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Poets in Southland Gather for Benefit of Ailing Writer

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It's not easy to locate a concentrated literary community in the Southland. Some people blame the geography; it's so spread out, there's no central gathering place. But KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez reports the recent news of a well-known L.A. poet's illness has generated enough support to defy expectations.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: Writer Will Alexander knows about isolation. He grew up in a small family in Watts during the late 1950s. He doesn't remember big family gatherings – just him, his mother and father.

Will Alexander: I grew up really with my imagination, and so I would spend many, many, many hours, you know, conjuring tales in my mind.

Guzman-Lopez: The tales revolved around ancient myths, sports, or westerns, with Alexander as the central character. His world expanded after he graduated from Washington High School and enrolled at UCLA.

Alexander: And so there was more to my neighborhood. Okay, from that point I began to have an interest in, I don't know where, but astronomy. So there were other planets.

Guzman-Lopez: He began devouring the works of writers who looked beyond themselves and their surroundings.

Alexander: I had an intense fear of provincialism, much like the Russian writer Nicolai Gogol.

Guzman-Lopez: He also admired jazzmen Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus, who traveled the world and conveyed their experience through music.

[Music: "Haitian Fight Song" by Charles Mingus]

Guzman-Lopez: Alexander's blended those influences into more than twenty books of verse. This poem is called "The Magnetic Chartreuse Orchids:"

[Will Alexander reads an excerpt from "The Magnetic Chartreuse Orchids"]

Guzman-Lopez: For a long time, Alexander's pushed his mind and body. Then, three months ago, he stopped.

Alexander: I'd never been sick, I'd been roaring since the age of 18 or 19, straight through until I was sick. And I was losing weight. I could sit all day and just look out the window. And I didn't know what was happening to me.

Guzman-Lopez: Doctors told him he had advanced cancer of the bladder. He's rebounding now after chemotherapy. News of his illness spread fast. One of Alexander's Bay Area friends e-mailed essayist and poet Clayton Eshelman. Eshelman, one of the first to publish Alexander's poetry more than 20 years ago, felt...

Clayton Eshelman: A great thrust of sadness, because Will is really sort of at the peak of his career, as I understand it.

Guzman-Lopez: Although Alexander's never traveled outside the United States, his poetry has. Admirers from throughout this country and Europe have sent get well phone and e-mail messages. Writers organized two benefit readings last year, in San Francisco and New York. Clayton Eshelman found out that Will Alexander doesn't have medical insurance.

Eshelman: I realized that it would be nice to do a benefit reading for him. And so I contacted Kerry Slattery at Skylight Books.

[Sound of two women discussing books]

Guzman-Lopez: Earlier this week, Slattery and poet Jen Hofer prepared the list of books to be offered for sale on Sunday. In the 11 years Slattery's co-owned the Los Feliz independent bookstore, it's become a gathering place for plenty of writers.

Kerry Slattery: I'm really learning that there's definitely a community of poets, many writers, there's a community of many writers, but with poets in particular, and they, it's very important to them to be part of this larger community.

Guzman-Lopez: More often than not, Slattery says, her bookstore organizes memorials for writers. It's important, Jen Hofer adds, to let writers know they're appreciated while they're alive. She's helping Alexander during this rough time by driving him to errands or taking him to lunch.

Jen Hofer: But I also think that the more ephemeral, or sort of, maybe less material gift of say, organizing a benefit or getting a group of poets together to read work together or talk about work together is a way of telling Will how much we love him and how important his presence is for us.

Guzman-Lopez: Will Alexander says he's embraced the long stretches of isolation that are part of his writing life. Seeing so many people he knows and doesn't know pitching in to help tells him that the words he's written have reached very far.

Note: A benefit reading for Los Angeles poet Will Alexander is scheduled for this Sunday, January 13, 2008 at 5 p.m. at Skylight Books in Los Feliz. Alexander is scheduled to read some of his work.