Suzanne Lummis

About The COLA

The City of Los Angeles designates a fellowship for artists and writers. The COLA, an endowment of $10,000, is awarded to exceptional mid-career artists with connection to Los Angeles to create a new body of work.  The Los Angeles Press Questionnaire is a simple prompt sent to the awardees to inspire responses around their work and process.  The Los Angeles Press hopes to interview all of the COLA artists in this grants cycle (2018 / 2019), to report on artwork being made, and how each artist is processing. These artistic renderings/posters accompanying the Questionnaire are intended as amuse bouches heralding further interviews and updates.  


Text of The Los Angeles Press Questionnaire for Suzanne Lummis

Why do you think you make things?
Well, that’s an interesting way of describing what I do — I get the sense the majority of those who respond to this questionnaire might be visual artists.  Does a poet “make things?” I suppose so, in a sense — if we believe the ancients. The word “Poet,” which Merriam Webster informs me has been kicking around for six hundred years, springs from the Greek poiētēs, and from poiein  To Make. And elsewhere, in middle Scots language, mid-15th century to 1700 or so, the poet was the Maker.  And if you’ve ever heard “Maker” pronounced in middle Scots — which I have — it’ll raise hell with your conventional notion of what it means to be a poet. Nothing delicate about it. It sounds like a word pulled out of the earth and forged in primordial fire.  
Is a poem a “thing?”  It takes shape in the imagination and it’s not the paper it’s printed on, nor the voice that recites it.  It’s intangible, made out of words. However, I’m a believer in Pound’s dictum “Go in fear of abstractions,” and W.C. Williams’ “No ideas but in things.” I’m for that, a language that has a sense of physicality, environment, specificity, a visual element, an almost tactile quality. They call it the “thinginess” of contemporary poetry. So a poem is not a thing, but it’s thingy. Or at least if it’s one of mine it’s liable to be.

Meanwhile, back to your question. I write poetry, make things, because I feel in myself the presence of talent. I first felt it as a child and began writing then lost it altogether as a teen, and began to feel the ghost of it again when I discovered T.S. Eliot, age 17. Then, in the first part of my 20s, I recovered it–the presence of that. However, it took years to develop. Years.  And I worked with some of the best poet-teachers of the second half of the 20th century.  But that’s why I write. Some people would refer to this as a calling, but I don’t. That’s sounds presumptuous. I call it talent. Some people would find that presumptuous also, but, well, too bad — what can ya do?

What impact, if any, do you hope your work makes on your audience?  

No doubt people like it to different degrees and understand it to different degrees. I have a reputation for being an engaging reader and some of my poetry has humor or a lively quality, so I tend to get warm responses from audiences — most of the time. I guess my favorite response is when a listener, sometimes a young person, comes up to me afterwards and they’re excited.  They heard something or experienced something through the reading that surprised or moved them, and you can feel it.

What subjects most draw your interest? 
Well this doesn’t describe my previous work but in my proposal to the City I indicated that in the current desperate political climate–and really the word “climate”s an understatement–I’ve become interested in re-approaching, rethinking altogether, the sociopolitical poem and finding interesting ways to address what’s going on in poetry. That is, I want to express my displeasure at what’s going on in Washington, what’s happened to the country, but through a poetry that avoids the conventional traps: ranting diatribes, sermonizing, lecturing to the already convinced, and–most terrible of all–stating the obvious and being predictable.  I’ve written several to date. What distinguishes them from the other sort of political poetry? Mischief and humor–rather darkish humor of course. 

But then, quite suddenly, I wrote a strikingly personal poem–where’d that come from?  It’s a strong poem, though– one of my best in quite a while. Then came a couple poems inspired by movies–I love the movies.  So, I’ve had to expand my project: Now my sheath of poems for the COLA fellowship engages the Political, the Personal, and The Movies. It makes sense in a way, three points of a triangle: the individual life and archive of memories; the outer world and conditions affecting and surrounding the individual; and movies, which offer a reflection of the personal and societal.


Does solitude impact your work? 

I’m solitary by nature but I need to be solitary in a big city–a big, Big city.  Four million people’ll do it.  I could Not be in a small town. Even San Francisco felt too small for me, and I adore San Francisco. I like to be surrounded by places-to-go, lots of lights, and multiple options. And people. I just don’t want them all over my house.  

Does art matter?  

To who?  Who are we talking about? It doesn’t matter in the least to millions. It matters to me, and it has for as long as I can remember.  I would not want to live my life as someone to whom art, any kind of art, didn’t matter.  I love the movie About Schmidt with Jack Nicholson, because in my interpretation it’s a story about that — this dim, perplexed, hapless, simple man who’d led a life of little purpose. He had a basic salary making job in a banal environment and now, newly retired, he doesn’t have even that.  He’s limited in his perceptions and out of touch with his emotions, not able to respond emotionally to the death of his wife, and not able to read social cues of others. So he stumbles numbly along making social errors. (As you might be able to guess the movie was adapted from a novel, so it has the texture of a literary novel.) But at the very end, he opens an envelope and takes out a child’s artwork — big sun in the middle of the sky and a crude sketch of a man with his arms outstretched, the way children draw them. But it’s art.  He starts sobbing. The credits roll.   

I saw it with a poet friend. We walked out of the theater — I said, Now That was a story about a man who has no poetry in his life.