Poetry for Southern California
L. A. Times Book Festival
Despite arctic winds one day and burning sunshine the next, hundreds of people managed to attend one of the best events in the City of Angeles: the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. The festival takes place every year during the last week of April on the UCLA campus and is one of the largest national gatherings of authors of all genres, along with an almost egalitarian mix of corporate and independent book vendors, all for general public consumption anywhere. There are authors of fiction, non-fiction and poetry who write about politics, cooking, murder, love, hate, religion, and crime. There are reading events for children and adults. The authors sign books, sit on panels, read from their work, make their opinions known and often spend a lot of time walking around the festival with the hundreds of Los Angelenos and visitors who flock to Westwood every year.
My three favorite things about the festival: it takes place in the city of Los Angeles, which is often maligned for its lack of literary prowess, giving us Los Angelenos something to brag about; second, it boasts one of the largest collections of national and international poets, reading their poetry on stage and talking about poetry on panels, in the world; and finally, all the events, panels and readings are free. It’s literally a literary paradise.
I make my home base every year at the poetry tent located at the top of Burin Walk just behind Powell Library and make forays to various panels and events. Every year I experience a great sense of reunion as the poetry tent attracts a large crowd of poets who live and write in Southern California and beyond, allowing me to see all the friends, acquaintances, and fellow poets in one weekend it would normally take me six months of driving up and down the LA and OC freeway system during rush hour to see. New poets, old poets, page, performance, and slam all gather to see and support those members of the community who have parlayed their talent and/or determination into publication.
The poetry tent opened on Saturday with a reading by Nigerian poet and LA Times Book Award nominee (in the category of fiction) Chris Abani reading from his book, Dog Woman. The stage then hosted locals Eloise Klein Healey, Terry Wolverton, David St. John, Jeanette Clough, Richard Beban and Kate Gale to name a few. Next up were the LA Times Book Awards nominees for poetry Richard Howard, Joshua Mehigan, Spencer Reece and Catherine Tufariello, fresh from their panel Poetry: The Magic of Words, which was moderated NEA head and friend of spelling and punctuation, Dana Gioia. While all of the nominees were interesting and freshman poet Mehigan has a grasp of craft sharp enough to split hairs, it was real-life Brooks Brother s clerk, Spencer Reece and the poems from his book "The Clerk s Tale: Poems," who stunned the audience with his works about both his life and the lives of those who silently serve. He amused, and entertained the audience with his deft, gentlemanly readings and his sharp, blue Brooks Brother s blazer didn't hurt either.
Sunday I thought I’d take a break from poetry and attend the Searching for a Civil Society panel which featured Tom Hayden and Matthew Miller. Tamar Jacoby, author of Reinventing the Melting Pot, hit the nail on the head when she said the most important part of any society is the writer and their responsibility to keep the public informed and thinking. Tom Hayden’s best comment was actually a quote from poet and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau: “Vote not with a mere strip of paper, but with your whole life.” After that it was the Poetry: Celebrating Verse panel moderated by California State Poet Laureate nominee Carol Muske-Dukes and featuring Wanda Coleman, who resigned the Poet Laureate nomination in protest of the Quincy Troupe controversy from the last poet laureate nominations; grand dame of the beat generation Diane di Prima; East Coast poet and reader of dead white males, Brad Leithauser, whose poetry turned out to be much better than his choices of influences would suggest; and the man who has more awards and optimism than most poets, ever, James Ragan. The wide range of personalities, poetic styles and opinions made the panel more interesting for the fly-on-the-wall-feeling of watching an adult dinner party where every one is civil but no one likes each other, than for the poorly moderated subject matter.
Then it was back to the poetry tent for readings by Sophie Cabot Black, who was delightful; the powerful words and presence of the World Stage’s Michael Datcher and fellow World Stage founder Kamau Daáood who read from his first published collection, The Language of Saxophones from City Lights Books. Los Angeles stand-up poet Charles Harper Webb was up next and preformed with his usual charm. Following him was James Ragan, who I expected to find boring or even dislike given his huge amount of awards and optimism, but truth be told, he captured my attention with his entertaining performance and beautiful poems. I came in on his reading as he was introducing a poem he’d recently written as a memorial to a cow that his father had to slaughter during the depression to ensure the families survival. Earlier at the panel on verse he had noted the best place for a poet to stand is on the shoulders of policy-making individuals to help provide them with “much-needed insight into the world that they are making decisions about.” I would normally balk at a poet who made such a lofty comment, but the work that Ragan read both adhered to his statement and presented the ideas in great poems, so I guess I won’t be making those snap decisions anymore… till the next time.
I have to confess that I skipped the last three readers to attend a talk in Royce Hall with Eric Idle. I actually didn’t feel guilty, though, because I was able to give my extra ticket to Charles Webb who, it turns out, is a huge Idle fan and laughed all the way through the talk. So in a way I was actually contributing to poetry. It was the perfect end to the perfect weekend. All in all my only criticism of the weekend at the poetry tent is that the readings seem to be limited to poets published in perfect-bound books, which leaves out a lot of up-and coming-voices as well as those who haven’t have the fortitude to put a manuscript together and get it published. I would love to see five minutes here or there in the schedule allotted to those poets who lie outside the popular publishing realm, instead of performers who have one three-year-old publication reading for 30 minutes. Mixing in lesser-known but talented poets alongside the experienced voices would benefit both the audience and the poetry community.
All in all it was a fabulous weekend and for anyone who missed it or who has been having doubts about the value of the festival, I highly recommend attending next year.