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Suzanne Lummis: California Poets Part 1, Two Poems

Suzanne Lummis

August 27th, 2020

California Poets: Part I

Suzanne Lummis

Two Poems

Those Poets Who Write About Loss

don't tell the whole story,

how all night in your sleep—half

sleep—you throw your net out

towards that place it was last seen,

Loss-Thing. It drags

the parched ground, comes home

with nada, which you must add

to your larder, Nil Queen: nothing on

nothing, a haunting.

If only you could capture two fish, two

silvery slippers to try on for size,

then walk away across water,

start clean. All night you cast,

and its fall, threadbare, makes

a song on the empty air—

the starry net of your wanting.

Why I Am Not the Los Angeles River

“I am the L.A. River!”

- Assorted performance artists in

1980s on-site presentation

I don’t trail for miles under

cement and steel-girder bridges as a spindly

brook, then sweep out to spread an inch

of melted snow and smoky run-off

across a concrete floor the width of several lanes.

I’m not the L.A. River.

No sandpipers high-step across me,

wetting their ankles. No kingfisher raises

its wings over my stilled inlets to study its shadow—

though I did once hold a macaw on my wrist.

And once, late night, in that Vermont Avenue tenement,

something scampered over my face—so

I woke, so I resolved to stop feeding

the mice, to stop setting out Rice Chex and tiny

cream cheese hors’ oeuvres on the kitchen floor.

But egrets don’t trace me, skimming their feet

on my surface. I’m not the L.A. River.

It goes its way, I mine. Sometimes we cross—

me above, on the thoroughfare, fiddling

for a tolerable station, delayed, grumbling,

running behind, and the river below, running

exactly on time. We’re both 24/7. We’re not afraid

of bleached daylight, or neon-slicked dark.

Each from our source, we came here

by hook and by crook, by turns—we rolled

into town. Rain-filled, that river drowns people.

Rain-swept, I’m not harmless either.

This city’s got something on us, and we’ve got

something on it—but River keeps mum,

like now, lets me do the talking.

Still, that’s not me out there, floating skins of plastic

stamped Food-For-Less

beneath the rufflings of low-flying birds.

Let’s stop all this gossip, mad rumors,

shadowed insinuations. I am not the L.A. River.


November 25th, 2021

California Poets Interview Series:

Suzanne Lummis, Poet, Educator, Arts Organizer, and Performer

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: You have quite a fascinating family history. It’s your great fortune to be the granddaughter of Charles Fletcher Lummis, an important activist for indigenous rights, and the founder of the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, located in Los Angeles. He was also the first City Editor for the LA Times. On top of that, your parents were in the Secret Service. In this respect, to what extent was poetry present in your upbringing, and how did your youth ultimately influence the work you’re doing today?

SL: Ah, that’s many questions wrapped into one—maybe even more questions than you realize! I grew up in Northern CA, the High Sierras. No one up there knew about Old Man Lummis (a.k.a. Charles Fletcher Lummis), nor did they in San Francisco where I was born, or in Berkeley where I went to high school. And most definitely no one connected my name with the original Lummis who walked into early Los Angeles—from Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1884-85—in Fresno. It wasn’t till I moved to L.A. that, now and then, I’d run into somebody who’d say, “Are you related to that amazing house up in Northeast LA …” or “… that museum …?”

After many years here, the Lummis name started to set some things in motion, which includes my involvement with the annual Lummis Day: The Festival of Northeast LA (the live event is on hiatus for the second year due to the pandemic), and my ten years working in the Education Department at The Autry Museum of the American West. I think the influence expresses itself in my interest in history. Americans, in the main, know little of their own history, and that includes those people who accuse others of not knowing history—they themselves know very little, just a thread of history. And it’s a short thread.

I’m among those who accuse others of not knowing history but know little myself—only difference: I have a sense of how much I don’t know. History’s huge, layered, and the interpretation of it shifts from era to era, place to place. It’s like outer space, hard to get one’s arms around.

