to Holly. She said yes. I said let’s ask two poets who have had poetry books published and two who haven’t, and let’s have an equal amount of women as men. We decided on Bill Mohr and Phoebe MacAdams, who had books out, Cecilia Woloch, who had not published any books, and James Cushing—I believe Jim had published a chapbook.  We loved and respected them and their poetry. We asked if they would like to be founding members of a small press poetry publishing cooperative. They all said yes. We had our first meeting on September 16, 1989, at Phoebe’s home, on Rowena, in the Los Feliz area. Our first book was Holly’s Specific Mysteries, which got good reviews and sold out.  Holly gave the money she received for sales of the book to Cahuenga Press, which set a precedent. From that moment on, all the money from book sales went into the CP treasury, which helped pay for the next book. To this day, no poet makes any money from book sales.

Bill Mohr and Cecilia Woloch have left the press. We recently asked Jeanette Clough if she would like to be a poet-member of Cahuenga Press and she said yes. We have published 29 poetry books, the last one was my Love Poem to MPTF in late 2020. Tangled Hologram, by James Cushing, will come out next spring. We support each other. We’re all different poets in terms of literary styles. We help each other.

In the LA Times Book Review, on Sunday, April 12, 1987, the Book Editor wrote that the Times would no longer publish reviews of poetry books and would instead publish a poem once in a while. After reading that, which displeased Holly and me, we talked about what we could do. One of us, I believe it was me, came up with the idea of doing a protest in front of the Times building and by Thursday we had called many poets to join us. It seemed like there were about 35 protesters. I had never taken part in a protest before. We made sure we followed the rules. It got a lot of coverage.

In early 1991, as part of the Los Angeles Poetry Festival, I curated an all-day event at Skylight Books, on Vermont Avenue in LA. It was “40 Years of Small Presses in Los Angeles,” that began in the 1950s with “California Quarterly.”  It featured 19 small press editors/publishers who talked, from 10 AM to 8 PM on a Saturday, about their own presses: Beyond Baroque’s many manifestations of its literary magazine, Sunset Palms Hotel, Momentum Press, Invisible City, among others. One day about a week before the event I sent a proposal about the event to the Book Editor at the LA Times. Kenneth Turan happened to be sitting in for the Editor and he liked the idea, called me at home—the first time a big city newspaper editor called me at home—and fulfilled my request for the Times coverage by sending a first-rate journalist, Carolyn See, to cover it. “L.A. Poets: The Meter Is Still Running,” by Carolyn See, LA Times, appeared on the front page of the Book Review, on Feb. 24, 1991. It was the first time a review of a poetry event had been published on the Book Review’s front page. This event was tape recorded by Michael C. Ford.

Holly and I did a lot of readings of “long poems” together. The epic and the “long poem” have long been a passion of mine. Paul Vangelisti put together many of these. I put together an all-day reading of Tom McGrath’s 404-page Letter To An Imaginary Friend to celebrate McGrath’s 100th birthday. 40 poets, actors read at Beyond Baroque.  At MPTF, I curated a presentation of The Bridge, by Hart Crane, in 2018, and one from Leaves of Grass, by Whitman, in 2019. Both of these were presented to celebrate Poetry Month. One time, Holly and I invited 8 poets over to our home on Mariposa in East Hollywood to read out loud H.D.’s Hermetic Definition. Holly made soup; she put out bread, cheese, drinks. I chose the sections for each reader to read, put the reading together. Holly and I always talked things over when I put together poetry events & readings. All of this would not have been possible without the love and passion for poetry of our fellow poets, including Phoebe MacAdams, James Cushing, S.A. Griffin, Richard Modiano, Michael C. Ford, Laurel Ann Bogen. Holly was the main person in all of the readings I put together. She always helped me. People loved her. She was a magnificent leader in poetry. We would never have been able to do this without the extraordinary poets in LA. I have said before that it’s important to have a community of poets so that each poet could go further.


Cahuenga Press poet-members: Standing: Jeanette Clough, James Cushing; sitting: Phoebe MacAdams and Harry E. Northup (photo credit: Ron Ozuna in 2021)

 

DG: And also your thoughts on the future of the art as well—aside from poetry theaters which will probably never exist, what else can be done to make verse as relevant and immediate to people’s lives as film?

HN: Film is a popular art form; poetry is a more intimate art form. Poetry is the one thing, along with film and acting, outside of my family, that has meaning to me. I find a sense of warmth in reading and writing poetry. I love to keep learning. Film and acting, and poetry have been my passions ever since I was a young adult. It would be nice if people talked about poetry as much as they do film. I don’t see that happening. I helped Aleida Rodriguez get a reading at Beyond Baroque several years ago, when Richard Modiano was the Director. There were only about 14 of us in attendance. Just a poet standing in back of a podium with a microphone in a black painted room with light on her as she read about her entrance into writing when she was a teenager in LA—Aleida & her mother were emigres from Cuba—was transfixing. Poetry is a quiet, elevated form—one person talking to another person—putting the mind on the page the way you actually think, a blessing. The poetry tradition goes back millennia; film is 125 years old. I love poetry and movies. There’s a debate these days about the future of movie theatres; platforms have changed.

When Covid-19 hit, all gatherings and activities were cancelled at MPTF. Jennifer Clymer, Director of Media at MPTF, began doing ZOOM shows four days a week that are streamed on Channel 1390, an on-campus TV channel for the approximately 227 residents & staff. Jennifer asked me to do a one-hour, weekly, poetry show.  Last Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, 1-2 PM PST, was the 75th Harry’s Poetry Hour.

DG: What are some places in L.A. where you particularly enjoy reading or listening to others read?

