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The City and the Writer: In Los Angeles with Dorothy Barresi

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                              —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Los Angeles as you feel/see it?

The LA mood? Always charging electrically between poles of honest outrage and pleasure. It’s a union town, a sweatshop town, a Brewery Artwalk town, a suburb for gangbangers, a Banksy-paints-an-elephant-in-the-room-and-the-Jolie-Pitts-stop-by! town. Lots of hipster flash and fresh figs in season. Reginald Denny. It’s Eden—but the Kogi truck is parked outside the gates (you got the tweet too late). Fireworks over the Ferris wheel. Fire season. Jacaranda season. Raspberry bougainvillea all year round. Drought even when it’s raining. No money for public education . . .

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Robert Kennedy’s death in the Ambassador Hotel.  I was eleven and living in Ohio when it happened. I woke up to those indelible LA images of kitchen, busboy, Kennedy’s open staring eyes. My parents were Kennedy Catholics, very anti-Vietnam. “Now on to Chicago and let’s win there”: absolutely heartbreaking.  Even at eleven years old it felt like the death of hope.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The Santa Susana Pass. Incredibly stirring western landscape, at the very edge of Los Angeles.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Well, “from” is a relative term in LA.  I would say Chandler, Fante, West, Ellroy. And too many poets to name, but certainly Amy Gerstler, David St. John,  Carol Muske-Dukes, Harryette Mullen, etc.

Is there a place here you return to often?

If I can, I go to the Biltmore Hotel at Christmastime for a drink or for high tea. I love old hotels, and the decorations make it cozy and reassuring. And of course the Tar Pits—all those dire wolf skulls! And it isn’t summer if we don’t go to the Hollywood Bowl at least once a year.  I love sitting in my seat and looking up at the darkening hills, maybe a silent plane going over.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

An iconic literary place?  Wherever Faulkner worked on The Big Sleep.

Are their hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

I’m very intrigued by the fashion district downtown: the LA Mart and all of the surrounding mysterious small shops turning out their piece goods: zippers and embroidery and crystal pleats. Those dusty windowless places. I imagine the immigrants who work there and also the owners—how different their lives are from one another, but everyone driving toward one small goal, one piece of a larger garment.

Where does passion live here?

Dodger Stadium.

What is the title of one of your poems about Los Angeles and what inspired it exactly?

Two poems come to mind, both in my new book American Fanatics, just out from the University of Pittsburgh Press. The first is “Arriving Late at the Birthplace of Pentecostalism,” which uses that historical house at 216 N. Bonnie Brae in Echo Park to talk about faith and doubt and the desire, against rationality, to be visited by a divine spark. Not a lot of people realize that the Pentecostal movement started here in LA just over a hundred years ago. The one-eyed preacher William Seymour was the son of freed slaves, and he was both beloved and reviled in Jim Crow Los Angeles for attracting a growing congregation of whites, blacks, and Latinos to his makeshift church on Bonnie Brae. But at the heart of the poem is the act of speaking in tongues, which is as good an analogy for writing (or channeling) poetry as any I can think of. And I have a long poem in the book called “A Selective History of Los Angeles, in Seven Turns,” which is all about the many, many religious sects, cults, and outright crackpot movements that started here in Los Angeles—a topic I’m fascinated by. This is one of the opening stanzas:  “After the gold rush, God rush, / evangelism of the railway. / Cranks, dupes, invalids / riding the same transcontinental / desperation west / to establish a last resort, a sheepfold by the sea.”  The Four-Square evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson makes an appearance in that poem, of course, though I also have a whole poem just about her, since she’s such a central figure in the history of LA. The final lines of that poem (“Where Will You Spend Your Eternity?”)  has Semple, who is buried in Glendale, wondering “What is this stone, / this cemetery angel I cannot wrestle, pinning me here?” Her story of cultural ascendancy, glamour, and disgrace is pure Los Angeles.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Los Angeles does an outside exist?”

Well, I’m from back east, so I do know outside exists; but LA is a hall of mirrors. We manufacture the images that signify, in one way or another, the culture we consume. We live in the city of hyperreality—right? Umberto Eco’s idea of the “authentic fake,” or Jean Baudrillard’s comments about Disneyland pretty much nail it.  “The simulation of something which never really existed.” But try telling that to the Department of Water and Power when your bill comes due!

Dorothy Barresi is the author of four books of poetry: American Fanatics (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010); Rouge Pulp; The Post-Rapture Diner, winner of an American Book Award; and All of the Above, winner of the Barnard College New Women Poets Award.  Her invited essay “Baby Boom Poets and the New Zeitgeist” was recently featured in a special issue of Prairie Schooner. She is the recipient of two Pushcart Prizes, the Emily Clark Balch Prize from the Virginia Quarterly Review, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She is professor of English and Creative Writing at California State University, Northridge.  She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Phil Matero, and sons Andrew and Dante.

NH’s Discovery of the Month: While at Union Station in LA, I wrote: “Things I must . . . The Huntington Library. Abril Books in Little Armenia. Rose Bowl (good old Robert said it’s a must). Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology edited by David L. Ulin. The Levantine Cultural Center. Read more Bertolt Brecht who resided in LA (lots of Germany in my life this year). Theatre—the Mark Taper Forum for experimental works. Downtown, and some Charles Bukowski. The Getty. The skyline."

Published Dec 23, 2010   Copyright 2010 Nathalie Handal

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