You mentioned my parents, and of course I was far more affected by them than by my grandfather, whom I never met. Keith had retired from the Secret Service, a division of the U.S. Treasury Service (now, as of 9/11, renamed The Department of Homeland Security) by the time I was born. But the government called him back to join the Foreign Service—he spoke fluent Italian, which he leaned while pursuing the Mafia in San Francisco’s North Beach district and elsewhere. That’s why my earliest memories are set in Palermo, Sicily, and why I was bilingual for a while—until I lost all my Italian, somewhere between age 5 and 6.

My father had one of these big, virile, life-loving personalities—he often made a striking impression, on both men and women. Keith was a type of man who belonged to a certain era, and to an earlier American West—don’t see many like him around anymore. My mother, I think, came to terms with taking a backseat to him publicly, but she was equally rare and distinctive. She had an inner life. I think there was something almost mysterious about my mother, Hazel McCausland Lummis—she didn’t show her whole hand. But like my father, she had a strong character—by which I mean courage and perseverance. By which I mean a sense of what’s right.

I can’t tell you what any of this has to do with my poetry. I don’t know what my poetry would be like if I’d been raised by criminals, or slackers. Or two wimps.

DG: In 2015, Pacific Coast Poetry Series published an anthology you edited called Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond. What is it about LA that makes it both a unique epicenter for poetry, and at the same time a place that shares cultural, aesthetic, and social similarities with other important cities where poetry is written?

SL: I figure this big city includes poets who, collectively, represent all the writing styles currently practiced around the country. So, the question becomes: To what extent are various poets influenced by the landscape and culture, or cultures, which we associate specifically with Los Angeles and Southern California. To what extent are particular poets influenced by the climate—sunshine or drought, or floods, and houses sliding down cliffs. To what extent are they influenced by the car culture and urban expanse traversed by freeways, or the looming and overshadowing entertainment and movie industries which draw so many here and have spawned their own mythology and literature. Or by the wildlife that comes into the city from the hills foraging for food, or by the ocean, the seascapes …. Or are they, for example, interested in the myth of Los Angeles, as opposed to the true day-to-day life. And if so, for them, what is LA really?

One doesn’t have to be engaged with all that—some poets are, some aren’t. That’s how it is, how it’s always been. Poets like Whitman set out to capture the spirit of America, whereas Emily Dickinson could’ve written most of those poems anywhere. I don’t think one type of poet’s more interesting or correct than the other. I only care that the language fastens my attention to the page.

DG: For a long time, you’ve been associated with the LA poetry scene; still, having studied with Philip Levine, you naturally have a place in the Fresno school. Can you talk about some of the fondest memories you have of studying with Levine, the impact his tutelage had on your work, and to what extent the Fresno aesthetic is both unique and similar with respect to what’s being written in LA?

SL: That first class with Levine—I was an undergraduate—I kind of fell in love with him, in Crush. He was audacious, outrageous and funny, and unfailingly honest. He’d say anything. We students would pick up copies of everyone’s poems that were scheduled to be discussed in the next class. I’d look at these and think What lousy poems! They’re all dreck! Except for mine, of course. Then, I’d go to class and find out mine were lousy too.

Gary Soto was in that class. Years later he said, with some humor: “Levine would come in and just trash everything.” I didn’t see it quite that way myself—I mean, no one knew what the hell they were doing. People’s early poems did not work.

I got better. But I wrote my first passably OK student poem out of terror. I was terrified of writing another crap poem. And, by chance, it happened to be about my grandfather, the first and only poem I’ve ever written about him. I haven’t presented that work at any reading for decades. Why would I read the first immature-but-not-awful piece I ever wrote? At the time, though, it got me to the next level.

