It’s been exactly six years since I’ve been to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Since that time the festival has moved from the UCLA campus to USC. It's always had a reputation for being the biggest book festival in the country and I’ve always found its free lectures and panels highly stimulating and enjoyable. This year, however, the turnout seemed low. This could have been because the comparatively-massive AWP conference was just in town weeks earlier, (my friend Coolia tells me it was much more poet friendly, if not outright revering) or it could have been the unusually drizzly LA weather.
The last conference I attended was in 2010 and was memorable for two reasons. First, I had just purchased my first smart phone and when I forgot to bring paper to the lectures I was happily able to take notes on the iPhone. How fun! Secondly, I experienced my first carpel tunnel attack the following days. Was it all that iPhone typing? Was I carrying around too many heavy books in my big backpack? Was it just bad timing? Who knows but so severe and depressing was the situation and resulting psychological connection, I never looked at those note files again until I returned to the festival last month, six years later.
Actually, the LA Book festival has always felt transformative for me. One panelist there, in fact, convinced me I could learn Smashwords and self-publish certain projects.
This year I immediately walked over to the what I call the poetry pit, (formerly I called it the poetry nook at UCLA) where Ron Kortege was reading to a tiny, tiny crowd (see pic above). There seemed to be even fewer chairs than I remembered at UCLA. And it definitely took more effort to get down into the pit than it did into the nook, (which was near a major thoroughfare). Jorie Graham was scheduled to read next but she was sick and bailed so the pit organizers decided to read her poems during her set. I didn’t stick around for that. I can read aloud my own Jorie Graham poems.
I toured the poetry tents nearby and bought some books at a haiku tent. I learned about the group Haiku North America who will be having their 13th conference in Santa Fe in 2017. A tiny flyer advertised presentations, readings, workshops, demos, art and music for the Sept 13-17 dates at the Hotel Santa Fe. The flyer advertised their website but it has absolutely no information about the conference yet there. I also bought a Poet t-shirt from the Get Lit tent, a teen literacy group sponsored that day by the LA teen slam team. This is their tag line: "Find your voice. Discover your poem. Claim your life."
Next I went to my first panel discussion, a “Conversation with US Poet Laureate Juan-Felipe Herrera.” Herrera told long, drawn out stories. He talked a bit about his family history, anthropology, cultural social spaces in California then and now, and he spoke charmingly about how he uses hotel note paper to write his poems, almost he said like the hotel pads are kind of press imprints. He talked about putting your self into motion. People asked him what the U.S. Poet Laureate job description entailed and he talked about his House of Colors all-language project and his Washington, D.C. office overlooking the White House. People asked him about stereotypes regarding California writers, (which are plenty but he demurred) and unlike Billy Collins, Herrera's attitude was not that there are too many poets. Herrera insisted there is a lot of room in everything. And he said, “Things are only impossible 60% not 100%. Forty percent is possible." He did the Iowa MFA program at 40.
Next up was "The Sacred and the Profane in 21st Century Poetry." Carol Muske-Dukes led the discussion. I’ve seen a few times at book fest. I really like her essays and non-fiction and I just bought a book of her poems at the festival. I loved her book about her husband. But she can be annoying in a panel because she always kvetches about the title of the panel and how meaningless and constraining it is. This time the technology of the mic kept confounding her and she seemed irritated more than amused by it. Finally, another equally annoyed audience member yelled for her to just “hold it” and thankfully that fixed the issue.
Harryette Mullin filled in for the sickiepoo Jorie Graham and was generous and illuminating. Instead of reading her own poems on the topic, (the sacred and the profane), she read "The Pope's Penis" by Sharon Olds and “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop” by William Butler Yeats.
Ron Koertge was also on the panel. I’m normally a fan of Koertege and I love the poem "Guide to Refreshing Sleep." But he turned every question around to himself in a somewhat suffocating way. This was jarring when juxtaposed against Mullen self-effacement. I experienced my typical disappoint when I see poets in person that I’m a fan of. This happened with Stephen Dobyns who I saw read grumpily at Sarah Lawrence College and Albert Goldbarth who was on an LA Bookfest years ago and refused to talk craft. Why attend a craft panel then? Anyway, I still read and like those poets. I just wont go see them read again (or see them participate in craft panels).
Dana Gioa was the fourth panel member. So here’s the reverse phenomenon going on. I read Gioa’s essays and am consistently irritated by them but then I always end up liking him better in person. This time I decided his facial expressions remind me of actor George Segal. Anywa, I just took a class in New Mexico art history and learned all about bultos and santos, little carved saints Catholic woodcarvers in New Mexico created in the 17th century for local missions. Gioia talked about his Mexican heritage, (did he say Hispanic? I can’t remember), and read a santos poem. “The Angel with the Broken Wing" which was published in Poetry magazine.
