Southland Poet's New Book Explores Love, Death and Los Angeles

Los Angeles writer Eloise Klein Healy retired last year from a 14-year teaching career at Antioch University in Marina del Rey. Now she's released a new book called "The Islands Project." KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez sat down with her.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: To this poet, L.A. is a wilderness, wrapped in a major metropolis.

Eloise Klein Healy: You get up in the morning and there's a raccoon in your backyard. We all know about the opossums everywhere, live and dead. My sense of L.A. was never that it was only urban, but that it was also a kind of a wilderness map.

Guzman-Lopez: In her 1991 book "Artemis in Echo Park," Eloise Klein Healy mapped the city she loves, and the city that's witnessed her loves. Nature and love intermingle in her poem "Cactus."

Healy: When I look at the cactus in my hand,
my hand carefully raising the green plastic cup,
I think love is the spines,
the spines that curve and radiate
in parallel lines.
Love is how close you can get and even bleed
and even want to pick it up again.

Guzman-Lopez: Twenty years ago, Central America's savage civil wars transformed L.A. Local activists called on Healy to listen to the stories of arriving Central Americans. Healy wrote "From Los Angeles Looking South" from that experience.

Healy: Orderly traffic, a normal day
and 350,000 Salvadorians are in hiding
in Los Angeles.
Four women sit on the patio of El Rescate,
dirt packed hard from use.
Lydia's the weaver of this story
and two local women translate the Spanish,
pull the threads straight for me.

Guzman-Lopez: The poem touches on the poet's burden of bearing witness.

Healy's new volume of poetry, her sixth, is called "The Islands Project." With islands, as with people, Healy says, only a small portion of the total is visible.

As 63-year-old Healy finished her book last year, her mother's health declined. A stroke and prescription medication caused hallucinations, leaving the daughter with fragments of her mother psyche.

Healy: She would say, "I'm hallucinating, right?" I'd say, "Yes you are." "So the flowers aren't on the table, right?" I'd say, "That's right, and there's no table either." "OK, fine."

Guzman-Lopez: Her mother's wit and playfulness were available in ever-diminishing moments. Healy dedicated the poem "The Living Fragments" to her mother, who died last year.

Healy: "When did I go crazy?" she would ask.
She wasn't crazy. She had many minds.
They all made sense, just like a word
on a fragment of papyrus means something
even when you know the rest are missing.

My mother would think I had children,
that she was cooking a roast, that dad was still alive,
so our conversation often ended up
like Scrabble in zero gravity.

Guzman-Lopez: Eloise Klein Healy claims another mother: Sappho, the ancient Greek lyric poet who's become a lesbian icon. Sappho's contemporaries praised how well and how much she wrote. But only one complete poem, and fragments of others, survive.

Healy's given to ponder the society that honored such a writer.

Healy: Whether or not she was an actual card-carrying lesbian, that's not the point. The point is, there have been cultures in which this kind of erotic expression, or homoerotic expression, didn't cause anybody to want to take her out and shoot her or hit her with a baseball bat.

Guzman-Lopez: In her late thirties, after eight years of marriage to a man, Eloise Klein Healy came out as a lesbian. The poem "A Kind of Exile" explores the freedoms and constraints of that transition.

Healy: We're safely camouflaged as just two women
ambling toward the boulevard on a walk,
except there's the carload of teenage boys
to think about, their arms waving,

their heads sticking out the windows
as they turn the corner, hell-bent

on speeding down our nondescript street
hoping to terrorize the locals.

You can feel the two-second lock
of the gaze of the one who gets it,

who yells out "Fucking dykes!" in a tone of voice
that muddles between announcement

and threat.

Guzman-Lopez: Eloise Klein Healy's discovered that many lesbian writers find the guidance they seek in fragments. So she's started an imprint focusing on them at a small independent publisher. She's hoping to share with younger writers what she's learned about writing, dealing with publishers, and navigating the world as a lesbian.