Suzanne Lummis. Photo by Alexis Rhone Fancher.
Truth Against Lies: Suzanne Lummis Speaks Poetry to Power at Beyond Baroque
by Linda J. Albertano
Truth Against Lies, a performance of Suzanne Lummis's COLA [City of Los Angeles] fellowship work, January 3, 2020, Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center, 681 Venice Blvd., Venice, www.beyondbaroque.org.
IT WAS JANUARY 3, the beginning of the election year and one that would decide the fate of the country for four years, or for far longer than that. It was One Poet, One Poem, aka, "Truth Against Lies, Poet Against the Apocalypse"—modest bill, large claim.
An interesting and particularly varied group had assembled at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center, once the old Venice Town Hall, but, by now, one of the West's oldest arts centers founded by and for poets. Those gathered included many of the area's longtime, influential, activist poets, including Bill Mohr, anthologist, principal archivist, and historian of the local literary scene, Mariano Zaro, interviewer for Poetry.LA—Wayne Lindberg's and Hilda Weiss's website and YouTube project that carries hundreds of videos of poets—Alexis Rhone Fancher, whose dramatic portraits of poets, regional and national, are about to be published in book form.
Others less often seen at Beyond Baroque had showed up. Tomàs Benitez was there, former Development Director of Plaza de la Raza, and for more than thirty years one of the most visible advocates for Latinx culture in Los Angeles; up from Long Beach, Professor Stephen Cooper, biographer of the great Los Angeles author of the 1930s and Bunker Hill denizen, John Fante; and David Kipen, former Book Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, now founder and proprietor of the innovative bookstore and lending library, Libros Schmibros in Boyle Heights.
We'd come to hear a poet read a poem.
We had heard that in Suzanne Lummis's proposal to the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department she'd promised to "re-approach, re-think, the 'political poem' for our times," to evolve one that "would not be self-righteous, hectoring, flat, predictable.…"
"A long list of things it would not be, Suzanne would say later. I didn't tell them what it would be, because I didn't know yet."
She was chosen for the 2018/19 COLA (City of Los Angeles) fellowship, an endowment to noted artists, performers, musicians, and writers, making her one of the few poets to receive the $10,000 endowment to create a new body of work.
There was the poem, whatever that would turn out to be, and then there was the added incentive, spread far and wide, food—cakes and pastries, appetizers, and a few main dishes, no shortage of hummus.
Linda Albertano and Mariano Zaro smiling over the crowd, Bill Mohr center, far right Jim Natal, co-organizer of Writers Resist talking to Gloria Vando, co-founder of The Writers Place in Kansas City. Photo by Cece Peri.
When Beyond Baroque's new director, Quentin Ring, managed to separate us from the food, and from each other's conversations, to get everyone inside, he read the notes that Suzanne wanted the audience to hear, but did not want to present herself. (She wanted to "dive right in.") Quentin read, "The poem is composed of eleven sections, seventy-one stanzas, most of them 280 characters. The opening section is beholden to Philip Levine's, "They Feed They Lion." And, because the speaker is communicating from a supernatural realm, he speaks in multiple voices. In this supernatural realm, you get to do that—'Tweets from Hell.'"
Suzanne took the stage. It began.
Out of the malevolent schemer Roy Cohn, his head, I fell like fly
bitten fruit, out of bankruptcies, and the morally bankrupt, out of
three-thousand-five-hundred lawsuits against me, out of lies, out
of seven-thousand-six-hundred lies, and growing, and winding,
and bubbling in…
the soft brains of my Followers, out of Queens, but first
slouching, yes, slouching toward Queens, swallowing the
evidence of my future crimes…
As the piece unfolds, we understand that the speaker is not able to speak his name, and the devastation that this condition has wrought on this speaker, this tweeter, on his self-perception. As a resident of Hades, he is no longer allowed to plant the flag of his identity in our imaginations. In life, he's been driven to speak his name, see it in the newspapers and on skyscrapers, hear it on television, a constant assurance of his power and his existence. Here, he can't proclaim his identity, or, as he says, If I do, my mouth, my tongue, my tweeting fingers, will make fun of it. Still, he tries: Nobody in the history of this country has known as much about infrastructure as—Bobbled—Dump.
His new reality is harsh. His life had been built upon an altar of predation, acquisitiveness and ostentatious waste. In death, he's been thrust into an underworld in which he must clumsily perform simple domestic tasks for the first time. Wash. Cook. Clean. A perfect punishment. But, like a neglected child, he's entirely untutored in self-care. Adding to his indignity are his most galling torments. He must study to become a poet. And (horrors!), he must tweet only truth, mostly poetry—two introspective experiences he'd entirely escaped in life.
