There is the Eloise Klein Healy that many of her students and fans know, and I include myself among them. We agree she is someone who exudes integrity, who is a master poet, at once generous, thoughtful and a priestess of badassery.
When I first met Eloise, I was a twenty-seven-year-old who mud wrestled, marched, and checked out books to library patrons in my adopted town of Olympia, Washington, and she was the Chair of the M.F.A. in Creative Writing program at Antioch University Los Angeles, a program she founded when there were few low-residency M.F.A. programs. I was a student in the program, and over time, I’d learn that Eloise directed the Women’s Studies Program at California State University Northridge and was also involved in the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles, teaching in the Feminist Studio Workshop.
Mostly what I knew of Eloise I learned by observation: whether it was attending an M.F.A. seminar where she spoke on writing residencies, a poetry workshop she did in a private home in Palm Springs, or noticing that, like me, she is left-handed. I read her books, marked passages where resonance resided, like this, from her poem “More” in Passing: I’m the one chewing/ the dried red chiles,/ a season’s worth of fire./ I release it into me./ I want to read poems/ that crack bones./ I’m hungry for a bite/ of ash and bone splinter. Those lines and many others drew me into her mentorship.
But even before I was aware of so much of her history as a poet in Los Angeles, Eloise was the person who called me when I broke up with a long-term boyfriend and planned to move back to L.A. “You’ll be walking down the grocery aisle, and you’ll meet her,” she said as a way to make me look up from my grief and consider I still had a future in love. At the time I identified as bisexual in my community of friends and activists, but she didn’t necessarily know that about me. The simple decision she made about which pronoun to use regarding my future in love made my respect and fondness for her grow.
When I made the decision to leave my husband because I fell in love with a woman, I went crying to Eloise. It was a situation I knew she had some familiarity with, having also left a marriage to come out as lesbian in her thirties. Sitting in her backyard with fistfuls of paper towels I used as tissues, I recognized that I was entering territory she had once negotiated. The legacy of her truth, and the decisions that came from that truth, helped create the person sitting in from of me, the person I respected and admired. It was my turn to walk through that particular fire, to see how it would shape who I would become.
Eloise is the author of seven books of poetry and three spoken word recordings. Her most recent collection of new and selected poems, A Wild Surmise, utilizes QR codes. This technology, most commonly used in advertising, feels subversive in a book of poetry, with its intent of bringing poetry “live” to the reader with a smart phone. Eloise’s use of this technology is not unusual—as long as I’ve known her, she’s been way ahead of me in her interest in the latest tech tools. Connecting new technologies with the poetry world feels like a task for the most keen and engaged cultural workers among us. The first Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, Eloise brings her decades of writerly wisdom, community engagement, and visionary outlook to a post that reaches far beyond the parameters of L.A.
The Rumpus: I often think of how you never decline participating in readings. Of course there had to have been exceptions—but I’ve always admired this about you and wonder what your philosophy is behind this practice.
Healy: After I finished college, I was trying to figure out being a poet, and it was a completely different landscape than it is today. By doing readings, you found an audience and tested your work. I wanted to test my work everywhere, so I promised myself I would accept all invitations. I have only had to cancel two times in, what, forty-one years.
The Rumpus: Were there any memorable readings?
Healy: During an event at La Golondrina Restaurant in Olvera Street, a mariachi band marched right between me and the audience. And once I did a reading in a converted garage in Orange County. Everyone was dressed up in “going to church” clothing. Basically, I have tried to bring poetry to people. I come from farming families and my mother had a café. That’s where I got my training in how you do your work.
The Rumpus: From very early on in our relationship—when I was an M.F.A. student—you struck me as who I wanted to be when I grew up. I know I’m not alone in that feeling. When you were in your twenties, thirties, forties, were there individuals you admired and wanted to emulate?
Healy: I certainly had people I wanted to be like, yes. My political science professor at Immaculate Heart College was not a poetry mentor to me, but I admired the way she taught, the way she could ask questions that could NOT be answered in a rote way, the inherent demands she made that we think “excellently.” Her name was Mary Jean Pew and she died this year. I regret she didn’t get to know I had been chosen poet laureate. She would have been happy about it, but she would also have wanted to know what I was involved in politically.
I would have to say I admired the Immaculate Heart Community for their courage as religious women in facing down a very truculent Catholic hierarchy in Los Angeles and Rome. That was a lesson in holding the line even when you don’t have as much power as your opposition.
I really had only one poetry mentor and that was May Swenson. I needed a lot of help because I didn’t know anything about the poetry business, and being from Los Angeles, there wasn’t much about the “big time” going on here. We had few magazines or presses to work with. I also had the work to do of coming out in my mid-thirties and I had quite a bit of help from the lesbian community in that. Don’t laugh, but what I mean is people taught you “the life.” I learned much from Judy Grahn and Judy Baca in that regard. I was entering a different culture going through a second adolescence, and gaining a new poetic tradition.
