Karen Ocamb

Lesbian Eloise Klein Healy Named LA's First Poet Laureate

Filed By Karen Ocamb | December 09, 2012 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Living
Tags: Eloise Klein Healy, lesbian poet, Los Angeles, poet laureate

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced Friday that lesbian poet Eloise Klein Healy has been named as the City of Los Angeles' first Poet Laureate.

Eloise-Klein-Healy.jpg"As the arts and culture capital of the world, Los Angeles' 4 million residents and 26 million annual visitors deserve a Poet Laureate to elegantly express the beauty of our city in words," Villaraigosa said in a press release before the formal announcement at the LA Library. "While each of the nominees demonstrated a command of the written word, Eloise Klein Healy's work highlighted the truly innovative and imaginative nature of our City's literary genius. I am proud to have her serve as the Ambassador to our City's vibrant poetry and literary culture."

Healy is well known in the LGBT and LA literary scene. An accomplished poet, professor and editor over three decades, she is the author of seven books of poetry, including The Islands Project: Poems for Sappho (2007) for which she was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Poetry and Publishing Triangle's Audre Lorde Lesbian Poetry Prize. Her newest book of poetry A Wild Surmise: New and Selected Poems & Recordings will come out March 2013 from Red Hen Press. (See her website eloisekleinhealy.com and the Red Hen Press Imprint www.arktoi.com.)

"It is an honor and a privilege to be asked to represent the City of Los Angeles as her Poet Laureate," Healy said in the release. "LA has been a constant source of inspiration for me, and it is my goal to share my excitement about writing with all Angelenos. We are a community rich in languages, cultures and literary traditions. We have much to learn from each other, and I look forward to a new era of creativity starting now."

I spoke with Healy - a longtime friend of the late author Paul Monette - about the honor and she sent me two poems to share. One is about the city of Los Angeles, dedicated to the extraordinary performance artist Luis Alfaro and the other is about gay, HIV positive heroic Olympic diver Greg Louganis (see below).

But first some biographical information and reaction. From the press release:

Born in El Paso, Texas and raised in Iowa, Healy eventually made her way to California where she become heavily involved with Woman's Building, a west coast feminist cultural center. Since then, she has been a notable presence in the Los Angeles writing community receiving multiple awards and wide recognition. She is a Grand Prize winner of the Los Angeles Poetry Festival Competition, a Pushcart Prize Nominee and a former Artist-in-residence at both the MacDowell and Dorland Mountain Colony. With this award she builds on an on-going relationship with the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA), which named her a COLA Fellow in 2005.

Healy is co-founder of the ecotourism and arts venture ECO-ARTS and helped to establish the Red Hen Press imprint Arktoi Books, specializing in works by lesbian authors. Healy is the founding chair of the Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Antioch College, Los Angeles, where she won the inaugural Horace Mann Award. Earlier, she taught at Immaculate Heart and California State University, Northridger. Healy currently resides in Sherman Oaks.

As Poet Laureate, Healy will author poetry, promote Angeleno writers, and speak publicly to the transformative qualities of poetry and the written word throughout all parts of the community. She will serve for a term of two years ending in 2014 and receive a $10,000 annual grant from the DCA.

"As a City that prides itself on creativity and dedication to a vital and thriving arts community, adding the new Poet Laureate program to the DCA portfolio was a natural fit," Executive Director of the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs Olga Garay-English said. "I look forward to Eloise Klein Healy adding to her already impressive poems inspired by Los Angeles, which will hopefully ignite within Angelenos a desire to create their own poetry as homage to this Great City."

The selection process was overseen by a Poet Laureate Task Force, appointed by Mayor Villaraigosa in March of this year, consisting of a group of six diverse poets and literary experts representative of the City's diverse cultural communities and traditions.

"The selection committee worked with great care and enthusiasm," Poet Laureate Task Force Chair Dana Gioia said. "We read through piles of books and applications searching for the best candidates. Many of the best poets in Los Angeles applied for the position. I am certain that there will be no shortage of great laureates in future years."

The Task Force reviewed nominations and made recommendations for DCA to forward to the Mayor's Office for consideration. Mayor Villaraigosa chose Eloise Klein Healy as Los Angeles Poet Laureate earlier this month.

Here's Eloise's response to the historic honor:

On Being Chosen Poet Laureate of Los Angeles

It's been a hard secret to keep. I have known about it for over two weeks. On the other hand, it's given me some time to think about being chosen as the first Poet Laureate of the City of Los Angeles. Obviously, there are many thoughts about such a thing, among them, that I didn't think I would be a perfect candidate. I almost didn't send in a nomination form, but my friend and sister poet Jenny Factor called and said she wanted to nominate me. So, then it was on.

My first thought was how much I wished my parents were still alive. Even though poetry wasn't much a part of their lives, they did understand my efforts to write and publish poetry and that I had worked hard at it for a long time. So, this news would have made them very happy.

Bring chosen for this honor brought many old friends to mind. My friend, Tino, who died not long after we graduated from high school, and my high school teacher who got me interested in writing. Miss Chartrand from St. Louis, this is a shout out to you! My friend and mentor May Swenson would probably have scrunched up her face and made a smart remark about my being a poet laureate.