As far as the Fresno sensibility, that anthology, edited by Christopher Buckley, David Oliveira, and M. L. Williams, is titled How Much Earth for a reason. Seems to me that an attention to not only to the physical, tangible thing, but even, in some sense, the ground under our feet, recurs in various ways through many Fresno-influenced poems. There’s an engagement with the natural world, but in a way that doesn’t always fit the definition of “nature” poetry. Maybe it’s an interest in the rudimentary. At the moment, I’m thinking of Larry Levis’s well-known poem, “The Oldest Living Thing in Los Angeles.”

However, the element that recurs through my first collection is water. So, there you go. I just can’t get with the program.

DG: Your newest creative undertaking is the Michael Caine Project, three reading events, which has, at least with the second installment, attempted to bridge the great poetic divide of our wonderful land. David Lehman and Michael Lally represented New York, while Kim Dower, Shahé Mankerian, and you read as Angelenos—all very noble, and to some extent even necessary. The only curiosity in all of this—why Michael Caine and not Michael Douglas, or even Michael Keaton? Didn’t he play an amazing Batman in ’89 and ’92?

SL: Oh my God, there’s no comparison between the span and significance of Caine’s career and the filmography of those two actors. And now I’m going to add that I adore Keaton in Spotlight and Douglas in Wonder Boys, two of my favorite movies ever. I’m going to add that because I don’t want Douglas and Keaton to get offended and see to it that I never work in this town again—which would not be hard, since I’ve never worked in this town.

Michael Caine was the first Cockney or, more-accurately, English working-class actor to achieve A-list stardom, and he came up from nothing. And I do mean Nothing. I mean no-hot-running-water-one-bathroom-down-the-hall-shared-by-several style poverty. I mean his mother was a char woman and his father a fish monger—who expected his son to follow in the trade. Not only did Caine become a star, a romantic lead—at one time an unobtainable dream for anyone with his accent and lineage—but also the only other actor besides Jack Nicholson to be nominated for an Academy Award for acting in every decade from the 1960s to 2000s. (He won twice). He’s made 120 movies. He’s now 88.

Beat that record.

After the reviews came in for The Ipcress File, Caine realized that after struggling—sometimes in debt, sometimes going hungry—for ten years to break into the movies, he’d finally made it. But he couldn’t get his mother to stop working. Although he could provide for her now, she was still going out to clean houses. At last, he came up with a way to persuade her. He told her that if she, the mother of a successful international film star, was seen scrubbing down rich people’s kitchens and bathrooms, everyone would think he was a terrible son and it’d hurt his career. Only then did she agree to retire.

When asked why he continued throughout his life to make movie after movie he said, “I’m from the working class. I can’t be idle. The only thing I know how to do is work.”

Unless someone’s close to 88 years old, it’s a sure thing Michael Caine has spanned their lifetime or most of it. For The Michael Caine Project, Expressions First, Second and Third, I invited a few poets and writers to evolve pieces that pertained, in some kind of way, to his life, his quotes, his movies, anything that got them going. I figured if out of his unusual life story, out of all those genres and styles of movies, action-suspense, comedy, love stories, historical, character studies, all those themes and images, and personal memories we all associate with the movies, if a poet couldn’t find anything in there, well … Gosh. I don’t know what it’d take. A trip to the moon?

For example, in the Second Expression, which you mention, the Zoom event, Kim Dower read her poem inspired by a bit of dialog in Get Carter, her favorite line in the movie. Carter says sleepily to the woman he’s waking up next to, “You must be joking. I never eat breakfast.” It struck Kim as such an odd thing for a vigilante, cut-throat gangster killer to say. Turns out she never eats breakfast either. Come to think of it …. neither do I! (What can this mean?)

The Third Expression took place live at Susan Hayden’s celebrated Library Girl series in Santa Monica. Susan brought in some additional writers and musicians for that one—and we had great fun collaborating, promoting the event, and behaving ridiculously about Michael Caine, as if we were teenagers again.

