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Suzanne Lummis. Photo by Alexis Rhone Fancher

South of the Grapevine: Three Poets, Thirty-Three Lines

Lois P. Jones, Jim Natal, and Jeremy Ra

by Suzanne Lummis

I'VE DONE A LITTLE sleuthing. Yes, I've done some detective work, though not through the streets—neither mean nor welcoming streets—not in a trench coat, not with a Smith and Wesson .38 special in my pocket…just in case. Not that kind of sleuthing. My inquiries have determined that up over the grapevine, on the other side of the Tehachapi Mountain range, and across the Great Central Valley, and beyond Livermore, many people don't know what's happening here in Los Angeles, poetry-wise. One Northern California poet had heard only of Wanda Coleman, whom he acknowledged is no longer writing, or among us—except in spirit. Another could only think of Bukowski, and here again.…

That won't do. There are four million stories in this naked city, and four hundred thousand poems. At least. Three poets, as different from each other as they are from Wanda Coleman and Charles Bukowski, have written a few of them. Readers will be introduced to these three poets via the accounts they make of themselves, plus, from each, eleven lines of poetry. Because I like odd numbers. And eleven lines is all we have time for today.

Each poet answered two questions, one common to all, the other specific to that poet, and then two requests.

Question to all: Do you recall anything from your youth, either a general condition or specific event or circumstance, which contributed to your development as a poet, or, in some sense, eventually became useful to you as a poet?

Please recommend two poetry collections—either contemporary or older—and a poem that's been a touchstone for you.

Please select, from a poem, an eleven-line excerpt that you feel expresses your style and is an example of one of your more effective pieces of language.

Here they are. For those who have set ideas of what to expect from an L.A. poet, these profiles might challenge those notions.

"I am interested in the poetry of silence and for me, Rilke sits at the head of that table."
—Lois P. Jones

Lois P. Jones. Photo by Lia Brooks.

Lois P. Jones's first poetry collection, Night Ladder, was published by Glass Lyre Press in 2017 and was a finalist for the Julie Suk Award and the Lascaux Poetry Prize. She is the winner of the 2023 Alpine Fellowship in poetry which this year takes place in Fjällnäs, Sweden, and the previous winner of the Bristol Poetry Prize and the Tiferet Poetry Prize. Jones's work has been published in the Academy of American Poets, Poetry Wales, Plume, and Guernica Editions. Since 2007, Lois has hosted Poets Café on KPFK FM, and acts as poetry editor for the Pushcart and Utne prize-winning Kyoto Journal.

Suzanne Lummis:Many readers like Rainier Maria Rilke, but your devotion to his life and work goes deep—you're a scholar of his writings, and perhaps a traveler on whatever path his life suggested. You made a pilgrimage to his resting place in Raron, Switzerland and, I believe, to areas associated with him. You've evolved a series of poems in the voice of Frida Baumgartner, his silent caretaker and housekeeper at the end of his life, a woman we know little about.

I've always assumed Rilke was your entry into poetry. Is that true? Can you tell us something about Rilke's importance to you, both his poetry and his unusual life?

Lois P. Jones: My most significant introduction to poetry was to surrealist Paul Éluard while living in Geneva, Switzerland, perhaps even Emerson before him and his essay called "The Poet," but the sluices opened permanently with two essential poets: Lorca and Rilke.

Rilke himself was a seeker, and beyond the tremendous imprint he made through his poetry, fiction, and prolific correspondence, not many know he studied the occult, attended seances (with notable persons of the time like Marie Curie), and not only did he seek these experiences, he had the kind of awareness, openness and sensitivity to commune with the spirit world in ways completely natural to him. His early works Das Stunden-Buch (Book of Hours) explored a relationship with a different kind of God—not one bound to the cage of a church. There was a vast freedom, an openness playing against the contradictions of man held down by rules and beliefs. "The Panther" is a perfect example of such a metaphor. His far reaching Duino Elegies go beyond Christian ideologies to something entirely mystical and transformative. So, for me, it was not only his way of perceiving life on this plane and his tremendous powers of observation, but his understanding and appreciation of death as being normal and uncomplicated—something to be embraced. I see these parallels in Hinduism and Buddhism.

