Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is set to announce that Eloise Klein Healy will be the first L.A Poet Laureate during a press conference at the Los Angeles Central Library this morning. The selection process was overseen by a Poet Laureate Task Force, appointed by Mayor Villaraigosa in March of this year, and the position comes with a $10,000 annual grant for a two-year term awarded by the Department of Cultural Affairs.
“Eloise Klein Healy's work highlighted the truly innovative and imaginative nature of our City's literary genius,” Mayor Villaraigosa said in a written statement released earlier. “I am proud to have her serve as the Ambassador to our City's vibrant poetry and literary culture.”
Born in El Paso, Texas, Healy moved to Los Angeles when she was ten-years old. She has written seven books of poetry, including her latest, A Wild Surmise: New and Selected Poems & Recordings, which will be released from L.A-based Red Hen Press in February. She is also the founding chair of the MFA program at Antioch University and founder of Arktoi Books, specializing in works by lesbian authors. She often writes about Los Angeles, including everything from baseball to the super highways “lifting off the landscape like dreams of the future.”
Clearly, Healy has cemented her influence on the city of angels, and the position, according to her, comes as a surprise, but it also makes sense. “There's never been a Poet Laureate before, so it wasn't something that I grew up having as an aspiration,” she says. “But I've been here a long time….I've done all my work [in Los Angeles]…People know who I am here in the poetry world. That's the part of it that doesn't surprise me. It's logical and rational that I would be a candidate.”
When Healy found out she was selected to be the first-ever poet laureate, she was on a plane in Miami, flying back from Ecuador. She received a phone call, and it was Dana Gioia, chair of the Poet Laureate Task Force. Healy accepted immediately. That was two weeks ago, and it was hard for Healy not to spill the information and allow the poet paparazzi to leak the information to the public. Well, I mean, if there was a poet paparazzi.
As part of the Poet Laureateship, Healy is expected to promote Angeleno authors, write poetry and read at public events throughout the two-year team. One of the main overall goals is to engage the Los Angeles community and promote poetry's power in transforming lives and minds.
Healy is dedicated to shining a light on the L.A. literary scene. “One of the things that hasn't been recognized as much is the literary culture here,” she says, “and the number of writers here…not much attention has been paid by people around the country or our own media. Poets, for example, are not people who are driving the engine of capitalism and don't get in the papers much.”
Some critics of the poet laureateship questioned whether $20,000 is fiscally responsible during tough economic times. But, as I argued in a previous post, it seems a small price to pay for this kind of engagement.
These criticisms do lead to larger questions for the Poet Laureate. What is the importance of poetry in 2012? Does anyone in Los Angeles really care about poetry in the first place? And how does Healy envision her role?
“Basically, I want to convince people that they have value,” Healy says. “That every person is creative. That every person who speaks the language should be able to understand the poem. They just need to find the right poem.”
As Poet Laureate, Healy feels that she has a couple different roles. One is a quasi-ceremonial role, where she goes to events and reads poetry. The other is more like a teacher. “I think the harder part is to get people past the problems poetry presents,” Healy says. “One is that kids aren't trained properly in school.”
Healy hopes to start a series of seminars where she educates high-school teachers on how to teach poetry so that it doesn't come off to children like algebra — a math problem that needs to be broken down by metaphorical variables and symbolic matrices of couplets and sestinas.
In addition, Healy wants to bring poetry directly to the community, and her largest idea for this lyrical exposure is Dodger Stadium.
“I would throw out the first pitch,” Healy says, laughing in between beats, “and there would be a poem on the Jumbotron, and 48,572 people could read it…That is putting poetry in public places, where it should be. It shouldn't just be something that people read in their home at night….Then there's supposed to be a conversation…That's what needs to start to happen — conversations about literature, because it's also conversations about what we value and what we want to have in our lives.”