HN: Beyond Baroque, Library Girl Reading Series at the Ruskin Theatre, and Harry’s Poetry Hour, Creative Chaos MPTF, on ZOOM.

In late 1968, or early 1969, when Beyond Baroque opened, I began attending its Friday night readings.  (I was an original member of the free Wednesday night poetry workshop that began in February 1969.  I went for 5, 6 years.)  I have seen readings by Leland Hickman, Robert Peters, Jack Hirschman, Jackson Mac Low, Robert Kelly, Eloise Klein Healy, Holly Prado, Wanda Coleman, Martha Ronk, Diane Wakoski, among many others, there. My first featured reading at Beyond Baroque was with Michael C Ford in 1974. Beyond Baroque is the most important poetry center west of St. Mark’s Church in NYC.

Susan Hayden’s creation of her Library Girl Reading Series at the Ruskin Theatre in Santa Monica, shows how one person can make a significant difference. She has hosted an astonishing array of brilliant poets, prose writers, playwrights, with grace, erudition & generosity. Her series is right up there with Beyond Baroque. Library Girl Reading Series is a blessing!

My third choice is a very personal one: Harry’s Poetry Hour, Creative Chaos MPTF. My purposes in doing a one-hour poetry show every Tuesday, 1-2 PM PST, for the past year and a half have been: 1. To present excellent poetry, including the poetry of Horace, Whitman, Dickinson, H.D., Anna Akhmatova, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Louise Gluck, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Ann Stanford, Holly Prado, The Symbolists, Langston Hughes, Phillis Wheatley, Audre Lorde, read by excellent readers who are MPTF residents, including Corinne Conley, Helen Richman, Brett Hadley, John Towey, Valerie Elson, Kay Weissman, Toni Sawyer, & CEO/President of MPTF, Bob Beitcher, & Jennifer Clymer, Director of Media at MPTF; 2. To invite splendid outside poets, including Carol Muske-Dukes, Sharon Doubiago, Alison Townsend, Paul Vangelisti, Bill Mohr, Jim Moore, Michael Lally, Phoebe MacAdams, James Cushing, Cecilia Woloch, S.A. Griffin, Susan Hayden, Pam Ward, Jack Grapes, Ron Koertge, Jack Hirschman, Michael C, Ford, Mark Rhodes, Jamie O’Halloran, Alexis Rhone Fancher, Jim Daniels, John Feins, Doren Robbins, Aram Saroyan, Gail Wronsky, and Sarah Maclay to read their poetry; 3. To keep the tradition alive and to show innovations in poetry; 4. To celebrate the possibilities of poetry.

To build a community through words. To be devoted to poetry. To keep learning. All in all, I am humbled and grateful to Jennifer Clymer for her kind invitation & for all the superlative work that she & the Creative Chaos Team have done to present Harry’s Poetry Hour in such an outstanding way. At least 43 of the 75 shows have been posted on MPTF Studios Harry’s Poetry Hour Youtube.  The content & production values are outstanding. Jennifer Clymer and Bob Beitcher both have a loving support of the Creative. Bob has initiated a number of these poetry shows. They are here to help each one of us residents “extend our creative lives,” as Bob once wrote to me. I am deeply thankful to them, the residents and the poets who have read their poetry on the show.

DG: If you were forced into a situation where lying was the only way to save a person’s life, would you choose an actor or poet as your accomplice, and why?

HN: I believe candor is the way. My dad used to say to me, “You would lie when the truth would serve better.”

Didn’t Plato ban poets, calling them liars? It’s okay to invent in an art form. I believe in candor but breath is necessary to keep living. When I was a young man I wrote I will do anything for my career and I will kill to survive.  Being an actor and a poet, the answer is arbitrary.

DG: Are you writing or working on anything at the moment?

HN: I write every day. My main theme is grief since my wife died a little over two years ago. There have been days when I have said I would give up every work I’ve written if she were still alive. She was my love. She was my protection.

I focus on my experiences. I still believe that it’s important to write about what you see, what you perceive through your senses, what inner visions you receive from the Muse, what your mind tells you, what you imagine. Love and loss are themes, as place is. Just to write a good, clean line. To be receptive and grateful to the Muse is my journey.  Simplicity, empathy, gratitude.


Holly Prado and Harry E. Northup in front of The Villa, MPTF, in 2018

 

About Harry Northup

Harry Northup is an accomplished actor and poet who has appeared in over thirty films and published twelve collections of poetry, the most recent being Love Poem to MPTF (Cahuenga Press, 2020). He received his BA in English from CSUN where he studied poetry with Ann Stanford. As an actor, his credits include Taxi Driver (1976), Over the Edge (starring role), and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

 

 

 

Harry Northup’s interview to be included in Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series


Harry Northup (photo credit: Alexis Rhone Fancher)

Harry Northup to be interviewed in Interlitq’s California Poets Interview Series

About Harry Northup

Harry Northup is an accomplished actor and poet who has appeared in over thirty films and published twelve collections of poetry, the most recent being Love Poem to MPTF (Cahuenga Press, 2020). He received his BA in English from CSUN where he studied poetry with Ann Stanford. As an actor, his credits include Taxi Driver (1976), Over the Edge (starring role), and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

Harry Northup’s work and interview to be included in Interlitq’s Californian Poets Feature and Interview Series


Harry Northup

Harry Northup to be interviewed as part of Interlitq’s California Poets Interview Series and poetry to be included in Interlitq’s Californian Poets Feature, Part IV

About Harry Northup

Harry Northup is an accomplished actor and poet who has appeared in over thirty films and published twelve collections of poetry, the most recent being Love Poem to MPTF (Cahuenga Press, 2020). He received his BA in English from CSUN where he studied poetry with Ann Stanford. As an actor, his credits include Taxi Driver (1976), Over the Edge (starring role), and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).