Rilke's life, so rich with the undercurrents of his interests in the visual and literary arts had such a profound impact on his writing. Interestingly, at least to me, are the authors, artists, and places he encountered which among other influences brought people of his generation to my attention. Oddly, these many years along the trail, I discover our paths crossing repeatedly, as in the recent case of the artist Hammershøi and my own inexplicable interest without knowing the context or even the historic intervals which often lead back to Rilke. There are so many accords; I don't agree entirely with every facet of his beliefs, but many interlace with my own. Rilke said "No experience has been too unimportant, and the smallest event unfolds like a fate, and fate itself is like a wonderful, wide fabric in which every thread is guided by an infinitely tender hand.…

As for my current project, so much happens in the world of silence and particularly in the silence of others where you can permeate the unseen. Frida, his housekeeper and companion lived inside it for six years. I am interested in the poetry of silence and for me, Rilke sits at the head of that table.

I am by no means a Rilke scholar. I know only of Rilke through my intense interest and love of his writings and a natural, intuitive attunement to his work. I find my way in the cosmology of things.

Youth and early influences:

I started out with a strong interest and early education in the visual arts as a form of expression and I think it still informs my writing. There is no art without a sense of composition and no poetry either. But primarily, if I didn't have the certainty of myself as a spiritual being from early on I doubt I would have made it to poetry, nor would I have been inspired to write it. What drew me and what continues to draw me are the conversations between the physical and non-physical worlds. I'm interested in the lower half of the iceberg. There were various formative moments but, in particular, at nineteen was an extraordinary out-of-body experience. No, this was not through any chemical means. It followed a tremendous conversation in which the two of us were so present I simply stepped out of it for a few hours that afternoon. Much of my creativity draws on that desire to connect beyond the physical plane.

Favorite poetry collections and touchstone poem:

I'm a devoted fan of Joanna Klink's work. I have all her collections and when I'm looking for a kind of contemporary other worldly immersion, I turn to Klink. I have written a couple of "after" poems in her direction as well. I find her voice quite distinct, haunting and earthly with heart-stopping surprises that can take you inside the auroras of what great poetry can be. If I have to choose one collection I return to often it would be Circadian from Penguin books.

There have been a number of touchstones along the way like Plath's "Ariel," Georg Trakl's "Surrender to Night," Johannes Bobrowski's "Shadowlands," Lorca's "Suites," Neruda's "Love Poems," Brian Turner's "Here, Bullet." I know, I'm cheating but there are so many and each becomes a touchstone on the way. I was stunned by Tuft's winner, Torrin Greathouse's Wound from the Mouth of a Wound a couple of years ago, and it's still a book I feel strongly about for its shocking tropes and formidable lyric craft.

In terms of single poems that brought me to my knees and still do—Joseph Fasano's "Mahler in New York" and Georg Trakl's "To the Boy Ellis." Of course, it goes without saying, all of Rilke's works have been constant touchstones through the years!

Eleven-line excerpt from your work:

The wind soul is what

we're doing. Still up, until the bells

were crying all around, no bones

to cradle them. Scaling the colonnade

of tombstones, chalcedonic and thin

as wafers. We saw through them

to the graves below. The lambs

were buried there. Bleating through stone

heavier than a man, carried by hand

across the channel for monks like us.

(from "On the Southern End of Charmouth Road," Night Ladder)

break it like matzo on a candled night.

(from "Kensington Concierge," Night Ladder and Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond)

"Poets are truth-tellers to power. That's why, going back to Plato, they kill the poets first."
—Jim Natal

Jim Natal. Photo by Tania Baban.

Jim Natal was born into the blues of Chicago's south side and moved to Los Angeles in the year of America's bicentennial. He reports he was working in the corporate world when poetry quietly slipped back into bed with him in the mid-1990s and essentially saved his soul. Further, he says, "She's still lovely after five books, including Spare Room: Haibun Variations and 52 Views: The Haibun Variations, both written entirely in an intimate updating of the Japanese haibun form, multiple chapbooks, diverse publications, and almost thirty years of running literary events."