As you can see I took very bad photos with my camera phone. I was amazed at how brazen I had become in six years to even take bad photos.
The panel started with pretentious paper shuffling from the poets, something that fiction panels never do. “We are all doing stuff of import!” They discussed the role of religion in poetry and when and where they might have used something sacred or profane. Carol Muske-Dukes asked, “Is all art in a way religion? Do the sacred and profane come together in poetry?” Ron talked almost exclusively about this own childhood. Dana talked big picture stuff about all of our metaphysical longings, the material versus the divine, and about how people are leaving behind spiritual codes but are still feeling a spiritual hunger. And I can’t help but explicate everything he says in order to determine where the coded politics is bleeding through. He claimed anthropologists have yet to find a culture without poetry. I asked my anthropologist husband about this and he said this sounded like an overstatement and was probably not true. I added that since you can’t really control the definition of what poetry even means, we’ll never be able to verify or disprove such a statement. Dana and Carol Muske-Dukes argued about whether W. H. Auden was religious.
Late in the day Ross Gay gave a reading in the poetry pit and it was lovely and amazing. Smile: check. Working the audience: check. Wearing a Poetry t-shirt similar to the one I just bought: check. Captivating reading: check. He didn’t do a “performance” reading per se. He read. But he read really well. I still haven’t finished his book which I bought on my eReader so I couldn’t get it autographed. Bummers.
The next day I attended “Poetry and the Arts: The Influences of Music, Cinema, and the Visual Arts in Contemporary Poetry.” Hands down, the best LA book fest poetry panel I’ve ever been too. And note to Carol Muske-Dukes, the poets on the panel embraced their topic.
David St. John was funny and said he liked listening to performances, seeing artworks, and was able to make profound connections mostly through film influences. He said he found his voice by watching films.
Elena Karina Byrne’s parents were artists and she was raised on contemporary and conceptual art and these were her early, primitive experiences. Her father was a famous figure drawing teacher to Disney animators. She said all art is a dialogue with the world, the self and history. She quoted Magritte to say "art is a dream for waking minds" and Mark Doty who said "you can cause time to open by looking." She said Mark Strand began as a painter from Yale.
Ralph Angel was an enjoy-the-moment, slow talking guy, wholly present but almost boring he took so long to get to a point. He read a poem by Agnes Martin, a painter I've been studying in my New Mexico art history class. I didn't know she wrote poems but she did, sometimes about her paintings. He referenced John Coltrane a few times and said he was inspired by essays, novels, a walk, film, music...."so many guides."
Fiona Sze-Lorrain was a very interesting Chinese French author/poet/harpist also on the panel. She said that no art exists separately. She said she started with notes before words and appreciated music’s precise syntax and tempo changes. She liked working with an instrument bigger than herself. She talked about the shape of her breath and architecture. Musically she liked Bach, Debussy, Beethoven, and Joni Mitchell. She said poems fail when they start to describe painting, they become autobiographical. Then I wondered if she said Joan Mitchell or Joni Mitchell. Both were painters. She also plays the zither – a rare Chinese instrument, and I was reminded of my favorite Billy Collins poem, Serenade.
At this panel I noticed many more differences between fiction writers and poets. Poets don’t go to each others’ panels like fiction writers do. Does that say something about the poet character? Poets also don’t talk as casually before their panels. There was no talking together before this one and two of them were even friends. Very few people attended these poetry panels, sadly. Someday I hope to compare these panels to AWP poetry panels.
Some notes form the fiction panels I aggended:
My friend and fest-mate had a crush Crush on the new fiction writer Matt Sumell (see pic right) and he did have a charming New York vibe going on. He also looks and talks like Jon Stewart. In this panel the writers talked about unlikable characters, mostly defining what they are. Sumell said "Bad choices make good stories."
In another panel on Creative Storytelling, Tony-winning playwright Sarah Ruhl talked about how plays have shapes that emerge two-thirds of the way into writing them, sometimes real geometric shapes. They don’t always follow the Aristotle arc she said. She also noted that our culture is obsessed with originality to its detriment. John Scaret Young said “Don’t tie up everything” and Mark Haskel Smith said it’s "all about energy so don’t edit as you go."
In the panel Writing the Writer, two writers admitted they were afraid to show the writing samples of accomplished, brilliant characters who were writers, as if they couldn’t live up to their descriptions of the talent. Someone said they wrote about writers because they wanted to explore the life they didn’t have. Another said he wanted to write about someone like himself. Paul Kolsby said to learn how to get out of your own way.
Another thing I noticed this trip: to be a panelist it seems you need to be peddling a recent book. This kind of made the whole thing feel like a publicity event more than an educational one.