Many of us lived through that tumultuous time in the 70’s and 80’s and my community of sister writers and artists at The Woman’s Building was a mentoring force.
The Rumpus: Tell me about what you were doing in your thirties and forties.
Healy: I was married when I was twenty-eight and divorced at thirty-six. I spent the rest of that time seriously dealing with my sexuality. It was not easy. I came out as a lesbian in public, in a poetry community that had known me as a straight woman. Some people wondered what took me so long; others were not happy about it. I was also teaching and went back to graduate school for an MFA. In that time, I published three more books. There was just so much to learn inside and out.
The Rumpus: What are you reading right now or read recently that you’re excited about?
Healy: Well, I just finished reading poetry submissions and am going straight into nonfiction submissions, so I am a little tired. But, I just started Cloud Atlas and I am interested in how that goes. Defintely, I love When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz. I’m not happy that I didn’t get that book for Arktoi! I think I need to reread Dora: A Headcase by Lidia Yuknavitch again. The latest issue of BLOOM magazine knocked me out and introduced me to some authors I’m interested in following. It’s time to read Sappho again and I have a big book by Anne Carson to read, Nox, about the death of her brother. Good thing I have some plane flights coming up.
The Rumpus: As the editor of Arktoi Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press that focuses on lesbian writing, what is your process as an editor and publisher?
Healy: The first fact is that I read a lot of manuscripts. I read all of them myself and often I call on my advisory board for feedback or my intern, if I have one. Right now, I do have an intern—July Westhale—and she gives me incredible feedback. There’s the phase of reading and winnowing down to about ten manuscripts. Then, I read each of them at least three times for fiction and nonfiction and at least five times for poetry, sometimes more. It’s funny, but usually the final manuscripts represent the range of things I am most interested in as an editor. Then the fun (ha! ha!) begins. It is agonizing—and I hate to use that cliché—but it is agonizing to be able to choose just one book.
Then I call the writer and then we enter into the preproduction process with Red Hen. We have a time of editing and talking and editing and talking until we get a manuscript that both the writer and I are willing to put into the world. There’s also the production work of getting a cover, developing mailing lists, deciding where to get readings for the author, etcetera.
My belief is that we have had at least thirty years of “out” writing by LBGTQ or Queer writers. “Coming out” stories have morphed into “being out” lives. The work I am most interested in reflects that “living out” with all it entails.
The Rumpus: What is your writing process?
Healy: Over the years, I’ve had many different approaches to writing. When I was first starting out, I wrote six days a week facing the wall. Sometimes the wall was blank, other times I had a favorite lithograph facing me. Always I started in long hand and think, for the most part, that I really favor writing by hand on unlined paper or graph paper. Something about linesconfines my imagination or forces me into “direct rationality.”
Because I always worked so much—usually more than full-time—I haven’t written as much as I would have liked to. I never felt teaching was problematic; it was more that I had to teach so many classes. I spent most of my life as an adjunct professor.
I now tend to write intensely or not at all. By not at all, I really mean not going to the desk at the same time everyday and having a tight schedule. I am always writing notes, taking voice memos, and going over drafts. Right now I am longing to work on a series that I started last summer and have worked on only sporadically since—poems about being on a jury for a murder trial that lasted six weeks.
I asked Natasha Tretheway if being poet laureate slowed down her writing and she said she hadn’t written in a year. I am struggling with that issue now as I launch into being poet laureate in Los Angeles. But it’s the same old problem, isn’t it? Just doing the work.
The Rumpus: If you were not a writer/scholar/teacher, what would you be?
Healy: I think I might be a musician. Maybe a sculptor.
The Rumpus: Not too long ago you told me you turned down the space set aside for poet laureate at the Los Angeles Central Library downtown because you intend to be “peripatetic.” This brings to mind images of a poet wandering the city with a crowd of colorful poets following. (laughs) What are your plans as Poet Laureate of Los Angeles?
Healy: The folks at the library wanted me to have an office because they thought it would be a good place for me to set up shop as the poet laureate. Then, the mayor’s office wanted me in City Hall. I thought about it for a bit and decided that having an office meant I had to be in it. That’s not how I envision myself bringing poetry to people.
I asked instead that I be able to get a meeting room, in case I need to meet with a group. I am working the street a bit, stopping people, telling them I’m poet laureate, and talking a little about poetry. The grocery store is a great place for this, as is the gas station, my tai chi class, and all the places I go where people don’t know by looking that I am a little poetry machine among them. Being poet laureate gives me permission to be a troubadour or sorts and that makes it more fun for all of us. I am leaning toward the fun side for people. There is wisdom in fun.