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Lynne Thompson: California Poets Part 2, Three Poems

Lynne Thompson

February 23rd, 2021

California Poets: Part II

Lynne Thompson

Three Poems

Mood For The Country There is joy in the woods just now 1 although I don’t know how I know it being born of temper & wavelengths, untutored about the origins of woods: the maple, the ash, the hickory. Still, I hear joy in the woods just now and in the music that is born there: in the Appalachian banjo or in a cello made of temper & wavelengths rocking Esperanza Spalding’s Land of the Free, tips of her fingers caressing the strings. There is joy in the woods just now and every show of hands knows it, knows the time to listen is short even as we all will, one day, succumb to temper & wavelengths but we know this too: there’s a cure to be had in mood’s music, under an American chestnut. There is joy in the woods just now where we are so much more than temper, wavelengths. 1 Opening line of Claude McKay’s poem “Joy in the Woods”

History, necessarily brief Chicken. Egg. Egg. Chicken. Cluck, crack, yellow, mellow. Then a mer-fish (someone named them Eve plus Adam) grew three legs and coupled but they soon grew sick of omelets with cheese & enough will never be enough. So came dachshunds and turtles, the hut in the suburbs by which I mean to say overcrowded cities of tent to which the nomads objected, citing the gods, citing oil-slicked waters, and sometimes—often— citing no reason at all. But isn’t the reason for what happened, after, the weapons: the rock, the spear, a boomerang, Chinese gunpowder? Okay, I’ve skipped some great stuff that was the new big thing along the way: sea-cry of a conch-shaped trumpet; the screw press Gutenberg invented to record everyone’s sins; the potter’s wheel, ship’s wheel, fly wheel, all depending on torque just as many men do. Anyway, all this was going on while wars, famines, tsunamis, wars, were. Then, of course, a family went to see Old Yeller, flew to the moon, felled the birch & the sycamore. But ruin can be fine in the end: we each shine our own apple.

Sting I loved. Or something proximate. You loved but in another-ness. Music was neither classical nor windswept. Breakfast was eggs, cucumber, and we hungered for the rest of the day. Look for the oasis, I said. Where’s the salve for rug burn, you asked, you asked, you asked while I counted limp petals: he loves me so why has he plated the knives? I loved, as if on a mountain you could only find in a thesaurus. Never fully there, and you never felt the sting; you just left the bee to die after its first, fatal pleasure.


December 8th, 2021

California Poets Interview Series:

Lynne Thompson, Los Angeles Poet Laureate

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: It was a great pleasure to hear the news of your selection as LA’s new poet laureate. Given the power of your work and your steadfast connection to the city, it’s hard to think of anyone who deserves this honor more. Along with a discussion of what makes LA such a fascinating literary epicenter, what are some of the initiatives and projects you have begun developing to build on this legacy in your own way?

LT: The first project I launched was a podcast hosted on the L.A. Public Library’s website ( as well as Apple Podcasts and Spotify. The podcast is named Poems on Air. Every week, I read the work of a particular poet—some L.A.-based, some not—and give a little background on the poet. It’s been very well-received and that makes it worth all the effort.

I am also in the process of collecting poems written by students in the hopes of publishing them—possibly in e-book form or at a minimum, on the Library’s website.

Finally, as I write this, I’m starting to explore the possibility of reading to and writing about members of L.A.’s senior population in the belief that if we fail to take down these stories, they’ll be irretrievably lost to our culture’s detriment. And of course, I continue to give readings and conduct workshops as often as I can.

DG: Your newest collection, Fretwork, published in 2019, was praised by many individuals, including Major Jackson, who called it a “masterful collection” which will “resonate widely into the 21st century.” This particular work is both highly personal, dealing with adoption, emigration, and the Caribbean identity of your foster parents, but also very near to the heart of all those who’ve lived through similar experiences. While immigrants today, driving from Chicago to Los Angeles, do not have to worry about their journey like your father did in 1930, life, in other respects, nevertheless remains difficult. Do you write with the belief that poetry can be an instrument for change, or is the act of creation a type of remedy for pain?

LT: I think poetry can do both: i.e., bring about a basis for changes that argue for new directions in our culture such as a need to address the effects of climate change, and, in addition, it can supply a recognition of the challenges and pain we all encounter as individuals which must be addressed, such as the subtle—and not-so-subtle racism, homophobia, and discrimination that exists in this country.

DG: Do you find it more difficult to start a poem or to finish it?

LT: On balance, the finishing of a poem presents the greater challenge for me. I start out thinking I have a great idea—and it’s only a “maybe” I do!—and start scribbling away. Then that positivity gives way to a concern that the poem is too didactic, too unfocused, ends with too much of a “skillet” which leaves the reader thinking she’s been hit over the head instead of leaving her with that “ah” feeling, that feeling of sudden and personal recognition. I’m always looking for a way for the reader/listener to feel him-or-herself into what’s being conveyed, to feel there’s more to learn or understanding left to them to discover.