He's finally forced to confront the strip-mined abyss inside. It burns, but not like a lake of fire. Suzanne will say, "I didn't want any fundamentalist Christian or Dante-esque sadism in my poem. The speaker complains, Each tweeted truth hurts my brain like the tip of a match just blown but still holding heat.
He complains, Hell is something much worse than hot. Hell is witty.
Through eleven sections, and varying voices, the poem weaves disparate parts of a fractured soul into a sum of deceit, despair and material gluttony greater than the whole of his person. In our conversation afterwards, Suzanne would expand on this element.
"I've traced my revulsion against vulgar wealth, that is, the ostentatious display of wealth and squandering of money, to my parents, my mother especially. I had older parents who'd lived through the Depression. They worked through those years, had jobs, but they saw others psychically scarred, demoralized, or destroyed utterly. Both, my mother especially, knew that everything you owned or thought you owned could be swept out from under you. Nothing was certain. They were frugal. They saved and they saved. As a kid, I thought we were poorer than we actually were."
"My mother, Hazel McCausland, had converted to Episcopalian when she married Keith. But before that, curiously, she'd converted from Protestant to Catholic. So, she'd embraced that Catholic sensibility. However, I remember her using a quintessential Catholic indictment only one time. I was a kid, and I can't remember the context; I think it involved some shocking extravagance she'd read about in the news. She said, 'It's a terrible thing to waste money. I think it's almost…' She hesitated. '…I think it's almost a sin.'"
"Somehow, this got under my skin. The figure's greed, avarice, and hollow displays of wealth, those aren't his major failings, but they contribute to a sense of oozing evil."
Images of gold are conspicuous, as is her anti-hero's love of it. And the grief that's resurrected when we're reminded of endangered elephants and small red wolves becomes sharp and sudden with the description of a tiny Appalachian minnow that changes color with the seasons. At times golden, it glides along a cool streambed, unaware of its impending sacrifice to a shrine of indifference.
Instead of the canary in the coal mine, it is this seemingly insignificant minnow that signals our own endangered status. The certain extinction of this miniature sunlit thing flattens us as efficiently as a Mack truck. A lifetime of sharpening her craft guides Lummis to select a small, unheralded creature to rock our concept of "endangered" and give it new and poignant urgency:
And, the Laurel Dace that breathed in its few low brooks…
over rounded stones, its fins turning gold in certain seasons? You want
poetry? Upstream, trees cracked, fell and turned to timber, men dropped
deep into earth and came back, knowing no more than they had when
they'd entered. Traces of poison bright as expensive cologne flavored…
the waters. (Hey, I'm getting good!) But it's not—and you know where I'm
going—all bad news. No one cared, anyway, about tiny, inedible fish. I
didn't. I liked real gold. Or fake gold. They were neither.
After the show: Linda Albertano, Suzanne Lummis, and Pegarty Long, writer, director of the low budget movie, An Irish Vampire in Hollywood. Photo by Carla Waleka.
In another passage, TV light spills bloodlessly onto the floor in a scene of ineffable sorrow. I came into my Followers, the broken villages in the round bones of their heads. The recurrence of "round bone" invokes millennial fossils, mummified Vikings, the catacombs of Paris, and other world-class reliquaries. The motif allows us to roam over archeological contours of centuries and wonder just how far we've come.
And yet, "Tweets from Hell" is peppered with lines that drew laughter. A distinguishing feature of Suzanne Lummis's work, both her writing and performance, involves her delicious wit and startling intelligence. Her ability to make us laugh and, at times, lift us into a meta-dimension, have made her one of L.A.'s most gifted and prominent poets.
We had come to find out what a re-thinking or re-imagining of the "political poem" might be. We found out. At the conclusion, some who'd been attending events at Beyond Baroque for years swore it was the longest applause they'd ever heard in that venue.
Linda J. Albertano is a spoken word and performance artist who has performed internationally. She wrote, directed, and performed Joan of Compton, Joan of Arcadia, a full-length, inter-media and spoken word piece, complete with a cast of poets and artists and a thirty-member marching band. She also wrote, directed, and performed Calisaladia, a history of California with a large multi-cultural cast. With Suzanne Lummis and Laurel Ann Bogen, she founded Nearly Fatal Women, a performance poetry group. Also a musician, she has performed world music at L.A.'s Sacred Music Festival and The Getty Museum. In 2005, she was awarded a City of Los Angeles Certificate of Recognition as a Venice Poetry Diva.