In the First Expression, a video in the They Write by Night series, which draws contemporary poetry together with film noir and crime movies, I mention the first Michael Caine movie I ever saw, but then focus on one that opened shortly later. That episode, “First Blood—Spy Noir: The Ipcress File,” can be found here at Poetry.LA, on YouTube, and also via Cultural Daily where I always write a little hardboiled lead-in.

DG: It seems we’ve transitioned into movies. The creative sensibilities which seem to capture your greatest interest are those of film noir—to the extent that an article you wrote in the Malpais Review called “The Poem Noir—Too Dark to Be Depressed” was practically the thing which, if it didn’t invent that genre, it certainly was the catalyst for defining the work previously written with that aesthetic—giving it a name, an identity, if you will. At the same time, all poetry, in a sense—at least when black ink meets white paper—has elements of noir; everything else is no longer visual. What elements of film noir appeal most to you, and how difficult is it to translate those sensibilities into your poetry? In addition, what are things the visual genre can do that the written genre can’t, and vice versa, and how do you navigate that territory as a noir poet?

SL: I first became interested in the noir style and crime writing through books, Raymond Chandler—that wit, that imagery, the scrumptious and startling details, the humor, that charismatic lone wolf private eye, Philip Marlowe, the most attractive character in all crime fiction. From those books, I found my way to film noir. And then there’s this: My life. It features noir elements—picked them up here and there along the line. I’ve got noir cred.

I can understand the confusion regarding this, but I don’t actually call myself a noir poet, because I only write what I consider a noir poem now and then—rest of the time I write other types of poems. I probably have less than two dozen poems I’d call pure noir. So, I’m a poet who’s interested in the noir style and sensibility and have written on the subject.

I wouldn’t say all poetry has elements of noir—unless you take “noir” simply to mean the appearance of the color black or dark themes, in which case the term becomes meaningless. Noir as a style didn’t exist before the 20th century, and specifically the rise of the modern 20th century city, along with the crime of that time period. Before that you had, say, Jane Eyre—mad woman in the attic and all that. It’s not noir; it’s Gothic by definition—Gothic because of the setting, the strangely empty manor, deeply buried secrets, and shadowy, supernatural mood. Before that, Poe—Gothic horror. King Lear? Hamlet? Treachery, Bloodshed, Madness—they’ve got that, but it’s not noir. They’re Elizabethan, those plays, or simply Shakespearian. (The great ones become a category unto themselves. A Hitchcock movie isn’t usually referred to as film noir. It’s a Hitchcock Movie.)

I wrote a downright bossy essay for the now-retired Malpais Review, where I served as the California Correspondent, because people kept throwing the term around and making it mean … whatever. I wasn’t the first one out of the pen. David Lehman had published an article years before, but while he folded in examples of poets who at that time were inspired by film noir, and discussed their approaches, it seemed to me he stopped short of defining the poem noir/noir poem. (His full-length book on the subject is forthcoming from Cornell U. Press, The Mysterious Romance of Murder.) So, I wrote this bossy essay asserting that a thing must have some of these features or it’s not a poem noir. It’s this and not that …. Then, I sat back and waited for the world to attack me for my views. No one did, which threw me a bit off-balance—like when you’re bracing yourself to get smacked by falling debris, but nothing happens.

From the other side of the world, the writer, educator and critic Wiktoria Klera picked up news of my article and wrote to me. In her piece “Noir Poetry,” a survey of Polish noir, she quotes from my essay, “The Poem Noir: Too Dark to be Depressed.”

DG: Let’s go back in time, 1984, to be precise, when your first collection, Idiosyncrasies, was published. A poem there called “Earthquake” caught my attention, and I would like to quote it in full:


Whole neighborhoods will begin traveling like lemmings, mine first. Meanwhile, I go through this city achieving, at some cost, these poems. I’ve done what they say I’ve done or else I invented it, which was almost as taxing. So at night when the house settles I half fly out of bed, then lie awake reasoning with the earth: I’m too old to die! If it was gonna happen at all it should have been years ago, before all this started.