DG: You received a degree in law from Scripps College in 1972 and went on to have a successful career in this field. Many people, subsequently, discouraged your activities as a poet because writing verse is supposedly not what serious adults should do. It’s fortunate that you never shared this view. Indeed, it seems to me that the best laws resemble the most effectively crafted poetry, in that they both attempt to seek the ultimate truth. In this respect, how did your work as a lawyer go on to inform your poetic development, and do you think poetry can be a similarly powerful vehicle for justice as the law?

LT: First, I want to say that I received a BA from Scripps College and a JD from Southwestern Law School. In my case, I can’t say my work as a lawyer informed my poetic development because a lawyer is trying to convince a particular audience of a particular claim whereas a poet seeks to speak her truth as she sees it then leave it to the listener/reader to determine whether or not that truth resonates. I do believe, however, that a poem can be a powerful vehicle for social justice and change. I’m thinking, among others, of Marilyn Nelson’s collection A Wreath for Emmett Till, or the poems in Carolyn Forché’s anthology Against Forgetting, or the political poems of Pablo Neruda, Nazim Hikmet, Kofi Awoonor, and Wisława Szymborska.

DG: Wallace Stevens once said, “Money is a kind of poetry,” while Robert Graves said, “There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either.” If we substituted “money” with “law,” would you side with Stevens or Graves? In other words, do you believe in poetic justice or is all justice poetic?

LT: Can’t we have both poetic justice and a justice that’s poetic?

DG: If you were tasked (let’s say by a mysterious stranger) to write the quintessential poem about LA, would it be more difficult to compose a short piece or long one, and why?

LT: If it’s going to be “quintessential,” it would be harder for me to compose a short piece for so many reasons, including the physical size and geographical layout of the City. And a subcategory that grows from that physicality is the labyrinthine ribbons of highways that challenge all but the most knowledgeable of drivers, but are a necessary evil. It might take several poems to write about the Hollywood, Santa Monica, Santa Ana, San Diego Freeways (as well as the “smaller” freeways I haven’t mentioned!) I’ve only tried one: “Red Jasper.”

Another important feature of the City is its substantial diversity. At one time, I read that there were more than 140 languages spoken in L.A. and we see those languages and cultures reflected in the restaurants, shopping venues, and cultural offerings available across the City. For these reasons and so many others, L.A. deserves nothing less than a crown sonnet to capture its matchlessness!

DG: Where in LA would someone find the most overwhelmingly beautiful place? The one that would require ten pages of poetry.

LT: If you were to ask 10 different people, you’d get 10 different answers but two of the places that I find quintessentially (there’s that word again) L.A., and which I love, are the Griffith Park Observatory and the Getty Center. On clear days, you can take in almost all of the City from different vantage points as well as the Pacific Ocean. Plus, the physical grounds at both are stunning. Oh, and I have to include the Watts Towers created by Simon Rodia, a truly unique feature of the City. At least 10 pages of poetry is needed for each!

DG: On the other hand, where’s the quietest, most understated location? The one so abundant with the beauty of silence that wasting superfluous words on it would be a sin.

LT: The Exposition Park Rose Garden. Centrally located, adjacent to the Natural History Museum, and easily accessible by public transportation, is a space that’s almost cathedral-like in the silence it commands and the beauty in the variety of roses there is beyond stunning. Period.

DG: Would the world be a safer, more comforting place with poets who tell white lies, or lawyers who communicate inconvenient truths?

LT: Now you’ve put me on a spot between my two loves! Both of these options present problems but given the times we’re living in, I’m concerned that what were once thought to be “harmless” white lies have spun out of control and into full on disinformation campaigns which are dangerous to the well-being of so many, particularly marginalized communities. Give me an inconvenient truth any day (although I suspect those will come from the poets!)

DG: How have your writing habits changed, if at all, since the pandemic?

LT: Poets often complain that there isn’t enough time to tend to their work. Given how isolated we’ve all had to be, especially during the early days of the pandemic, you would have thought we would have gained time for that compelling witch, poetry. In my case, however, I was, like others, so stunned and overwhelmed by what was happening or not happening with Covid—coupled with the horrifying political scene playing out before our eyes—I didn’t write any more than I did pre-pandemic. An opportunity lost certainly.

DG: What’s the most recent thing you’ve read, and did you find it interesting?

LT: There are books you buy that get buried underneath other books you buy and, as a result, you don’t get to for sometime. One of those books for me was Emily Jungmin Yoon’s A Cruelty Special To Our Species. The poems concern sexual violence against women, most particularly Korean women who worked in Japanese-occupied territories during WWII and who were demeaningly called “comfort women.” My education is sadly lacking on this topic so the poems were an eye-opening exposure to come across the topic in Yoon’s beautifully written lines.

Author Bio:

Lynne Thompson is the author of Start with a Small Guitar (What Books Press, 2013) and Beg No Pardon (Perugia Press, 2007). She received an Artist Fellowship from the City of Los Angeles in 2015. Her newest collection, Fretwork, was published in 2019. She was appointed Poet Laureate for the City of Los Angeles in February 2021.


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