In this new feature, we ask three writers from one location to discuss the meaning of place and how their neighborhood, city, or state plays a role in their work. In this edition, we asked poets Kevin Ridgeway, Lola Nation, and Jeffrey Alfier about
(Photos by Billy Burgos.) Los Angeles, California.
1) What does the city of Los Angeles mean to you, and how does this unique, sprawling locale affect your work?
Kevin Ridgeway: I grew up in and around Los Angeles and spent much of my youth wanting to escape it. I did, and when I returned to the scene of my childhood kicking and screaming, I began to notice what a huge role the greater Los Angeles area plays in my work. Los Angeles is indeed sprawling compared to many other cities--there’s a story and a poem in every nook and cranny of the place. I’d spent my whole life trying to escape Los Angeles but realized that it encompasses so much of what I have to say as a writer and is a true reflection of my identity as a human being.
Jeffrey Alfier: One must keep in mind that Los Angeles is a sprawling ‘humanscape’ of many dimensions, one that exists beyond preconceptions of a sunlit, carefree world, Disney, and all that the Hollywood sign signifies. With that in mind, let me say that no writer’s views can encompass a place as wide and diverse as Los Angeles. Moreover, my views are from a non-native; I’ve only lived in the LA a couple of years. Still, the LA area has indeed influenced my poetry, and has literarily much to offer the poet. For me, I am interested in the LA area homeless, the thrift shop windows here, littoral zones, the poor and the downtrodden, bars, what Habitat for Humanity is building, what goes on behind shuttered windows or oddly-colored curtains, shop owners, the liquor stores and their clerks, the strip clubs, the garment district, the machinists on Terminal Island or San Pedro. I write of LA from tactile images set within local details, the resultant poems being what Walt McDonald called “little fictions”: we weave stories from what crosses our sensory perceptions. Of course, so much of it all is part of the imaginative process, and in that way, I’m certainly not sharing anything new.
Lola Nation: I’ve lived in the West LA and Venice area most of my life, but I love exploring her every aspect of LA. She is all sunshine, sandy feet, concrete and palm trees. She is overcrowded, filling the valley with smog from the 405 drive home from work. No place that can equate her beauty, regardless of where I roam. Her back alleys and dive bars are the perfect escape route from reality, dimly lit with smoky mirrors, with conversations full of empty beer and ashtray truth. Her diversity spans the entire city, shifting every few decades to allow a noveau rich Beverly Hills or renovated slum into a hip artist community. She is transient and filled with the most eccentric know-it-all no ones and self important script writers, vague actors waiting tables until they make their break, homeless shopping carts tucked in corners of the freeway on ramps, illegal aliens with oranges and roses on every street divider and shiny cars, over under-dressed beauty, plastic surgery and starving beauty. I left Los Angeles for five years and missed her every day.
2) Does location in general play an important role in your poetry?
Kevin Ridgeway: It plays an important role. I wrote a lot of poems that had a lot to do with nature and local character when I was living in Vermont, for instance. Now that I’ve retruend to LA, I tend to write more about growing up in this area. I generate the largest volume of poetry based on my everyday life and where I happen to be living at a given time.
Jeffrey Alfier: Location definitely plays a part – it is integral, an element that makes for the best poetry out there. Think of Philip Levine’s Detroit, or Richard Hugo’s Montana. Fundamentally, I am a landscape/regionalist poet; as I mentioned, I like tactile images and local detail: build me a poem with what you can buy at Home Depot. I live in the South Bay area of LA, so I’m along the waterfront towns, and thus I haven’t written many LA poems outside of that littoral region. Image is particularly important for me; as Nick Flynn once wrote, “Images are containers for meaning.” In the end, I cannot say I write lots of poems centered in the LA area, but when I do write them, I cite something readers can identify with: a physical place, even if the details are fully imagined.
Lola Nation: Los Angeles has played a vital role in my writing. Her heartbeat is portrayed in the characters I write about in my poetry. The lost souls. The gangsters, the drug dealers, the users, losers, drinkers and escape routes everyone I know has taken. I write about her streets (Barrington, Sawtelle, Washington Place), her bars (Lost & Found, Billiard Inn), her curves (Mullholland Drive, Sunset), the neighborhoods (Venice) and relate to the songs from Soul Coughing’s rendition of her in “Script Writers Blues” to the Grateful Dead’s “West LA Fade Away.”
3) What are the best and worst things about being a poet in Los Angeles? Where do you go to find inspiration and/or to write?
Kevin Ridgeway: The best thing about Los Angeles for this budding poet is the community of writers that have embraced and encouraged me. There’s great poetry to be heard and read by local artists and it’s all so damned inspiring. I can honestly say that there isn’t anything bad about being an L.A./Southern California poet, in my opinion. As far as my writing routine goes--I write everywhere. I have a nice little office at home where I do a tremendous amount of work, but I carry notebooks and scraps of paper with me when I’m on the go because there is always something to write about when you’re traveling the streets of Los Angeles, even if it is on foot, melting in the sun.
Jeff Alfier: I can’t say there are any bad things about being an LA poet, only because my imagination ranges far beyond this region; nothing stifles the fully imaginative writer. I feel sorry for those who think the universe is a black hole outside of the
San Fernando Valley. Poets here can be quite insular as far as subject matter and writing style goes. As I’d mentioned, I’m not originally from this area, and so I don’t feel shackled to this place, physically or literarily. This has always been so with me; most of my Southwest regionalist poems were triggered by walks through the Rheinland-Pfalz region of (I lived there 13 of the last 22 years). So in a sense, the poem takes the poet home, where he or she needs to travel. That poem could be in LA, or it could be written from LA, but set in any other place on earth that resonates with imagistic elements the poet extracted in LA. Nonetheless, I do search the local area for poems, though it’s rather an ambient process; I don’t look around and sat “What’s poetic about anything I see here?” Germany
Lola Nation: The best part about being a poet in
is that you are unique. Most writers are after script success and true poets are still a rare breed. The worst part about being a poet in Los Angeles is one in the same. You’re not an actor or graphic designer. Your work, like anywhere else, barely gets noticed for free. And, much like anywhere else, poetry invites eccentric, emotionally driven but passionately untalented writers, only, the worst part is, there are more of them and they do come out at night, mostly. Yet I am inspired by Los Angeles’ people. I am inspired by her beachfronts, hidden treasures, noir Hollywood crime, classic movie styles and fashionable bling. Somewhere between all her nothing, she is everything I know to be home. Los Angeles
Hobo Camp Review would like to thank these writers for their time, and we encourage you to seek out their works!!!