Surely, this work is about more than just an earthquake. The cost of achieving poems in a city like LA is indeed high. For years, you’ve worked to promote poetry by organizing festivals, readings, and events, paying, perhaps, too great a price for it. A 1996 LA Times article says the following: “Poetry has extracted a price from Lummis in other ways. Money is a constant inconstant; for many years she lived in a ramshackle East Hollywood building that harbored gang activity and was routinely littered with hypodermic needles.” Looking back on all of it, what are things you would’ve perhaps wished to do differently, and what are things you absolutely don’t regret?

SL: That particular poem you mention is a very early one, from my 20s, when I was living for a time in the family’s San Francisco house—(now no longer our house since my mother, then father died). It was on a hill overlooking the ocean. I had a horror of earthquakes, more specifically of being buried alive—the fate of many in serious earthquakes. It’s not a pleasant thought even now, but at least I’m living in structure likely to remain standing. Of course, one never knows where one’s going to be .…

Funny thing: About 15 years after writing that poem, I’d just flown in from Los Angeles to visit my family, just gotten home, just walked upstairs to my old room—in time for the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. I’d had enough earthquake experience to feel the first warning signs through the soles of my feet, rising from deep underground. It’s a singular form of terror. I’ve never flown down a flight of stars so fast.

I couldn’t do it now—couldn’t move that fast to save my life.

I don’t think the poem’s much good though—it’s stupid. I hadn’t evolved my style. Well, I have several styles, but back then I hadn’t yet evolved any. As of that writing, I wasn’t yet living in the Vermont Avenue building, East Hollywood. The line “achieving, at some cost, these poems” makes me wince. What cost? Nothing had cost me—yet. I mean, it was going to. But at the time I wrote that it was an empty grandstanding gesture.

Regardless, I’m lucky that the late Robert Mezey included that little poem, and another little one from that same period, in that great Pocket Poets Knopf anthology, Poems of the America West, together with—by contrast (and what a contrast)—the blistering “Poem Noir.” I wrote that in the Vermont Avenue building and, whoa … nothing ridiculous about that one. I’d honed my talent and sharpened my skills. It’s a tough poem, though, not a fun one. I rarely include it in my set at readings.

When I finally moved out of that place, Charles Webb said: “I’m glad you’re moving. I was always afraid you’d be murdered there.” The thought had crossed my mind. In fact, though, I faced more threats in other parts of the city than I ever did in the building where I lived. Those people knew me. I was “The Writer,” or “Miss Lady,” or “La Roja Loca,” or the “tough little white girl.”

DG: Let’s stay in 1984 and look at another poem from your first collection, mainly “Things that Catch Fire,” which I will also quote in full:


Your comb stands on end, sparking and crackling. The goldfish are little lights too far gone to save. You wonder what variation of the Midas touch you’ve got that turns things not to gold but to flame. You can make a little window in your dreams to peer out, but cannot prevent your shoes from flattening into footprints of charcoal. Next morning, your possessions have been restored, the goldfish behaving as if nothing happened. Even your favorite old coat won’t let on where it went last night. It hangs unrisen, blank as winter light, its sleeve brushed with traces—sly, immaterial ash.

Similar to the poem “Earthquake,” this one uses fire as a symbol to talk about things that simply won’t come to fruition, develop, or even do what we expect—in a strange way, here, we wouldn’t want that to happen. Looking back at your first collection, what are sensibilities that have remained constant over the years, and what are things that have changed in terms of your poetic approach? In other words, regardless of subject matter, do you write basically with the same method as you did in 1984, or have changes in aesthetic also produced variations in your writing habits?

SL: That first collection got one review in a small, local publication, Electrum Magazine, which vanished long ago, but it was a lovely review, to this day among the most insightful reviews I’ve received. The late Roger Suva—back then, a poet in Los Angeles—called the work “bright and vibrant,” and laced with “humor, wit and sardonic bite.” But he also wrote: “Fantasy, imaginative and extraordinarily credible, is what fuels many of these poems,” and I found that especially interesting. He might have substituted “dream” for “fantasy” and that would also have resonated with me. The poem you’ve chosen, “Things That Catch Fire,” speaks exactly to that quality Roger Suva caught on to.

