Sunday, November 16, 2014

Open 24 Hours: An Interview With Suzanne Lummis

Olga García Echeverría

It's not surprising the Suzanne Lummis' newest collection of poetry, Open 24 Hours, was the winner of the 2013 Blue Lynx Prize. These are poems full of texture and poetic sass; they're urban dwellers that live in gritty places, where "...The rubble of smashed / glass makes the sidewalk shine..." In these poems "tenants bitch" and poets get stopped on street corners and asked, "Are you saved?"
These poems, born of earthquake and the "art of disaster" ride elevators, witness car crashes, dream about red shoes that do not quite fit. They are heavy-eyed in the A.M. and wide-eyed at night. They're Open 24 hours and they're over-caffeinated. You can hear the racing heat beat in verse...
because you've stayed up
all night on nothing
but blues and black
coffee and the sound
of windy traffic
outside your door
which reminds you
of death or is that
the coffee?
And although there is lost love and death and even a prisoner in a Chinese fortune cookie factory in this book of poems, there is no whimpering. Only late night Facebook posts that rage against bozos who insist that Obama is a Muslim, who call Oprah "fat," who write things like, "Let the socialists Marxist Libtards / go out and wash all the oil off the fish / and birds, ha, ha, ha." Lummis fires back with:
Maybe you just popped out this way,
an ignorant, crude baby determined
to get worse. Oh there's no hope, no hope
for you, except--this: read books, books of quality...
Read the true news or, at least, news
that's closing in on the truth, watch smart TV--
it exists! Aspire to be less stupid.
Not even the Sacred Word gets a free pass in Lummis' poetic world. Hey, if it doesn't pay the rent, crown the poet "Most Celebrated Aging Poet Princess in the Land," or birth worthwhile images, then Lummis declares:
Pack your bags. Take a hike.
Make yourself scare. Hit
the road, Jack. Blow
town. Split the spot. Buzz
off, push off, shove off. Go fish!
Packed with honesty and humor, Lummis delivers a solid collection of verses and curses in Open 24 Hours, and because she rocks she also joins us here today for an interview.
Suzanne, welcome to La Bloga and congratulations on your recent publication of Open 24 Hours and on receiving the 2013 Blue Lynx Prize. That must feel pretty wonderful.
Yes, I’d like to thank the screeners who did not pass earlier versions of this manuscript on to contest judges, because if it had won a prize and gone to press a few years earlier it wouldn’t have been as good. And some people’s favorite poems, fairly recent ones, wouldn’t have been in it. Moreover, Lynx House Press here on the West Coast is a better publisher for me than some of those others might’ve been. Yes, it was the right publisher, right time, and great good fortune for me.
That is very interesting and inspiring. As writers we sometimes think that rejection (of publication, for instance) is a tragic dead-end, but as you mention, sometimes being denied entry in one place/space leads to other possibilities. Are there others you'd like to thank for rejecting your work?
I’d also like to thank the two lesser literary journals that rejected “How I Didn’t Get Myself to A Nunnery,” because their rejection made it possible for Paul Muldoon to accept that poem for The New Yorker. (However, let me be clear, I would not like everyone to reject all my writings from here on out, with the idea that rejection is probably in my best interests. I think I’ve had enough for this lifetime, thank you very much.)
I love the cover and the title of Open 24 Hours. It feels like a welcome sign at a diner where the everyday and the odd-houred can enter. Is this what you meant by it or does the title mean something else entirely?
I’m so glad you like the cover—yes, it makes a forceful impression, nothing wispy about it. For me the title evokes the idea of night owls, restless people awake while others sleep, maybe leaning over a Styrofoam or porcelain cup in one of those low-end hangouts that stay open all night in L.A., donut shops and chain coffee houses. I mean it to refer to a marginal, nocturnal world. 
Did you have any challenges with deciding on the final title of your book?  
It came to me fairly early on, maybe a third of the way into the manuscript. I was feeling perplexed about what I might call this collection-in-progress. Then I glimpsed a particularly striking Open 24 Hours sign and new that was it. I knew I wouldn’t come upon anything better, and I didn’t.
The first section of your book, “Substandard Housing,” has a very strong sense of place. How did this section of your book evolve? Did you plan on creating a series of interconnected poems that lived in the same building or was it more of an organic process?
It’s odd, in a way, because I haven’t lived in that building for over 15 years. I wrote many of the poems while there, but continued to write about some of the tenants and memorable incidents after I’d left. I didn’t scope out a design for the manuscript ahead of time, no, in fact, it changed shape many times. At one point the middle section, now called “Broken and in Need of Repair,” was called “Hopeless Desire and Other Common Complaints.” It was damn hard to get these poems to lie down next to each other, because in terms of voice, and sometimes even style, they vary wildly, crazily. It’s not as noticeable now, not jarring anyway, because I finally did organize them so that one leads into the other without causing the reader to yelp in alarm. 
My favorite poems in this first section were "7.3" and "664-8630." The former because the poem, like any good earthquake, rattles. I love all those things you worry about in the poem as the earth's tectonic plates are rumbling beneath your feet. I think many of us Angelinos can relate. I've included an excerpt of "7.3" here for our readers to enjoy:
But I don't have time to review this life flashing
past my eyes like the preview of a low budget movie,
there's death to work on.
Who has copies of my unpublished works?
If my cats crawl out of the wreck, how will they live?
Does this mean I'm off the hook for those parking tickets
and credit card debts? Like a fool I follow
everyone's advice, leap for the doorframe,
which will snap like breadsticks when the floor
caves, the ultimate letdown.
When it stops my sense of The Real won't quit
shaking. Bad
Earth. The blue-dark mother holds us and her love
Your other poem "664-8630" really spoke to me because a dear friend of mine, tatiana de la tierra, died in 2012. We used to spend a good amount of time on the phone talking and texting. It was one of the things I missed most when she was gone. After she passed, and long after her phone had been disconnected, I used to sometimes send her random texts with some crazy hope that maybe she'd reply. Your poem that ends in that ringing with no answer really struck a cord and made me feel less crazy about wanting to reach the unreachable via a phone number.
Olga, thank you for this comment. Yes, it does seem this poem might apply to many lives, and many losses. The phone number was Ted Schmidt’s—he produced both my plays at The Cast Theater, which flourished from the 80s through the mid 90s, and an important playwriting award is named after him here in Los Angeles. However, years later I kind of wished I’d saved that poem for the phone number of the family home in San Francisco, the number that was in use for my entire adult life. When my father died, I called it one last time and felt it ring and ring in the house that would soon be sold. 
That childlike question in the poem (why do people die?) is so simple, but I am sure it resonates with anyone who has lost a loved one. Here is the poem you wrote for Ted Schmitt (1940-1990) and for so many others:
I pass this number
in my phone book, the seven everyday
digits a sequence I won't dial
like passing a house abandoned but
filled with echoing
rooms that were lived in. Till
If I called I would hear
...what? A buzzing like a station
shut down for the night,
the TV screen filled with
Or has the phone line snapped
overhead, the late messages
heading for a long
No good asking like a child
why do people die? I call
but in a room where a man's
things have been folded and packed
as if to follow him on the next train
a phone rings,
rings, and there is no
In the second section of your book, “Broken and In Need of Repair,” you take some writing rules given by poet professors and friends, such as “No self-pitying poems,” and you purposely break them. What inspired this cool rebellion?
During a UCLA lecture open to the public, the late short fiction writer Donald Barthelme mentioned a rule he advised his students never to break, and quite instantly I imagined a way I could write a poem that avoided the problem Barthelme seemed to warn against. That started me on the series. I collected these rules from poet professors, and some were serious, some given to me in a spirit of fun.
Did certain rules inspire more rebellion than others?
I discovered the rule had to present a real challenge or I couldn’t come up with anything good, and it had to come from a poet or reader who knew what they were talking about. Once, some random person I’d mentioned this series to said something like "I think there should be a rule no more poems about dogs and cats, because there are already so many of those." Well, that’s absurd. There isn’t really a super-abundance, and, anyway, most poems about animals, so long as they’re written by real poets, poets of talent, tend to be quite good. 
Do you have a favorite?
Above all I love the poem that closes The Selected Poems of Weldon Kees, the one that begins “What the cats do/To amuse themselves/When we are gone/I do not know.” And the reader is aware that Kees would eventually end his life by throwing himself off the Golden Gate Bridge (presumably, his body was never found). But the cats go on, “crying, dancing.” It’s such an innocent, almost childlike poem on the surface, but it takes on an eerie power because of what we know. Talk about structure—brilliant of Donald Justice [the editor of the collection] to place that poem at the end of the book.
Can you share a source of inspiration you keep returning to?
I continue to like a poem you don’t see anywhere anymore, very early W. S. Merwin, “The Sands,” and one that’s easy to find, “Sheep in Fog,” by Plath, and one that you can’t find anywhere, by someone few have heard of—and, indeed, I hadn’t heard of him-- “Looking for Bluefish” by Jon Swan. Oh, and one that can be found with a bit of luck, “Smudging,” by Diane Wakoski. Gorgeous, the way it gathers to a force at the end. Levine’s “The story of Chalk”—yes.
And as for the unruly side of the poetic spirit, Gregory Corso’s “Marriage,” and the fantastically wild and outrageous “Me viene, hay dias…” by Cesar Vallejo. I don’t know why that one isn’t used in creative writing workshops around the country—it’s so freeing.
In closing, here is an excerpt from one of Lummis' own unruly, freeing, and spirited poems.
This pale, feverish presence
inside your life is you,
and those are loud strangers
gripping beers. But why die,
ever, while stores shout out
their bargains, hot CD's,
and one can gaze at the bodies
who've stopped dancing now
and stand about jaggedly
because the doorways
of rock clubs pumped them
into open air? No doubt about it,
all this is for you.
Some Doo Wop tune
on the airwave says the night's
thousand shifting eyes
are on the watch. You guess
two of them are yours.
Tonight Mr. Good
or Bad might pluck you
from the crowd.
There's some place you're
supposed to be, some fun
you're supposed to have.
It's fate, your fate, and it's open
twenty-four hours.
To find out more about Suzanne Lummis:
Photo by Phil Taggart