I thought of the hundreds of readings I have done and the audiences who welcomed my work. I've had time to look back on benefits I've read at for poets who were ill and causes that needed some fundraising help--the things that are a part of most poets' lives because we usually have a community of two that holds our emotional and political allegiance. For example, since the AIDS crisis came into our lives, I have never published a book without a poem about someone who died from an AIDS-related illness.

It's just quite amazing that such a thing has happened to me.

I'm fine with it, but I feel the tug to get back to writing and I already know I will worry about my time. That's just part of being a poet--needing time and space and there's never quite enough of that.

I have lived in and loved the City of Los Angeles for 58 years and I am happy to be a servant of the people and their languages and traditions. I am also happy to have a major new challenge at this point in my life.

And two poems to illustrate why Eloise was selected as LA's first Poet Laureate:


for Luis Alfaro

Born like me on September fourth, ruled by Mercury,

the eternal child is what the magazine horoscope promises,

though LA's a little older, a little dustier,

maybe even more varied than the crennalations

in my cerebral cortex,

more full of running glyphs

than the convoluted cranial bag of fits and starts

I've been juicing around in

since my own little 9/4 entrance

into the world of things and beings.

No wonder I love this city, song of myself.

Choose between little corner taquerias

and Thai home cooking joints, amazing

as the expectations of angel sightings

we daily live in, tongues of flames

leaping not from the heads of gods or laps of goddesses,

but from green and red and yellow chilies

swirling in the devil's brews along the boulevards,

little food stands in corner mini-malls

with four or six paint-stripped slots

to slip a car into,

then walk to the order-window,

pay and move quick-time

to the "take-out line/pick up food here station",

the sliding glass door ringed with salsa cups,

straws in white paper sleeves, chili-flakes in a shaker

or "what do you call this?" condiment of the culture

from which this food is delivered and delivering us unto.

(oh, the tongue is so much wiser than the mind!)

Shrimp burritos, now where did they come from?

Fish tacos-it took me a long time to imagine them

without conjuring up an image of a mermaid in a blanket.

I would pass up a trip to Chinois if some local vato loco

could lead me to the right Cambodian market cum café

and point out the fish sauce that would light up my lips

like neon without putting me in a coma.

I am immoral in my desire to sniff the length of,

rub between my fingers, and roll around in my mouth

the flavors, bread things, and common seasonings

of all of my compatriots here

at the blue-bleeding westward sea-shelf of the Pacific

where the currents of human traffic move and cut

into each other like the vast mile-wide streams of water

streaking toward the poles, weaving into the web

of cloud, wind and weather systems that billow into space

like gossamer skirts, like a dancer's pantaloons.

And again the rivers of the earth, like a blue tattoo,

come into view through the cloud veil

which daily swings in and out

over Mother Sea, over Mother Hand-Me-Over,


Here's the common culture the anthros are looking for

when I try to order in my home-grown white girl Spanglish,

hoping that when they call my numero ocho y something

('cuz I'm bad at numbers in any language),

I'll pick up my own order and not some other

mother-tonguer's Polski Wyrob-strewn

seven-story high Dagwood sandwich-to-go

with a Handy-Wipe and Pepto Bismol pink triangle

in the bottom of the bag (50% post consumer waste,

soy ink, no fingerprints or bloody glove).

And off I'll go, swirling into the traffic, lunch in lap,

knowing I have three days to finish

all matters related to communication

since my ruling planet and that of my home town

is taking off backwards for three weeks

(the old Mercury-in-retrograde motion ),

a little planetary hiccup

home town and I are both fabulously famous for.

-Eloise Klein Healy, Passing (Red Hen Press, 2002)


If Praxiteles had been an animator, this form

is the one he would have set in motion-

a spinning diver hurtling down

toward the surface of a pool,

its smooth skin raised to ripples

by an automatic wind machine.

He'd sculpt Louganis like a beautiful machine

poised against the cloudless sky, then charge his form

with action-the rippling

muscles of the torso tensing with explosive motion

as the diver vaults, kicks out and plunges into the pool

where cameras follow him down,

a sheath of bubbles wrapping him, down

where applause is a watery blur, the machine

of celebrity waiting above him, the press pool

of reporters eager to surround, touch his form-

a boy-god, perfect in stasis or motion,

an athlete who could ignite any crowd, send ripples

of excitement through an arena, ripples

of awe around the globe, even after he stepped down

from competition. I saw him once, pure motion

in a dog show ring, his Great Dane puppy not yet machined

into perfection. Greg was the one all form,

perfectly balanced on his toes, emerging from a pool

of dog handlers as the star. Outside a swimming pool,

nobody recognized him at first, but ripples

of applause picked up, formed

a little cup of sound, then settled down

again as he was one of us, no machine

of glory, just a guy and his dog in motion.

That was before rumors of HIV set chaos in motion

and sports shows ran films of his infected blood coloring the pool

Predictably, the story fed into the tabloid machine,

and the customary scornful ripple

of reaction to anybody gay threatened to drive his name down

from Olympus, but no bigotry could change the form

of his achievement, no machine of hate or ripple

of fear for his life could alter the timeless motion into a pool

of a beautiful boy falling down from heaven into perfect form.

-Eloise Klein Healy, Passing (Red Hen Press 2002)

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