To your question what traces through my poetry from then to now, it seems to me that even though most of my later poems spring from cityscapes or actual environments, or in other ways seem rooted in the real world, sometimes an element of fantasy and dream runs alongside them. Sometimes, fantasy and dream bear them up. Sometimes, behind the worldliness there courses an otherworldliness. This is certainly true of my two poems that appear in Interlitq’s Californian Poets, Part I.

Few remember that tiny oddball publication, Electrum, and, perhaps, beyond his family and friends, few remember Roger Suva. And few know of a poetry collection called Idiosyncrasies, published by Illuminati, a one-man press run by Peter Schneidre—whom few remember. Be that as it may, I find Roger Suva’s comments noting certain characteristics in my poetry to be perceptive, useful, and surprising.

DG: The YouTube series you host, They Write by Night, fuses film noir and poetry in a very visual, and yet poetic way. In the fourteenth episode, “Homme Fatale,” you’re in LA’s famous Frolic Room, a former speakeasy, but as you say, “it’s not so noir these days. When it’s crowded, there are very non-noir people, nice people, regular people, good neighbors, good citizens, good students. It’s empty right now—very uncharacteristically—so it’s very noir, and you know why? Because I’m here.” It’s so refreshing to hear you say that because we get the sense that noir isn’t a specific place—it’s an atmosphere, a mood, a feeling, a way of life, even. It was probably the Biltmore Hotel, and not the Frolic Room, as you say, where the Black Dahlia was last seen, but does it really matter, especially if the atmosphere is right? In terms of aura, then, what’s your favorite LA noir place, and, in this respect, how has the city’s character changed over the years?

SL: Oh, I’ve never heard or read anyone quote verbatim my TWBN dialogue before, what fun. I’d forgotten about those lines because I don’t remember everything I’ve said after the filming. I work aspects of the narration out in my head but some moments (for better or worse) I improvise—unless it’s one of the episodes that’s in voiceover. For voiceovers I do write a script with descriptions re. imagery to accompany my voice, which Wayne Lindberg then finds or creates.

Noir places in Los Angeles—oh, oh, oh … so many have disappeared, most of them. It troubles the hell out of me. Each time a place vanishes, one I associate with memories or periods of my life, a piece of my past goes. That big sidewalk newsstand with a large interior space with all kinds of stuff in it, including, way in the back, a few literary journals, World Book and News on Cahuenga just below Hollywood Blvd., must of been there for—who knows how many decades? Now it’s been cut back to a small storefront. I never thought that would happen. At night, that location was very noir, so reminiscent of some earlier LA. Some other time. Some other life.

And, I was thinking about this the other day—there used to be a big strange space that I knew was doomed. I knew because it was so different from everything else on that stretch of the Boulevard, and it used up so much real estate for what it offered—couldn’t possibly make enough money. Chicken Delight. Unlike other fast-food places, it inhabited a sprawling, kind of cafeteria-sized space. In fact, it was a cafeteria—serving Chicken Delight and many sides. No doubt one time it burst with activity, but by the 80s, usually, most of the tables were empty. To me, it had a post-war feeling, though the joint probably opened in the late ‘50s, maybe ‘60. You could get a lot of food cheap and stay as long as you wanted. It felt like the past—and it was the past. That was its problem.

I loved that place—very noir. Of course, I wouldn’t have wanted a murder to occur, but for a movie it’d be a good spot to set a crime. Or, the beginning of a crime. A man and woman down on their luck, meet at Chicken Delight, among all those interesting sides, plus chicken, outside—dark, inside—dim, yellow light, people shuffling along the sidewalk past the windows, but the place is almost empty. Except for them ….