Suzanne Lummis' book Open 24 Hours won the Blue Lynx Poetry Award, and was just released by Blue Lynx Press this fall. Her poem "How I Didn't Get Myself to a Nunnery," appeared in the November 3 issue of The New Yorker. And—for contrast—she has two poems in the new anthology of noir poetry and crime fiction, Noir Riot, from Gutter Books. Suzanne is a long-time, influential teacher for the UCLA Extension Writers' Program, and the editor of the anthology to be published in 2015, Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond, from The Pacific Coast Poetry Series, which was founded by Henry Morro.




msedano said...

thank you for a wonderful interview. i almost dialed my old home phone number, just to hear it ring and ring. by now, someone owns that number, and i'd have woken them this early in the morning.

Amelia ML Montes said...

Orale, Olga! Great interview bringing Suzanne Lummis to us!

Paul Aponte said...

Olga, you study by swimming around in their minds, then bring out the best with the right questions. Suzanne has my admiration.

MissStarliteMotel said...

(Reposting my FB comment here)Olga, you did a marvelous job with this -- I'm delighted. It makes for such interesting reading, even if I do say so myself, and your organization of the interview and choice of quotes is a large part of why it works. I hope the piece will lead to more readers of your blog, more supporters of your own writing, and more buyers of "Open 24 Hours".

Marilyn R said...

I loved this interview and the book and, of course, its author.