Discovering Los Angeles: A Review of Ed. Suzanne Lummis’ Wide Awake

 Wide Awake, Edited by Suzanne Lummis, Pacific Coast Poetry Series, 2015, 326 pp., ISBN-13: 978-1892184030

The past few years have seen a spate of articles about young creative types from elsewhere “discovering” Los Angeles, the place I’ve lived, off and on (mostly on), since 2000. Whether it is New Yorkers actually visiting as adults and realizing the entire city is not the area surrounding Disneyland (which is in Anaheim), or San Franciscans priced out of the Bay Area having finally to look at what’s in front of them instead of down their collective nose (I grew up in the Bay, so I can say this), L.A. is apparently the hot place to move right now. Aside from the “cheap rent” (it isn’t—L.A. is a more expensive place to live than the Bay Area when you account for the fact that wages here are lower), the big draw seems to be the vibrant art scene outsiders apparently had no idea existed here. To which I say: what planet have you been living on?

One could make the case that Los Angeles is the most creative city in America, if not the world. Much of the film and television people consume is dreamed up and produced here, and the region boasts several world-class museums. On any given night, you have your pick of great theater, standup comedy, movie screenings hosted by the directors, and gallery openings. Novelists have been coming here (willingly or otherwise—see Faulkner’s conflicted relationship with Hollywood) since the city started to grow up in the early 1900s. So the tone of these pieces about “finding” Los Angeles is more than a little strange. As Liz Ohanesian writes in LA Weekly, “it’s like L.A. is the dork who returned from summer vacation as the cool kid.” But that’s not quite right: L.A. is more like the cool kid all the artsy kids hated and told themselves was vapid, only to discover that not only could she draw, she actually spent a lot more time doing it than trying to look the part.

The alleged (and real) vacuity of Hollywood is part of why “serious artists” in other cities have felt comfortable slagging off Los Angeles for years. But all of this has gotten a lot harder since TV became prestige viewing. You’d be hard pressed to find someone willing to die on the hill that Transparent isn’t real art, or that the people writing for HBO shows (some of whom also publish fiction) aren’t real artists. If L.A. turns its garbage into TV shows, as Woody Allen quipped in Annie Hall, it’s a recycling plan we should nationalize.

But there’s one art form many people don’t associate with Los Angeles: poetry. We’ve got song lyrics, poetic ones even, coming out of our ears. But traditional black-text-on-white-page verse isn’t something L.A. is known for. That’s a New York thing. A New England thing. A San Francisco thing. A Rust Belt liberal arts college thing. Maybe even a Southern thing. Los Angeles is a city of stories and postcards, not the awkward form that occupies the space in between. But this impression is as false as the larger one that kept the newly arrived “creatives” away until now, and Wide Awake, a recent anthology of work by Los Angeles poets is emphatic evidence of this fact.

Edited by poet Suzanne Lummis (a descendent of one of Los Angeles’ great early boosters, Charles Lummis), Wide Awake features work from dozens of writers. Some of them you might know: Dana Gioia, Wanda Coleman, Gail Wronsky, Wendy C. Ortiz, Douglas Kearney. Others you probably won’t, and I didn’t until encountering them in this volume. Like any anthology, there are poems that spoke to me and those that didn’t. But there were more of the former than the latter, and Wide Awake is a good addition to any library, if only because of the diversity of the styles and subjects represented.

If there is one unifying theme to pull from Wide Awake, it’s confirmation of something we already knew: L.A. is a place haunted by its own short history, which is the history of each person who came out here and often forgot why they did. While there are abstract lyrics and experimental visual forms, the collection is primarily made up of poems that want to connect with a reader by putting him in the middle of signifying moments, whether personal or apocryphal. Not all of the poems are about Los Angeles. Indeed, we wander as far away as the Ganges with Wronsky only to end up in a villanelle about the East India Grill on La Brea just north of Beverly Blvd. with Cecelia Woloch. In between, as you might expect, there’s a lot of driving—on the 405, the 99, the 126.

Along these roads and others, we see the sights and the stars, including one who has become a symbol of and on the city itself (via her repeated graffiti visage): Marilyn Monroe, whom Charles Harper Webb imagines buying a washing machine and keeping it secret from her famous lovers because they told her “Stars don’t wash their own clothes.” Staring at it still in its box, she imagines a man (maybe me, maybe you)

… thinking of her some distant day
when she is nothing but an image made from movies,
photos, gossip, exposés—an image thinking of him
thinking of her in her black wig and flowered muumuu,
rinsing, spinning till the dirt is all rinsed away.

There’s a reason Marilyn Monroe has been a muse for many Los Angeles poets (I’ve been working on a poem about her myself for five years now). For better and for worse, she didn’t have to discover Los Angeles. She was born here and she died here. And like the city and its poetry, she is perpetually young, troubled, beautiful, and underrated. Indeed, she is herself constantly being discovered in each new blonde bombshell that we’re told will be the next big thing, and is, for a time, before fading from view after never quite measuring up.

Wide Awake is a statement that Los Angeles and its poets are here and will remain so whether or not all the kids priced out of Williamsburg and the Mission stick around. We will keep writing about what’s underneath the dirt while thinking about the world thinking about us without them knowing they’re even doing it.

—Daniel Pecchenino