And the woman’s just late off the bus, which reminds me—the old Greyhound Bus Station, Downtown LA. Talk about Noir. Talk about desolation. Cheeto wrappers and chewed gum, a couple melancholy vending machines …. By the 80s it was run down. But to sit there and think of the stories of those thousands, or hundreds of thousands, who rode into LA with their ambitions, maybe some talent …. And what became of those people? The station’s long gone of course—I think it’s now a big market of stalls with cheap stuff. People catch the Greyhound at Union Station.

I don’t know if there are any truly noir places left in the city—seems they’ve all been gutted or revamped, remodeled, in a way that erases the past. Thing is, if a place has a truly noir vibe, no one wants to go there. Except me. Apparently.

DG: In the first episode of They Write by Night, you feature the poetry of Weldon Kees, specifically his piece called “Crime Club,” which you consider “the first poem noir because it has all the qualities a poem noir has to have—its control, its cool, decisive wit, its tone of concealed despair—not melodrama, there cannot be melodrama. If there’s melodrama, it’s not noir. It’s complete absence of sentimentality. If it’s sentimental, it’s not noir. It might be dark, and sentimental—it might be dark and melodramatic, but it’s not noir.” I would like to quote the poem in full:


No butler, no second maid, no blood upon the stair. No eccentric aunt, no gardener, no family friend Smiling among the bric-a-brac and murder. Only a suburban house with the front door open And a dog barking at a squirrel, and the cars Passing. The corpse quite dead. The wife in Florida.

Consider the clues: the potato masher in a vase, The torn photograph of a Wesleyan basketball team, Scattered with check stubs in the hall; The unsent fan letter to Shirley Temple, The Hoover button on the lapel of the deceased, The note: “To be killed this way is quite all right with me.”

Small wonder that the case remains unsolved, Or that the sleuth, Le Roux, is now incurably insane, And sits alone in a white room in a white gown, Screaming that all the world is mad, that clues Lead nowhere, or to walls so high their tops cannot be seen; Screaming all day of war, screaming that nothing can be solved.

Indeed, this is a poem which embodies all those traits you mention—cool, decisive, and controlled. Can you talk about how it felt to first discover the genius of Kees, and was it he, specifically, who first got you interested in the genre, or was it a combination of factors?

SL: First and foremost, Donald Justice gathered together and found a publisher for his poetry when it might otherwise have slipped into obscurity. And for years after the publication of the Weldon Kees’s Collected Poems in early ‘60s, it still seemed he might slip away. Then, others stepped up to champion him. Dana Gioia threw his weight behind him, and later Christopher Buckley, along with Christopher Howell, published an anthology called Aspects of Robinson: Homage to Weldon Kees. Various people started saying: “Hey, here’s an utterly distinctive voice from mid-century American poetry, and readers should know who he is”—and they were poets who had clout, which (I notice) makes all the difference. I must have first seen his work in the groundbreaking Naked Poetry, edited by Robert Mezey, a good friend of Donald Justice.

In June 2005, Anthony Lane published an article about Weldon Kees’s life, poetry, and mysterious disappearance in ‘55—the pair of red socks left in his sink, his Plymouth Savoy with keys in the ignition, abandoned near the Golden Gate Bridge—that article ran in The New Yorker, so …. He’s good. We don’t have to worry about Kees’s poetry being lost to posterity anymore. Outside of the fact that in time nearly everyone’s forgotten.

As soon as I started to think about the poem noir, I knew Kees’s “Crime Club” was the first perfect modern example. Of course, there are always forerunners.

DG: Classic films often get remade in Hollywood, with varying degrees of success, but with some exceptions, the results are often poor. What’s your favorite noir film and would you like to see a remake of it, if one hasn’t been done, and what do you think of remakes with respect to the genre in general? In other words, film noir was as much about its production (unassuming, low-key, absence of major stars, and so on) as it was about theme—and so, would you say it’s possible to make noir films with sophisticated Hollywood budgets and production techniques, even if you manage to capture the essence of the original plot?

