“I could go on about the choices I've made,” Eloise Klein Healy writes in her 1991 poetry collection, Artemis in Echo Park, “and all the other elements of my landscape / emotionally carved out or artfully decorated, / but the real truth is, here you can see / the ribs showing through.” Healy, who was recently named Los Angeles' first poet laureate by outgoing mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, has made the kind of choices that define a career, although perhaps that has become clear only in retrospect — as is often the case with the choices that define us.
Now 69, Healy has had a long and successful academic career, directing the women's studies program at Cal State Northridge, founding the MFA program in creative writing at Antioch University Los Angeles, where she is now a professor emeritus, and founding Arktoi Books, a Red Hen Press imprint that specializes in the work of lesbian authors. She's written seven books of poetry, the most recent of which, A Wild Surmise, was published in March. And then there's the poet laureate honor, which Healy says took her by complete surprise, “because I didn't think they'd choose a white lesbian.”
This last comment tells you something about the choices Healy made in both in her personal and her professional life. To come out in the early 1970s, and to pursue a career as a feminist poet. To keep writing poetry, long before the days of poetry slams and the hundreds of poetry programs and writers' colonies that now litter the country, and to do it in Los Angeles. “Back then there was one place to go, Beyond Baroque, which was about the size of the men's bathroom. There was nobody publishing anything,” she says. And to keep teaching, as she has done continuously since she graduated from Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood. “Poetry doesn't pay. I'd be long dead if I'd lived on that.” So Healy taught and wrote, wrote and taught, at schools and in evening private workshops. “I missed Roseanne entirely. I've had to catch up.”
What makes Healy perfectly suited to her new title is the way she writes about the city she's lived in since she was 10, when her parents came West from their home in small-town Iowa to visit relatives and decided to stay. Healy grew up in the San Fernando Valley, in Hollywood and Echo Park (“before it was trendy, it was cheap”); she and her partner, Colleen Rooney, have lived in the same house in Sherman Oaks since 1988. And it's this landscape that Healy writes about, her poems repeating compositions of place in which you can see the emotions and the art but also the street corners and the neighborhoods and their specific occupants, “the ribs showing through.”
You can see the daily life of the city in Healy's poetry, as she writes about gardening and mythology, about sex and baseball. In fact, it's this last subject that maybe excites Healy the most about her new job. With the help of City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who was once her softball coach, Healy has been campaigning to have L.A. Poetry Day held at Dodger Stadium. And maybe, if things go well, someday she'll realize her other dream: of throwing out the first pitch. But first she has to finish teaching Mayor Villaraigosa how to write a poem.
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