Suzanne Lummis:Jim, poets might be politically engaged to various degrees, or—to mix the metaphor—highway-wise, anywhere from 0 to 60. You're closer to 60 than 0. After the grim election results of 2016, you initiated Writers Resist readings—L.A. version—which I believe was a national series, and involved poets, fiction, and non-fiction writers. You organized and hosted it for…was it three years? Recently, you were a speaker on the livestream program Hope Story Circles for the Peace Alliance. Can you talk about your conscientious engagement and what you think poets might have to bring to these sociopolitical endeavors?

Jim Natal: I went to college in the late 1960s, a very turbulent time politically, socially, generationally—maybe even more so than now. I was at Ohio State when the Kent State students were killed protesting the Vietnam War and was in Chicago's Grant Park during the 1968 Democratic Convention police riots. I know the smell of tear gas and have dealt with antisemitism. These experiences fuel my belief in the poet's ability to effect change, and my conviction that's it's not enough to just bear witness—we must do something. That's why in response to the burgeoning threats to our democracy I, along with David St. John, staged the LA Writers Resist readings all four years of the Trump administration. One of my favorite classes in my MFA program at Antioch LA was called "The Artist in Society." Taught by David Ulin, it dealt with the historical responsibilities that artists and writers have to call-out society's ills and injustices and try to inspire change through their work. Poets are truth-tellers to power. That's why, going back to Plato, they kill the poets first.

Youth and early influences:

My four most formative years as a child were spent living on the shore of Lake Michigan not far from what's now Indiana Dunes National Park. It was a summer getaway destination for people from Chicago, but my family lived there year-round. It was quiet and pretty much deserted from fall through spring. I was a solitary kid and learned to be at one with nature there—the moods of the lake, the dunes and dune grass, the lake-effect snowstorms and frozen shoreline in winter. That place in particular, and sense of place in general, infuses my poetry to this day, whether I'm writing about Joshua Tree or the jetty at Marina del Rey.

Favorite poetry collections and touchstone poem:

For poems, it's a four-way tie between "A Brief for the Defense" by Jack Gilbert, "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg" by Richard Hugo, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T. S. Eliot, and the haiku of Basho and Issa.

For poetry collections, The Shape of the Journey by Jim Harrison and The Art of the Lathe by B.H. Fairchild.

Eleven-line excerpt from your work:

…when police protection takes on

a more subtle meaning, when poems are


when you pour out your wine to fill the bottles

with gasoline, when even your blood is flammable, when your blood

is dammed,

when your friends and their wives hide their wrists, when

the children are candles,

when sleep becomes a memory and memory sleeps, when concrete

and wire are comforting, when all colors are shades of

steel and tin…

(from "What They Do," Talking Back to the Rocks)

"What I find uniquely beautiful about the L.A. poet scene is our mentality as the underdog…"
—Jeremy Ra

Jeremy Ra. Photo by Alexis Rhone Fancher.

Jeremy Ra is a queer, Chinese-Korean-American poet living in Los Angeles. He is a Pushcart and Best-of-the-Net nominee, the recipient of the 2022 Morton Marcus Poetry Prize, and a finalist for the Steve Kowit Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared in I-70 Review, Cultural Daily, San Diego Poetry Annual, and Catamaran Literary Reader, among others. His first chapbook, Another Way of Loving Death, was published by Moon Tide Press this year.

Suzanne Lummis:Jeremy, though your poetry engages several tones of voice, wry or serious (sometimes both), in the public life of the Los Angeles poetry scene(s) you seem quite the bon vivant. Some poets stay home a la Emily Dickinson, some can be drawn out for special events, and you, meanwhile, are supporting poets and readings all over town. And if not the life of the party, you're certainly one of them. You came to the Michael Caine tribute at Susan Hayden's Library Girl Series draped in a blue floaty thing, saying tonight you wanted to live out your "Monk fantasy." Can you tell us if exposure to a variety of poetry and communities of poets in Los Angeles has informed any aspect of your writing? Has it in any sense changed or added to your perspective? What's your impression of the Los Angeles poetry monde? (Or, I should say mundo, since more Spanish than French is spoken here.)