SL: Oh, indeed there’ve been effective contemporary films noir, with good budgets, stars, and color. Three stunning examples would be Chinatown (1974), Body Heat (1981), and L.A. Confidential (1997). Roman Polanski, Lawrence Kasdan, Curtis Hanson. Neo-noir, right? These are stunning movies, immortal classics, better by far than the average film noir of the classic era, from ‘44 toward the end of the ‘50s. Their stories, the way they unfold, the meaning and implication behind the stories, it’s all more sophisticated and interesting. The acting’s better, the suspense more skillfully invoked. Everything’s better. I mean, better than the run-of-the-mill film noir from the original era, which, by contemporary standards, was often thinly plotted.

What classic film noir would I like to see remade? Oh, absolutely a 1948 picture that’s one of the few, maybe the only, early noir narrated by a woman character. Raw Deal involves a potentially fascinating situation with complex, highly charged connections between an escaped convict, the woman he took hostage—his own defense attorney—and his lover who helped him bust out. “Pat,” played by Claire Trevor—always good as the smart, tough woman—is stuck on him, enough to risk everything and act as driver for his jail break. His idealistic attorney, “Ann,” (Marsha Hunt), is fighting a mysterious attraction to him, and incurs Pat’s jealousy. Pat knows her escapee felon is, in turn, attracted to this good looking, educated, and accomplished professional woman who’d strived to get him out of jail legally. And then there’s the escaped convict, who controls one woman by force, holding her captive, and the other through his emotional power over her. The escaped convict, “Joe,” is played by Dennis O’Keefe, who’s so uninteresting we can’t figure out why either of these interesting women would be drawn to this ill-humored, charmless jackass. His colorless, bland-but-abrasive tough-guy act is one of the biggest crimes in the history of film noir.

Anthony Mann was a fine director, and, even with what we’ve got now, it would be a challenge for contemporary production designers and cinematographers to top the great John Alton’s glorious, high-contrast shadow and light—back then, no computers or green screens to be had. But, in our times, with so many skilled writers—and subtle thinkers—a sharper, more suspenseful and emotionally moving script could be developed. And for “Joe,” get someone with old-fashioned sex appeal.

DG: How has the pandemic changed your writing habits, if at all, and are you reading or working on anything interesting at the moment?

SL: At the beginning of the lockdown, I thought, OK, now I’ll write three novels. However, I didn’t write three novels, or any. So, I’d say my aspirations have not changed, nor my writing habits.

I am producing more essays—so, that’s a different direction. One’s in this new anthology from What Books, What Falls Away is Always: Writers Over 60 on Writing and Death. A Marilyn Monroe themed poem from In Danger will appear in the anthology I Wanna Be Loved by You: Poems on Marilyn Monroe (Milk & Cake Press), coming out in 2022. Just out, an anthology of essays and interviews Naming the Lost: The Fresno Poets, edited by Christopher Buckley (Texas A&M University Press). It includes two interviews with me, one by Georgia Jones Davis, one by Olga García Echeverría.

And then there’s this: I have a nearly finished—4/5th finished—poetry manuscript, Crime Wave, which, in the current climate, might never see the light of day, only dark of night. Maybe not even dark of night. I’m anti-crime and anti-criminal, so today, 11/24/21, has delivered good news: the killers of Ahmaud Arbery convicted on multiple counts, with lifetime sentences assured. It’s such good news that even though it pertains to crime, I can’t regard it as noir.

Author Bio:

Suzanne Lummis was a 2018/19 COLA (City of Los Angeles) fellow, an endowment to influential writers, musicians and artists of the city enabling them to create new bodies of work. Individual poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Spillway, The Antioch Review, The American Journal of Poetry, Plume (on-line and in-print), and The New Yorker. She teaches through the UCLA Extension Writers Program, and a series of private workshops, Deep Poetry Knowledge.


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