Jeremy Ra: Sartre has a beautiful passage about what happens to an autonomous agent when it gains self-consciousness—the consciousness is, paradoxically, called upon by the interaction and recognition of the autonomy of other agents. Every human being is essentially a fallen god that has to reckon with their lack of omnipotence and the equal divinity of others. Because of this dialectic, I believe that intelligence is collective and true consciousness develops by being challenged—we are inevitably, inescapably, fatally influenced by the world around us even if one is a recluse.

I am also a humanist (which is basically an atheist who likes people). That's my overcomplicated way stating that even though the act of creation is solitary, people and their conception of the world are what fuel my poetry. I could never be a good poet without knowing what other poets have written and performed. By being around other poets of the region, we are carving out a collective reality, which contains multitudes. What I find uniquely beautiful about the L.A. poet scene is our mentality as the underdog and the post-O'Hara, poet-first-even-if-hidden audacity in many of our works.

Youth and Early Influences:

After being born and living in Hawaii, my parents and I moved (or in their case, moved back) to South Korea. Part of the move was spurred by my maternal grandmother becoming gravely ill. My mother had eloped to Hawaii with my dad, so I met my grandmother for the first time when I was four or five at the hospital. Besides the random snapshots of Coconut Palm trees and gravelly beaches, this is one of my earliest memories. I can see her still—how frail she looked in the bed yet possessing a fixed gaze that I will spend the rest of my life deciphering. I didn't understand death then—and won't for a very long time until that first death—but I think I was slowly grasping the power in things that are seen, said, and—most importantly—unsaid. My mother's family was part of the Chinese diaspora living in South Korea, so even the funeral ceremony for my grandmother felt so quaint, not quite of the milieu we occupied. My mother, dressed in white, telling me to throw paper sculpted like gold into the burning pyre—it would take literature, but mostly a whole lot of poetry, to help me understand why that funeral was just ours, couldn't but be ours.

Favorite poetry collections and touchstone poem:

Then, Suddenly by Lynn Emanuel, The Beauty of the Husband by Anne Carson, and I really cherish the L.A. compilation you put together, Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond. It's still a reference for valuable knowledge about the important poets in the L.A. region.

Among Plath's diamond-cut poems, "Ariel" by Sylvia Plath stood out to me. The poem captures the chaotic moment of transformation with deceptively terse language, and by strapping safely onto the poem's tempestuous yet grounding words, I was able to venture into Plath's terrain of psychological turbulence. It didn't matter whether I understood the poem completely, but the sheer beauty of the language pulled me in and stayed with me. I would come to find out that Ariel was Plath's horse and the poem came out of her experience riding one morning when Ariel bolted at full gallop with Plath hanging on for dear life, not yet willing to die.

Eleven-line excerpt from your work:

with a heart ravenous for grief. She hurled down more—

wishing stones that never skipped across water,

each one shrilling a metallic clang and then gone.

Since life first forced its breath into my virgin

lungs, my mother fights against her own end, spins

thirteen monster-stepmothers betrothed to her ghost-

riddled husband. They keep burying the kids in the dirt,

and, even resting her eyes, they're all mother sees.

And I, love, I am the improbability, the municipal

hunger, the continental evil, the famed firstborn—

how my living warms and pains her.

(from "Firstborn")

Suzanne Lummis's poetry collections include Open Twenty-Four Hours: Poems (Lynx House Press) and In Danger, The California Poetry Series (Heyday). She edited the acclaimed anthology, Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond. Her poetry can be found in the anthologies California Poetry from the Gold Rush to the Present, New California Writers 2012, Poems of the American West, Poems of Murder and Mayhem, Human and Inhuman Monstrous Verse, and many other publications.

— posted MAY 2024

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